Institutional Imaginaries

This piece was written as a performed contribution to the ‘Institutional Imaginaries: Conversation Rooms’ symposium organised by Huda Tayob at the Graduate School of Architecture. David and Thandi attended the day by skype – in a time before the zoom pandemic – and attempted to share these thoughts and a screen-performance of tiled windows, artworks, screenshots and texts, somewhat-but-not-entirely scuppered by broken bandwidth. Huda asked us: What kind of institutional imaginary enables designing speculative worlds, drawing on the past for a different future? We responded:

In seeking to respond to Huda’s proposition this morning of how we work against essentialising and reductive tendencies, we’ve drawn on Christina Sharpe’s framing of wake-work, where being in the wake is being ‘in the line of flight’, allowing for multiple and overlapping presences.

Sharpe describes wake-work as ‘sitting with the dead, while trying to do no harm’, ‘attending without objectifying, proceeding with care’. ‘To be in the wake is to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding’, ‘to perform “wake work” is to labor within the space of paradoxes surrounding black citizenship, identity, and civil rights. 

Letting the day wash over us, we’d like to present a wake of sorts too - the wash of the day, moments from the GSA and in which we found resonance drawn from elsewhere, which suggest how we might perform wake-work in architecture today and, further, how this wake-work might suggest new institutional imaginaries, or create them in the process. How can we work in a way which is both cognisant of violence and crafts an alternative?

Paraphrasing Christina Sharpe speaking of beauty in Saidiya Hartman’s work, we are prompted to think that this might be through architectural practice and research which operates to ‘craft possibility in space[s] of foreclosure.’ This is a practice which does not seek to merely soften the edges of institutions or disciplines but is transformative of the kinds of knowledges which are held and produced within them. As the GSA’s manifesto states, ‘universities need to keep encouraging critique and problematisation of what is considered to be known and the processes involved in generating it.’

This is a practice which is transformative of the barriers to whom is considered welcome in institutions and disciplines and, drawing on the manifesto again, allows a ‘diversity - of medium, perspective, approach and context.’ Following Robin DG Kelley’s critique of black struggle in the university in the US, this involves going beyond creating ‘“supportive” environments to crafting liberated ones, that not only ‘promote but also model social and economic justice.’ As Gugu provoked us this morning, ‘You have been taught to grow up, I have been taught to grow in... I have been taught accommodation’, perhaps – following Roanne – it is time for a coup.

This morning, Huda spoke about ‘speculative approaches to crafting and writing both the past and the future,’ and the projects we’ve seen today certainly speak to this. Where speculation becomes a radical act, allowing for the dangerous dreaming of liberated ideas of the world to emerge - as June Tyson sang, “Somebody else’s idea of somebody else’s world is not my idea of things as they are / somebody else’s idea of things to come need not be the only way to vision the future”

Rather than essentialising and reductive practices, we saw common resonances among the projects today as they reorient and rebuild through the intimacy of gesture, movement and utterance. Here we draw on the day’s works through images, screenshots and references, moving through a collage of artefacts, ideas, songs, and strange thoughts, as our gesture, movement and utterance. Our position on the virtual margin, behind three screens, two google docs, multiple notes and connected through the (shaky) internet has facilitated the creation of this documentation of references and notes. Attending to Fred Moten, this will be finalised, slowly, in the longness of time. Sending love, strength and solidarity. A luta continua.