Saturday, February 26, 2011

pneumatic spy gadgets

What could be more intriguing that a pneumatic tube network in the headquarters of a spy agency!

The CIA received a bit of press recently for 'going public' with images of spy gadgets from their museum collection (even though these images had been on their flikr page for years).

This particular image is of an amber-coloured carrier which traversed one of the four pneumatic tube systems installed in the late 1950s by the Lamson Corporation (other systems had red, green or metal carriers). The system wound its way through all seven floors of the old CIA building, with 150 receiving and dispatching stations.

In keeping with my interest in all of the tinkering that goes with these systems, I was intrigued to learn that "in order to operate and maintain the pneumatic-tube system, the Agency had to recruit a staff from the Washington Post Office and the Washington Navy Yard".

And like so many pneumatic tube systems, this spy network now remains the stuff of history and museum artefact. Shut down in 1989, the system required too much space, had become too expensive to maintain and was considered redundant in light of email.

Image from CIA's Flikr page, which received has achieved fame in WIRED magazine for being notoriously bad.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

pneumatic tube classic of the week 2

How can you have classics without cartoons and comics? Those who inhabit the 31st century world of Futurama are whizzing around in some of the most popular pneumatic tubes of contemporary cultural production:

Image from Comic Vine

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

breathing blogging

I am a researcher at an academic institution and I blog about pneumatic tubes. How do these two practices interrelate? Are they separate or intertwined? These are aspects of my work that I have been thinking about for some time. Both my blogging and academic work concern social aspects of healthcare technologies, yet they have different writing styles (hyperlinks instead of references for example!) and different (yet overlapping) audiences.

In thinking about these issues I have become aware of others who are asking similar questions. For example, the History Blogging Project has been set up by postgraduates for postgraduates to explore the interrelation between blogging and other forms of research. Thomas Söderqvist has written about this topic on the blog Biomedicine on Display. Jay Ruby is an American anthropologist who used a blog to record his fieldnotes and disseminate his findings, leaving an online repository for the public to access. The website included interviews, photographs, observations, historical commentary and video segments, along with a listserv for residents of his fieldsite to engage and comment on the study.

As we become evermore attuned to process over products, will blogs become an increasingly visible part of academics’ work? Or will blogs continue to remain on the margins of recognised academic output? How will blogs by non-academics contribute to research agendas? Those who are interested in these questions may want to follow the ‘Honest to Blog’ one day symposium in Dublin on the 4th March, which explores the use of blogging in arts and humanities research and practice.

Photos of the two different sets of 'lungs' are my own from research for both an academic ethnography and for this blog (see my Flikr set). See similarities with photographs in this post too!

Friday, February 11, 2011

pneumatic tube classic of the week 1

This great bit of footage from Brazil, where a little bit of re-hosing has a magical effect, is the first post in my 'classics' category. The 'pneumatic tube classic of the week', following from the 'pneumatic tube map of the week', will be a post about a classic book, film, cartoon, TV show or other media about pneumatic tube systems.

Please send in any of your favourite pneumatic tube classics to be potentially included on the list!

Video from YouTube.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Pneumatics at the Palais

Very recently, I missed the installation by Serge Spitzer at Palais de Tokyo entitled
Re/Search, Bread and Butter with the ever present Question of How to define the difference between a Baguette and a Croissant. But maybe you saw it in Paris, or somewhere else? Perhaps in Bern, where it was called Re/Search (Alchemy and/or Question Marks with Swiss Air)?

Here are some flikr images from those who did see the installation at the Palais de Tokyo and have shared their pictures.

I love these two images. Except for the little bit of string at the bottom, the first image looks like it could have been taken in a hospital engineering room, whilst there is little doubt that the second image is from a contemporary art gallery, the particular perspective emphasising the dizzying curves and twists of the installed pneumatic system. A description of this work in ArtSlant tells us that:
"Serge Spitzer aims to reveal hidden elements, structures and systems, the effects of which we perceive without trying to question their nature. Since the 1970s, he has been formulating mechanisms of communication, perception, and consciousness. These “reality models” are extraordinarily lucid sculptures in which everyday life confronts while merging with the imaginary. The artist borrows a complex vocabulary from our surroundings to generate the constant conflict and equilibrium of his works ... Re/Search, Bread and Butter with the ever present Question of How to define the difference between a Baguette and a Croissant, a monumental installation first made in 1997 for the Lyon Biennial, coincides with the democratization of the Internet. Presented today in the context of information technology hegemony, this work attests to the pre-existence of a quasi-organic communication network. Serge Spitzer unveils a chaotic pneumatic transport system where capsules, propelled by air, whizz through a maze of tubes. Installed in 1866 under the streets of Paris, this kind of device originally served to transmit commercial orders between the Central Telegraph Office and trading rooms. By bringing a technology back into the public space that ordinarily lurks under our towns, like a beast in a cave, Serge Spitzer ironically interrogates its function and renders it perfectly obsolete. The installation brings together two systems that work against each other, but are forced to coexist together; the networks neutralize each other. Messages shoot through these vessels without sender, without recipient, and on a quest without beginning or end. Here, order faces off with chaos and stringency brushes against weakness: everything is intertwined, but all of it is accidental"
A rather poetic interpretation of the installation, this description nonetheless resonates with some of my own interests in the pneumatic tube as an invisible maze behind our institutional walls, that is imbued with both function and imagination. The link made by Art Slant to the internet, is deeply reminiscent of descriptions of the web as a "series of tubes", and perhaps too much of an obvious connection. In an interview in Dazed Digital, Serge Spitzer searches for something more nuanced and interesting:
"The chaos of this seemingly stable structure, and the free will of controlled units is at the core of this piece: "The idea is to create the sketch of a chaotic structure that you follow and discover the 'clear' reality around it. The message of the work is to create something which is a question to itself. You build structures which seem to be very clear in their functions. But as you realise the work, you discover the irrationalities in the system. The narrative is about reality. You think the piece is about itself but it’s actually about the world around it, about the people, architecture, about the structure, you also look differently at the colours outside, or details and their relative monumentality. A big wild crazy transparent structure seen trough a large glass wall and next door you see the Eiffel tower, the most rational functional construction.”
It is the so-called 'irrationalities' of pneumatic tube systems which fascinate me too. The free will and the structure, always in tension, visible in the adjustments that engineers make to networks, in the sketches architects draw during renovations, in the breakdowns and in the repair work that takes place in hospitals, banks, pharmacies and other places everyday.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

pneumatic tube map of the week 10

Paris 1971

Map of the Parisian post network from compulink. As this is the last "map of the week" I will do for a while, also wanted to share this link about map-making that Andy sent me, for those who are interested: