[ X ] LW edits AS OF 2/2/05’


Saskia Sassen

University of Chicago and

London School of Economics



Today is a time of massive structures, massive markets, and massive capabilities deployed by businesses and military powers. We might wonder about the options that even the most creative designers are left with to express their interests and ideas. The issue here is not so much the few either exceptional or lucky designers who gain a global stage in their particular field or with a general audience. Nor am I concerned here with questions of successful marketing of ideas and innovations. My concern is rather a more diffuse urban landscape of opportunities for creative work, and, further, the opportunities for different kinds of creative work to enter domains dominated by massive actors (e.g. global firms) or systems (e.g. large infrastructures). The effort, then, is not to describe design but rather to examine the larger political economy of design in cities which confront globalization, acceleration, and unsettlement. I want to tease out this landscape within which design functions.


Globalization as Unsettlement: How to Narrate the Old and the New

Globalization and digitization are two marking features of the current period. One effect is the growing importance of process and flows over final product. This is partly a function of the velocity through which a "product" can move through different phases so the experience is more of flow than thing, even though there is a lot of thingness around. One of my concerns in researching globalization and digitization has been to recover the materialities underlying much of the global and the digital experiences and representations that everything is becoming flow and digital.

What I want to emphasize here is that for the digital domain to exist takes much materiel and, further, that much of the meaning of digitized images and representations comes from the non-digital world. Secondly, the globalizing of activities and the growing importance of global flows are in good part dependent of a vast network of places, mostly global cities, around the world, full of fixed (as well as mobile) resources. In brief, things and materiality are critical for digitization; and places are critical for global flows.[1]

One critical politico-economic question we can ask is to what extent the logic of global corporate actors penetrates what design bridges into: in this case design is the bridge that allows corporate actors to enter the heart and minds, and homes and pocketbooks of individuals. It is of course a fact that people have needs that they want met, so it is to some extent a partnership of sorts, not simply a voracious corporate machinery that penetrates all domains.

But how about looking at the bridging as a kind of frontier zone, an in-between space that is in principle underspecified, ambiguous, under-narrated. Design, including corporate design, could do some interesting work here. How to tell the story, how to narrate that underspecified in-between space. Provocative or evocative advertising or rachitecture can have this effect. And that takes me to the designer as narrator.

First I examine the conditions in our political economy that have led to this growing importance of design as a type of value-adding creative work, something that also has the effect of repositioning creative work in circuits that are now central to the globalised economy. Secondly, I want to identify domains that can escape commercialised design practice and bring in art and artists into spaces now increasingly taken over by exclusively commercial uses. To do this I propose to conceive of design as a type of mediation and narration that blurs the bridge between art making and the work of profit-making; and to conceive of art-making as disruptive interventions. The focus is on the practices involved; that is to say, although unlikely, the same person might engage in all these types of work, but the subjectivity engaged by each of these types of practices will be distinct, often sharply different.


The Ascendance of Process and Flow: A greater Need for Intermediaries

In addressing these issues I distinguish three conditions in today’s political economy within which it might be helpful to situate design as the blurring between artistic and profit-making work–that is to say, design as a mediation that effectively obscures that distinction. The first condition is the importance bestowed upon process, flow, and networks rather than the final product per se. Such ‘diversion’ also advances the significance of intermediary actors and typologies of intervention. It is in this context that I regard designers as intermediaries. A second condition arises out of the fact that globalisation displaces existing arrangements and boundaries, and does so with great velocity. This in turn raises the need to narrate that unsettlement. Here designers assume the role of narrators. Thirdly, displacement and the push continuously to innovate lead to a sharp proliferation of new products, systems, and configurations. Such overabundance and saturation demands a correlative development of endowing these ‘novelties’ with ever newer shapes and forms. This is the designer as designer in the general sense of that term. Clearly all three conditions can come together in a particular work of design.

Design, then, functions as an intervention that bridges the virtual and material world; it traverses global corporate growth strategies and place-bound, local consumer needs through branding; it joins the human body and the world of clothing through fashion; and it connects individuals and public space through architecture and urban design.

Such continuous and omnipresent mediations suggest that within a context of globalisation, acceleration, and unsettlement, creative work becomes an important quality for more and more economic sectors. When creative work negotiates in this way it becomes at best applied art and at its poorest, branding. Design as applied art can have very commercial objectives (how to sell a product by capturing the imagination) or it can aim at enhancing the public good (great public architecture).


Narrating Unsettlement

Globalisation today and its bearings on these types of issues can be thought of as a mix of dynamics–economic, political, cultural, imaginary–that destabilise existing formalised arrangements and configurations. In some ways the world of design is continuously engaged with shaking up existing meanings, shapes, iconographies. We often call this fashion or style. What concerns me here is a set of deeper, structural changes that can be quite ambiguous or diffuse, and difficult to grasp.

We see prominent trends both toward specialisation and toward the blurring of traditional boundaries. This often calls for particular forms describing or capturing or representing what is actually going on. Design has become so crucial partly because of such explanatory narrative strategies. In fact, interventions in nondescript, under-specified situations are often expressed as design–thereby expanding the category of conventional design. The whole notion of a risk society further adds to this experience of unsettlement. Obviously, the actual design practice does not remain unaffected: work in small firms with highly creative, open environments is often far better attuned to capturing these perturbations in the larger social world than is work in large corporate firms. Similarly, complex cities, especially global cities, are highly imaginative milieux, partly because they contain both the most advanced and the most desperate conditions.

But how about looking at these gaps and blurrings bridged through ‘design’ as a kind of frontier zone, an in-between space that is, in principle, ambiguous and ‘under-narrated.’ Artists could do and are doing some interesting work here.

To tell the story, to narrate that indefinite, intermediate space is a type of work that might be political, but not necessarily in the narrow sense of the word as would be the case with explicit critiques of specific political events or actors. Rather, I mean political here as the possibility of ‘making present’, of giving speech. This would stand in sharp contrast to ‘design’ that is meant to endow extra utility, which today increasingly means added profit.

Let me illustrate some of these issues with two concrete cases that capture, on the one hand, massive transitions, and on the other, political interventions. By political interventions I mean narrative strategies that do not consolidate links with the world of commerce but are rather born out of and act upon a larger political field. One case is that of urban design in today’s large complex cities, and the second, new media artists and internet-based or aided activism.


Interventions: Resisting Permanence and Utility Logics

The meanings and roles of architecture and urban design centred in older traditions of permanence are irrevocably destabilised in complex cities–that is, cities marked by digital networks, acceleration, massive infrastructures for connectivity, and growing estrangement. Those older meanings do not disappear, they remain crucial. But they cannot comfortably address these newer meanings, which include the growing importance of such networks, interconnections, energy flows, subjective cartographies. Architects need to confront the enormity of the urban experience, the overwhelming presence of massive architectures and dense infrastructures in today’s cities, and the irresistible logic of utility that organises much of the investments in cities.

There are, clearly, multiple ways of positing the challenges facing architecture and planning as practice and as theory. In emphasising the crucial place of cities for architecture, I construct a problematic that is not only positioned but also, perhaps inevitably, partial. It is different from that of neo-traditionalist architects who are also concerned about the current urban condition. And it is distinct from a problematic focused on how current conditions are changing the profession and its opportunities, or, if critical, one which centres its critical stance in questions of the growing distance between the winners and the losers. Often what is seen as the most judicious stance is largely internal to the specific problems of the architecture profession, failing to extend to the social field in which it operates.

At the same time, these cities are full of under-used spaces, often characterised more by memory than current meaning. These spaces are part of the interiority of a city, yet lie outside of its organising utility-driven logics and spatial frames. They are “terrains vagues” that allow many residents to connect to the rapidly transforming cities in which they live, and to bypass subjectively the massive infrastructures that have come to dominate more and more spaces in their cities. Jumping at these terrains vagues in order to maximize real estate development would be a mistake from this perspective. Keeping some of this openness, might, further, make sense in terms of factoring future options at a time when utility logics change so quickly and often violently–excess of high rise office buildings being one of the great examples.

This opens up a salient dilemma about the current urban condition in ways that take it beyond the notions of high-tech architecture, virtual spaces, simulacra, theme parks. All of the latter matter, but they are fragments of an incomplete puzzle. In addition to all the other forms of work they represent, architecture and urban design can also function as critical artistic practices that allow us to capture something more elusive than what is represented by notions such as the theme-parking. There is a type of urban condition that dwells between the reality of massive structures and the reality of semi-abandoned places. I think it is central to the experience of the urban, and it makes legible transitions and unsettlements of specific spatio-temporal configurations.

The work of capturing this elusive quality that cities produce and make legible is not easily executed. Utility logics won’t do. I can’t help but think that artists are part of the answer–whether ephemeral public performances and installations, or more lasting types of public sculpture, whether site-specific/community-based art, or nomadic sculptures that circulate among localities. And it would take architects able to navigate several forms of knowledge to introduce the possibility of an architectural practice located in spaces–such as intersections of multiple transport and communication networks–where the naked eye or the engineer’s imagination sees no shape, no possibility of a form, pure infrastructure and utility. On the other hand, there is the work of detecting the possible architectures and forms of spaces that architectural practices centred in permanence consider as merely empty silences, non-existences.

Microenvironments with Global Span

It will not be long before many urban residents begin to experience the "local" as a type of microenvironment with global span. Much of what we keep representing and experiencing as something local --a building, an urban place, a household, an activist organization right there in our neighbourhood-- is actually located not only in the concrete places where we can see them, but also on digital networks that span the globe. They are connected with other such localized buildings, organizations, households, possibly at the other side of the world. They may indeed be more oriented to those other areas than to their immediate surrounding. Think of the financial centre in a global city, or the human rights or environmental activists' home or office -- their orientation is not towards what surrounds them but to a global process. I think of these local entities as microenvironments with global span.

There are three issues I want to pursue briefly here. One of these is what it means for "the city" to contain a proliferation of these globally oriented yet very localized offices, households, organizations? In this context the city becomes a strategic amalgamation of multiple global circuits that loop through it. As cities and urban regions are increasingly traversed by non-local, including notably global circuits, much of what we experience as the local because locally-sited, is actually a transformed condition in that it is imbricated with non-local dynamics or is a localization of global processes. One way of thinking about this is in terms of spatializations of various projects --economic, political, cultural. This produces a specific set of interactions in a city's relation to its topography. The new urban spatiality thus produced is partial in a double sense: it accounts for only part of what happens in cities and what cities are about, and it inhabits only part of what we might think of as the space of the city, whether this be understood in terms as diverse as those of a city's administrative boundaries or in the sense of the multiple public imaginaries that may be present in different sectors of a city's people. If we consider urban space as productive, as enabling new configuration, then these developments signal multiple possibilities.

A second issue, one coming out of this proliferation of digital networks traversing cities, concerns the future of cities in an increasingly digitized and globalized world. Here the bundle of conditions and dynamics that marks the model of the global city might be a helpful way of distilling the ongoing centrality of urban space in complex cities. Just to single out one key dynamic: the more globalized and digitalized the operations of firms and markets, the more their central management and coordination functions (and the requisite material structures) become strategic. It is precisely because of digitalization that simultaneous worldwide dispersal of operations (whether factories, offices, or service outlets) and system integration can be achieved. And it is precisely this combination that raises the importance of central functions. Global cities are strategic sites for the combination of resources necessary for the production of these central functions.[2] Thus, much of what is liquefied and circulates in digital networks and is marked by hypermobility, actually remains physical –and hence possibly urban-- in some of its components. At the same time, however, that which remains physical has been transformed by the fact that it is represented by highly liquid instruments that can circulate in global markets. It may look the same, it may involve the same bricks and mortar, it may be new or old, but it is a transformed entity. Take for example, the case of real estate. Financial services firms have invented instruments that liquefy real estate, thereby facilitating investment and circulation of these instruments in global markets. Yet, part of what constitutes real estate remains very physical; but the building that is represented by financial instruments circulating globally is not the same building as one that is not.  

We have difficulty capturing this multi-valence of the new digital technologies through our conventional categories: if it is physical, it is physical; and if it is liquid, it is liquid. In fact, the partial representation of real estate through liquid financial instruments produces a complex imbrication of the material and the de-materialized moments of that which we continue to call real estate. And the need of global financial markets for multiple material conditions in very grounded financial centers produces yet another type of complex imbrication which shows that precisely those sectors that are most globalized and digitized continue to have a very strong and strategic urban dimension.

Hypermobility or de-materialization are usually seen as mere functions of the new technologies. This understanding erases the fact that it takes multiple material conditions to achieve this outcome. Once we recognize that the hypermobility of the instrument, or the de-materialization of the actual piece of real estate, had to be produced, we introduce the imbrication of the material and the non-material. It takes capital fixity to produce capital mobility, that is to say, state of the art built-environments, conventional infrastructure --from highways to airports and railways-- and well-housed talent. These are all, at least partly place-bound conditions, even though the nature of their place-boundedness is going to be different from what it was 100 years ago, when place-boundedness might have been marked by immobility. Today it is a place-boundedness that is inflected, inscribed, by the hypermobility of some of its components/products/outcomes. Both capital fixity and mobility are located in a temporal frame where speed is ascendant and consequential. This type of capital fixity cannot be fully captured in a description of its material and locational features, i.e. in a topographical reading. 

Conceptualizing digitization and globalization along these lines creates operational and rhetorical openings for recognizing the ongoing importance of the material world even in the case of some of the most de-materialized activities.

The third issue I want to raise concerns the thick typically urban interventions that can also be part of the exploding world of new media artists and new media activists, both deeply-urban based and growing groups. That is the subject of the next section.

Intervention: Digital Media and the Making of Presence

A very different type of instance is that of new media artists using computer-centred network technologies to represent and/or enact political as well as artistic projects. What I want to capture here is a very specific feature: the possibility of constructing forms of globality that are neither part of global corporate media or consumer firms, nor part of elite universalisms or ‘high culture.’ It is the possibility of giving presence to multiple local actors, projects and imaginaries in ways that may constitute these forms of counter-globality.

One of the outcomes of these interventions are uses of technology–ranging from political to ludic uses– that subvert corporate globalisation. We are seeing the formation of alternative networks, projects, and spaces. Emblematic is, perhaps, that the metaphor of ‘hacking’ has been dislodged from its specialised technical discourse and become part of everyday life. In the face of a predatory regime of intellectual property rights we see the ongoing influence of the free software movement.[i] Indymedia gain terrain even as global media conglomerates dominate just about all mainstream mediums.[ii] The formation of new geographies of power that bring together elites from the global south and north find their obverse in the work of such collectives as Raqs Media Collective that destabilise the centre/periphery divide.[iii]

Such an outcome is to be distinguished from the common assumption that if ‘it’ is global it is cosmopolitan. The types of global forms that concern me here are what I like to refer to, partly as a provocation, as non-cosmopolitan forms of globality. Through the Internet (or, more generally, ‘internetworking’) local initiatives and projects can become part of a global network without losing the focus on the specifics of the local. It enables a new type of cross-border work, one centred in multiple localities yet intensely connected digitally. For instance, groups or individuals concerned with a variety of environmental questions–from solar energy design to appropriate-materials-architecture–can develop networks for circulating not only information but also political work and strategies.

In an effort to synthesize this diversity of subversive interventions into the space of global capitalism, I use the notion of counter-geographies of globalisation: these interventions are deeply imbricated with some of the major dynamics constitutive of corporate globalisation yet are not part of the formal apparatus or of the objectives of this apparatus (such as the formation of global markets and global firms). These counter-geographies thrive on the intensifying of transnational and translocal networks, the development of communication technologies which easily escape conventional surveillance practices, and so on. Further, the strengthening and, in some of these cases, the formation of new global circuits are ironically embedded or made possible by the existence of that same global economic system that they contest.. These counter-geographies are dynamic and changing in their locational features. [iv]

The narrating, giving shape, making present, involved in digitised environments assumes very particular meanings when mobilised to represent/enact local specificities in a global context. Beyond the kinds of on-the-ground work involved in these struggles, new media artists and activists–the latter often artists–have been key actors in these developments, whether it is through tactical media, indymedia, or such entities as the original incarnation of Digital City Amsterdam[v] and the Berlin-based Transmediale[vi]. But new media artists have also focused on issues other than the world of technology. Not surprisingly perhaps, a key focus has been the increasingly restrictive regime for migrants and refugees in a global world where capital gets to flow wherever it wants. Organisations such as Nobody is Illegal[vii], the Mongrel web project[viii], Mute Magazine[ix], the Manchester-based Futuresonic[x], and the Bonn/Cologne-based Theater der Welt[xi], have all done projects focused on immigration.


IN CONCLUSION, both the work of design and the work of making art can narrate the unspecified at a time of growing velocities, the ascendance of process and flow over objects and permanence, massive structures that are not at a human scale, and branding as the basic mediation between individuals and markets. The work of design produces narratives that add to the value of existing contexts, and at its narrowest, to the utility logics of the economic corporate world, But there is also a kind of art-making work that can produce disruptive narratives. The artist narrates unsettlement and inserts the local and the silenced making it legible, giving it presence. The same individual can, in principle, engage in both types of work; but the subjectivity of each type of work is distinct. Both types of work play a strategic role in today’s cities.


[1] Elsewhere I have shown in detail the complex imbrications of the digital and the material, and of flows and places. See Sassen, Saskia._2002. "Towards a Sociology of Information Technology." Current Sociology. Special Issue: Sociology and Technology: vol.50 (3): 365-388

[2]There are other dimensions that specify the global city; see Sassen 2001 (new fully updated edition of The Global City (Princeton University Press 2001).



[i] See <http://www.gnu.org> for more information.

[ii] Indymedia is “a network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth”. See <http://www.indymedia.org>.

[iii] See their contribution to this volume pp. 62-78.

[iv]They are also multivalent, i.e. some are “good” and some are “bad.” I use the term as an analytic category to designate a whole range of dynamics and initiatives that are centered in the new capabilities for global operation coming out of the corporate global economy but used for purposes other than their original design: examples range from alter-globalization political struggles to informal global economic circuits, and, at the limit, global terrorist networks.

[v] The Digital City Amsterdam (DDS) was an experiment facilitated by De Balie, Amsterdam’s cultural centre. Subsidised by the Amsterdam Municipality and the Ministry of Economic Affairs it allowed people to access the digital city host computer and retrieve council minutes, official policy papers or visit digital cafes and train stations. See <http://reinder.rustema.nl/dds/> for documentation; see the chapter by Lovink and Riemens in Global Networks,Linked Cities (New York and London: Routledge 2002) for the full evolution, from beginning to end of DDS.

[vi] An international media arts festival. See <http://www.transmediale.de>

[vii] A campaign carried by autonomous groups, religious initiatives, trade unions and individuals to support refugees. See <http://www.contrast.org/borders/> for more information.

[viii] London based media activists and artists. See <http://www.mongrelx.org>

[ix] See <http://www.metamute.com>.

[x] A festival exploring wireless and mobile media. See <http://www.futuresonic.com>.

[xi] A theatre festival. See <http://www.theaterderwelt.de>.




Hilary Koob-Sassen holds a B.A. from Yale University. He won Yale's top prize for the arts (Suttler Prize 1997). He has shown his sculpture at Lombard Fried (New York 1999), and at Exit Art (New York 2001). The New Yorker has said about his sculpture "uglier than the ugliest Louise Bourgeois" and The New York Times "...complex..visionary....". He has shown his films at ZKM (Karlsruhe, Germany 2002), Goldsmith College (London 2003), the 2005 Berlin Transmediale, and will be in the upcoming European Media Festival, among others. His recent London sculpture show in London was featured in Contemporary. He is currently Artist-in-Residence at ZKM. His sculpture studio is in Sommerset, England.


CAPTIONS FOR IMAGES: Hilary Koob-Sassen. Video stills from "The Paraculture," under production at ZKM (Germany, 2003-4).