Utilitas Interrupta: An Infrastructural Index of Unfulfilled Ambitions
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“The ultimate defect of projects—they die—takes us back to their beginnings: they were condemned from the start because some crazy engineers had mistaken dreams for reality. […] Yes, you have to reread your Hegel because, you know, technological reality isn’t rational, and it’s no good rationalizing it after the fact.”
—Bruno Latour, ARAMIS, or the Love of Technology, 1996

Utilitas Interrupta, an exhibition at experimentadesign 2011: Useless, is a research on how the construction and subsequent abandonment of infrastructure can be taken as a form of cultural memory, an index of society’s evolving priorities. Since the dawn of time, man’s average dreams, challenges and, ultimately, accomplishments have materialised in works of infrastructure. From Babylonian hydraulics to the geoengineered archipelagos of the twenty-first century, great infrastructural works represent the apex of design achievement—and often, by virtue of their sheer magnitude, the most tangible expression of a culture’s development, ambition and might. Canals, power plants, fortifications, reclaimed lands, particle accelerators, aqueducts, telecommunications networks, dams: infrastructure is justifiably held up as the register of society’s collective accomplishment and the historical benchmark of its leaders’ enlightenment.

Burdened with such momentous responsibility, infrastructure inevitably also comes to immortalise society’s most catastrophic failures. Such debacles surround us: the infrastructural coitus interruptus of countless politician’s pet projects, stalled by a myriad of financial crises; China’s infamous ghost cities and America’s abandoned shopping malls; the abandoned concrete carcasses of unfinished hotels scattered along the banks of the Red Sea; the 3,400 airports built in the 1970s and 1980s throughout the former Soviet Union that today lie abandoned, victims of the market economy’s relentless drive towards centralisation.

Yet failure can in itself be as revealing as success. Utilitas Interrupta sets out to closely read infrastructural works that no longer satisfy the Vitruvian injunction to be useful: projects once celebrated and now forgotten, reminders of a long-gone (or not so long-gone) optimism that lie concealed in plain sight, magically erased from collective consciousness despite their often gargantuan proportions. Like scars indelibly etched into the landscape, these structures are the repositories of forgotten stories of zeal and passion, neglected then swept aside like lovers no longer able to please.

This exhibition investigates seventeen case studies, transversally sampled from various points in time and space. Infrastructure rendered obsolete by the indomitable pressure of technological progress; the infrastructure of paranoia, useless by definition; vanity infrastructure, purposeless except as proof of its own existence; the foiled infrastructure of honourable ideals and unfulfilled intentions; infrastructure scuttled by misfortune or catastrophe and left to decompose; the infrastructure of the absurd, the comical and the tragic—stories of heroic deeds in which the cure is feared as worse than the disease.

If the landscape is the theatre in which the mundane of history is acted out, these infrastructural scars are an eloquent reminder that history as we know it is but one of many possible—and equally plausible—stories.

Utilitas Interrupta, an exhibition at experimentadesign 2011: Useless, is a research on how the construction and subsequent abandonment of infrastructure can be taken as a form of cultural memory, an index of society’s evolving priorities. Since the dawn of time, man’s average dreams, challenges and, ultimately, accomplishments have materialised in works of infrastructure. From Babylonian hydraulics to the geoengineered archipelagos of the twenty-first century, great infrastructural works represent the apex of design achievement—and often, by virtue of their sheer magnitude, the most tangible expression of a culture’s development, ambition and might. Canals, power plants, fortifications, reclaimed lands, particle accelerators, aqueducts, telecommunications networks, dams: infrastructure is justifiably held up as the register of society’s collective accomplishment and the historical benchmark of its leaders’ enlightenment.
Curator: Joseph Grima
Associate Curator: Elian Stefa
Graphic Design: Neil Donnelly
With contributions from: Alicja Dobrucka, Armin Linke, Bertin & CIE, Bogdan Stojanovic, Bruce Sterling, Elian Stefa, Gaia Cambiaggi, Geoff Manaugh, Grégoire Basdevant, Haubitz+Zoche, Igor Kuznetsov, Igor Sharovatov, Ivan Kuryachiy, Jessica Russell, Minkoo Kang, Nicola Twilley, Noah Sheldon, Sergey Kulikov, Ulrich Pohlmann
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Mud and Money: The World Archipelago
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Mud and Money by Bruce Sterling:

Nowhere but in Dubai could the world be so richly re-imagined.

The World would be visible from the International Space Station, and it would look, more or less, like our actual world. To tell the truth, The World looked like a world fragmented into private real-estate lots, because The World was, in fact, a huge yacht harbor. Asia, Africa and the Americas had been broken to sellable bits.

The World, being newborn and consummately artificial, would have five special qualities unknown in lesser settlements. It would have technical intelligence. Marketing magic. Royal grandeur. Visceral appeal. And it would leave a legacy to astonish the world for generations.

These were plausible aims. They merely seemed unlikely by the standards of places in the world that weren’t Dubai. Before the fiery launch of the War on Terror, Dubai had been a backwater emirate with an ancient fishing port and a couple of modest high-rises. As ruin stalked the Middle East, this oasis had escaped the deadly Curse of Oil, because Dubai didn’t have any. Instead, Dubai had a grand strategy to launder other people’s oil money, through finance, shipping logistics, trade, and tourism — all of them dependent on Dubai’s 85% foreign population of jetsetters and migrant laborers.

From the point of view of the Dubai locals, The World was a highly logical solution to Dubai’s unique problems. As landlord, Dubai wanted to lure in the world’s richest tenants. These eccentrics would be cordially parked in fancy island mansions five kilometers offshore, with their own malls and resort bars. The apotheosis of liberal capitalism was a golden ultra-ghetto.

Unfortunately the success of The World was entirely dependent on the goodwill of foreigners. The scheme failed abjectly, but this had nothing to do with Dubai’s stellar ability to construct new infrastructure out of mere sand.

It was the world that failed Dubai, because a planetary real estate crisis in 2008 broke the nerves of the very clientele who should have chosen to infest a resort like The World. The global overclass had panicked, and Dubai’s many other newly-built charms: the huge robot tramway, the ozone-piercing skyscraper, the seven-star seaside hotel shaped like a sail — none of these things could mellow them. The planetary elite had lost their taste for real-estate flipping at precisely the moment that a tax-free entrepot in an autocratic micro-state might have been really handy.

Dubai had finessed the deadly War on Terror by offering the world an Arab sheikdom even more globalized than the West; but in a credit crunch, Dubai was just another paper-shuffling finance hub.

No buyers, no World. Under capitalism, nobody can huge build a royal utopia just to have one. So the oddly-shaped cluster of islands became one of the world’s largest shipping hazards.

There are those who claim The World is sinking back into the mud that gave it birth, but since it’s made of 321 million cubic metres of sand spread over 31 million tons of rock, that fate is unlikely. The World isn’t sinking to perdition. Not at all. Having lost its reason, The World is just sitting there.

It was the world that failed Dubai, because a planetary real estate crisis in 2008 broke the nerves of the very clientele who should have chosen to infest a resort like The World. The global overclass had panicked, and Dubai’s many other newly-built charms: the huge robot tramway, the ozone-piercing skyscraper, the seven-star seaside hotel shaped like a sail — none of these things could mellow them. The planetary elite had lost their taste for real-estate flipping at precisely the moment that a tax-free entrepot in an autocratic micro-state might have been really handy.
A film produced for Utilitas Interrupta

Aerial filming by Navigation Films
Supervision and production by Elian Stefa
Accompanying text by Bruce Sterling

Exhibition dates:
28 September – 27 November 2011: experimentadesign 2011: Useless, Lisbon
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