Reading List

List Author

Common Accounts (Igor Bragado + Miles Gertler)

Common Accounts is an experimental design studio based in Madrid and Toronto

The Self, Centered

Pandemic and environmental emergency make evident in their own ways the inevitable interdependence between the health of the self and the health of the ecosystem in which that self dwells. Architecture has, among its core practices, the duty of inviting behaviors, events, and situations by influencing various forms of environmental organization. As objects of design and as agents of self-design, we are each ensconced in cultural conditions that seek to change both body and space, in order to produce value and advantage — however those are defined in a given circumstance.

The texts cited here parse design’s entanglement with the self; study the ways in which anthropogenic change in our environments is altering what we understand the human to be; and probe the body’s perennial status as a site for design intervention. This reading list elaborates the fundamental mutuality between design actions on bodies and on spaces, on being and on place, on the self and on the planet.

  • Online

    Things and Stuffing: Oliver Laric’s Untitled, (2020)

    Cura Magazine 35: “The Changing World”

    “Forget aesthetics, forget philosophy, what if humanity’s key form of interaction with the world is simply a metabolic one, adding to our biomass as we subtract from the world?” Carson Chan, Director of the Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and Natural Environment, and a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, asks this fundamental yet expansive question in his review of artist Oliver Laric’s 2020 video Untitled. Looking at Laric’s representations of myriad lifeforms, Chan observes, “sea creatures, insects, humans, and fungi are all bags or vessels.” These vessels are waiting to be filled; every creature’s relation with the natural world beyond its physical borders is based to some extent on an unsatiable desire to consume. “The monster at hand is not a vampire, but rather, a cannibal.”

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    Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design

    Lars Muller Publishers, 2016

    Intentionally or not, architecture has always designed or sought in other ways to shape its inhabitants (as extreme examples, take Le Corbusier’s Modulor, or Henry Dreyfuss’s Joe and Josephine). Our bodies are encrusted in prosthetic extensions, and any design action on the world constitutes a design action on the self. These are the arguments that prompted Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley in their work as curators of the 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial, Are We Human? The Design of the Species. The accompanying book, Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design, expands on these claims, citing evidence from the prehistoric (e.g. knapped stone tools) to the contemporary (e.g. brain science). “Design,” Colomina and Wigley write, “is a paradoxical gesture that changes the human in order to protect it.”

  • Crimes of the Future

    Serendipity Point Films, 2022

    Cronenberg’s most recent film recovers the camp body horror and low-budget grit of his early works, while musing on the limits of “humanity” as a mere effect of anatomical familiarity and quantifiable genetic signature. In the bizarre techno-future of the film, pain has been obviated, and “surgery is the new sex,” leading to ecstatic self-discovery in the theatrical extraction of newly evolved internal organs. Performance artists preoccupied with literal “bodies of work” become unlikely celebrities. The storyline struggles to overcome the conceit it develops, but the essential premise is annoyingly brilliant; a few very good ideas, like the underground Inner Beauty Pageant, revel in the idiosyncratic world-building native to the history of sci-fi B movies that Cronenberg does so well.

  • The Sculpture Machine: Physical Culture and Body Politics in the Age of Empire

    Palgrave Macmillan, 1997

    In general terms, The Sculpture Machine observes that construction of the physique is, and has historically been, undetachable from ideology. More importantly, Michael Anton Budd claims that the body’s “sculpting” through fitness regimens has long been instrumentalized as part of an imperialist program to modify the natural world. Developing a conceptual symmetry between the perfection of the body and its perceived ability to respond to existential threats, Budd explains:

    The conceptual frame of the sculpture machine allows us to encompass the intersecting discussions and representations, technologies, knowledges, and systems for influencing bodies that appeared between the 1820s and 1930s. Its principal devices were the camera and the printing press; its output the enormous debris of early consumer culture and the modern mass media.
  • MAN transFORMS. Aspects of Design

    Cooper Hewitt Museum, 1976

    The catalogue accompanying Hans Hollein and Lisa Taylor’s MAN transFORMS exhibition, mounted at the Cooper Hewitt in New York in 1976, asserts that “there are mainly two fields of man’s activity: to survive during life and to survive after life.” The reasons we engage design, according to Hollein, are “to live and to die and possibly to live beyond death” — premises arguably more true today, given the state of self-design technologies, than they were nearly 50 years ago. (For more about the exhibition, see MAN transFORMS: The Documents, edited by Laurent Stalder with Samuel Korn, published by ETH Zürich in 2016.) Unsurprisingly, a structuring cloud diagram for the Cooper Hewitt exhibition features the central figure “BODY.” Among the “interrelated subjects” orbiting this node are “redesigning the man,” “bodybuilding,” and (again) “death.”


    The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, 2021

    BREATHLESS is the beautifully constructed paperback catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the same name curated by Ala Roushan at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in 2022. The exhibition integrated the work of four artists — Flaka Haliti, Marguerite Humeau, Donna Kukama, and Julius von Bismarck — into a single whole “conceived as an ecoysystem,” installed in a pavilion designed by Roushan and artist Charles Stankievech. The construction took its form (essentially the shape of a lung) from the central courtyard in Alison and Peter Smithson’s House of the Future, a model home built in London in 1956. The book collects texts by Stankievech, Heather Davis, Dehlia Hannah, Achille Mbembe, and Kate Whiteway, all in some way addressing respiration as a subversive and conspiratorial act (from the Latin conspire, “to breathe together”).

  • Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

    Harvard University Press, 2011

    Catastrophes and existential threats are often represented in the popular imagination through monsters, zombies, aliens, tsunamis, and meteorites — that is, through sudden, pinpointed events, terrifying yet geographically and temporally contained. Climate change cannot be understood in such terms. It is ubiquitous and, as Nixon describes it, “spectacle-deficient.” Thinkers who have been key for us in our work about death (Sigfried Giedion, for instance) posit that death’s influence is latent in the technologies that populate daily life, much in the way that Nixon argues climate change is. Slow Violence makes a case for the ways in which “writer-activists” can represent causalities and crises that seem gradual, distant, and invisible, but which yield cataclysmic results.

  • Online

    Is There Any World to Come?

    E-flux Journal No. 65, May 2015

    Danowski and Viveros de Castro use Indigenous North American cosmogonies to explore ideas of a “pre-cosmological” world in which “everything was originally human, or rather, nothing was not human.” The cultural saturation of nature (or the beginnings of the Anthropocene, by some definitions) upset “what we could call the natural world, or ‘world’ for short … a multiplicity of intricately connected multiplicities.” Through the duality that juxtaposes world and inhabitant, the authors examine what we mean when we talk about world “endings.” They also suggest that humanness may be all that remains when the “end” comes.

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