Tuning Into the Invisible: Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible

Poster by Steve McCarthy

The following is a “working paper” — an edited draft of a review that Kazys Varnelis has kindly asked me to write for the multimedia reviews section of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. It will be published as “Turning Into the Invisible” JSAH (2014), and be made available via JStor. There should be three Soundcloud files embedded below; if they don’t appear, try refreshing.

Update 6/18/14: The article’s here, in JSAH 73:2 (2014). 

Presaging today’s age of quantification and Big Data, Buckminster Fuller habitually wielded exponents and percentages as rhetorical devices. He famously aimed to “make the world better, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time,” and claimed that the Union Internationale des Architectes was on board, committing to “the reuse of the world’s intellectual and physical resources” so that “100 percent instead of 44 percent of humanity” might enjoy a higher standard of living, better education, more travel, and other intellectual and physical comforts. Complicating such improvement efforts, however, was the fact that much of Spaceship Earth had become non-empirical.

Technology expanded reality 999-fold to include the whole range of the invisible events of Universe. These had been held previously by humans to be magical and superstitiously mystical. Now they had become the realities of everyday pure and applied science. With the inclusion of this 99-percent invisible world of reality, along with its as yet myriad of unsolved problems, into our everyday strictly sensual reality came the radio-introduced concepts of tuning-in and tuning-out (Fuller, Critical Path).

More and more contemporary designers, scholars, and artists are tuning into this invisible terrain, mapping the “signal space” of cell phone and internet infrastructure, exploring the subterranean structures and immaterial networks that inform how our visible and material spaces take shape (see Center for Land Use Interpretation, Michael Chen, Shannon Mattern, and Kazys Varnelis). This same invisible landscape has captured the attention of one fantastically named radio producer, Roman Mars, who explores the stories behind design in his fantastically popular radio show, 99% Invisible. Launched at the end of 2010, the show – produced as both a 4.5-minute series, supported by the San Francisco chapter of the AIA, for KALW and an expanded podcast – raised $170,477 on Kickstarter in 2012, far exceeding its $42,000 goal, making it the most successful journalism Kickstarter campaign to date. The funding allowed Mars to hire producer Sam Greenspan and revamp the show’s website.

In his appeal to funders, Mars admitted that a radio show about architecture and design, “disciplines usually appreciated through the eyes,” might sound crazy – but “I don’t need pictures to talk about design…. I like making stories that tell us about who we are through the lens of the things we build.” In an interview with Mother Jones, Mars said, “I really wanted to focus on the everyday, even the mundane, and not the things that were shiny and new and exciting. And not things that people think of as designer things” – in other words, no coverage of starchitects and product releases. “Manhole covers, that’s my beat.”

As of this writing, in October 2013, Mars had produced 91 episodes and was seeking funding, through another Kickstarter campaign, to “go weekly” for Season 4. Up to that point, he and his team of collaborators had explored such varied topics as: culs de sac, hospital logistics, steering wheels, queue theory, the design of solitary confinement facilities, Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, ship camouflage, skateboarders’ love of Philadelphia’s LOVE Plaza, slot machines, maps, hand-painted signs, cities’ secret staircases, rebar, city flags, background art for Warner Brothers cartoons, the design of paper currency, Trappist beers, the structural engineering of the Egyptian pyramids, privately-owned public spaces, pneumatic tubes, toothbrush design, the periodic table, and parking.

Of course we can’t see any of these objects or phenomena on the air, so Mars relies heavily on description and the personal stories of various people behind the designs. But he also infuses each broadcast with a rhythm and sense of musicality that impart dimension and texture to his subjects. He designs a soundtrack to set the scene and provide intellectual cues: “[M]usic will drop out when I need a key point committed to memory,” and “when I’m explaining something, I tend to use this plucky explaining music; when I’m making you feel the… bigness of something, [the music] tends to have that awe-inspiring… [drone-type]… feel to it.” Plus, the show as a whole has a song-like structure, with repeated choruses and a signature cadence.

Mars also leans in close to the microphone, creating that “inside-the-head” voice, suggesting that he’s in the same space as the listener. Since the podcast audience is likely using headphones, the sense of intimacy and interiority is all the greater. Plus, the cooly animated “grain” of Mars’s voice – which he describes as a mash-up of the “plaintive wail” of Benjamen Walker from Your Radio Nightlight, the “soothing, explanat[ory]” sound of Jad Abumrad from RadioLab, and the “conversationalist” tone of Ira Glass from This American Life – contributes a texture to that sonic architectonic. Other voices, including those of other reporters, often join the chorus. Of particular note is the lispy voice of his toddler son Mazlo, who tells wildly entertaining stories as part of various promotional spots at the end of the show. The incorporation of family thus welcomes the listener even farther into Mars’s interior space.

Mars spoke with designer Debbie Millman, host of the Design Matters podcast, about “being radiophonic” – exploiting radio’s distinctive properties to tell the story of design in new ways, not least of which is highlighting the sonic – the literally invisible – properties of our designed environments and the designed objects and systems we fill them with. Some of my personal favorite 99% Invisible episodes have explored urban noise; musical iPhone apps; deaf composers and blind architects; Max Neuhaus’s sound art; design for the hearing impaired; sirens, both Odyssean and mechanical; telephones; the noises our interactive devices make; and the honks and squeaks of Washington D.C.’s Metro escalators, which, in various locations, sound like “whales mating,” “Indian drone music,” or an “aviary of…ravens taunting you as you ascend into your workday.”

One particularly striking and uncharacteristically long episode, produced by On the Media’s Alex Goldman, explores Joseph Kinnebrew’s Heydon Pavilion, a mysterious and much mythologized structure that sits off the beaten path outside Ann Arbor, MI. Greenspan and Mars began the episode with a dramatization of Alex and friends’ teenage visits to “Heyoon,” as it was known to the locals. As How Sound’s Rob Rosenthal explains, “[]
he result is a lively, visual, radiophonic telling of events from many years ago. While a montage of quotes would have worked well, the dramatization definitely takes the story to the next level.” The soundtrack – composed of the expansive drone of Stars of the Lid (a personal favorite); the sparse, whimsical sounds of Lullatone; and the mechanical rhythms of Hauschka’s prepared piano – recreates both Heyoon’s physical and emotional landscapes.

It is this construction of an affective architecture – one built of texture and sound – that is Mars’s forte. As he told Boots Riley of The Onion’s A.V. Club, one of his overarching interests is the “art form of information.” He explores these aesthetics of communication not only through his chosen subject matter – queues, monuments, logistics, interaction design, etc. – but also through the way he gives form and feeling to his own communication, to the way he gives texture and shape to the invisible.

“I’m often approached to do something in print, do a book or something,” Mars said. “I would like to do a graphic novel, because I think a radio script and a graphic novel script are…similar; they’re more conversational, they’re more plain.” They both “tune into,” as Fuller might say, the richness and multisensoriality of our experiences in the designed landscape, by translating them into an abstracted architecture – one composed of sound, the other of lines and color. Such forms work well for the stories Mars chooses to tell, which, by focusing on the stories behind design rather than on the shiny designed objects themselves, “[don’]
require a perfect picture in someone’s mind.”

Chris Ware, Building Stories
Chris Ware, Building Stories

Not coincidentally, in his pre-99% days Mars produced for KALW a show called “Invisible Ink,” a “radio zine” that, as he explained to Millman, allowed you to “see [its] staples.” It called attention to its techniques of construction and highlighted its structure, its own “art form of information.” We can see a similar approach in recent architectural graphic novels like Chris Ware’s Building Stories and the work of Jimenez Lai. Yet while Ware and Lai tell design stories through the architecture of the page, Mars constructs a textured, rhythmic space though the invisible medium of sound. And in those 4.5 minutes of airspace, he brings into focus the “99 percent invisible world of reality,” and amplifies those everyday aspects of design that we so often tune out.

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