Sonic Archaeologies


Michael Bull kindly asked me to write a short chapter on sonic archaeology for his forthcoming Routledge Companion to Sound Studies. What follows is the first half of my unedited text. Because this is a “handbook-y” publication, I feel obligated to be a bit pedagogical — to situate this work within a larger field, to offer a bit of lit review, to discuss method, etc. — without, I hope, being too pedantic:

Sonic Archaeologies

Materiality has been among the most widely resounding conceptual refrains in media and cultural studies over the past two decades. While our digital lives and media landscapes ostensibly became more virtual, placeless, and weightless, we – media and cultural scholars, artists, and designers – turned our attention to our gadgets’ guts; to the chemistry, physics, and even geology behind their construction, operation, and disposal; and to the heavy infrastructures undergirding our supposedly ethereal existences. Media archaeology, in particular, by emphasizing the materiality of media – the stuff, the institutions, the infrastructures, the labor practices, the code, the algorithms – has given rise to new, non-teleological modes of historiography that aim to trace media’s peripheral routes and forgotten paths.[i] Caleb Kelly, Mara Mills, Jacob Smith, Jonathan Sterne, and Siegfried Zielinski have re-sounded such historical audio artifacts as musical automata, musical songbirds, hearing tubes, stethoscopes, phonautographs, shellac discs, hearing aids, and audio-cassette tapes.[ii]


Recognizing the myriad forces and entangled temporalities shaping the historical terrain from which such devices emerged, media archaeologists have come to question the “old”/“new” media divide – to recognize that “old” media were once “new,” too – and to regard material engagement with their research subjects as a vital means of critical investigation, or what Wolfgang Ernst calls “epistemological reverse engineering.”[iii] Archaeological research thus takes place not only in libraries and archives, but also in labs and studios, where screwdrivers and emulators, magnifying glasses and contact microphones, soldering irons and audio-editing software serve as integral research tools.

In this chapter we’ll examine several such sonic-archaeological media researchers, designers, and artists who listen to media – to their internal machinery, their code, their pipes – in order to give voice to their mechanisms of operation. But we’ll also examine another terrain of sonic archaeological investigation: the field site, the archaeological dig. Taking media archaeology literally, we’ll examine how archaeologists of the trowel-wielding variety have long adopted media technologies, including audio recorders and editing software, to better understand how archaeological sites might have functioned as sonic spaces.[iv] We’ll explore how archaeoacoustics – which melds techniques and sensibilities from archaeology, audio production, and sensory history – allows us to hear echoes from sites of the distant past.

Listening as Diagnostic, Epistemic, and Historical Method

schematic - AE

Sound serves as a useful diagnostic tool. We can often hear malfunctions – a clanging pipe, a stuttering hard-drive, an irregular heartbeat, a coughing engine – we might not be able to detect or diagnose otherwise. In February 2016 Loughborough University posted a PhD studentship focused on “listening to infrastructure” in order to “provide early warning of deterioration and facilitate targeted maintenance and renewal” of the UK’s “aging geotechnical assets”: its rail lines, petroleum and potable water pipelines, offshore wind turbines, bridges, earth-retaining structures and foundations.[v] Researchers would listen for Acoustic Emissions, stress waves generated when such structures move and deform. This applied research extends a tradition among sound artists who have sonified various infrastructural elements, particularly bridges. In 1983, for the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge, which at the time had a steel grid roadway (it has since been paved over), Bill Fontana mounted eight microphones under the bridge and broadcast the sounds to the plaza of the World Trade Center, via speakers embedded within the façade of One World Trade Center.[vi] More recently, sound artist and filmmaker Kevin T. Allen, one of my own former thesis students, produced a haunting small-gauge film mixing the sounds of three of New York’s major bridges – the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg – which he collected via contact microphones that pick up vibrations.[vii] Such works make sensible the micro-rhythms and macro-scale physical stresses that our infrastructures withstand, and amplify the distinct mechanics of their different materials and construction techniques.

BRIDGE from Kevin T. Allen on Vimeo.

Kubisch / Miyazaki-Howse

Other artists have proposed that there’s much to be learned by listening to technical and media infrastructures: WiFi networks, cell phone connections, GPS, and other systems dependent on electromagnetic waves.[viii] In 2004 German composer/sound artist Christina Kubisch began hosting her “Electrical Walks,” in which participants use specially-designed headphones that translate electromagnetic signals within the environment into sounds, thus disclosing the myriad waves and particles that not only make possible their ATM transactions and signal their surveillance by ubiquitous CCTV, but that also perpetually envelop and penetrate their bodies.[ix] Her work resonates with growing public concerns about the potential health effects of ubiquitous and invasive electromagnetic signals – ever present in the universe, but now harnessed and targeted by devices we regularly carry in our pockets or near our brains. On a similar wavelength, Shintaro Miyazaki and Martin Howse also use logarithmic detectors, amplifiers, and wave-filter circuits to transform electromagnetism into sound, and thereby reveal the “rhythms, signals, fluctuations, oscillations and other effects of hidden agencies within the invisible networks of the ‘technical unconscious.’”[x] Howse frames such experiments as “forensic” epistemological investigations, which question what we can know, through transduction, about a seemingly imperceptible wireless world.[xi]

Myriad artists have used sound to index media’s rhythms – both their mechanical movements and signal-processing operations. Consider, for instance, the audible physical rhythm of a Vandercook press or a 3D printer, a 16mm film projector or a high-speed book scanner. Sound artist and scholar Matt Parker, as part of his “Imitation Archive” project, recorded the groans, hums, and crunches of historic calculating and computing machines at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, UK.[xii] Parker then mixed his 116 individual recordings into ten compositions, which are intended to give voice to the successive “movements” of computing history: “the ‘always on’ durational nature of many of the machines,” “the clunking masses of early relay-based machines,” the “whirring monoliths of the 1980’s mainframe era,” and “the high frequency whir of modern day server units.” We learn about the evolving processes of computation by listening to the internal mechanisms of these machines. Howse and Miyazaki’s Detektors project (2010-12) applied similar methods to contemporary electronic devices, including mobile phones, cameras, and hard drives, and artist-scholar Jamie Allen has examined the epistemologies given voice in lie detectors and the Church of Scientology’s E-meter.[xiii] These skills of diagnostic and forensic listening are of critical importance to archivists – particularly audio-visual archivists – because their work to preserve cultural heritage typically requires preserving archival media’s recording and playback devices, too.

Jamie Allen

Even the seemingly abstract algorithms driving media-machines’ operations are rhythmic and lend themselves to listening. Howse and Miyazaki’s method of “algorhythmics,” they claim, allows us to “hear that our digital culture is not immaterial, but consists of lively, rhythmical, performative, tactile and physical …machinic assemblages.”[xiv] Miyazaki’s and Michael Chinen’s AlgorhythmicSorting program, for instance, sonifies the “rhythmic and pattern generating behavior” of different sorting algorithms: bubble sort, merge sort, heap sort, and so forth.[xv] Yet algorithmic sonification isn’t merely a clever means of making computational processes intelligible to non-specialists. Listening has long been an essential skill in computer engineering and programming. As Miyazaki reports, some early mainframes like the UNIVAC I and the Philips PASCAL computer featured an auditory interface, which transformed signals into sound via a speaker.[xvi] Louis D. Wilson, one of the chief engineers for the BINAC, recounts that, in testing the computer, he and his colleagues discovered that they could recognize the computer’s patterns via static on the lab’s radio. Other early computer engineers noted that their machines and programs had a “characteristic sound.”

The modes of listening, or what Jonathan Sterne would call “audile techniques,” of these seasoned engineers were shaped by their professional training and their historical and cultural contexts. Engineering – and listening – during and after the War, amidst computing’s incunabula, were quite different practices than they are today. While there is much debate within sensory history about the epistemology of historical “reenactment,” Wolfgang Ernst, who practices an engineering-oriented version of media archaeology, proposes that “reenact[ing] the sound-generating setting” can shed light on “auditory perception in the past.”[xvii] In creating his archive at Bletchley Park, Parker sought to reflect the architectures and environments within which the computers operated; after all, these contexts were integral to the way Alan Turing and his colleagues would have listened and responded to their machines.[xviii] While Parker had no presumptions of “re-creating” the acoustics of the labs in which these machines operated, he did acknowledge their architectural “habitats” through sonic allusion, by weaving the rooms’ signature acoustics (i.e., their impulse responses) into his compositions.

Picture number: COM/B911217 Description: Wrens operating the 'Colossus' computer, 1943. Colossus was the world's first electronic programmable computer, at Bletchley Park in Bedfordshire. Bletchley Park was the British forces' intelligence centre during WWII, and is where cryptographers deciphered top-secret military communiques between Hitler and his armed forces. The communiques were encrypted in the Lorenz code which the Germans considered unbreakable, but the codebreakers at Bletchley cracked the code with the help of Colossus, and so aided the Allies' victory. Credit: Bletchley Park Trust/Science & Society Picture Library All images reproduced must have the correct credit line. Clients who do not print a credit, or who print an incorrect credit, are charged a 100% surcharge on top of the relevant reproduction fee. Storage of this image in digital archives is not permitted. For further information contact the Science & Society Picture Library on (+44) 207 942 4400.
Wrens operating the ‘Colossus’ computer, 1943. Credit: Bletchley Park Trust/Science & Society Picture Library

Susan Schuppli & Tom Tlalim from Casino Luxembourg on Vimeo.

The site of sounding and listening is also of critical importance to the work of Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Susan Schuppli, both of whom employ variations on sonic archaeology in their “Forensic Architecture” research. In his Earshot project, Hamdan worked with Defense for Children International, a human rights organization, to conduct an “audio-ballistic analysis” of a May 2014 incident in the occupied West Bank.[xix] Hamdan’s forensic methods – which involved creating spectrograms of gunshots and 3-D models of the urban crime scene – provided critical evidence in establishing that Israeli soldiers shot and killed two teenagers with live ammunition, rather than rubber bullets, as they claimed. His modeling techniques have attracted attention from international media and governments. Schuppli, meanwhile, has investigated the sonic nuisance of drone surveillance in northern Pakistan. Not only are the drones’ round-the-clock, high-frequency buzz and occasional deafening missile-strikes the source of much “psychological grief” – from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder – but, as Schuppli’s proposes, their sonic effects might also be sufficiently harmful to constitute a violation of humanitarian law.[xx] Schuppli’s, Hamdan’s, and Parker’s archaeological work requires attention to the particular acoustic properties of their research sites. They must attend not only to the sound, but also to its resonance chamber; to both the signal and all the ambient noise through which it must pass.

Listening to Ancient Places

Archaeologists and acousticians working in the field of archaeoacoustics have applied similar sensibilities in examining the sonic architectures of ancient sites, from Stonehenge to Peruvian temples to American petroglyph sites.[xxi] Archaeologists have a long history of employing a wide repertoire of media techniques and technologies – field notes, drawings, maps, photographs, films, satellite imagery and GIS, material artifacts, etc. – for “making manifest the past (or, crucially…allow[ing] the past to manifest itself).” [xxii] Archaeacousticians, or sonic archaeologists, also make use of such tools as omnidirectional or “bouquet” microphone and speaker arrays, binaural mics, amplifiers, field recorders, and sophisticated modeling software. They measure their research sites’ impulse responses, standing waves, and reverberation times, and conduct on-site sonic tests by playing instruments and singing as their ancient subjects might have done.[xxiii] Of course there’s much conjecture involved in piecing together ancient multisensory experiences and ancient builders’ intentionality, and the speculative nature of such archaeoacoustics research has generated debate.[xxiv] Archaeoacousticians certainly don’t intend to “re-enact” ancient sounding or listening experiences, as Ernst proposes, or to be able to approximate “auditory perception in the past.” Still, opening the ears during archaeological investigation allows for a recognition that human experience is, and always has been, multisensory, and that ancient spaces have long functioned, either by accident or by intention, as resonance chambers and transmission media for sonic activity – for public address, interpersonal communication, ritual or musical performance, and so on…

…And in the following paragraphs I offer a brief overview of various archaeoacoustics projects. I examined some of this work in my “Ear to the Wire: Listening to Historic Urban InfrastructuresAmodern article from 2012, and I’ll expand the discussion in the “Speaking Stones: Voicing the City” chapter in my forthcoming (I hope!) book, Ether/Ore: Archaeologies of Cities and Media, the manuscript for which is currently under review. 

[i] See Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Eds., Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implication (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Jussi Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology? (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012)

[ii] Caleb Kelly, Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); Mara Mills, Hearing Aids and the History of Electronics Miniaturization, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 33,:2 (April-June 2011): 24-45 (Reprinted in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne (Routledge, 2012); Jacob Smith, Eco-Sonic Media (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006;

[iii] Wolfgang Ernst, “Media Archaeography – Method & Machine versus History & Narrative of Media” In Media Archaeology, Ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011): 239-55 – 239; Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[iv] For more on the literal archaeology of media archaeology, see my “Ear to the Wire: Listening to Historic Urban Infrastructures” Amodern 2 (Fall 2013): and Deep Mapping the Media City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[v] “Listening to Infrastructure: Acoustic Emission Sensing of Geotechnical Infrastructure to Improve Resilience,” Loughborough University, accessed February 5, 2016:

[vi] “The Brooklyn Bridge Sound Sculpture at One World Trade Center, New York, 1983” Resoundings:

[vii] Kevin T. Allen, “Bridge,” Filmography: Eyebeam, the DIAS Center for Digital Art in Denmark, Morten Søndergaard, Jamie Allen and Roddy Schrock are also collaborating on a 2016 multi-site exhibition on Acoustic Infrastructures.

[viii] See my “SoundMatter,” “No Thing Unto itself: Object-Oriented Politics,” CUNY Graduate Center, October 20, 2011:

[ix] Christina Kubisch, “Electrical Walks: Electromagnetic Investigations in the City”: See also “Infrastructural Tourism” Places (July 2013): for more on multisensory means of experiencing and comprehending infrastructure.

[x] Shintaro Miyazaki, “Urban Sounds Unheard-of: A Media Archaeology of Ubiquitous Infospheres” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 27:4 (2013): 514-22.

[xi] Martin Howse, “Sonic Archaeology,” Harvestworks Workshop, April 5-6, 2014;

[xii] Matt Parker, “The Imitation Archive,” Earth Kept Warm: See also Matt Parker, “The Imitation Archive Part 1: Recording the Sounds of the World’s First Computers” British Library Sound and Vision Blog (May 15, 2015):

[xiii] Jamie Allen:,; Detektors:; Institute of Experimental Design and Media Cultures, “U.S. Media Archaeology Lab Hosts Apocryphal Technologies” (March 2016):

[xiv] Detektors. See also Jussi Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology?” (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012): 151-2.

[xv] Studio Algorhythmics, “Algorhythms of Sorting”: See also Wolfgang Ernst, “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations” In Digital Memory and the Archive, Ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013): 172-83.

[xvi] Shintaro Miyazaki, “Algorhythmics: Understanding Micro-Temporality in Computational Cultures” Computational Culture (2012):

[xvii] Wolfgang Ernst, “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations” In Digital Memory and the Archive, Ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013): 175. See also Mark M. Smith, “Producing Sense, Consuming

Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (2007), 841-858 for a discussion of reenactment’s methodological and epistemological concerns.

[xviii] Matt Parker, “The Imitation Archive Part 2: Making Music from the Sounds of the World’s First Computers,” British Library Sound and Vision Blog (May 26, 2015):

[xix] Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “Earshot”:

[xx] Susan Schuppli, “Uneasy Listening” In Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, Ed. Forensic Architecture (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014): 381-92. See also Ryan Bishop, “Project ‘Transparent Earth’ and the Autoscopy of Aerial Targeting: The Visual Geopolics of the Underground” Theory, Culture & Society 28:7-8 (2011): 270-86; Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

[xxi] See, for instance, Barry Blesser & Linda-Ruth Salter, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2007): 67-97; Ian Sample, “Stonehenge was Based on a ‘Magical’ Auditory Illusion, Says Scientist” The Guardian (February 16, 2012):; Aaron Watson and David Keating, “Architecture and Sound: An Acoustic Analysis of Megalithic Monuments in Prehistoric Britain” Antiquity 73:280 (June 1999): 325-36.

[xxii] Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor & Christopher Witmore, Archaeology: The Discipline of Things (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012): 93.

[xxiii] See Miriam Kolar, “Tuned to the Senses: An Archaeoacoustic Perspective on Ancient Chavín” The Appendix (July 22, 2013): for more on archaeoacoustic methods.

[xxiv] Nadia Drake, “Archaeoacoustics: Tantalizing, but Fantastical” Science News, February 17, 2012,; See also Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson, eds., Archaeoacoustics (Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2006). Sensory history has addressed similar epistemological and methodological concerns; see Mark M. Smith, “Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (2007), 841-858.


Map as Metaphor @ Center for Book Arts

Last Friday I joined Lize Mogel, Neil Freeman, and Heidi Neilson at the Center for Book Arts for the first in a three-part series of discussions about “Map as Metaphor.” I took some liberty with the theme and spoke instead about “Maps as Media” (besides, media are kind-of etymologically related to metaphors anyway). I drew segments of my talk from this “Gaps in the Map” essay I wrote, but never published, last fall, and I talked a lot about my student’s map-work in our 2010-13 “Urban Media Archaeology” studio and the more recent “Maps as Media” studio.

Here are my slides, and below is my script:

You may have noticed: we’re mapping everything: [2] our political allegiances, [3] our beer preferences, [4] our regional colloquialisms. Maps help our scientists better understand [5] the dynamics of climate change; [6] help our law enforcement officials predict and prevent urban crime; [7] help our lawmakers develop global policies that respond to patterns of refugee migration; [8] help to dispatch Uber drivers to waiting passengers; [9] and help us find the best dry cleaners and donuts in town. [10] The map, it seems, travels widely. It pops up regularly, as both material artifact and metaphor, in everyday conversations. [11] Our landscapes, rationalized via a universal calculus and rendered into normalized indexical domains, offer themselves up to be searched, tracked, coded, zoned, exploited. [12] The widespread availability of constantly-updated GIS data, and the prevalence of constantly-refreshing screens, means that more maps are produced, and more of them enter our lives, every day. And those maps-on-small-screens are doubly pervasive: both actively and passively, overtly and covertly present and active.

[13] Anthropologist Clyde Kluchhohn (1949), media sage Marshall McLuhan (1967), and his promoter, adman Howard Luck Gossage, have all been credited with acknowledging that whoever discovered water probably wasn’t a fish. The implication, of course, is that the fish isn’t aware of its aquatic environment, its medium, because it’s immersed in it. It knows nothing else; or, if it does, it’s probably not long for this terrestrial world. [14] We, however, live both inside and outside the proverbial and conceptual fishbowl: we live on the surface of the earth, but we’ve developed means of representing that territory to ourselves – and even seeing precisely where we lie within that territory: [15] “You are here.” Maps are, of course, one such representational, orientational, and navigational tool. [16] At the same time, the ubiquity of maps has, to some degree, naturalized them, made them banal. We’re often unconscious of their existence both because we’ve dissolved them into our everyday landscape, and because they’ve rendered themselves imperceptible, passively operational, within that landscape. They’ve become, in a sense, our aquatic medium.

All the more reason why maps are not simply a concern for geographers and cartographers and GIS engineers; or for the programmers and designers who’ve found themselves working in the robust GIS industry; or for the countless artists who’ve taken up maps as their subject. Maps are a foundational part of the wired world’s social, cultural, and political terrain; and they’re of tremendous political-economic importance to the non-wired portions of the world that cartographers often depict (often for “development” purposes). Maps always have been, but are now more than ever, media.

[17] The Mapping Mindset. Just has the aquatic environment has shaped the fish’s modes of cognition, our cartographic environments have their own intellectual foundations. We might attribute today’s mapping mindset to the rise of GIS, GPS, mappable data sets, Google Maps, and smartphones – but the intellectual ground was prepared, the field cleared, long ago to support today’s cartographic compulsion. [18] The humanities and social sciences, in one of their many purported theoretical revolutions, have, over the past several decades, made a “spatial turn” – a redirection of attention toward space, rather than time, as a key critical and analytical framework (among our many other “turns” have been the cultural, the linguistic, the sensory, the material, the post-human…). Globalization in its countless manifestations, post-colonialism, accelerated urbanization and migration, the rise of mass media and particularly networked telecommunications, growing concerns over the environment and an expanding ecological consciousness, as well as myriad other political, economic, technological, and cultural forces, have all been credited with bringing space into relief. [19] The rise of spatial theory was both incited, and then chronicled and molded, by a rising crop of spatial theorists. Among them were emperors Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel de Certeau; deputies and protégés Marc Augé, Gaston Bachelard, Jean Baudrillard, Manuel Castells, Gilles Deleuze, David Harvey, Edward Soja, and Paul Virilio; with Doreen Massey, Gillian Rose, Saskia Sassen, and Iris Marion Young counted among the few female officers. As in earlier ages of exploration, this one was mapped out primarily by men.

[20] As an academic, I’m contractually obligated to cite Foucault – so, voilà!: “The great obsession of the nineteenth century,” he argues, “was history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis and cycle… The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. …We are at the moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.

But there’s a deep history to this new spatiality. Where it begins depends on how one defines a map – which is not an uncontentious issue. [21] We could trace all the way back to astronomical diagrams in cave paintings; [22] or to the Babylonians’ symbolic representations of their socio-political worlds; or to ancient Chinese plots of administrative units and natural resources; or to the sea-faring, [23] geometrically-inclined Greeks’ renderings of the earth in a variety of topologies – cylinders and plates and spheres. [24] Some more conservative histories tie the birth of cartography to the rise of the nation-state and national imperialism. Martin Brückner, who’s participating in the third “Map as Metaphor” panel on April 1, is much better equipped to map out this deep map history than I am.

[25] Yet even Foucault’s “present epoch of space” – and the compulsion to diagram and map it – saw many foreshadowings in previous modern ages. Polymathic scholar Tom Conley tells of a “cartographic impulse” in 15th– and 16th-century France, driven by the discovery of the New World; a growing interest in mapmaking, he argues, paralleled the rise of a new sense of self and new forms of cartographic writing that, in both their content and form, explored spatial ideas. [26] The expansion of global seafaring likewise inspired the Dutch to take up mapmaking as both a vocation and a pastime, and to regard maps as both a source of geographic knowledge and a domestic decoration. As art historian Svetlana Alpers explains, 17th-century Dutch artists succumbed to the “mapping impulse,” too, emphasizing landscapes as subject matter and often depicting maps within their paintings, thereby transforming themselves into artist-cartographers (the same could be said of many contemporaneous Italian artists).

[27] Scholars of the late 18th century, preoccupied with “accuracy, numeracy, and measurement,” also committed themselves to “mapping ‘anything and everything’” – and, as Lauren Klein argues, to taxonomic representations of data and other early forms of data visualization. [28] By the following century, widespread “fetishiz[ation] of the map” had become part of a larger “fetishizing of vision,” as evidenced by the emergence of panoramas and photographs and plate-glass windows, and the fascination with collection and display. The world itself became an exhibition. [29] Similar impulses, combined with a commitment to the late 19th-/ early 20th-century internationalist peace movement, fed Paul Otlet, Patrick Geddes, and Otto Neurath in their often collaborative experiments and grand proposals to collect, classify, diagram, and exhibit (in the form of “thinking machines” or “pictorial statistics,” or, as Lewis Mumford called it, “ideological cartography”) all the world’s knowledge. [30] With the Cold War, and its emerging communication and cognitive sciences and their new calculative and statistical techniques, those data maps increasingly took the form of cybernetic circuits and nets.

[31] Maps as Media. Through their studies of communication, which involved the creation of new topological diagrams, the cyberneticians were key players in the birth of media studies (McLuhan took inspiration from their work). What constitutes a medium has been endlessly (and often abstrusely) theorized. For our purposes, however, we’ll say that maps are media because they’re material (even the digital is a form of immaterial materiality) technologies and cultural practices of communication and representation. I’m not the first to make such a claim: some folks in the businesses of making and studying maps have argued that [32] maps are media because they’re composed of systems of visual language, or they’re means of propaganda, tools for the “manipulation” of meaning and the exercise of power.

Yes, maps are rhetorical and political – and by looking at the “medial” properties of maps, we can better understand how they convey meaning, exert influence, and carry bias. [33] Yet we can’t reduce cartographic artifacts to codes or semiotic systems, or to tools for propaganda. Maps, like the landscapes they represent, aren’t simply “texts” to be “read.” What’s more, geographer John Pickles argues, we “need an understanding of mapping that doesn’t reduce the work maps do to the repressive exercise of power.” Maps are more then hegemonic forces. Recognizing maps as media potentially opens up a more expansive understanding of how they operate.

[34] First, maps-as-media are material artifacts, or interfaces, that adhere to particular protocols of communication. Jacob traces the map’s lexical variations – including the French carte, meaning card; the Latin mappa, or tablecloth; the Greek pinax, meaning tablet or plate – and notes that, while there is perhaps no particular concrete manifestation that defines a map, this etymology serves to remind us that the map is given form, instantiated in some way – and, I would argue, the nature of that formalization, even if only fleeting or imaginary, matters. [35] Second, maps-as-media, like all media, are produced by myriad entities – today, by an increasing variety of individuals and industries – for various reasons, under particular conditions, and subject to both cartographic conventions and variable aesthetic or editorial choices. [36] Bill Rankin, through his Radical Cartography project, calls attention to those protocols and conventions by juxtaposing data sets, or rendering the same set of data in varying styles, thus “provok[ing] slippages, overlaps, and multiple kinds of diversity.”

[37] Third, maps-as-media are distributed among myriad “users” in particular ways; and they’re accessed, “processed” (do we still “read” maps?), and interpreted by those users in different ways. Whether we’re considering a 14th-century portolan chart or the modern-day Uber app, our maps-as-media arise, circulate, and get used within various “discourse networks” – webs of people, instruments, institutions, specialized knowledges, and power – that constitute their own topologies. [38] One such player in this network is, of course, Google, with its extraordinary cartographic empire that has acquired the authority to “define borders and boundaries” and has, “without having any legal, political and democratic mandate,” replaced national agencies and international organizations in becoming “the referential map of the world.” We also have to consider the rise of OpenStreetMap and other open-source initiatives, which represent vastly different collective values and spatial politics, but which still embrace a territory-based, God’s-eye orientation to space.

[39] The very existence of mapping as a large-scale media-production industry, and the means by which those maps are produced, raises questions about the values embedded in the system. Who has historically owned the means of describing space, and what have been their interests? What kinds of data have merited representation, and how have those data been generated? [40] What do we make of our contemporary interactive maps’ post-Copernican, egocentric orientation, which places you – not the earth, not the sun, not Jerusalem or Mecca – at the center? What happens when we hold in our hands manipulable maps that render space as something seamlessly traversable, rational, and exploitable? And what kinds of spatial “ways of knowing” are eclipsed by this new egocentric framing, or “self-centering,” and real-time navigational assistance?

[41] Cartography as Media-Making. For the past six years I’ve taught mapping studios at The New School. From 2010 through 2013 we focused on historical media infrastructures – the rise and disappearance of movie theaters in Greenpoint, the geographies of carrier pigeon networks and independent bookstores and newspaper delivery, the production and distribution of activist zines, the strategic siting of carrier hotels and data centers, the northward spread of Edison’s electrification – and plotting those infrastructures on our own open-source mapping platform. [42] We approached map-making as media design: the students used the map as a framework within which they could tell spatial stories and make cartographic arguments, which were illustrated with a variety of media: [43] “rectified” historical maps, archival photos, field recordings, student-produced video, interview footage, and so on.

[44] I could go on and on (and I have elsewhere) about the joys and frustrations — and all the painful epiphanies – we experienced as a result of building our own clunky, buggy, not-so-pretty mapping platform. Yet among our most resonant realizations – which are particularly relevant to our conversation here – were about the affordances and limitations of mapping as a method and a metaphor. [45] Many of our students began the semester enamored with the sublime, totalizing visions afforded by exhaustive data-sets and sleek visualizations. Yet by the end, nearly everyone’s mission and values shifted – from a pursuit of “accuracy” and “exhaustiveness,” to an interest in the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative. They sought to find ways to express ambiguity, to insert cartographic “buts,” “ifs,” “howevers,” and other qualifying statements to convey the “interpretative nature of the mapping process.” Doing so on a digital map meant that they had to infuse a little poetry into their data models.

[46] But the challenges go beyond dealing with the database’s demand for spatial precision. Simply put, they discovered that not everything is mappable, and not everything belongs on a map. Framing all research questions, all narratives, all phenomena in terms of space, as the spatial turn inclines us to do, forces the territory – the phenomena we’re trying to represent, the histories and stories we’re trying to tell, the arguments we’re trying to make – to conform to the map in order to render itself representable. [47] That translation of physical and human reality into data models and plottable points and lines often results in the loss of something essential and irretrievable. [48] Such critiques have been lodged against “indigenous cartography,” or well-meaning development organizations’ promotion of cartographic literacy among indigenous populations in order to “empower” them to assert their own land rights. “The process of mapping,” Nancy Lee Peluso argued in an influential 1995 article, “almost forces the interpretation of customary rights to resources territorially, thereby changing both the claim and the representation of it….”

[49] Two years ago I retired that infrastructure-mapping class and documented our insights in a small book on “deep mapping” as a method. [50] And last year I introduced a new class focusing less on infrastructure, and more on the rhetorics, poetics, politics, and epistemologies of maps from across myriad geographic and cultural contexts. That new class is platform-agnostic; we talk about everything from satellites and geo-locative technologies, to sensory mapping, to indigenous cartography, to cognitive mapping, to time-mapping – and students are free to use any of those methods in their final projects, an “atlas” about any subject and site of their choosing. Interestingly, among the inaugural class last fall, very few chose to use GIS (although many were quite skilled). [51] Instead, most of these “born-digital” students chose to explore the affordances of paper and text as mapping media. They made palimpsestic artists’ books, paper sculptures, field guides, collages. [52] Inspired by feminist geographers, they sought to integrate “bodies, emotions, and subjectivities” into cartography by, for example, drawing inspiration from map artists and map activists, and experimenting with “more expressive and evocative forms of visual practice.”

[53] Yet they also recognize that the map is not just visual. In the preface to the first volume of the massive and monumental History of Cartography series, J. Brian Harley and David Woodward offer what is widely regarded as one of the most inclusive definitions of maps: “graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.” Yet even this expansive, capacious definition limits the means of cartographic expression to the visual. Yes, graphic, from graphe, implies writing and drawing – but graphe is also at the root of telegraphy, phonography, and cinematography, all forms of inscription that when “played back,” or consumed, are experienced through vision, sound, and even texture. [54] Recognizing the sensory diversity of “graphic” media allows us also to explore the potential for more sensorially diverse maps – maps better able to capture the aesthetic richness of our experience of place, and that needn’t collapse that multisensoriality into a single-channel representation. This concern with aesthetics isn’t simply about creating more “realistic” or immersive or creative or beautiful maps. Rather, expanding the sensory repertoire of our mapping techniques and technologies allows us to sanction and codify the critical importance of “non-ocularcentric” modes of experience and ways of knowing. [55] What counts as a map – a term so capacious in its inclusivity of content – should perhaps be similarly inclusive in its material forms and sensory modes. If we think about maps as media, we can recognize the plethora of media at our disposal, all of which could potentially be marshaled to “graph” our spatial understandings.

[56] Maps are media: they make themselves both actively and passively present in our everyday lives. They codify and inscribe our contemporary, historical, and perhaps even future realities and imaginaries, and give them direction and meaning. They inform, persuade, and perhaps even manipulate. They validate or marginalize those to whom they do or don’t give voice. They embody our ways of knowing and relating to the towns, cities, nations, planets, and galaxies in which we live. They shape the politics by which we govern, shepherd, or exploit our environments, from the micro to the macro scale. And even in their gaps, they give shape to our limitations – to what we don’t and perhaps can’t know, at least not in the shape of a map. Those lacunae delineate that which can’t be pinned down – all the stuff that slips through the grand “graticule,” the epistemic grid of latitudes and longitudes. [CLICK]


Light and Looms and Libraries: Three Months in Galleries

The past three months have been quite a rush; they encompassed the end of the fall semester, a move to a new apartment, the holidays, another move to Germany for the first half of my Spring 2016 fellowship at the Bauhaus, a few completed articles (on information infrastructures, infrastructural aesthetics, and index cards), several public talks (on media furnishings, epistemological design, sensing infrastructure, and library design), lots of advising, and a completed book manuscript. Still, I managed to squeeze in a few hours in galleries:

First, to celebrate the submission of fall grades, I stopped by Little Sister (Is Watching You, Too), curated by my colleague Christiane Paul, @ Pratt Manhattan Gallery:




Augustine Kofie’s “Inventory” — office-supply assemblages and Charles-Sheeler-meets-the-Constructivists media-archaeological collages — @ Jonathan Levine:







Walid Raad — deconstructions of the exhibitionary complex, anti-archives, Baldessari-meets-Forensic-Architecture bullet-hole mappings, etc.– @ MoMA:












Some great “aesthetics of administration” stuff, especially from John Houck (whom I’d seen before at On Stellar Rays) and David Hartt, in MoMA’s “Oceans of Images” photography show:







Also in December: “Alternative Unknowns” (Elliott Montgomery + Chris Woebken) @ Apex Art:


Then in Berlin, in February: Anette Rose’s fantastic “Captured Motion” — the mechanical and human gestures of automated manufacturing — @ Haus am Lützowplatz:



Back in New York in February: Hiroki Tsukuda’s “Enter the O” @ Petzel:


Tauba Auerbach’s brilliant “Projective Instrument” — featuring a lovely assemblage of glass tools — @ Paula Cooper:



Lari Pittman’s “Nuevos Caprichos” @ Gladstone:



Penelope Umbrico’s excellent “Silvery Light” — which highlights both the indexical relationship between light and photography, and the derivative nature of iconic photos-of-light — at Bruce Silverstein:






Also: “From Minimalism to Algorithm” @ the Kitchen and Doug Wheeler’s “Encasements” @ David Zwirner


Then, Blooks — books that aren’t — at the Grolier Club and Gregory Crewdson’s “Cathedral of the Pines” at Gagosian:



Mark Dion’s “Library for the Birds of New York” @ Tanya Bonakdar:










The symbolism is quite obvious, but still charming. The gallery explains:

Central to the installation is an 11 foot high white oak, referencing a range of important philosophical and scientific constructs: the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, and the evolutionary tree, which serves to illuminate the phylogenic system created by man to understand the structure of the biological world. “The Library for the Birds of New York” also includes artifacts of capture such as bird cages and traps, referencing hunting for the exotic bird trade. Other imagery is symbolic of death, extinction, and the classification of birds as pests or vermin. These historical categorizations position man atop an implied hierarchy, and are juxtaposed with a subtle insistence that birds possess knowledge outside of the human experience, rendering them fundamentally unknowable by man. The birds are uninterested in these objects; thus underscoring the absurdity of a manmade library for birds, which purports to school them in subjects such as geography, navigation, and the natural world, of which they inherently have full command.

Finally, Taryn Simon’s “Paperwork and the Will of Capital” — photos of the floral centerpieces at tables of monumental negotiations and signings-of-business-deals-and-international-agreements — @ Gagosian. I love this idea of the “floral witness.”

In Paperwork and the Will of Capital, Simon examines accords, treaties, and decrees drafted to influence systems of governance and economics, from nuclear armament to oil deals and diamond trading. All involve the countries present at the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, which addressed the globalization of economics after World War II, leading to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In images of the signings of these documents, powerful men flank floral centerpieces designed to underscore the importance of the parties present. Simon’s photographs of the recreated centerpieces from these signings, together with their stories, underscore how the stagecraft of political and economic power is created, performed, marketed, and maintained.

Each of Simon’s recreations of these floral arrangements represents an “impossible bouquet”—a concept that emerged in Dutch still-life painting parallel to the country’s seventeenth-century economic boom, which ushered in the development of modern capitalism. Then, the impossible bouquet was an artificial fantasy of flowers that could never bloom naturally in the same season and geographic location. Now the fantasy is made possible—both in the original signings and in Simon’s photographs—by the global consumer market.

Yet I have to wonder: how much did it cost, and how much energy was expended, to source all those flowers?!