Underground 2014

Report from Jing Wang

Overall, the workshop was a productive space for sharing different ideas among people work with diverse materials, topics, and concepts. After watching two videos related to the topic of underground, we divided into two groups and brainstormed about what we thought underground entailed, meant, referred to, etc. People reflected on the conceptualization of underground – the linguistic, phenomenological and affective dimensions of “underground” as a space and a concept. We all posted paper notes on the white board, drawing thin lines between the conventional and unconventional approaches to “underground.” Then two groups reconvened and collectively discussed the paper posters on the board. Cross-questioning and brainstorming section was particularly interesting when people debated a lot about potentially unconventional approach to a concept like underground.

Personally, I am very intrigued by the idea of point or dot that emerged from the workshop. Although there were doubts about whether a dot-perspective is too isolated or is fundamentally opposed to “lines” as defined by Tim Ingold, I think the concept offers many possibilities for critical analysis and methodological design. From an architectural perspective (thanks to Yutian’s original contribution), a dot is a point in space with no finite mass or space. In order to define a dot in space, there are multiple ways to do it rather than a line with a certain direction. Such as two examples below:

Conceptually, a concept of underground can then be considered as a point connected to other forms of knowledge in all directions rather than just a line moving along certain paths or trajectories. Methodologically, an actor or object related to underground can also be treated as a dot influenced by different vectors from all directions and still be connected to other actors or objects. Paraphrase Valerie’s ideas on dot, she proposed to treat dot as a point for imagination, for projection, or for engaging with an idea, a space, an affect, etc. that we may never be able to get first-hand experience.

Report from Svetlana Borodina

Before, throughout and after the workshop it is questions rather than answers that have been crowding in my head. In the absence of clearly identified strategy, I, as other participants, faced the challenge to problematize conventional practices of academic work. When routine becomes broken – and in this workshop it did, due to undefined purposes, a too broad formulation of the topic of discussion and rather diverse participants’ backgrounds and degrees of familiarity with the topic – one gets a great chance of accessing and assessing the mechanics of it, of the habits and assumptions that help this routine running as operative.

What kind of skills does one need to master in order to engage in these “open” spaces? How can one become “productive” and what “productive” means at all? What kinds of knowledge receive a warm welcome and which ones, concomitantly, are rendered illegible? It is often heard that loose frameworks and diminished regulation stimulate creativity and encourage a more “vital” engagement, yet personally, having gone through quite uncomfortable anxiety before and at the beginning of the workshop, I am urged to bring to the table the questions of how can we account for the immobilizing effect of the absence of regulation and what the method suggested by such differently organized spaces is.

Underground is a rather wide conceptual field. Many seemingly unrelated phenomena fall under the umbrella of this term: mining and Dostoevsky’s philosophical and ethical elaborations, suppressed libido and organismic vitality in the deeper strata of the soil, racial and economic segregation in South Africa and romanticist aspirations of escapism all are made to meet and speak to each other because they all somehow have “underground” as a facet of their phenomenality. To confront them with each other and to allow each to pose questions to one another surely goes along the lines of the call for more “experimental” and “open” way of doing research. However, in the midst of celebrating the generativity of such unexpected encounters, I am tempted to slow down a little and pose a question of what constitutes the rigor of such an inquiry. What are the limits of portability of the concepts and contexts in which underground finds its incarnations?

I am immensely grateful for participating in the workshop, because it made me think and, consequently, act in regard to the way of doing research in which I find myself at home, it also posed so many productive questions the ongoing thinking about which drives me to the areas I was hardly aware of previously. The questions of methods, strategic and tactical organization of communication and learning spaces, and regulation of the development of my own inquiry. For me, a big part of doing anthropology is about asking questions. To ask an interesting and rather “opening” question is a craft one has to develop and this workshop, having led me through so dynamic and rich emotions and experiences, did contribute to the development of this skill.

Report by Lydia Smith, Anthropology and Visual Arts Major, Rice University

The Life Cycle and Legacy of the Underground Press in Houston: Space City!’s Self-Awareness of Opposition

The underground does not only define the physical space beneath our feet, but also collective cultural movements. I am interested in the underground as a non-physical space developed by the action of a community. The Underground Railroad, the Czech underground, and the Weather Underground are all examples of social movements that resisted mainstream society through the collective effort of a community. The underground symbolizes the other, the opposition, and the concealed[1]. While a movement is usually thought of abstract, impermanent, and morphing, these communities choose to label themselves after this physical type of space. However, unlike matter, which cannot be created or destroyed, each of these movements had a beginning and an end. After recognizing tendency, I have chosen to examine the “lifecycle” of the underground, or the cyclical nature of the self-imagined space.

In my research, I have focused on the publication “Space City!” which ran in Houston from 1969-1972. Space City was a part of the Underground Press, a counterculture movement in the 60’s and 70’s that generated alternative media to communicate the voice of the growing group of liberal radicals. “Space City,” became a community organizer for these people, creating cartography of the counter-culture movement and developing space where people could exchange ideas. It defied almost every aspect of mainstream media: the content, the structure, and the visual format. It was run by a collective, with no editor or specific organizing structure, therefore creating a very open and fluid platform for people to become involved. However, at the same time, it was limited in terms of its ability to become a successful business platform. With these oppositions in mind, “Space City!” can be interpreted as vertical cartography of the underground culture, mapping the actions of the dissident community, while the mainstream media is considered horizontal.[2] At the point where these two planes meet, encapsulates the best representation of Texas culture at the time.

My investigation examines the short lifespan of the “Space City!,” how it was formed and why it eventually dissipated. As with most resistance movements, the paper was founded on and driven by the radical energy of youths, who had little experience in the industry[3]. Because of this structure, I have discovered that the underground press’s self-awareness as an opposing force to the mainstream media only reinforced this separation from its self-proclaimed antithesis, popular culture. However, by consciously identifying themselves as an “other,” while simultaneously constantly encouraging self-analysis, the paper initially grew stronger but soon lost ability to adapt over time. For example, as the youthful energy that the founders experienced began to wear off, and they attempted to re-examine the identity of the paper, some members thought that this was a deviation from their collective agenda.[4] Therefore, I use “Space City!” as a case study for explaining the affects of this self-reflexivity on the lifecycle, identity, and legacy of the underground.

Ultimately I have found that the underground can be a space created through practice, a cultural phenomenon, and a force of opposition. The underground can be very animate, mimicking a living thing that goes through the process of birth and death. The self-awareness and reflexivity of the underground is a double edges sword as it strengthens the movement in the short term while limiting it in the long term.

As a supplement to my paper, I have created a zine that is inspired by the “Space City!” layout and design. Zines are considered today’s version of an underground publication because they are not widely circulated, made by individuals or small groups, and cover a wide range of obscure topics. Stephen Duncombe discusses the sub-culture that surrounds these publications in more detail within his ethnography, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture.[5] I thought it was appropriate to summarize my research in this format due to its DIY and easily accessible nature. The cover of my zine is displayed below.

Check Lydia’s original Zine on this project here: http://issuu.com/lydroses/docs/underground_zine-_space_city-_onlin 

[1] Banerjek, Koushik. “Sounds of Whose Underground?: The Fine Tuning of Diaspora in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Theory, Culture, & Society 17.3 (2000): 64-79.

[2] Elden, Stuart. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power.” Political Geography 34 (2013): 35-51. Print.

[3] Leamer, Laurence. The paper revolutionaries: the rise of the underground press. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

[4] Streitmatter, Rodger. Voices of revolution: The dissident press in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

[5] Duncombe, Stephen. Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. London: Verso, 1997. Print.

Report by Kaylee Yocum, Anthropology and Policy Studies Major, Rice University.

Origins, Oil, and the Underground: A Look at the Story of Oil as presented by the Houston Museum of Natural Science 

Where does oil come from? The answer to that question might seem easy: underground. But, have you ever stopped to consider the all of the various processes and events that led to the oil getting underground in the first place? According to the Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the underground is just the setting for a story 4. 5 billion years in the making. My project looks at the story of oil as presented in the Wiess Energy Hall in order to gain a deeper understanding of how the Houston public imagines oil.


When you first approach the exhibit, the first thing you see is a video screen. Museums often put videos as the first exhibit piece because they frame the rest of the exhibit and provide basic information to visitors. This particular video starts out with an image of the universe at the time of the Big Bang. When I first went to the exhibit, I was confused at the choice of starting the exhibit with the creation of the universe. When I went back to the exhibit, this time with two program coordinators at the Wiess Hall of Energy, I asked them about the video. They told me that all of the museum exhibits try to connect themselves to the Big Bang and that the cosmos is an important theme throughout the museum. This interested me because going along with that line of logic, any museum exhibit on any subject ever could begin with the Big Bang, as long as you went back far enough. The Big Bang is one of many foundational stories in western cultures, this one coming from the world of astrophysics and astronomy. It also frames the story of oil in the lens of “deep time,” a phrase that has cut across many disciplines form history to biology. Oil, a substance thousands of feet under the earth, is presented to the museum visitors as something so ancient that it can’t be understood on human or even geologic timescales, and instead must be understood at the same magnitude as the universe.

The Underground

After our planet was created, biological life arrived and populated the seas and oceans. These tiny phytoplankton were everywhere, and when they died, their bodies littered the ocean floor. Through sedimentation and the movement of plates, these buried creatures got pushed down into the earth and liquefied, turning into oil. When we use oil, we never stop to consider that it was once living creatures. The underground as life is not a trope that is heard too often, yet the underground is where the remains of life aboveground reside. Andrew Lattas (2001) studied the cosmologies of the cargo cults in Bali (West New Britain), and learned that they believe that the work aboveground influences the underground. If they work hard, then the spirits of the dead will return aboveground and bless them with goods. This concept of the underground as space of processes and movement is helpful for understanding oil, since oil also moves from aboveground to the underground to the aboveground again, just over extremely long time scales. The exhibit dedicates most of the space to the life of oil underground, and the features of the space it occupies, signaling to the visitors that the underground is the most important part of oil’s journey from tiny plankton to gasoline and petroleum by-products.

Moving Aboveground

The second part of the exhibit looks at the journey of oil as it moves aboveground. The focus is still on the underground, but the focus shifts away from geology and rock formations to the various companies that are involved in extraction, drilling, and processing. The program coordinators told me that at this point, depending on the age of the group, they move into a discussion about career possibilities with the various oil companies. The process of moving the oil out of the underground requires extensive technologies that rely on relaying information to the surface to track the drilling. In this context, the underground is seen as providing for the aboveground world in the form of the commodity that is oil. This is similar to the cosmology of the Bali (West New Britain) people who see the aboveground world as connected to the underground through the processes of capitalistic behavior.

Works Cited:

Lattas, Andrew. 2001. “The Underground Life of Capitalism: Space, Persons, and Money in Bali (West New Britain).” In Emplaced myth: space, narrative, and knowledge in Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea. Pp. 161-188. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

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