Since 2012, Shannon Mattern has been associate professor at the School of Media Studies at The New School in New York City. Having studied English and Communication at Pennsylvania State University, Mattern became senior researcher in a Project on Media Ownership at New York University, where she also received her Ph.D. with a dissertation on “Building Ideologies: A Case Study of the Seattle Public Library Building and its Embodied Ideas, Ideals, and Values”, which was supervised by Neil Postman, Jean-Louis Cohen and Andrew Ross. From 2002 to 2004, Mattern was a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at the History of Art Department of University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. She began working at the New School as an Assistant Professor of Media Studies in 2004, before her appointment as Associate Professor.
Additionally, Shannon Mattern took part in and directed a number of multimedia art projects and exhibitions. From 2010 to 2014, for instance, she worked with programmers and designers to co-develop an urban research toolkit, an open-source mapping platform for urban-focused multimodal research. She is also a columnist, writing regularly about mediated cities for Places, a journal focusing on architecture, urbanism, and landscape.
Fields of research
Media infrastructures; materiality of media objects; place branding; public design projects; urban media art; mediated sensation; libraries and archives.
IKKM Research Project
Amie Siegel’s 2013 video, Provenance, tracks the refurbishment, revaluation, and global transit of furniture – chairs, tables, setees, bookcases, and desks – designed in the 1950s by Pierre Jeanneret, cousin of Le Corbusier, for their master-planned city of Chandigarh, India. The film progresses reverse-chronologically – from wealthy homes where the restored furniture now stands regally on polished concrete floors amidst self-consciously curated art-book collections, backwards to its sale at auction, its staging for the auction block, its restoration, its transoceanic shipment, and ultimately to its origin in a dilapidated office complex in Chandigarh. Near the end of the video, in a stark contrast to the languid, pristine, mostly un-peopled rooms featured at the beginning, we see the furniture in use in Chandigarh’s government offices. The same bookshelf or table that, on Central Park South, holds an assortment of titles from Rizzoli and Harry N. Abrams, here, on the other side of the world, supports exploding bundles of tattered bureaucratic forms, tied up with string. The same furniture, in its two contexts, frames vastly different forms of intellectual labor. Its users have vastly different utilitarian and affective connections to it, and its formal and aesthetic qualities embody vastly different forms of cultural capital.
Even a less rarefied bookshelf or table – even the particle-board kind you put together yourself, ￼using a discombobulating exploded-view diagram, and which typically serves as an invisible ￼platform for all the objects we place on it – is still doing work that exceeds the merely functional.
These structures are material supports for the delivery of and engagement with media resources, ￼while they also frame organizational systems and embody technical protocols .
￼So, in the tradition of Barthes’s object-based mythologies, Bruno Latour’s dingpolitik, Lorraine Daston’s Things That Talk, and Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects, I recognize these furnishings as much more than utilitarian equipment; instead, they scaffold our media technologies in particular ways, inform the way human bodies relate to those media in particular ways, and embody knowledge in particular ways. They render complex intellectual and political ideas material and empirical. I aim to study how the design of organizational furnishings, both physical and conceptual – like bookshelves and classification systems, for example – gives form to epistemology, politics, and affect.
My exploration will most likely range from the scrinium and capsa that held papyrus scrolls in ancient archives and the archival boxes that contain material in contemporary collections; to the metal chains that tethered books to lecterns in medieval institutions; to the tables at which texts have been written and edited; to the slip cases Melville Dewey’s Library Bureau sold to libraries to keep track of their circulating books; to the “media walls” created to accommodate the explosion of post-war household media devices; to the billions of CD “towers” sold in the 1990s; to the (un)design of the racks that hold our computer servers. I welcome all GIDEST workshop participants’ suggestions for other potentially evocative case studies.
I aim to put into conversation the work of scholars, practitioners and designers from fields that rarely talk to one another, at least not all at the same time – fields including archival and library science, intellectual history, organizational studies, business history, management, design history and design practice, furniture manufacturing and retail, architectural history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and the list goes on. My methods will include archival research and other forms of historical research; discourse analysis of various forms of design representation – design sketches, architectural drawings, etc. – and marketing materials for library, office, and domestic furnishings and supplies; ethnographic fieldwork in design firms, libraries, and offices; and interviews with contemporary designers, furniture retailers, knowledge workers, and artists whose work grapples with issues related to the spatialization and aestheticization of knowledge.
Ultimately, I hope to make a small historiographic contribution to media and design studies: I’d like to propose a means of rethinking the entwined histories of both fields, and tracing enduring and shifting epistemologies through the longue durée, by examining peripheral material artifacts – the infrastructures that we so typically work on without looking at them. I’ll situate our contemporary digital repositories and libraries and workplaces within their historical contexts, highlighting the continuities and breaks in the physical and intellectual support systems that have undergirded our knowledge institutions and workplaces over time. At the same time, I hope to remind us of the heavy architecture – all the physical and intellectual scaffolding – behind the seemingly placeless, immaterial “Cloud” that hangs over us today. My focus on design also calls attention to the aesthetics of information, and reminds us that the knowledge we derive from the media housed on our bookshelves and the data stored in our servers is informed by our bodily interactions with those structures. Ideally, this study would inspire knowledge institutions to partner more frequently with designers to create physical and virtual spaces that represent a closer, more purposeful integration of the architectural, the intellectual, and the affective.
Deep Mapping the Media City. Forthcoming 2015.
The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2007.
“Houston, We Have a Problem: The Urban Dashboard’s Political Optics”. In: Rob Kitchin, Tracey Lauriault, Matthew Wilson (eds.): Understanding Spatial Media. Sage forthcoming 2015.
“The Deep Time of Media Infrastructure”. In: Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski, (eds.): Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press forthcoming 2015.
“Interfacing Urban Intelligence”. In: Places 04/28, 2014, https://placesjournal.org/article/interfacing-urban-intelligence/.
“Animated Spaces: Experience and Context in Interaction and Architectural Design Exhibitions”. In: Senses & Society 9/2, 2014, pp. 131-150.
“Fluid Text, Total Design: The Woodberry Poetry Room as Idea, Collection, and Place”. In: Space and Culture 14/27, 2011, pp. 27-50.
“Puffs of Air: Communicating by Vacuum”. In: John Knechtel (ed.): AIR, Alphabet City #15. Cambridge: MIT Press 2010, pp. 42-56.
“Silent, Invisible City: Mediating Urban Experience for the Other Senses”. In: Frank Eckardt et. al. (eds.): Mediacity: Situations, Practices and Encounters. Berlin: Frank & Timme 2009, pp. 155-76.