Configuring Shi

by idasandstrom


Conceptual Composition 14: New Materialisms

In my previous post I discussed the assemblage of one specific object at Superkilen, namely object no. 94 – a sound system from Jamaica. Considering the density of relations and dependencies surrounding this one singular object, the idea of addressing Superkilen as a whole as one assemblage is challenging. A 30000 m2 large space bursting with colours, materials, people, political- and artistic intentions, online narrations, sounds, artefacts and regulations – could I possibly grasp such an intricate configuration?

In search for theoretical guidance I encounter the notion of Shi (in Bennett 2010), a concept originally used by Chinese generals. Shi was traditionally a way to conceptualise the multifaceted, material and non-material, configurations a general had to grasp in order to be successful in warfare. Bennett describes how “a good general must be able to read and ride the shi of a configuration of moods, winds, historical trends, and armaments: shi names the dynamic force emanating from a spatio-temporal configuration rather than from any particular element within it” (Bennett 2010 p.35). The notion of Shi describes the agency of an assemblage and helps to “illuminate something that is usually difficult to capture in discourse: namely, the kind of potential that originates not in human initiatives but instead results from the very disposition of things” (Bennett 2010, p.35). The Shi of an assemblage can be apparent or subtler, as it describes the energy and the style of a specific composition. It is but always vibratory: it changes over time as alliances are created and recreated by actants drawn to each other. The assemblage is an ‘open whole’ in the sense that its actants will never dissolve into one collective body, but stay autonomous and multiple. Each actant is capable of self-alternation, a transformation that may create new relations to the whole. Deleuze invented the term “absorbsion” to describe a similar part-whole relationship, where emphasis is put on the composition and the creativity within the actant alike.

Returning to Superkilen my attention is immediately drawn to the ground on which I stand: under my feet is a triangular island of pink surrounded by a patchwork of shades of red, magenta and rust. The ground recalls a selection of lipsticks tried on and smeared off at the same one serviette. The edges of each colour were more distinct last time I was here. There have been concerns from immediate neighbours experiencing red light reflected into their apartments, but this time I visit in early spring the paint has faded significantly. The bike lane is no longer closed (as it was in June), but a sign tells me to take care; “the area is slippery when wet”. Traces of street-salt have made pink striped in the red, clearly slipping has been an issue. I remember the controversies surrounding the choice of pavement. How the architects from BIG insisted on a material originally intended for indoor use when the Red square was to be constructed, and how that turned our to be a cost-generating choice when the City of Copenhagen found out they could not use their normal heavy machines for cleaning the ground. I remember having read recently that the surface will be completely redone in 2013 and that it is still not clear who will pay for it. Will the red stay?

Standing at Superkilen other stories of urban red comes to my mind. Just across the bridge from Copenhagen, in Malmö, a new public space is being designed for Rosengård. This is an area often defined by its high percentage of immigrants, crowded housing and social deprivation. The new square, due to open in September 2013, was recently named “Rosens röda matta” (The Red Carpet of the Rose), a name in line with the collage-like illustration available on the municipality’s home page. In Oslo a central square in Grönland – an area with a reputation similar to Norrebro or Rosengård, stands before a major redesign. The catchphrase of the project “Oslo’s Red Square” is curiously familiar. Another paved red square is to be made. Scandinavian sibling spaces, connected through emergent materialities, and as Donna Haraway reminds me, the smallest unit of analysis is the relation – why this repetition?

The assemblage of Superkilen is extensive; it operates beyond the projects geographical and temporal boundaries. The number of relations to ‘elsewheres’ exceeds the obvious ones created by the presence of ‘foreign’ objects at site. Is it through searching for the more subtle vibrations, that I stand a chance of grasping the Shi of Superkilen?

Jane Bennett, ‘The Agency of Assemblages’, in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010

Brett Bloom, ‘Superkilen: Participatory Park Extreme!’ in Kriitk, Copenhagen, 2013

Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010

Manuel DeLanda, ‘Material Complexity’ in Neil Leach, David Turnbull, Chris Williams, eds. Digital Tectonics, Wiley-Academy, 2004.