9 October, Under Communism, we will build latrines with gold’: Luxury Infrastructure and Socialism

Owen Hatherley, Writer and Journalist

October 9, 14.30-16.30

CRASSH, Seminar Room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Lenin wrote in the early 1920s that in a communist society, gold would symbolically be used as a cladding material in public toilets, as a fitting fate for a material that had such an appalling historical role. What he hadn’t intended, very probably, was to suggest that basic forms of infrastructure should be covered in gold, and other precious materials, not as a way of displaying their worthlessness, but rather their worth. This paper will discuss the Metro systems built in the Soviet Union between the early 30s and the early 90s as an embodiment of this – the elevation and enobling of something seemingly mundane – an underground railway – into a series of public palaces – built, often, and appropriately enough, by forced labour. The paper will start from the famous moment of the Moscow Metro, following the regularly shifting tendencies towards functionality and luxury in the several other systems, until their eventual cancellations and discrediting under Perestroika.’



Owen Hatherley is a writer and journalist based in London who writes on architecture, politics and culture. He is the author of Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010), Uncommon (Zero Books, 2011), Across the Plaza (Strelka, 2012), an e-book, and A New Kind of Bleak (Verso, 2012). He writes regularly for Building Design, The Guardian and Icon. The Guardian described his first book as an “exhilarating manifesto for a reborn socialist modernism”. He blogs at urbantrawl.blogspot.com and nastybrutalistandshort.blogspot.com.

23 October, The Gift, Art’s Infrastructure, and Ethnographic Conceptualism

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Anthropology, Cambridge)

The paper asks: what is the infrastructure of gift in a public museum as an institutional, modern gift?  Its goal is to question if the notion of material infrastructure is sufficient to account for a broader sense of   infrastructure as ‘conditions of possibility’ of a project, and how, if at all, infrastructure needs to be ‘dematerialised’ by analogy with the dematerialisation of art by conceptualism. This paper’s case in point is the Kremlin Museum, Moscow, which I explored by curating an exhibition of gifts to Soviet leaders in 2006. While in the material sense, the infrastructure of gift echoes that of tourism and pilgrimage, I argue that politics, discourses and aesthetics of this project cannot be taken out of equation. In particular, I argue that temporalities of these politics and of the gift are central to the understanding of mechanics of infrastructure. 

6 November, Camps as Infrastructure: Spatial and Everyday Perspectives


Irit Katz (Architecture, Cambridge)

Infrastructure of suspended temporariness – Camps as the hidden spatio-political mechanism of the nation-state

Camps have been widely used by national and colonial powers in order to gain control over territories, create new settlements and manage local populations. The notion of ‘the camp’ relates to a piece of land which is included within the state’s territory yet placed outside the normal juridical order. In a state of emergency temporary spaces have become an instrument which translates a strategic need, a humanitarian crisis or a political agenda into an ad-hoc act of construction where civilian life and military action interact.

Since the appearance of the first civic camps of colonial struggles in Africa and South America at the end of the nineteenth century, through World War II concentration and internment camps constructed in Europe, North America and elsewhere, until today’s refugee and detention camps for illegal or displaced people – camps were and still are erected in varied spatial forms, both formal and informal, to fence or defence specific populations.

This paper will examine the camp as an infrastructure of suspended temporariness, a hidden spatio-political mechanism which is globally used by nation-states to manage territory and population. Different camp types created in Israel/Palestine for varied purposes from past until present as well as other manifestations of camps created elsewhere will be used in order to analyse the common characteristics of ‘the camp’ and their meaning. The paper will also explore the inherent spatial diversity of the camps, which spans between rigid spaces of confinement and informal spaces of abandonment and neglect.

Silvia Pasquetti (Sociology, Cambridge)

Camp Infrastructure and The Production of Meanings and Emotions

During my first visit to an “unrecognized” Arab district in Lod, an Israeli city, the first thing I noticed was that the infrastructure of the district resembled that of a West Bank refugee camp where I had previously conducted fieldwork: unpaved roads, leaking sewage, unfinished buildings, and rusty trash cans. Yet, as I discovered during my staying in the city, similar infrastructures can be imbued with very different meanings and emotions by the people who use them as well as by external observers. This paper explores how the precarious and unfinished infrastructures of the urban district and those of the refugee camp—infrastructures that are “suspended in time” and remain “out of place” within the national order of things—intersect with broader ethnonational imaginaries and histories to produce distinct meanings and emotions among Palestinian refugees, Israeli Palestinians, and Jewish Israelis. Specifically it offers some comparative insights on the circulation of the image of “the camp” as it relates to the infrastructures of the urban district. First, I explore how Arab residents of the urban district evoke the image of the “refugee camp” in their comments on the infrastructures of their district to express their feelings of being stigmatized by the state or, in the aftermath of a house demolition, their fear of being displaced and becoming refugees. Second, I highlight how Jewish Israelis also express feelings of fear in relation to the physical conditions of the district through a two-step perceptual process linking dysfunctional infrastructures (for example, dirty roads or inadequate trash bins) and “refugee camps,” and then connecting “refugee camps” and the production of violent dispositions. Third, I discuss “the view” from the West Bank camp, focusing on the interpretive work done by camp dwellers to separate the meanings attached to the camp infrastructure—its deficiencies as well as its planned improvements—and the feelings of pride and the political claims that they attach to their group lives inside the camp.

20 November, The Elusive Lab: Roundtable on Scientific Infrastructure in Africa


David Dunne, Pathology, Cambridge
James Wood, Veterinary Medicine, Cambridge
Wenzel Geissler, Social Anthropology, University of Oslo and University of Cambridge
Ferdinand Okwaro, African Studies, University of Cambridge
Branwyn Poleykett, Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
Noemi Tousignant, Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

From self-representations of early Imperial scientists to critical analyses by historians of colonial science a century later, Africa has been described as a laboratory, notably of medical and biological sciences, and by extension of social and political forms. In practice, this trope points to the fact that Africa itself was then the site of experimentation, a vast field of data collection connected to sites of analysis largely located outside the continent. Transnational configurations of African science have limited investments in actual lab infrastructure on the continent. Before the 1940s, there were few efforts to build up coherent laboratory infrastructures beyond isolated outposts of metropolitan institutions. More recently the decay of these structures and those built during the developmental decades of the 1940s-1970s, and the concomitant rise of few globally networked high-end research laboratories lends the image of Africa as field-cum-laboratory new purchase.
The tension referenced by this metaphor – between science and empire, between human bodies, knowledge, power and value – and the questions it raises about the place of Africa in a global division of scientific labour remain pertinent. This panel discussion addresses these issues through a more limited and material focus on African laboratories as buildings, apparatus, technicians and routines –exploring memories and remains of their pasts, their present state and future promise.

Laboratories in Africa are critical sites for diagnosing diseases and maintaining human well-being; they train future technologists, doctors and scientists; they can serve to inform governments and policy through regular survey and monitoring data; and they produce, under shifting global regimes and priorities, scientific knowledge. Yet although the continent does need more and better laboratories, it is less clear what kinds of labs, for what purpose and for whom.

Today’s panel brings together leading life-scientists with extensive experience from health research and laboratory work, and the making of laboratories in Africa, and anthropologists and historians of African science, to address questions of the past and future of labs as scientific infrastructure in Africa: What have been the obstacles to building up lab infrastructures in Africa, and how might these change? What has motivated the creation of labs in Africa? How have developments in scientific and health technology, from scientific miniaturisation (test kits, mobile phone diagnostics…) to networked extension of science (data pooling, multi-site research consortia…), changed what counts as an effective lab in Africa? What futures do African laboratories hold, what labs will be needed in the future, and how does one build, a century or more into the ‘African laboratory’, laboratory infrastructure that is relevant to African needs and materially and scientifically sustainable?