No Thing Unto Itself: SoundMatter

Tonight I had the pleasure of talking with Noortje Marres, David Turnbull, and Katherine Behar about “object-oriented politics” as part of the “No Thing Unto Itself” panel discussion, itself an event connected to the “And Another Thing” exhibit at CUNY. I’ve had quite a month — including four public presentations in the past week — so, as eager as I was to take part in tonight’s discussion, I felt a little worn down and under-prepared.

I still haven’t broken my bad habit of custom-writing a new paper for every talk I deliver. Re-purposing material still feels like cheating to me. I have to get over that. Regardless, this time, when asked to say something about “object-oriented politics,” I decided I’d visit the exhibition and allow it to generate some ideas for my talk. I was struck by the sonic pieces in the show — and I had been curious about the dearth of discussion of sound within object-oriented discourse (Timothy Morton is one obvious exception) — so I decided to focus on SoundMatter in my talk tonight.

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Sound Matter

I heard it before I saw it. Before I even crossed the threshold of the James Gallery I knew there were small humming, buzzing machines inside. Through the door and off to the left I beheld a light installation – a sort of chandelier “hack” – composed of dozens of flickering nightlights suspended by their electrical cords, swaying and clinking together in the breezes produced by oscillating fans.

I followed their cords up to the ceiling where they heaped upon one another in a seemingly desperate attempt to reach a power supply.

Ruslan Trusewych’s “this is the way the world is” presents the world as a swarm of objects, all subject to variable environmental forces, all fighting for access to necessary sustenance – food, water, or, in this case, electrical current. What became most apparent to me here, however, was the swarm as a sonic entity or event. Sonic cues were as integral as the visual in helping me understand what I was experiencing. My New School colleague Eugene Thacker has written about swarms as sonic. I’ll return to his ideas in a bit.

[A little ad-libbing here] But I’ll be focusing here on acoustic qualities that resounded through several projects in the “And Another Thing” exhibition. I’ll examine what these different projects, and others like them, can tell us about the source of sound, and sound’s relationship to the sounding object and its sonic environment.

Trusewych’s work reminds me of another project:

This is Zimoun’s “30,000 plastic bags, 16 ventilators” – a work whose name implies that what we’re hearing, or experiencing, is simply the sum of its very mundane parts. Yet as with Trusewych’s piece, I sense that this collection of parts is not all there is. The “way the world works” in Trusewych’s this is the way the works can’t possibly be sonically indexed by the sound of blades cutting through air, mechanisms rotating the fan’s head, plastic nightlight shades plinking against one another. In both works we have mechanically circulated air providing the animating force for swarm-like movement – yet the actuality of what we’re experiencing seems to be somewhere in between the two experiences implied by the artworks’ titles – somewhere between the grandiose claim that “this the way the world works” and the reductivist claim that it’s just 30,000 plastic bags and 16 ventilators.

Now, back to Thacker:

If we are to think swarms in a way that does not privilege the visual, it seems that two possibilities immediately present themselves to us…. The atomistic approach suggests that our registering of the swarm by hearing it is correlated to a field of interacting sound atoms that is not visible to us. The Neo-platonic approach gives us an image of incorporeal sound emanating from corporeal entities into a kind of phenomenal density in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thacker presents cicadas as an example of an organic swarm that could be conceived through either of these lenses. Cicadas, he writes, “are more often heard than seen – indeed, they are quite impossible to locate by sound.”

This leads me to a second piece in the James Gallery, located in close proximity to Trusewych’s, and created by the same artist responsible for “30,000 plastic bags, 16 ventilators.” This is 25 woodworms, wood, microphone, sound system.

Critics of Zimoun’s work – even the projects that don’t involve live woodworms – often use swarm-like references to describe it:

The results, powered by simple DC motors in kinetic musical action, recall some kind of natural, organic colony.

[Zimoun] creates closed systems that develop their own behavior and rules similarly to artificial creatures.

The movement is there, that electric, dynamic sense of disquiet that characterizes insect worlds. It’s an alien movement… They each present a similar kind of movement that is found in the insectoid underbellies of nature all around us (via Zimoun, “About”).

One critic’s description echoes Thacker’s in her acknowledgment of two possible ways of understanding Zimoun’s acousto-mechanical systems. She writes:

Indeed, one of the refreshing elements of this work is the immediacy with which one can understand the sound-making process, where each micro-event is present, visible, and concrete. Yet at the same time the resulting complexity of the total system, conjured before your eyes, defies any attempt to dissect it. You might find yourself feeling there is a prime mover at work behind the scenes, but in fact it is just the characteristic reaction of materials behaving together and in unison with the space of their activity (via Zimoun, “About”).

The “space of activity” is of central importance in these projects. Zimoun describes his work as sound sculptures and sound architectures. Both terms in these pairings – “sound” and “sculpture” – are mutually constitutive: sound constructs an acoustic (or, as we’ll discover in a bit, an (an)acoustic) space, while the material properties of the space within which a sound resounds construct the properties of that sound. This holds true for swarms, too; they’re spatio-sonic, or acousto-spatial events.

Francisco López, a sound artist whom Eugene Thacker pointed me towards, and about whom Timothy Morton and Will Schrimshaw have written, has spoken eloquently about how he negotiates the relationships between organisms and environments – between “objects” and “spaces” – in his audio recordings. While many “environmental” sound artists tend to habitually focus on the sounds of animals, López advocates for focusing on the “environment as a whole, instead of on behavioural manifestations of the organisms we foresee as most similar to us.” The “space of activity” in a sonic environment expands far beyond the sound-producing organism; the environment is instead a consequence of “all its sound-transmitting and sound-modifying elements.”

The birdsong we hear in the forest is as much a consequence of the bird as of the trees or the forest floor. If we are really listening, the topography, the degree of humidity of the air or the type of materials in the topsoil are as essential and definitory as the sound-producing animals that inhabit a certain space (Francisco López, Environmental Sound Matter).

López’s focus on “sound matter” rather than “sound objects” represents, according to Schrimshaw (May 7, 2011), “his preference for the…confusing over the clear and distinct, for environments as a whole rather than the well grounded identities of the individual bodies that compose them.” Rather than emphasizing “the audible representation of a place or individual animals, objects, bodies or events,” he captures “sounds that in their obscurity reveal something of the material capacities underpinning their implication within representation, recognition, and indexical listening” (ibid.).

It’s important to note that that sound environment includes things that aren’t perceptible to the human ear; its “sonic matter” includes matter that does not resound for us – at least not under normal conditions. The sound we hear in “25 woodworms…,” is the auditory index of invisible internal processes – worms consuming wood – which are imperceptibly changing the constitution of the object we can see and identify: the wood. The microphone and sound system provide the necessary tools within this acoustic system to “liberate” sounds from the wood object; as Frances Dyson explains in regards to John Cage’s work, amplification “allows sounds, which otherwise would remain silent, to be heard via the action of electronic ears” (62). [See also the infrastructure projects of Bill Fontana]

But sometimes technical amplification is not enough. Sometimes forces and stimuli in other registers have to be “sonified” before they can be heard. Consider the Institute for Algorithmics, a collective dedicated to finding the “rhythms” in our “algorithms.”

Algorhythms show us that our digital culture is not immaterial, but divided in time. Time + music becomes (sic) important for understanding media. With enough scientific effort the invisible electronic or electromagnetic (wireless) signals can be made hearable. Listening to those digitally modulated signals, you can hear the rhythmic character of the signals of most digitally working devices and also of wireless consumer electronic networks like WLAN, GSM, UMTS, Bluetooth, digital TV and Radio et cetera (“More/About/Readme”). [See also the “wave field” work of Raviv Ganchrow, who visited my “City & Sound” class in 2009.]

Likewise, Detektors, a “brother” collective, sonifies the “electromagnetic emissions produced by everyday electronic devices” in order to “to make audible the hidden infoscapes of our time.” [Below: a Canon camera turning on and off]

everyday electronic devices

The professed goal here is to “make [internal mechanisms] audible” in order to promote our “understanding [of] media,” but perhaps there is also value in these sonifications, as in all the sound pieces in “And Another Thing,” as accounts of “sound in-itself” or “sound-in-space,” outside of its perception? (Schrimshaw, August 24, 2010).  Schrimshaw suggest that such an account would “approach sound according to its bare minimum of internal relations, relations apart from the ear” – perhaps sound simply as vibration.

Seth Kim-Cohen is skeptical of such a notion of “sound-in-itself”; his model of a “non-cochlear” art acknowledges both the audible and the “exigencies out of earshot” – the tactile dimensions of sonic vibration, for instance. Artist Tom Kotik, whose work appears in the exhibition downstairs, plays with some of these ideas. His “Rational Impulse” consists of two nested sound-proofed boxes encasing – and, when closed, silencing – speakers blaring Kotik’s own band’s music. From the outside, it’s a mute, inert wooden box. But lifting the outer lid releases the vibration, and lifting the inner lid releases the cacophony. Kotik constructs an “architecture of silence” – an external silence one can appreciate only when one knows the commotion within. This piece can be said to reveal what Schrimshaw (March 29, 2011) calls the “infraesthetic implications of objective tendencies” – that which is in excess of the threshold of perception. The heard and the unheard are both integral parts of the object or event. It’s when we lift the first lid and cross one threshold that we perceive the “non-cochlear” (and a hint of the cochlear) dimensions of the “sounding object” inside, and when we lift the second, interior, lid that we fully cross the auditory threshold.

Kotik’s more recent work never pushes past that second threshold; he alludes to sound through form and texture. His “Untitled” (2007) is a “music stand fitted with loudspeakers that reproduce a soundless music whose inaudible frequencies cause the compulsive movement of the membranes” (“Tom Kotik’s Architectures…”), and his SoundStudies (2007) are “sculptures” constructed of acoustic materials. He’s even constructed non-sounding, sound-absorbing felt work that, by consuming the gallery’s soundwaves, alters the room’s acoustics.

By being made aware of the thresholds of our own perception, we wonder about the objects or matter on the other side of those thresholds. How do they sound without us? What’s it like inside Kotik’s box? What’s the nature of the interaction between the sounds emanating from his speakers and the sound-proofing material inside the box? What does wood sound like to a woodworm? What does being consumed sound like to the wood? What does swarming sound like from inside the swarm?

[And here I petered out in my writing, so, to conclude, I riffed on this]: In all the works I’ve discussed here, sonic objects – sonic “matter” – interacts within an environment, a constructed or natural space, that includes both sounding and nonsounding matter. What are the politics of these soundings? What are our own relations do them? Yadda yadda yadda.

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Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound Art (New York: Continuum, 2009).


Institute for Algorhythmics:

Francisco López, Environmental Sound Matter, reprinted on (April 1998).

Will Schrmshaw, “Nature Recording and the Broadband World” [blog pos] (May 7, 2011).

Will Schrimshaw, “Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound (August 24. 2010).

Eugene Thacker, “Pulse DemonsCulture Machine 9 (2007).

Tom Kotik’s Architectures of Silence at the Joan Miró (n.d.).


Microscopes, Woodworms, Overhead Projectors, the Stasi Archive, and Ein Perfektes Paar

I managed to squeeze all of the following into a two-hour between-meeting window last Friday afternoon. I don’t recommend breezing through as I did; but when two hours is all you got, you make the most of it!

And Another Thing @ the James Gallery, CUNY Grad Center

“A paradigm shift away from subject-object relations towards the consideration of humans as no more or less important than any other object is taking place. So posits “And Another Thing,” the James Gallery exhibition that takes its inspiration from the philosophy of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. Here objects are given their own place. As opposed to deriving their meaning from a proximity to humans, this exhibition presents them as specific, self-contained and non-reducible.”

My favorite pieces involved sound and movement:

via cleopatra’s:

Ruslan Trusewych’s this is the way the world is: oscillating fans aimed at a cluster of nightlights. Had I been permitted to take photos, I would’ve shot the ceiling, where the lights’ electrical cords heap upon one another in a seemingly desperate attempt to reach the power supply.

via CUNY Center for the Humanities:

Zimoun’s 25 woodworms, wood, microphone, sound system: the auditory index of internal processes we can’t see — invisible worms consuming wood.

via ArtDaily:

Tom Kotik’s Rational Impulse: two nested sound-proofed boxes encasing — and silencing — a blaring stereo; lifting the lid releases the cacophony.

What Matters Now? Proposals for a New Front Page @ Aperture Foundation

Via Aperture:

There is no longer a “front page” to act as a societal filter through which, we can learn about important events and trends. Even the role that the physical café once played in our communities—the place we went to discuss and digest what’s going on around us — has become fragmented across a myriad of virtual spaces. Where should we turn for our information? How can we function as a society with so few common reference points? How can we intelligently sort through all the images and information available to us?….

The exhibition What Matters Now? Proposals for a New Front Page will combine the crowd sourcing of images and ideas with the curatorial engagement of six experienced individuals, each hosting a table and a conversation within the space, where on corresponding walls each group will present its proposals for the contents of a ‘New Front Page’. Hosts include a variety of visual image specialists: Wafaa Bilal, Melissa Harris, Stephen Mayes, Joel Meyerowitz, Fred Ritchin (who conceptualized this project) and Deborah Willis. As the exhibition opens, each of the hosts will have a designated space, but the walls will be empty. Progressively throughout the first two weeks of the “exhibition,” the walls will be filled in whatever manner each table decides.

Tris Vonna-Michell @ Metro Pictures

I saw Vonna-Michell a the X-Initiative two years ago and loved his work. The new show continues to investigate materialities of memory. Via Metro Pictures:

…Tris Vonna-Michell exhibits a new sound edit combining hahn/huhn (2003-ongoing) and Leipzig Calendar Works (2005-ongoing), which recalls the peaceful 1989 demonstration of East German citizens at the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, district headquarters in Leipzig. Merging this with descriptions of a feverish initiative to destroy incriminating documents before citizens stormed the agency’s Berlin headquarters, Vonna-Michell’s chronicle becomes a patchwork account of the months leading up to German reunification. Here, signals and pulses, repetition and overlay are edited in the recording to correspond to the slide sequences he displays on anachronistic projectors. As Vonna-Michell seems to earnestly meander through his monologue he alludes to the crafted structure of the very story he is telling, and suddenly the credibility of the words he speaks and the images he presents are cast into fiction. Vonna-Michell develops his narratives over extended periods of time, altering and adding to them to make each of their iterations unique.

via Metro Pictures
via me

Jennie C. Jones’s Absorb/Diffuse @ The Kitchen

Via The Kitchen:

Jennie C. Jones re-contextualizes the material output of sound recording in order to explore how we listen and how sound operates physically and metaphorically.  This new show centers on a sound score in three movements, titled From the Low, which is a digital “re-composition” from appropriated samples that operate in the psychological and emotional territory of ‘dark notes’, ‘deep chords’, and low frequency. Accompanying this sound score is a new series of “Acoustic Paintings” made with soundproofing materials (also known as absorbers and diffusers) typically used in audio engineering and studio recording. In transforming the resources and products connected to both the industry and act of listening, Jones’s work layers the formal languages of Modernism — abstraction and minimalism — over the conceptual and technical strategies of avant-garde jazz to extend and complicate these parallel legacies of experimentation.


Everything Is Infrastructure

Here’s the talk I gave at yesterday’s OOOIII symposium at The New School. I was honored to have been invited to take part! Tim Morton was UStreaming the event, but of course the feed died when I did my bit. Yet he kindly edited the audio and uploaded it to

Archigram, ca. 1970; via V&A Museum 


[TITLE SLIDE] This, as you may know, is a t-shirt that Tim designed to commemorate this very occasion. I could never wear this shirt; it – and the philosophical object it represents – withdraw from me. I am not a philosopher. I simply study things. I’m sure that in the course of my talk I’ll find myself in violation of the OOO Handbook; I’m sure I’ll use terms in ways that offend your sensibilities; I’ll perhaps focus too much on relations; I’ll perhaps not move the human subject far enough out of the way. For these transgressions, I ask for your forgiveness. With that said, let’s begin.

In “The Great Gizmo,” an article published in 1965 in Industrial Design magazine, architectural historian and design critic Reyner Banham explained how [SLIDE] “the most typical American way of improving the human situation has been by means of crafty and unusually compact little packages, either papered or with patent numbers, or bearing the inventor’s name to a grateful posterity.” The class of objects ranged “from the Franklin Stove, and the Stetson Hat, through the Evinrude outboard to the walkie-talkie, the spray can and the cordless shaver.” The portability of these gadgets – the fact that they “can get by without any infrastructure” – has been critical to the American way of life, which he celebrated. [SLIDE] “The quintessential gadgetry of the pioneering frontiersman had to be carried across trackless country, set down in a wild place, and left to transform that hostile environment without skilled attention.”

[SLIDE] Last April, the design-publishing think tank Leagues & Legions organized a networked blogging event dedicated to “remixing, revisiting, and remastering” two classic architectural texts, one of which was Banham’s. Architect Rob Holmes, who has blog called mammoth, was struck by Banham’s description of “the most characteristic” of US products:

[SLIDE] a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires.  The minimum of skill is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that by which it may be ordered from catalogue and delivered to its prospective user.

[SLIDE] I imagine that as I read that passage, many of us were conjuring up in our mind’s eyes a mental image of [CLICK] a sleek, palm-sized white or black device currently resting, in a nest woven from earbud wires, in our messenger bags or back pockets. This of course wasn’t Banham’s vision; he was writing in the mid 60s. But the iPhone seems to be among today’s likely candidates for “the most characteristic” US product. Yet as Holmes argues, it doesn’t completely live up to Banham’s billing. The gadget does indeed fulfill what some regard as advanced capitalism’s era-defining “human desires”: for mobility; self-contained, all-in-one convenience; plug-and-play accessibility (maybe without the “plug”) – but is the iPhone really “independent of any physical or social infrastructure?” [SLIDE] As Holmes demonstrates in his brilliant post, this gizmo is “not only dependent upon highly developed systems in its production…but is also now equally dependent in its operation upon a vast array of infrastructures, data ecologies, and device networks.” He takes us on a trans-scalar tour of [SLIDE] the mines – in Canada, South Korea, Belgium, Russia, and Peru – from which we derive the materials for the gadget’s lithium-ion battery and indium tin oxide conducting solution; [SLIDE] the plant in Shenzhen, China, where a quarter-million people are responsible for the gizmo’s assembly; [SLIDE] the server farms, the network’s nerve centers, in Washington, Florida, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Iowa; [SLIDE] and the cell towers and antennae that make transmission possible.

[SLIDE] A quick aside: just last week architects Michael Chen and Justin Snider, who are mashing up various data sources to map what they call urban “signal space,” took the students in my Urban Media Archaeology class on a scavenger hunt for cell phone towers around The New School.

[SLIDE] Industrial designer Ben Millen offers a “conceptual diagram” that allows us to [SLIDE] zoom in and out and consider the [SLIDE] various scales and geographies that Holmes’s tour reaches – [SLIDE] the interlocking infrastructures that collectively constitute this supposedly infrastructure-independent gizmo.

[SLIDE: VIDEO] Our iPhones thus only seem to be untethered. The entire world of “wirelessness” is, likewise, not what it seems. As Adrian Mackenzie argues in a recent book on the topic, wirelessness “designates an experience trending toward entanglements with things, objects, gadgets, infrastructures, and services, and imbued with indistinct sensations and practices of network-associated change” (5). Wirelessness might even be the exact opposite of what the label suggests:

[SLIDE] While the notion of wireless networks implies that there are fewer wires, it could easily be argued that actually there are more wires. Rather than wireless cities or wireless networks, it might be more accurate to speak of the rewiring of cities through the highly reconfigurable paths of chipsets. / Billions of chipsets means trillions of wires or conductors on a microscopic scale (64-5).

Yet we can’t ignore the continued existence of, and the integral function played by, [SLIDE] massive wires on a super-macroscopic scale – a global Internet infrastructure mapped by telecom market research firms like Telegeography. At the same time, we have Wired correspondent and Metropolis contributing editor Andrew Blum, who’s writing a book about the physical infrastructure of the Internet, [SLIDE] homing in on the particular materialities of specific nodes within that global network. He takes us on a tour leading from oceanside manholes; to 60 Hudson Street in downtown Manhattan, where transoceanic and transcontinental lines converge; to data centers with their sophisicated security infrastructures; and along railroad tracks, which paved the way for long-distance “data pipes.” (Incidentally, Andrew took my Urban Media Archaeology class from last year on a walking tour of the Internet infrastructure of Lower Manhattan.)

Between [SLIDE] the work of InfraNet Lab, a “research collective probing the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics” and [SLIDE] advocates for what they call “infrastructural opportunism;” [SLIDE] to my colleagues Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruze’s recent Geologic City project, which reveals the “forces and flows of geologic material that give form to the built environment of the city”; [SLIDE] to MoMA’s current “Talk to Me” exhibition, [SLIDE] which explores “communication between people and things,” and between things and things, and places and things; [SLIDE] to the walking tours of urban systems organized by design consultancy spurse for the [SLIDE] BMW Guggenheim Lab that’s resided downtown this summer, there’s no shortage of interest in infrastructures and the objects that comprise them. [SLIDE] Former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested in 2009 that “renewed interest in infrastructure” within the design community has been attributable in large part to Obama’s original stimulus package, which tasked the country’s designers with “rethinking the networks – train lines, freeways, bridges, levees, ports and waterfronts – that bind our communities together.” Ouroussoff noticed a rise, “for the first time in decades,” of new infrastructure-focused graduate architecture studio courses.

I’d argue that the interest began to emerge well before Obama. Hurricane Katrina and other international disasters drew attention to the weaknesses in our existing infrastructures. [SLIDE] And Michael Chen, leader of the Signal Space project I referenced earlier, suggested to me that architecture’s interest in infrastructure has grown with the increased availability of data, not only GIS data, but data “generated by buildings themselves”; that data often covers large swaths of geography, and architects, according to Chen, “aspire to work at scales consistent with the scale of the data.” What’s more, he says, is that working at the scale and within the context of infrastructure, rather than at the scale of the architectural “object,” has the potential to have greater impact on the built environment. What’s interesting to consider, in light of this particular symposium, is how architects have sought explicitly to [SLIDE] move beyond “the object,” which implies, among other things, an appreciation of architecture that looks beyond the subject, beyond the starchitect creator and his masterwork; work within a scale that’s larger than that of the edifice; and a realization of that edifice’s place within a larger network of cultural and political economic, and material forces.[i] This movement beyond the object is actually, in some respects, quite similar to the privileging of the object advocated by object-oriented ontology in that it aims to take the human out of the center of the enterprise.

[SLIDE] While architecture moves beyond the object (although others are simultaneously calling for a return to it), my own field, Media Studies, continues to expand its interest in the media object and media infrastructures. McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis, along with Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Giedion and many others who have since been claimed by the “media ecology” tradition, long ago inspired interest in media’s material form, its sensory properties, and the larger cultural, political, and even material ecologies that particular media give rise to. While many in media studies are still committed to textual analysis and identity construction and issues of subjectivity, many others – growing numbers – have turned their attention to media as designed objects, to the issue of e-waste, to the spatiality and geography of communication, and to infrastructure.

[SLIDE] This turn to the object or the material network has undoubtedly been inspired over the past few decades by shifting materialities in the media landscape (Bolter 1991, Landow 1991). The early 1990s gave rise to a great deal of scholarship questioning the existence of a new “ontology” of new media; and with the rise of each new “new” – wirelessness, augmented reality, etc. – we’ve repeated the question. Wendy Chun, who presented on a panel examining “object-oriented feminism” at the 2010 Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conference, suggested that the recent rise of object-oriented philosophy and “thing theory” draw inspiration from the same source: these new philosophical enterprises are “themselves responses to – not simply theoretical tools necessary to examine – new media.”

[SLIDE] There are many of us in Media Studies, in addition to Ian Bogost, who are working on media objects and infrastructures. Lisa Parks and [SLIDE] Nicole Starosielski have done innovative work on satellite television and transoceanic cable infrastructures. [SLIDE] My own past work has focused on “media spaces” – libraries, archives, reading rooms, schools, media company headquarters, media production facilities, and a variety of other spaces where media is a key actor – as both conceptual and physical infrastructures. [SLIDE] I’ve been interested in how these physical architectures, the material properties of the media housed within them, and the publics that both design and use them, all act upon and mutually construct one another. [SLIDE] I consider how the form of the technology informs the shape of the building; how those technological forms in turn offer direction regarding how people are to interact with them; which in turn informs the program and plan of the building. And vice versa. The relationship between media technologies and architecture needn’t even be mediated through human users; sometimes media have spatial demands of their own – say, they require lots of power outlets, or they need a climate-controlled environment – which can be directly translated into architectural designs.

[SLIDE] Over the past few years I’ve turned more to German media theory – in particular, media archaeology – to help me in my current study – of historical urban media infrastructures. [SLIDE] There’s a presumption in media studies, and in various design studies and practices, that since the rise of the mechanically produced image, media have served as actants in shaping the material city; thus we have the “photographic city,” “the “cinematic city” and various forms of the “digital city,” including a relatively recent variant that I find particularly interesting, the “sentient city.” [SLIDE] I’m looking instead at the longue durée of urban mediation, focusing on media technologies – telegraphy and telephony, print, writing, and the voice that emerged before the widespread availability of the mechanically reproduced image, yet which have had residual impact on the city through the present day.

Erkki Huhtamo, inspired by Foucault’s archaeological method, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” and the [CLICK] “’excavation’ of the ways in which these discursive traditions and formulations have been ‘imprinted’ on specific media machines and systems in different historical contexts” (223). [SLIDE] Adapting Huhtamo’s model to suit an “excavation” at the urban scale, I focus on the recurring or residual media “elements and motives” that guide the development of the material city. I look at, but also beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what Wolfgang Ernst (2003) calls its “logical structure” and “hardware” (n.p.). These infrastructures include everything from wires and cables and amplifier stations, to the acoustic properties of various building surfaces – and they plug into parallel infrastructures: power and transportation, for example.

[SLIDE] Media archaeology tends to distance itself from archaeology proper, but when we’re dealing with material landscapes and assemblages of material objects, perhaps we could learn something from archaeologists who have experience in dealing with these types of materials, and who know that “excavation” can be more than a Foucauldian-inspired metaphor. In addition, archaeologists’ recognition of the temporal “entanglement” of the material record could prove useful in understanding how various infrastructural networks interact with one another across time (Witmore 2006: 280). Referencing the influential work that geographers Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin have done on telecommunications infrastructures, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes, in his study of media infrastructure in Nigeria: “Newly developed networks do not eradicate earlier ones but are superimposed on top of them, creating a historical layering over time” (6). [SLIDE] Telegraph lines line the railways; fiber optic cables parallel old copper cable laid nearly a century before; public spaces once popular as sites of public address become places for the exchange of new publications after the rise of print, and those spaces later become wireless hotspots. Archaeology – both media archaeology and archaeology proper – could reveal the “entanglement” of infrastructural systems’ lifespans – when old media “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new infrastructures “remediate” their predecessors. Embodied within these “entanglements” are shifts with real-world consequences – increases or decreases in the speed or accessibility of networks; expanding or contracting reach to various geographic areas; the degree of publicness, however you want to define it, of particular sites, both micro and macro scale.

[SLIDE] I’ve also found it helpful to approach this project by thinking through objects, and to so do collaboratively. For the past two years students in my graduate studios have been collaboratively mapping various historical media infrastructures while simultaneously building an object – a database-driven open-source mapping platform – that captures, as much as possible, the distinctive spatial, temporal, and material qualities of the systems we’re examining. Rather than translating the natures of these objects into some linear written form, we’re spatalizing and temporalizing our “arguments” on a map. Our networked mode of representation is in keeping with the networked objects we’re studying. Students are then able to find the spatial juxtapositions of their various networks, to identify the places and times where objects bump up against one another. They’re also speculatively taking on the perspective of the objects they’re researching. One student creating a map layer about carrier pigeons that took the perspective of the pigeon. Another placed herself within the network of newspaper distribution by physically following the path our daily New York Times takes from the printing plant, through several truck and van transfers, to her doorstep. And I’m excited to being imagining how the pneumatic mail system – which is a topic I’ve already written about – functioned from the perspective of a pneumatique.

What are the potentials for knowing the infrastructure if we become the infrastructure? What are the potentials for knowing objects by imaginatively becoming those objects, by interacting with the various other objects with which they come into contact?  An object-oriented methodology might help explode the myth of the gizmo – the infrastructure-free object – and foster an appreciation for the vibrant matter that resides within all of our media, material or immaterial.