8.5’’ x 11” paper was already corporate America’s preferred paper size when in 1981 it became US Letter. Enacted during an era known for national austerity measures and fiscal policies of deregulation, the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, mandates the standard usage of 8.5” x 11” for all government business. The law did not enforce what the page might contain, but rather the standards by which information would be retained and circulated, reducing the need for translating between various authorities and systems of collection. US Letter remains that ubiquitous carrier of tax identification, financial statements, legal documents, invoices, health insurance coverage, press, publicity, check lists, and rejection letters. Even US Letter’s immaterial cousin, the Portable Document Format (PDF) which was introduced in 1993, is traditionally formatted for printing at 8.5” x 11”. Against the romance of a blank page, today the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) oversees this “voluntary consensus standard” pointing to the creeping homogenization of everyday life as well as to the way the formal properties of US Letter (also known as ANSI A or ANSI Letter) have served as an operative agent in the design of North American envelopes, folders, binders, filing cabinets, printers, software and an array of other administrative systems. As indicated by ANSI A, the form of a work is not only bound by its shape, contour, or chemical makeup, but extends to the way it operates within a larger field.
Spaces around the world form “soft laws” by adhering to certain standards. For instance, an actor-network of familiar fluorescence maps the “suggested” illumination that correlates restrooms (150 Lux) to production lines (200 - 700 Lux) to medical examination rooms (300 - 750 Lux) to offices (500 Lux) to supermarkets (750 Lux) to storefront windows (1,500 - 3,000 Lux). Light may modulate these spaces according to the productive action taking place within them, but it may equally be weaponized as a deterrent from counter-productive acts such as loitering or sleeping. The radiating effects of illumination and ANSI A — both effervescent and material — suggests that the content of a medium may matter less than what it makes possible or impossible.
Yet the bureaucratic standardization of a form lays bare the potential for counter-factual and subversive action and uses of material. Bricks may be used to build yet they may also be used to break storefront windows. Within any given space infrastructures are working independent of our focus or attention: air circulation may go unnoticed until vents become congested or audible; sheetrock enveloping a room is revealed to be a container when it becomes soggy and the electrical wiring beneath its thin frame malfunctions. Indeed, data is structured within existing conditions — the enameled surface, lingering perfume, seating arrangement, or agitated group member all constitute information oscillating within a system. Sites, however standardized, are not contained but active and always evolving. In this sense, attention to an object’s circulation may offer an understanding of form-making as active and relational rather than static and autonomous. Learning from the situational reflexivity of ANSI A, radical formalisms privilege the ground as much as the figure, the field as inextricable from the object. Engaging existing conditions in order to reroute predicted outcomes, they may work to underscore a system that is already present, or to indicate what is not yet perceptible. In the register of the social they offer ways of rehearsing political engagement as doing rather than saying.
— Alan Ruiz