Karail + The User’s Right to the City: Planetary-scale Computation and the Right to the City


Master’s Thesis by Benjamin Busch

Theory supervised by Prof. Dr. Günter Nest and Dr. Elisa T. Bertuzzo
Practice supervised by Prof. Dr. Günter Nest and Prof. Andreas Siekmann



The User’s Right to the City: Planetary-scale Computation and the Right to the City
November 2017

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Abstract: What are the implications of laying claim to “the right to the city” today? The phrase, coined by Henri Lefebvre in Paris in 1967, has come to be used as a rallying call for a variety of political movements and humanitarian institutions worldwide, yet its transformative potential remains hindered by habitual reluctance to engage with (and not only against) the technological infrastructures that sustain and shape urban life. In this thesis, I confront recent scholarly work that attempts to renew the right to the city for the Information Age, arguing that the totality of planetary-scale computation demands from city-dwellers a much more nuanced understanding of their relationship to technical infrastructures than previously supposed. Employing sociologist and design theorist Benjamin Bratton’s conceptual model of The Stack, I lay the groundwork for what I refer to as “the user’s right to the city,” a concept that attempts to fuse the revolutionary subject of Lefebvre’s right to the city with the computational user-subject of Bratton’s accidental megastructure. Considering Lefebvre’s thought on autogestion (self-management) in relation to Bratton’s analytical model of planetary-scale computation, futuristic promises like full automation appear less as happy eventualities and more as inevitabilities that demands a renewed commitment to urban life, both from those who claim the right to the city and those who design the infrastructures they depend on. In the end, “the user’s right to the city” will not come about automatically: it is a figure on the horizon that must be continually struggled toward, an articulation of a concrete utopia no less impossible than any seemingly ineluctable dystopia.



Karail, 2016–17
Video installation
Two channels, 14 min. each

Karail Basti, the subject of the video installation Karail, is a 190,000 m² self-organized settlement in Dhaka, Bangladesh with approximately 120,000 inhabitants. Often designated as a “slum,” the Bengali word basti translates simply to “settlement.” The work portrays Karail Basti not as a degenerate “slum,” but rather as a legitimate human settlement with its own nested logic of habitat production. Everyday life, in all its abundance, is represented via images corrupted by architecture, and vice versa.

Utilizing wood and corrugated iron, the installation emphasizes the settlement’s vernacular materiality and tectonics. It carries fragments of the everyday: a “LUCKY” brick and a painted zebu figure in reference to Cow Brand sheet metal. Two original videos show alternate modes of spatial perception: a walk-through video projected on corrugated iron meanders through Karail Basti’s labyrinthine passages, maintaining its rationalist one-point perspective; a video shown on a CRT monitor zooms into the sensuality of human-material interactions.


Photos © 2017 Benjamin Busch