Helen Runting interview

Thursday 1st October 2015, Ringvagen 141,
Conversation with Helen,

Iris : Hej Helen, can you tell me a bit about your current practice as a PhD student at KTH?

Helen : My research is in the research group Critical studies in Architecture; we work with critical theory, architectural theory, queer theory, gender theory in order to look at architecture practice, to look at the canon, and to address architectural theory as a field. I work with a group of very inspiring people. My background is actually in urban planning, so I come to architecture somehow as an outsider. I also have a master in urban design, which I would say is the “basted child” of planning and architecture.

I: So does that mean that in your research you would focus more on the urban scale than architectural scale?

H : Actually, I’m really interested in architectural aesthetics, I think. I’m looking at the scale of the building, and am interested in trying to position the way in which architecture has changed in Sweden in the past fifteen years, in line with a kind of shift that I see in public policy and governance—a shift that we might describe under the terms of a “neoliberal” term.

I: With which thoughts did you come today to the Repair Society workshop set by Joanna?

H: I think it’s really interesting with the polemic position she seems to be taking—the rejection of recycling, for instance. I would see that as like having a lot of potential in terms of a critique of the consumer society within which we find ourselves. At the same time, I’m wondering within the international repair society how we deal with a contemporary mode of capitalism that is not just about mass consumption, and mass production, but the linking of production and consumption. So, for instance, in a participatory action like the one that is being staged today, there’s a lot of free labor that is going into this and I think that’s something that needs to be factored in the light of the “repair” that’s being done. Maybe that’s something we could talk about a little bit because I would need to think about my position. This is the link that interests me at least at the moment: the way in which production and consumption can no longer be thought separately. Feedbacks loops exist between the two, in a relation that has evolved even in the last five maybe ten years, that has changed the face of how we “perform” capitalism.

I: And I think it’s interesting to remember yesterday we were discussing about that link between production and consumption, and how much our generation or the one of our parents can relate differently to repair. Maybe we just have to rethink that link.

H: Maybe in terms of our grandparents generation, they had a direct experience of shortage: of limited resources. I assume that our kids’ generation will experience that very viscerally, very deep, in every single aspect of their existence as we start to run short of some of the stuff we take for granted. At the same time, it’s interesting to discuss repair at this present moment. There are two things I think are complicated in this issue. The first is an austerity politics in Europe, wherein we are being told to expect less from the state and being encouraged to be more “self-sufficient.” And that position can be linked to a kind of (entrepreneurial) individualism that I find problematic. So, austerity politics is one way we could take on this discussion further. But on the other hand, if we don’t experience finiteness in our daily lives – because we are privileged to live in a city like Stockholm and be in an academic context – how do we stimulate, or how do we make that real for us, without falling back on a kind of dystopian narrative, without imagining a future where we all turn into “preppers”… I’m thinking of the American TV series Preppers, a reality TV series that pits different families against each other, they get scored on how well they prepare for an apocalypse (you know, they get their kids outside of their beds in the middle of the night to do, like, safety drills and they have huge basements full of can food). That whole imaginary is very much relying on a kind of cold war paranoia. So I wonder how one could produce the notion of finiteness of limits without falling back on the mechanism of fear. I think those two things—austerity politics and a dystopian narrative—would be the two threats that would be interesting to avoid in this project.

I: I think it’s interesting to question the mentality, how we relate to repair, how it can unconsciously be linked to threat or fear, and I think it’s about changing the way we perceive it. I’m obviously linking that to architectural heritage, which you have mentioned before. And considering what was existing what was here before, is sometimes a question in itself. I think it is sometimes a luxury to repair a building, and it feels easier for some reasons to say “well let’s build something totally new.” I think it would be interesting to hear your point of view on this particular question.

E: It is such a fine balance because to repair something is to value it. But I think it’s also to reinvent it. There is no going “back.” It can never be restored to its original historical situation: that’s passed. The question would be how can this engaged practice of repair will maintain or produce a utopian spirit. As an urban planner, I believe very strongly in the need to imagine a future that could be different from the present. And this is where preservation as a field is so complicated from a planning perspective, because it’s about valuing the existing, and valuing that which could persist across a human lifetime, or several, valuing the kind of labor that went into the production of the material environment.


But at the same time, we need to leave things open to positive change, because there is no return to an idealized past. We live in a city, much of which was built (you know, Stockholm has got so many layers to it) in the eighteen century, the nineteenth century, which was a time of huge class divides, of massive inequality. I’m not willing to discount the kind of interventions made by Modernism—which were based on destruction, I acknowledge that—purely because they destroyed. I think there was an idea there of initiating structural changes that would improve the lives of people. And I think we have to keep that tension in play. We have to leave open the possibility that we could also make something new that is better.


Repair maybe as a concept can be open in that way, because if we admit that we can’t restore anything, then maybe it’s about the process of reinvention. And that might reopen it to “the thinking of a utopian thought.” I hope. And perhaps that brings us back of what the future means to us. If we act now on the basis of the anticipation, and a romanticization of a situation of shortage, a dystopian scenario, I’m not sure that we’re open to the full possibility that might be present in the present.

I: I think it’s interesting that you talk about utopia, because when I think about utopia, it has always been an ideal imagined outside of any reality, not linked to any existing situation. Maybe the utopia is about caring and reinventing something that is already here.
E: Exactly. You said the word “care” and that is important here; there’s a whole feminist tradition, and a feminist scholarship around the term of care that I think could be really relevant to this project. What we’re talking about then is maybe a concept of repair that’s not based on an impulsive fear, so maybe there needs to be some kind of desire here, a set of values, or even an ideology, upon which repair is undertaken. And perhaps notions like “hope,” or “generosity,” or “reciprocity,” might be an interesting starting point. Because for me that also speaks of a dynamics of power that’s present here. Within urban planning I think one of the most crucial questions is for whom we act, because planners always act on behalf of a society with a democratically decided mandate act. So, the question of “For whom? On the behalf of whom do we make decisions?” is always critical. I think that if you undertake a project like this, it’s interesting to think about whose objects and whose values are being repaired in the space? And what that exchange could be? I don’t think we have to entirely discard the Marxist tradition of talking about class, about those power relations, in acknowledging the privilege of this situation, and how there can be a consideration of class and gender that’s built in into the acts themselves.


That leads us to a discussion around gentrification. Because this part of Södermalm is obviously undergoing massive change, as we see the old rental structures being dissolved in the face of the shared-ownership tenure “bostadsrätt” system that generally necessitates enormous housing loans is being taken out for very small apartments. And I think that might be another interesting field, and that’s a discussion we could have talked about all day today and the whole of tomorrow. I wonder whether within this situation of massive social economic change, I’m just trying to think of what “repair” might mean. As Maurizio Lazzarato writes, debt is an exchange of the fruits of future labor for something right now, whereas what you are doing is saying “we’re gonna reinvest our labor in repairing this so that it will persist.” It’s a very different model maybe. There’s no credit there. In terms of gentrification, do you discuss the effect of sitting in this gallery in this neighbourhood and what that does? You have the map on the wall behind us, it shows a scene staged for some kind of battle of an urban identity, over the good life? How do you see the impact of this project?

I: I think yesterday when we were discussing with the locals of the neighbourhood, they spontaneously all talked about gentrification, and the rent which were getting higher. So it is about opening a consciousness, and thinking about Repairing together. Of course it came in terms of objects, broken cups, but when it comes to a less literal sense of repairing the impact is hard to estimate.
E: I would read Repair Society as a critic of consumption society idea but maybe the question of what needs to be repaired can be far more open in a critical sense, wherein it can open a new territory… The question “What needs to be repaired?” is deeply powerful. What do we demand to be repaired on our behalf? The answer to that question might not be a cup. There is a value in the question itself. And when I was speaking earlier about the potential of looking at the relation between this project and the official or democratic structure of planning, and planning regulation, maybe that’s another field where an intervention could be made here. If the repair society is coming into being, we can ask: Which regulations need to be repaired, not relaxed, not removed, but reinvigorated, which new regulatory mechanism might be required? And that’s why my suggestion was to provide some kind of documentation that would fit directly into the planning system. But it could be a critical documentation also: Which policies need to revisited, which urban development policies would need to shift, change, perhaps not to open up, perhaps not relaxed, perhaps not become more flexible, but even to become more hard?


I grew up in Australia, in the 1980s. This was a time of kind of intense focus on recycling for instance, and also on littering. When we were in primary school the punishment for doing something bad was like “go outside and pick up five pieces of litter”. And I think that was an attempt in Australia to adjust generationally an attitude towards waste that actually became really important to everyone born in the seventies, eighties, nineties. It was enforced from above in a strange way, but it was also culturally instilled in us: suddenly from then on, waste had to be considered differently. So if the Repair Society is a critique or a development or a call to step beyond recycling into another realm where we don’t discard it all, I wonder what kind of rules might need to be set on our behalves. The first step might be to considered what kind of questions need to be asked…



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