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Making the Most of the ‘Crisortunity’: Multidisciplinary Provocations on Techno-fixes and Precarity

Published onDec 02, 2022
Making the Most of the ‘Crisortunity’: Multidisciplinary Provocations on Techno-fixes and Precarity

What does a robust and useful technological response to a crisis, aware and attentive to the biases and messages of digital media, look like? This paper responds to provocations and questions posed during our panel, Emergent-cy: Critical Digital Humanities in the Time of COVID at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2021 Conference & Colloquium, by attendees who particularly responded to the notion of “crisortunity” raised by Arun Jacob during the panel. This paper centres on crisortunity, a neologism coined by the cartoon The Simpsons in episode 11 of season 6 (“Fear”) and since expanded upon by scholars like Tanner Mirrlees, within our different disciplines (“Ghoulish”). Crisortunity—a crisis situation that also presents the opportunity for someone to gain something in return—unifies our offerings to the digital humanities. While contributors to this paper come from a range of fields—museum studies, journalism studies, media studies, and research creation—our responses are linked by an attentiveness to the uneven precarities and vulnerabilities so often symptomatic of institutional responses to crises, as well as the production, circulation, and management of information. Building on critical work that explores the ways that technologies from electronic monitoring of those serving parole or awaiting trial (Benjamin) to electronic benefits transfer systems in the United States social service system (Eubanks) are mobilized to fix social problems, we argue that techno-fixes often fail to fix; instead, they reinstate unequal and inequitable relations in the name of repair. In contrast, when communities organize to respond to crises on their own, tensions may arise between attempts for self-organization and anti-capitalist modes of creating and community. This paper thus explores the implications of qualifying something as a “crisis” with a discrete beginning and end, and what it might mean to offer fixes to something that is broken rather than curating, managing, repairing, or caring for something that is not yet irreparable (Gál). By leveraging this concept across our four disciplines, we hope to explore the various uses of terming something a “crisis.” While in the present context, the term crisis might bring to mind the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, crises can be financial, institutional, and/or architectural. For whom do crises toll? And for whom are they not crises at all, but opportunities to further leverage power, influence, and resources in the name of protecting investments? As we explore, care infrastructures are often depleted in favour of techno-fixes and precarious labour that continue, rather than break from, pre-crisis power structures and institutional modes.

In our first section, Haley Bryant tackles the question of remediation during the COVID-19 pandemic in the museum field, where an accelerated focus on digital solutions warns of an increasing reliance on precarious labour and compromised practices of museological care. In the following section, Nelanthi Hewa examines how Substack and other newsletter platforms have positioned themselves as the saviours of journalism to ask whose crisis is solved, and whose is extended, when journalism is platformed. Camille Intson reflects on a research creation endeavour and international digital media gallery entitled Intermissions: Works for a New World, which emerged in response to the pandemic’s impact on art and culture. In the final section, Arun Jacob discusses the infrastructural politics of the inherent techno-solutionism in crisis architecture.

Digital Labour in Museums and the Crisortunity of Care

Haley Bryant

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and lasting impact on museums, the exact nature of which is emerging as the pandemic endures and necessary public safety measures remain in place. When lockdowns began in early 2020, museums closed their doors to visitors, turned away researchers and scholars, and grappled with how to manage employees who could no longer safely come to work. Amid the ongoing crisis, museums have demonstrated a “genuine desire to use this sudden catastrophic event to co-create new museums of the future” (Cobley et al. 115). Specifically, museums have leaned heavily into experimentation with digital technology solutions like virtual gallery tours, digital exhibits, public programs delivered over Zoom and its equivalents, and virtual collections research visits.

This focused reorientation of museums toward digital solutions has generated a wide array of exciting possibilities by expanding museum audiences, pushing the boundaries of “local” publics and introducing new ways museum visitors may encounter and engage with collections and information. However, as Anthony Shelton, Anthropologist and Director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, reminds us, “Experimentation, by its very nature, will become politically manipulated and breed competing social, ethical, and existential threats” (Cobley et al. 133). Shelton encourages museum professionals and scholars to seize this moment to rethink institutional entanglements with corporate entities, unravel limiting and outdated copyright and intellectual property mandates, and rethink ways in which knowledge creation and sharing becomes departmentally siloed in the museum. While critical assessment of each of these domains may move museums forward in innovative ways, I argue that our disciplinary self-assessment must start at a much more fundamental place.

Discussions about museums in the pandemic, particularly in the earliest days of shutdowns, are dominated by announcements of mass firings, layoffs, and furloughs (Bishara; Kinsella). In the United States, for instance, hundreds of institutions dismissed large portions of their staff with no clear guidance on when and if those employees would be rehired. Furthermore, dismissed employees have been cut off from any social services and benefits gained through their employment, placing them in the precarious position of being unable to wait out the crisis in hopes of reinstatement (Fulton et al.).

One of the most widely publicized examples has been the Tenement Museum in New York City, which was charged by furloughed and former employees in July of 2020 of “exploiting COVID-19 to engage in unfair labor practices and for failing to ‘bargain in good faith with [their] union for [their] right to return to [their] positions when they are restored’” (Fulton et al. 81). This instance is only one of many in which museum employees in the US are exercising their rights to collectively bargain for improved workplace conditions (Paparella). Importantly, this wave of museum unionization predates the pandemic, with employees of some institutions asserting their collective bargaining rights as early as 2010, though there was a significant uptick in efforts across the country beginning in 2018.

The field-wide conversation about labour practices and working conditions for full-time museum staff is compounded by an increasing reliance on contingent labour in museums, an issue that similarly predates the pandemic. While contingent labour is becoming more common across all areas of museum operations, it is particularly insidious in the domain of digital projects, which are often grant funded and term limited. A 2019 study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) explains that, “every year, institutions develop, reviewers approve, and funders support dozens of term positions that are part-time, under-classified, or without benefits” that negatively impact the lives and careers of workers (Rodriguez et al. 3). The study also illustrates that reliance on term positions is self-reproducing, with sixty-six percent of contingent workers rehired at the same institution being rehired back into term-limited positions. What the study does not touch on, but is equally concerning, is the negative impact this trend has on the sustainability, success, and value-making potential of digital museum projects.

While museums are approaching the pandemic as a crisortunity to rethink so many of their organizational processes and commitments as they take more of their work online than ever before, it is worrying to consider what precedents are being set when it comes to hiring and retention. If mass layoffs continue and digital alternatives supersede non-digital ways of working, will we see an even further rise in contingent positions for increasingly digital museum work? In so many ways, care practices define the museum—care for collections, care for visitors, care for stories, etc.—but care for staff and contractors often falls to the bottom of the priority list (Morse). Moving forward, we must attend first and foremost to pandemic and post-pandemic digital “museum work-worlds” if we are to realize dreams of a radical, new museum of the future.

“A New Golden Age for Publishing”: Substack, Entrepreneurialism, and Crisis in Infinite Journalisms

Nelanthi Hewa

Reports of journalism’s death are greatly exaggerated. Or are they? Certainly, we have been assured for at least two decades that journalism is in something called a “crisis,” teetering on the brink of either ignominious defeat or glorious rebirth. For some, it is a funding crisis, brought about by falling subscription rates and shuttered newsrooms (Anderson et al.; McChesney and Pickard; Meyer; Pickard). For others, it is a crisis of trust (Coddington and Lewis; Jones; Wenzel). As Barbie Zelizer writes, crisis “works in a productive fashion” by turning moments of conflict and change into finite events to be managed and “ultimately gotten rid of” (892). For Substack, Facebook/Meta, and other platforms, however, the crisis of journalism—whatever it may be and wherever it may originate—is not a moment to be managed but an opportunity to be seized. Journalism’s saviours are here (again).

Founded in 2017 by Chris Best, Jaijraj Sethi, and Hamish McKenzie, Substack is a platform for newsletters that allows readers to pay writers directly, with Substack taking a ten percent cut from subscriptions (Chang). Like the museum field that Bryant discusses, the crisis of journalism is typically characterised as a profit one. As clickbait, paywalls, and falling trust plague the journalism industry, Substack’s founders write that “in every crisis there is opportunity” (Best and McKenzie) and explicitly brand their platform as a technological and financial panacea to the journalism industry’s ills. They write that journalism is “ready for another reinvention” that responds to the “content farms, clickbait, listicles, inane but viral debates over optical illusions, and a ‘fake news’ epidemic” that ostensibly plague readers and writers alike. It has also become increasingly well known for welcoming conservative journalists, such as Bari Weiss (formerly of The New York Times), and those who have become dissatisfied with the progressive aims and “policing” of their outlets, such as Matthew Yglesias (formerly of Vox) and Glenn Greenwald (formerly of The Intercept). For such writers, Substack is the last true journalistic space, a platform where free speech reigns and those rogues willing to speak back to power might find a (very lucrative) home.1

Substack promises both conservative punditry and personal brand recognition as the solution to left-wing journalism and the industry as a whole. Yet as platform scholars have argued, the platform is hardly a neutral space of free and unfettered speech (Cotter; Gillespie; Petre et al.; Singh). Instead, both the ostensible neutrality of Substack and the kind of work needed to thrive on Substack and in journalism more broadly benefit those with established brands (Stokel-Walker), the privilege to withstand online harassment, and the financial security to take a risk on a subscription model. In this section, I think with David Nieborg and Thomas Poell, who have argued that cultural production, including journalistic work, is progressively contingent or “dependent on a select group of powerful digital platforms” (4276). As journalists increasingly rely on platforms to not simply circulate their work to the public—much like Facebook, Google, and others do in Nieborg and Poell’s analysis—but also provide the space in which to work and be paid, individual journalists and freelancers, in addition to news organizations and publishers, are themselves platform-contingent. As the differential experience of Substack writers show, contingency is felt unevenly, or not at all by some.

I thus bring Nieborg and Poell’s analysis into conversation with Sarah Sharma, who offers a feminist re-reading of Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the medium to argue that the “reorganization of labor and vulnerability are part of the message of every medium.” Technologies extend one particular body (the body of Man), enabling those with power and privilege to cleanly exit uncomfortable, unpleasant, or vulnerable situations while exhorting others to perform the labour that makes those escapes possible. Therein lies the contradiction of the journalistic crisortunity: as Substack, Revue, Meta, and others flock to pick up the pieces of the journalism industry in the name of saving the industry, they extend the bodies of those already privileged few who have elected to leave established outlets in protest of “censorious” policies or liberal close-mindedness. Meanwhile, scholars including Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young argue that the crisis of journalism may simply be a “long overdue corrective for mainstream media,” much of which has and continues to uphold racist and colonial structures of power (12). Indeed, as journalism in North America increasingly shifts from an industry of steady jobs in established outlets (for those privileged enough to get their foot in the door) to one of precarious labour for which journalists must act as influencers building personal brands (Cohen; Lorenz; Silverman; Wilkinson and Winseck), Substack both ideologically and structurally extends the crisis of journalism that Callison and Young identify.

It has become increasingly clear that Substack replicates existing hierarchies by doling out enormous paydays to established figures—figures who, like Weiss and Yglesias, have also been embraced by the right and have already reaped enormous benefits from traditional mainstream media—while promising that it is saving journalism for all. While some who, like former Buzzfeed Senior Culture Writer and occasional New York Times opinion writer Anne Helen Petersen, have the brand power to negotiate health insurance and lump sum payments and so “[regain] control of [their] own journalism” (Pompeo), for others, entrepreneurial work is precarious rather than empowering, a further entrenchment in capitalist structures of inequality rather than a neat exit from the drudgery of journalism. Entrepreneurial journalism thus highlights the contradiction of greater participation outside of exclusive and exclusionary mainstream media outlets: while it may be easier to launch a newsletter than get one’s foot in the door of a legacy media outlet, the barriers of precarity and uncertainty hit racialized journalists in particular (Clark and Cohen). Work may be increasingly redefined as “both literally female and feminized” because it is “extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as reserve labor force” (Haraway 166), but the risks of being precarious are not universally felt. In Substack’s techno-fix to the journalism industry, the targeted profit crisis is fixed by a pulling back of institutional support, a response also felt by creative workers, as discussed in the following section. What, then, is the promise of platform journalism, and whose journalism will it save? If Substack is an exemplar, the journalism of tomorrow will be white, male, and conservative. In other words, it will be hardly different from much of the journalism of today.

Research-creation as Crisis Response in Pantheon Projects’s Intermissions: Works for a New World

Camille Intson

In the year 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a series of international lockdowns and strict social distancing measures, one of the hardest hit industries was the already-vulnerable arts and culture sector: as reported by Canadian Association for the Performing Arts (CAPACOA), one in four arts workers lost their jobs that year (“2020”). A popular article by The Globe and Mail declared the arts in Canada “decimated,” exposing the vulnerability of the arts sector when up against an unprecedented global crisis (Taylor). According to the National Arts and Culture Impact Survey, individual artists not directly backed by an institution were generally uncertain of the future within their line of work (“National”). Furthermore, the survey reports that while one in two organizations had positive experiences with curating digital programming, the move from physical to digital space did not accommodate all disciplines equally. Among the worst impacted were dance and theatre artists whose careers are contingent on their embodied, live participation in a given space (“National”).

On a personal note, as a playwright and performance artist, in March of 2020 I had lost my first professional contract for a reproduction of one of my plays with a regional theatre. My queer-feminist performance collective Pantheon Projects, which is based in Hamilton, Ontario, and comprises early-career professional female artists, was therefore out of work for the near future. Early on in the pandemic, I started to notice social media initiatives geared at out-of-work creatives, from New York–based writer–advocate Suleika Jaouad’s “The Isolation Journals” to Hamilton-based dance artist Alyssa Nedich’s #MissAlyssaChallenge. Before any professional companies came out with Zoom and/or podcast plays, social media was an endless site of community-based creative practice initiatives. It occurred to me that there existed a pervasive desire for a sense of community, and that the creative “challenges” I was witnessing presented an alternate way of being-in-the-world and in community with one another, outside of the neoliberal, capitalistic aims that often drive the arts and culture industry.

While in a bout of loneliness and touch starvation, I put out a call to my closest friends and collaborators, many of whom were coping with the loss of work, for a research-creation endeavour that solicited brief responses to the following prompt: “If you could send anything forward in time to a post-pandemic world, what would it be?” (“Intermissions”). I specified that I wanted artistic responses of rough, unfinished, fragmented works (even “works” was too formal a word)—things that were not fully professional and polished. I thought of this miniature experiment as an exercise in utopian thinking, of conceptualizing a post-pandemic time, and of transcending space-time boundaries in service of (digital) togetherness. The original call was meant for Southern Ontario practitioners, and many of the original responders hailed from Hamilton, London, and Toronto, Canada.

My inquiry had roots in Derridean philosophy and in the notion that the archive “opens out of the future” (Derrida 68). In Archive Fever, Derrida writes of the archive as an event which defines and produces a possibility for thinking about the future. In a time of cultural crisis, when the arts sector was in danger of losing itself (and many working artists, their longtime professions), this project opened up the possibility of forward-thinking, and of making (digital) connections by creating a community-based crisis archive of that present moment.

Due to the overwhelming number of responses received, the Pantheon Projects team and I decided to turn our social media exercise into an online digital gallery, entitled Intermissions, which at the time of this article’s conception is still accessible online. Once our prompt was publicized, it was shared by several community members in Facebook groups soliciting calls for multidisciplinary artists, and across all of our social media platforms. From there, I was met with a flood of emails from international practitioners wishing to participate in the project. Following the George Floyd protests in the US and across the globe, and due to popular demand, submissions were re-opened for Black and Indigenous creators. The four works below were submitted to the Intermissions gallery between May and June of 2020 and are reproduced here with permission.

Six bedazzled hands of varying sizes reach upwards towards a blue cloudy sky. Squares coloured purple, green, yellow, pink, and red float in the background.

Figure 1: Chelsea Brimstin, Hands Collage, 2020. A photograph exhibited in the Intermissions digital gallery.

Figure 1 shows Toronto-based queer photographer and digital media producer Chelsea Brimstin’s Hands Collage. Before the pandemic, Brimstin frequently photographed concerts and musicians in downtown Toronto venues.

Six young, dark-skinned children are the central focus of the painting, depicted behind bars in various states of upset and/or anxiety. The frontmost child extends a hand outside of the cage, reaching towards a royal blue Statue of Liberty on the right side of the painting. Underneath the Statue of Liberty is a dark “Border Force” police boat. Barbed wire stretches across the cage where the children are captured, and on the left side of the painting is the city of New York. These images are set against a sun-setting backdrop with hues of royal blue, yellow and dark oranges, and reds.

Figure 2: O. Yemi Tubi, Trump’s Cage, 2020. A Scanned painting exhibited in the Intermissions digital gallery.

Nigerian-American painter O. Yemi Tubi found our Intermissions submissions call through an open access Facebook group. With the painting Trump’s Cage (Figure 2), he seeks to capture the horrors of children separated from their families at the US–Mexico border under the Trump administration.

A screenshot of a Zoom meeting where nineteen church attendees of varying ages have closed their eyes in a moment of prayer. On the bottom right hand Zoom square, there is a handwritten note reading: “Let’s start a mini food bank. Help yourself, feel free to drop off food. Let’s get through this together. Stay safe and healthy. Keep your distance. Xo.” On the middle left hand side of the screen, there is a Zoom square with a “You Can Do Anything” poster, and with tearaway paper slips reading “self love” on the bottom alongside the instruction to “take what you need.”

Figure 3: Lela Burt, March 20th 2020, Westmount Presbyterian Church Session Meeting: Closed Prayer, 2020. A Zoom screenshot exhibited in the Intermissions digital gallery.

London, Ontario–based poet, environmental worker, and church elder Lela Burt captured a moment of prayer at the Westmount Presbyterian Church Session Meeting (Figure 3). In a corresponding caption, Burt wrote: “We put on hold our consumerist and productivity focused ways of living, and for once choose life… this collective response and willingness to disrupt routine, habit, and our own personal schedules shows us the power of community. The power of unity. The power of love.”

The first image features the hip and leg of a dark-skinned woman wearing nude underwear and tights of a distinctly lighter colour, against an orange background. The second image features the foot of (presumably) the same woman with a nude-coloured shoe slip, against the same background. In both images, the contrast between the model’s dark skin and the undergarments’ light tone is striking.

Figure 4: Mayomi Basnayaka, Nudes for BLM, 2020. A photograph exhibited in the Intermissions digital gallery.

Sri Lankan contemporary artist Mayomi Basnayaka submitted her Nudes for BLM series (Figure 4) for showcasing in Intermissions. This photo series highlights the racism and colourism behind the use of the term “nude” in women’s undergarments. Basnayaka was collecting donations for Black Lives Matter–adjacent organizations and sending out postcards to those who donated as an extra incentive and to spread awareness of the message behind the project.

In thinking through crisis archives as a kind of techno-fix, I am spurred to mediate on the differences between a community-created crisis archive (Intermissions being one such example) and an institutionally created one. In comparison to examples of the latter, which include Northeastern University Libraries’ archive of the Boston Marathon bombings (“Our Marathon”) and the Group for Experimental Methods in Humanistic Research at Columbia University’s Torn Apart / Separados (Torn Apart), I must note obvious differences of technical and aesthetic quality driven by pre-existing institutional infrastructure and paid labour. While our research-creation endeavour was one example of a grassroots-led, community-built, collaborative creative space made possible by pandemic-time conditions, it was not supported by the infrastructure necessary to compensate participants for their labour. The benefit of participating in the gallery was the draw of community and “exposure”; however, long have the dangers of artists working “for exposure” rather than for financial compensation been preached (Tran; Young-Powell). Furthermore, due to the lengthy application processes of artistic grant cycles and months-long anticipation of results, creating a community-based grassroots archive as an immediate crisis response would be nearly impossible to achieve with public funding. This begs the question of what is lost and gained in both models of crisis archive.

In our community-engaged crisis archive, the distinction of high and low art was obliterated. We had artists with professional practices, emerging artists, hobbyists, and first-time creatives all submitting for participation. There was no jury process; everyone who found us online was accepted and showcased. There was no concern with what submissions were “good” and “bad,” only curatorial and thematic considerations. The focus was on collaboration, communication, and community, not on perfection or artistic mastery. Although institutional archives may present as open and welcoming, and therefore operating with a similar creed, I wonder if these projects will always be inherently limited due to their political affiliations.

 In many ways, Canada’s arts and culture sector still remains precarious. The future of the arts post-pandemic is still uncertain. But the question remains: what can we learn from these pandemic-time creative, community-based initiatives? Whereas community-engaged crisis archives may only, in select circumstances, emerge through the peeling back of institutional support, what could funding infrastructure look like for these projects moving forward? What can we learn from the utopian anti-infrastructures of Intermissions that can be brought forward to a post-pandemic era?

Crisis Architecture as Educational Technology

Arun Jacob

This section takes up the architecture of academic institutions as a site of struggle.  Specifically, I examine how school buildings are being fortified and redesigned to account for the possibility of a mass shooting incident. I shift from the politics of funding infrastructures that make up Intson’s site of analysis to the infrastructural politics at play in leveraging crisis to produce particular kinds of material infrastructures, and the subjects created therein. Building on Blake Hallinan and James Gilmore’s astute observation that infrastructure constitutes a model of control over meaning (621), Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Tadd Lahnert’s concept of crisis architecture sheds light on the power given to the premise that systems ought to be standardized, and design affordances tapped into, in order to devise technological solutions to mitigate the potential of future crises rather than investing resources into resolving the underlying thorny socio-political problems.

Gartenstein-Ross and Lahnert define crisis architecture as incorporating “integrated tactical, psychological, and technological security measures, while preserving the function and aesthetics of buildings to which these measures are applied.” This design philosophy works to increase the probability of victims surviving a school shooting incident, and the choice to implement it signals the ideologies and the political culture, climate, and values that are mobilized in crisis architectural design. Furthermore, crisis architecture privileges design principles that increase the likelihood of occupants surviving an attack, rather than privileging designs that prevent it or avoid it altogether. It is imperative that we understand the socio-political influences that shape the design of particular public structures, and, through the lens of design justice, determine how best to countervail them. Such an approach would provide designers and design educators with the knowledge base to think through and about creating designs that uphold ethical design principles, equitable processes and products to counter problematic systemic power structures.

As an example of this type of architecture, we can look to Fruitport High School in Fruitport, Michigan. The building was designed by Matt Slagle, an architect with the design firm TowerPinkster, with the express aim of mitigating the carnage of school shootings and reducing the number of student casualties in the event of a terror attack. Fruitport High School was architecturally engineered with design affordances that theoretically undermine the effectiveness of a potential school shooter (Horton; Wagner). Throughout the design process, TowerPinkster followed the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) program to develop their preventative design strategies, e.g., curved hallway designs to reduce the shooter’s range, intermittently placed jutting barriers to provide cover and egress for students, strategically spaced classrooms that lock on demand and allow students to hide in corners out of the shooter’s sightlines, etc. (Gibson; Horton).

Crisis architecture is emblematic of the cultural techniques employed to enforce a particular regime of governmentality. Safety and security on school campuses is enhanced by incorporating infrastructure systems and building design codes, principles, and techniques such as access control, bollards, barriers, colour, fencing, landscape design, lighting, traffic calming, urban design for security, etc., that were developed as a part of urban counter-terrorism efforts and crime prevention through environmental design. It is worth noting that nearly identical infrastructures are ubiquitous in the context of military architecture, which create fortresses and enforce administrative control based on surveillance, discipline, and the expectation of crisis.

Infrastructure delegates power to systems analysts and systems engineers. These system administrators in turn use various other data acquisition devices to stay abreast of what is going on in the system at any moment in space/time. The system administration dashboard updates the administrators about all that goes on in the system to work seamlessly across various utilities, e.g., electrical, plumbing, heating, ventilation, etc. These systems are meant to work modularly, discreetly, and in congress with each other efficiently and effectively. The central console to command, control, and communicate has a military a priori, i.e., the use-cases as were deployed in warfare. As I have explained elsewhere,

Where command centres served as the centralized nerve centres for the military, i.e., the war room[, c]ommand and control centres allowed for signals warfare, i.e., warfare using information communication technologies. The capacity to recalibrate the commands based on continuous and instantaneous feedback information received from the ground made the command and controls able to adopt precision-guided munition in command and control warfare. (Jacob)

The cybernetic logic that enables such a system to function makes apparent how infrastructures download control to systems and distribute power into the built environment. As school buildings begin to incorporate defenses against violent attacks, pre-emptively assuming that a violent incident may take place at any moment, the surveillance and security apparatus gets sutured into the design elements and feature sets of the architecture. Jay Brotman, the managing partner of the architectural firm Svigals + Partners, the firm hired to redesign Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, comments, “Good buildings should prevent unwanted intrusions of any kind” (Yalcinkaya). This statement elucidates how the fortification creep of public educational facilities are being normalized, and by extension how the rhetoric of risk management and threat assessment is getting operationalized in these spaces.

Sasha Costanza-Chock explicates that design justice is fundamentally about power: the power in the design process, who wields this power, what they do with it, and how those decisions affect marginalized and oppressed peoples. Their writing provides a through-line to think about how social inequity is directly linked with designs that promote the loss of empathy. Costanza-Chock uses Patricia Hill Collins’s concept of the matrix of domination and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality to reframe how we critically think about design. Through this lens, they draw our attention to how social systems undergird and determine certain design philosophies and the inequities that spring from them, and more importantly, how the design industry’s norms, conventions, and practices exnominate and reify the white, hetero-patriarchal, settler-colonial capitalist project. Costanza-Chock throws down the gauntlet to designers to collectively produce designs that leverage community knowledge, where success is not yoked to profit generation and where technical prowess is not antithetical to humanistic ethics and values.

Contemporary thinking about designing public buildings and institutions has been heavily influenced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York City, after which public buildings were designed to prevent and mitigate the risk from external attacks (Gartenstein-Ross and Tadd Lahnert). The slew of active shooter incidents that have plagued US schools in the twenty-first century has led to a patchwork of makeshift security measures and security theatre practices. By understanding system administrators, network technicians, and other hardware maintenance technology workers as machine-care workers, Gabriele Schabacher suggests that the care work done on machines, namely oiling, replacing parts, cleaning, and preventative maintenance are part and parcel of the cultural techniques of care (79). Care work is repetitive work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure the system functions optimally, regularly, and without or with minimal service disruptions. By paying attention to the invisible work that goes on behind the scenes to keep the system functioning (e.g., uptime of an email service, cellphone reception, disaster mitigation, etc.), Schabacher argues it becomes clear that the care workers on contemporary campuses are by and large machine care workers. Considering the invisible work and tacit knowledge that one is required to know in order to function optimally and keep the system functioning allows us to understand how technical infrastructure requires care workers. These cultural techniques of care praxis only become visible when the system is in crisis, and/or disrupted. This care work ensures the effects of hazards resulting from terrorist attacks on new buildings in educational campuses can be mitigated. The introduction of crisis architecture as the design of choice to reconfigure future public educational facilities must be thought through and thoroughly interrogated. The institutional willingness and commitment to build capital-intense projects that require heavy investments in emerging technologies and technologists that are supposed to mitigate violent incidents is rarely, if ever, replicated with the same generosity when budgeting for more care workers, relationship building initiatives, or fostering mutually accountable and responsible connections with the learning community.


As our paragraphs and provocations lay bare, crisortunity is a generative concept for highlighting what institutions see as the bugs and the features of a given system; in other words, for revealing when a crisis becomes critical enough to justify intervention, and for whom. Is the system crashing, or is it only finally glitching for those few who are accustomed to a seamless interface (Barnett et al.)? What additional challenges are introduced when the response to a crisis is primarily technological? As we have argued in the responses we have looked to in museums, journalism, and education, techno-fixes instated by institutions tend to replicate existing barriers, increase precarious labour, and fall unevenly on racialized and other minorities. In contrast, while community-organized responses to interventions may foster collaborative and anti-capitalist spaces, they often remain underfunded and inadequate without institutional support.

What then, might a robust crisis response that goes beyond a software patch look like? Each of these case studies show that bounded crisortunities are the fruiting bodies of the fungal network that is the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the deeper structural and material crises brought about by neoliberal policies. Though each author proposes a method to mitigate some of the challenges or harms in their particular case, a more sustainable and care-full approach to the pandemic crisis must take the form of a broader, structural critique. Indeed, there is no single fix to a crisis: crises are specific, and look different depending on whose experiences are indexed as being in a state of emergency. Techno-fixes on their own, we argue, are fundamentally insufficient as a crisis response.

Works Cited

“2020: The Year One in Four Arts Worker Lost Their Job.” CAPACOA: Canadian Association for the Performing Arts, 15 Jan. 2021,

Anderson, C. W., Leonard Downie, Jr., and Michael Schudson. The News Media: What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Barnett, Fiona, Zach Blas, Micha Cárdenas, Jacob Gaboury, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Margaret Rhee. “QueerOS: A User’s Manual.” Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 50–59. JSTOR,

Basnayaka, Mayomi. “Nudes for BLM.” Intermissions, 2020,

Benjamin, Ruha. Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Polity Press, 2019.

Best, Chris, and Hamish McKenzie. “A Better Future for News.” Substack, 18 July 2017,

Bishara, Hakim. “228 Arts Institutions Laid Off 28% of Workers After Receiving PPP Loans, Research Says.” Hyperallergic, 12 Oct. 2021,

Brimstin, Chelsea. “Hands Collage.” Intermissions, 2020,

Burt, Lela. “March 20th 2020, Westmount Presbyterian Church Session Meeting: Closed Prayer.” Intermissions, 2020,

Callison, Candis, and Mary Lynn Young. Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities. Oxford University Press, 2019.

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