Emergency Exit, Second Thoughts (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 41)

This is the forty-first instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH


A precarious-looking exit stair (no longer the primary means of emergency egress) at Breuer, Nervi, and Zehrfuss’ UNESCO Headquarters Paris, 1958; photograph by the author, January 2019.



Emergency Exit, Second Thoughts[1]

By Daniel A. Barber/p>


How do we get out of here? That is the substantive question, embedded with fear and panic, when a house is burning, a ship is sinking. When I was 18, I woke up to a house on fire, literally. I had just returned from a long trip abroad; the fire started from a poorly ventilated clothes dryer, which my mom and I had been using all day, emptying my suitcases into the laundry. It was a wood frame house, and the fire spread rapidly. I was wakened by an alarm, in my sleepiness and jet lag I thought it was just my bedside clock, I flailed my arm around trying to turn it off. I pressed the button but it kept going. That was when I noticed the smoke creeping in under the door. Stupidly, I opened the door, and faced a wall of smoke, waiting to come in and take over. The coughing started, the panic, nowhere to go. I went further away, into the bathroom. Stupidly again, I opened the window to get a gulp of fresh air, this created a chimney, drawing the smoke into the room and out the window. Now the panic was urgent. I had to get out, the threat of asphyxiation was real. I crawled out the window, perched on the narrow ledge, and jumped the 20 feet or so to the ground. A few minutes later the fire trucks and ambulance arrived, I was given oxygen and a brace for a minor ankle sprain. I escaped, largely unscathed.

Our lives, our fear of death, are configured by the prospect of urgent egress. We rest knowing we can get out. An emergency is, hopefully, just another event. The ever-present prospect of being elsewhere; and carefully detailed mechanisms for escape. The poet Ocean Vuong points out the obvious: walking through lower Manhattan, or many other dense, townhouse laden urban areas, the façades are stringed with“fire escapes”; as he wrote:

I could spend a whole hour sitting across the street from a six-floor walk-up studying the zig-zags that cling to a building filled with so many hidden lives. All that richness and drama sealed away in walls echoing with elemental or exquisite language – and yet only the fire escape, a clinging extremity, inanimate and often rusting, spoke – in its hardened exiled silence, with the most visible human honesty: We are capable of disaster. And we are scared.[2]

A capacity to leave takes up the city scape, as a kind of background hum to the life of the city. It is there when we need it.

How do we know when it is an emergency? That seems like a nonsense question today – though in the US, one could be forgiven for some confusion, even though almost two hundred thousand people have died many are operating as if the most important thing to do is pretend that all is normal, to keep the economy moving. To build a scaffold around the pandemic, and the panic, to hide it away. And yet. If we have reason to panic, what do we do with it, where do we go? Again, how do we get out of here?

My own experience of being saved, of saving myself, in an emergency is perhaps extreme, a clear distillation of an everyday event, of an ongoing condition: we rely on our capacity to leave in order to stay comfortably. Buildings are constructed around urgent egress, often quite literally: the exit stair is not always clamped on to the facades, it is hidden in the interior, an ugly, exposed concrete passageway winding around or next to the elevator core. Mies van der Rohe wanted to sheathe the exit stair of the Seagrams tower in the same marble he used in the lobby, but was denied. Marcel Breuer managed a more spacious, detailed stair at the Whitney, because it doubles as an alternative to the elevator in order to reach the gallery – his spiral exit stair at the UNESCO building is an exercise in precarity (there is now an internal one as well). Farshid Moussavi’s exit stair at the Cleveland MOCA is shining, neon yellow, and doubles as a gallery for sound art. A spectrum of attention and opportunity.

Our crisis today, the pandemic, is characterized by a turn inward, a reliance on our interiors, even more than before, as havens, spaces for solace and refuge. For safety. Unwittingly, we are depending on emergency exits even more – we are inside all the time, or should be, and only can be because we know there is a way out, if needed. At the same time, the outside, exterior life, has itself become dangerous: the virus, the maskless, violating orders or the common sense imperative to shelter in place. Where can we go?

This dynamic between safety in the interior and threat outside is already, for those paying attention, a familiar formula – the relationship between our conditioned, ventilated interiors and the inexorable rise of carbon emissions is, somehow, an even more avoidable connection, a crisis too many continue to largely ignore, even more as we turn to those ventilation systems to keep our schools, offices, and homes free from infection. The sense of panic grows, the recurving of the essential, infrastructural patterns that will keep us on a path towards disruption, destabilization, and the destruction of familiar ways of life. The pandemic is not just a preview to the social discord expected amidst climate disruptions, it is an engine for it, a hardening of reliance on patterns and systems that are unsustainable.

So this is one way the pandemic, and the climate crisis it is masking, hiding, obscuring, reconfigures our ways of life: there is nowhere to go. For the global industrial culture reliant on the emergency exit, on the externality, there has always been a place to go, a place to move a factory as environmental regulations tightened, to mine ores or dump toxins; to hide profits in offshore accounts. But the virus is everywhere. And we can’t escape the climate, we jump out the window and there it is, the closed loop turning back onto us.

Can we imagine – schematically, even, diagrammatically – a building that doesn’t require emergency egress? A way of living not predicated on the fragile premise of always having a way out. It would likely be one story, collapsible like a house of cards, or an accumulation of earth, dirt, and rubble. Temporary? Does permanence (steel, glass, concrete, even brick) require the capacity for escape, a sort of exchange, a bargain that says – you can stay here, forever, because there is always the window, just open it and jump, or climb down the ladder. Without an emergency exit would we just live in fear? Maybe so, maybe such an urban and psychic restructuring would allow for a different way of life, more attentive to the dangers of climate instability than hiding from them.


[1] These thoughts develop out of an ongoing project on emergency exits, the first iteration of which was published on e-flux architecture as part of the Overgrowth series, in connection with the Oslo Architecture Triennial, September 26, 2019. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/overgrowth/284030/emergency-exit/
[2] Ocean Vuong, “The Weight of our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation” 2014. https://therumpus.net/2014/08/the-weight-of-our-living-on-hope-fire-escapes-and-visible-desperation/


Daniel A. Barberis Chair of the PhD Program in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Research Fellow at DINÂMIA’CET Universidade de Lisboa. His most recent book is Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning.
August 31st, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020

David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”

September 7th, 2020

T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via tranzit.sk:  “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”

August 21st, 2020
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