Maybe it is different in your part of the world, but in the US there is currently an agitation shortage. There is not much work that incites discord with the prevalent views held by the profession. There are few agitators, or figures who rattle the bones of our institutions by challenging established values. And there are few that feel agitated, or irritated, about this as the overall state of today’s situation.
The scarcity of agitation is agitating. In lectures, panel discussions, and academic presentations, there is little impulse to express a view that is unsettling. Not a lot is being said that would indicate disagreement even among peers that embrace clearly differing positions. Constructive commentary and supportive engagement are replacing contention. Painstaking effort is made to arrive at complementary views rather than to spark conflict. The lack of agitation has given way to a state of calm. Overall, one can sense the growing belief that insight is best gained through balanced discussion. Even in schools with reputations for promoting lively disagreements and articulating polarizing views, there’s a feeling that all is quiet on the western front.
This shortage might be because agitation has a bad rap. It has the negative connotation, meaning to incite disruption for ill-founded reasons. An agitator is taken to be a troublemaker, someone who stirs things up to upset the status quo as an end in itself. Or it is used to refer to someone who initiates upheaval for a flawed cause. These reductive usages belie the fact that agitation is more complicated than that. For example, even in its most common sense in reference to political agitation it is misused. ‘Agitator’ is simplistically applied in order to label dissidents who articulate opposing views as nothing more than unruly instigators. Others abuse the term while at the same time renouncing it. As Paul Preissner points out in this issue of Volume, there are leaders in power who actively combat agitation at home that then agitate foreign situations specifically by exercising disruptive force in the name of stability. In light of its current shortage and simplistic use, C-Lab has put together material to demonstrate the depth of possibilities for Agitation. Because agitation in architecture is mistakenly brushed off as either too difficult (impossible to effectively enact) or too easy (inconsequential in its results), we feel now’s a good time to present a range of agitations across the spectrum of architecture and power. You’ll see that agitation is everywhere, and that it is not as rudimentary as squelching positive affirmation with bellicose naysaying. Agitation is disturbing.
For this issue we refer to agitation in at least three of its senses: political (to challenge), physical (to mix or shake), and emotional (to be distressed). For example, Architecture and Justice explains Laura Kurgan’s work with Columbia’s Spatial Information Design Lab which challenges some decision-making assumptions about the politics and form of prisons. Archis RSVP events produce another form of political agitation where architects organize group actions in areas of territorial dispute. Neil Denari’s Monster in a Box, and C-Lab’s own Bump, Crease, Fold, show two different aesthetics of agitation developed through designs for physical turbulence. When used to refer to emotion, agitation means a state of restlessness onset by a continuous preoccupation or anxiety. This mental state of agitation can be found in the obsessive fascinations of Richard Massey’s Pressing Buenos Aires Buttons, Sean Dockray’s Bandwidth, Ben Nicholson’s Obsession, and Enrique Walker’s Under Constraint (an obsessively corrected version of its previous erroneous form). By gathering this extended range of agitation, from the seemingly innocuous deposits of gum on sidewalks to the most violent actions of and against governments, we wish to present the category as subtle, complex, and essential.
We hope after viewing this collection that you too will believe that agitation should not diminish further, but that it should be initiated to a greater degree. You might discover that it is not antithetical to making architecture, but is fundamental to it. Without it the final outcome is weaker, compromised by a lack of consistency, and more prone to fragile imperfection. Just as concrete needs agitation before it is poured, architecture needs agitation before it can set. The process of agitation does not literally and figuratively break down architecture through disturbance, but we would say it makes it stronger and more durable in its final form. As you read these pages and click to our website, we hope that you might help to replenish our agitation supply by reacquainting yourself with it as a physical technique, an emotion, and a form of politics.