Research Statement | Joshua Synenko, PhD
My PhD research examined narratives of settlement and European migration through the lens of collective memory, and explored the practical and theoretical limits of memory studies. My current research focuses on the geopolitics of mapping and mobile communications through memory studies, spatial media, and visual culture. I am currently drafting a monograph, The Antinomies of Location: Posthuman, Postmodern and Postdigital Iterations of Locative Media. I am also in the process of developing a research collaboration initiative under the heading, Ecology, Infrastructure and Mobility in Communications Research.
PhD Research (2007-2015)
In 2015, I successfully defended my dissertation, After Collective Memory: Postnational Europe and Socially Engaged Art, together with my external examiner, Dr. Erica Lehrer (Canada Research Chair, Heritage and Memory Studies, Concordia). Drawing from the interdisciplinary humanities, this work situates digital, cinematic, literary, and sculptural interventions aimed at challenging specific imaginaries of European “home” amid the global financial crisis in 2008. By bridging the history and theory of memorialization together with approaches from critical race and ethnic studies, I argued that interventions into European collective memory during that period were largely initiated among second-generation migrants pursuing a “translocal” (El-Tayeb, 2011) identity politics.
In the largest section of my dissertation, I put forward a strong rebuke of the cosmopolitan turn within European public culture, focusing in particular on the cosmopolitan ethic that emerged from the so-called European-Jewish tradition. I delve into myriad strategies created by Holocaust memory practitioners from the immediate post-war years to the present day, highlighting their recent attempt at accounting for “multidirectional” (Rothberg, 2009), and explicitly non-Jewish, experiences of genocidal violence. Second, I investigate the geopolitical conditions that led West German counter-monuments to become a design standard on the global stage, focusing on post-Soviet memorial strategies, government policies and official narratives. Third, I assess the haunting resurgence of a cosmopolitan populism as depicted in a video trilogy by artist Yael Bartana. Entitled And Europe Will Be Stunned (2009-11), the trilogy is based on a fictitious activist group that attempts to overcome the demand to congregate under nationalism. I then compare Bartana’s work with perspectives from critical ethnic studies that aim to disassemble the populism of the movement that she herself identifies as a problem.
During the course of writing my dissertation, I published in Descant Magazine, Drain: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture, Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Reviews in Cultural Theory, and in two edited volumes. In 2017 I published an article on Yael Bartana’s artisitic works in PhiN: Philologie im Netz (Philology in the Network), in which I situate Bartana’s artistic works within specific historical and theoretical debates. I also explored issues of urban geography that were adjacent to my PhD research (M/C: Journal of Media and Culture, 2016).
Current Research (2015-present)
My current work focuses on geographical, transnational and broadly spatial themes within mapping and mobile communications research. Within this framework, my publications are grouped under two broad categories: 1) the politics of mapping and locations, 2) digital memory studies. In the following, I provide synopses from a sample of my recent published articles and book chapters, as well as from a major editorial project, Geospatial Memory (2018). I then briefly describe my ongoing monograph and research collaboration initiatives.
Selected Peer-Reviewed Articles / Book Chapters
In “Geospatial Detritus: Mapping Urban Abandonment” (Routledge, 2016), I examine how digital mapping visualization has helped to transform abandoned cities into motors of sensory experience, sociality and public initiative. By drawing from the work of urban planners, such as Fran Tonkiss’ (2013) concept of “austerity urbanism,” I position demands to mobilize an international tourism industry in relation to equally provocative initiatives to develop and refurbish abandoned cities, highlighting the important role that digital media plays in this refurbishment.
In “Geolocating Popular Memory: Recorded Images of Hashima Island after Skyfall” (Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture, 2018), I significantly enhance one of the examples briefly mentioned in “Geospatial Detritus” by grappling with efforts to document Japan’s Hashima Island following its appearance in the popular film Skyfall (2012). In this expanded version, I describe how the film’s commercial success led to subsequent efforts by Google to produce images of the island’s built environment using digital navigation technologies, and describe how this effort led the Japanese government to include Hashima Island in a bid to gain UNESCO heritage status for sites of industrialization during the Meiji period. I further analyze how the circulation of images depicting Hashima Island in popular culture has affected continuing efforts to hold Japan accountable for its past injustices. By focusing on the period “after” Skyfall, I connect this geopolitical maneuvering by extension to the Google Street View initiative, exploring the latter’s impact on navigation, spatial presence, and heritage.
In “The Geospatial Rhetoric of Asylum: Mapping Migration in Fortress Europe” (Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA, 2016), I isolate a cluster of connections that exist between geospatial imaging technology and relations between users, interfaces and publics, focusing on a German neo-fascist group’s publication of a Google Map containing locational information of the country’s asylum houses. I examine how the group’s information gathering tactics reflect long contested relationships between maps, power and the construction of identity, and I question the viability of addressing anti-migrant sentiment by appealing to spatial demands that are historically aligned with social justice initiatives. I further address methodological, historical and theoretical issues. These include: the epistemic assumptions behind rejecting politically motivated maps as propaganda, the logistical or strategic novelties associated with crowdsourcing information, and the narrative power of maps.
In this volume of 17 contributors published in the journal Media Theory (2018), I sought to develop existing polyvocal articulations surrounding the geoweb to address the otherwise partial attention that has been given to the geoweb’s influence in shaping our navigational and sensed reality, and therefore to address its impact on aesthetic, cultural, historical, archival and media-archaeological approaches more generally. Drawing from film studies, archival studies, psychogeography, and media archaeology, as well as from textual and visual approaches to “smart cities” and algorithmic urbanism, the issue’s contributors find various ways to enrich the experiences, technologies and discourses of the geoweb with collective memory practices.
The Antinomies of Location: Posthuman, Postmodern, and Postdigital Iterations of Locative Media
The monograph I am currently drafting stages the return to an older generation of critical media arts practice, in which mobile communications was identified as one facet of the utopian potential opened up by the digital – a strong current in digital studies before its discovered facility for restoring corporate influence. Indeed, the spirit of jubilant experimentation that I identify in earlier scholarship has eroded with growing concerns surrounding the repressive and disciplinary power of location-based mobile services. Currently, the most important arguments surrounding mobile media tend to form around issues of privacy, surveillance and data ownership in relation to the quantified self, a new construction of subjectivity that stems from biometrics and other surveillance technologies contained within mobile apps. By situating these concerns within a broader history, my effort to renew locative media’s experimental beginnings argues that it may now be possible to creatively rethink the nature of critique itself, and therefore to acknowledge the growing urgency for new critical paradigms just a generation after we celebrated its departure as an avenue for producing knowledge.
Ecology, Infrastructure and Mobility in Communications Research
My current collaborative research project, “Breaking Ground: Residential Infrastructures and the Rhetoric of Sustainability in Toronto’s East Baycroft Precinct,” aims to retrace the residential infrastructures that existed within the area that now belongs to Sidewalk Toronto, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. Through the medium of walking and photography, my team proposes to geolocate the Precinct’s “infrastructure space” (Easterling, 2016) as a way to map past and present simultaneously, but also to introduce urgently needed context for Sidewalk Toronto’s conception of the space as a residential delivery system. This project is part of a larger SSHRC-proposed initiative, Ecology, Infrastructure and Mobility in Communications Research, to develop a Digital Cities and Places Lab in which individuals with diverse expertise can begin to re-examine some of the large-scale infrastructural projects that have been proposed by leading members of the global tech industry. Through this effort, my hope is to develop creative alternatives to some of the issues that arise surrounding data ownership and privacy, and to explore doubts regarding the industry’s ability to judiciously deliver services that are normally covered by municipalities and regional governments.
Copies and links to my published work can be found here: