“Purity and Security: Towards a Cultural History of Plexiglas,” Places Journal (December 2020).
Invited Speaker, “Purity and Security: A Cultural History of Plexiglass,” “The City as Environmental Mediation,” Material and Visual Culture Seminar, Centre for Digital Anthropology, University College London (virtual), November 2, 2020
I joined Jocelyn Frank and Dietmar Offenhuber for “Phenomenology and Data,” hosted by the Princeton-Mellon Research Forum on the Urban Environment, Princeton University (virtual), on September 16, 2020. My talk, “Data Made Material,” examined the ways data capture our multisensorial experiences of the pandemic and the compounding crises of 2020.
Critical Frameworks Module, ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, CA
In this module of Critical Frameworks we’ll consider how we might collect, collate, sort, aggregate, intermix, shuffle, juxtapose, isolate, frame, and activate our varying interests, influences, practices, and areas of expertise – and how we can then marshal various experimental writing practices to most effectively and creatively present our multi-faceted selves to the world. Of, if you’d prefer a culinary metaphor, we’ll experiment with recipes – scripts, programs, algorithms, maps and timelines – for marinating, chopping, paring, skimming, trussing, torching, and plating up our ideas and inspirations.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Infrastructures” Amodern 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): http://amodern.net/article/ear-to-the-wire/ 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: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/study/finance/research/studentships/studentships/listening-to-infrastructure-acoustic-emission-sensing-.html
[vii] Kevin T. Allen, “Bridge,” Filmography: http://www.phonoscopy.com/works.html#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: http://www.veralistcenter.org/engage/event/241/no-thing-unto-itself-objectoriented-politics/
[ix] Christina Kubisch, “Electrical Walks: Electromagnetic Investigations in the City”: http://www.christinakubisch.de/en/works/electrical_walks. See also “Infrastructural Tourism” Places (July 2013): https://placesjournal.org/article/infrastructural-tourism/ 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; http://www.harvestworks.org/apr-56-sonic-archaeology-workshop/
[xii] Matt Parker, “The Imitation Archive,” Earth Kept Warm: http://www.earthkeptwarm.com/the-imitation-archive/ 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): http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/sound-and-vision/2015/05/the-imitation-archive-part-1-recording-the-sounds-of-bletchley-parks-historic-computers-.html.
[xiii] Jamie Allen: http://www.jamieallen.com/the-lie-machine/, http://www.jamieallen.com/recomposing-the-e-meter/; Detektors: http://detektors.org/index.html; Institute of Experimental Design and Media Cultures, “U.S. Media Archaeology Lab Hosts Apocryphal Technologies” (March 2016): http://www.ixdm.ch/u-s-media-archeology-lab-hosts-apocryphal-technologies/.
[xiv] Detektors. See also Jussi Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology?” (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012): 151-2.
[xv] Studio Algorhythmics, “Algorhythms of Sorting”: http://algorhythmics.ixdm.ch/?p=152 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): http://computationalculture.net/article/algorhythmics-understanding-micro-temporality-in-computational-cultures#fnref-1380-14
[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): http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/sound-and-vision/2015/05/the-imitation-archive-part-2-.html
[xix] Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “Earshot”: http://lawrenceabuhamdan.com/new-page-1/
[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): http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/feb/16/stonehenge-based-magical-auditory-illusion?newsfeed=true; 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): http://theappendix.net/issues/2013/7/tuned-to-the-senses-an-archaeoacoustic-perspective-on-ancient-chavin for more on archaeoacoustic methods.
[xxiv] Nadia Drake, “Archaeoacoustics: Tantalizing, but Fantastical” Science News, February 17, 2012, http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/338543/description/Archaeoacoustics_Tantalizing_but_fantastical; 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.
In February 2016 I joined Tyler Coburn, Ian Hatcher, Nicole Starosielski, and Lance Wakeling on an excellent panel at the Pratt Upload conference. We talked about “infrastructural aesthetics.” Here’s Tyler’s provocative prompt:
In the recent past, we’ve seen art projects exploring sophisticated (often covert) systems, from military black sites to the electromagnetic signals that suffuse our everyday life. While their subjects vary, these works speak to a broader concern with contemporary “infrastructure”—a term, geographers Steven Graham and Simon Marvin note, that doesn’t just describe what “runs ‘underneath’ actual structures,” but the “multiple, overlapping and perhaps contradictory infrastructural arrangements” of politics, technology and economy. “Infrastructure” here departs from its conventional definition, becoming a relational field that various agents can potentially influence. The neologism “Infrastructural Aesthetics” is a prompt to consider the artist’s position within this field and the strategies available to her. How, for example, can art engage with systems that rarely have singular forms, but concatenate physical, immaterial and asignifying processes? Is the efficacy of representation thrown into question, and what forms of artistic practice might better speak to our imbrication in contemporary infrastructure? Finally, can art play a role in fostering literacy about this subject, to greater political effect?
I focused primarily on the “typology of topologies” — maps, diagrams, field guides, etc. — we’ve constructed to make sense of infrastructure, to aestheticize it and render it sensible. I then talk about the limits of representation and propose two other affective, process-oriented, aesthetic means of engagement: listening to and smelling infrastructure. Here‘s my talk.
This past weekend I joined Tyler Coburn, Ian Hatcher, Nicole Starosielski, and Lance Wakeling on an excellent panel at the Pratt Upload conference. We talked about “infrastructural aesthetics.” Here’s Tyler’s provocative prompt:
In the recent past, we’ve seen art projects exploring sophisticated (often covert) systems, from military black sites to the electromagnetic signals that suffuse our everyday life. While their subjects vary, these works speak to a broader concern with contemporary “infrastructure”—a term, geographers Steven Graham and Simon Marvin note, that doesn’t just describe what “runs ‘underneath’ actual structures,” but the “multiple, overlapping and perhaps contradictory infrastructural arrangements” of politics, technology and economy. “Infrastructure” here departs from its conventional definition, becoming a relational field that various agents can potentially influence.
The neologism “Infrastructural Aesthetics” is a prompt to consider the artist’s position within this field and the strategies available to her. How, for example, can art engage with systems that rarely have singular forms, but concatenate physical, immaterial and asignifying processes? Is the efficacy of representation thrown into question, and what forms of artistic practice might better speak to our imbrication in contemporary infrastructure? Finally, can art play a role in fostering literacy about this subject, to greater political effect?
I had returned from my fellowship in Germany just the day before, so, for the sake of efficiency, I “imbricated” some of my Holcim Forum paper into my introductory comments here. But I focused primarily on the “typology of topologies” — maps, diagrams, field guides, etc. — we’ve constructed to make sense of infrastructure, to aestheticize it and render it sensible. I then talk about the limits of representation and propose two other affective, process-oriented, aesthetic means of engagement: listening to and smelling infrastructure. Here ’tis:
Infrastructure feels very zeitgeisty. We’ve recently awakened to the realization that the Internet is a place made of countless material things – cables and data centers and rare earth minerals – along with lots of intellectual and political constructs, too. We’ve experienced a dawning recognition of our Amazonian consumptive appetites and their dependence on similarly heavy logistical systems, exploitative labor practices, and far-reaching waste streams. We’ve begun to wonder about the algorithms shaping our search results and Facebook feeds, and to worry about the digital exhaust we constantly leave in our wake. And we’ve surrendered to the reality of the Anthropocene and its precarious infrastructural, environmental, political, and ethical futures.
Such emerging cognizance is thanks in no small part to long-term, intensive ethnographic research by the likes of Nicole Starosielski, Lisa Parks, Susan Leigh Star, Geoff Bowker, Paul Edwards, Brian Larkin, Stephen Graham, Simon Marvin, Andrew Blum, and Christine Borgmann, among others. This emergent infrastructural intelligence is also inspired by, and has inspired, an explosion of infrastructural “literacy” and engagement projects that seek to “make visible the invisible,” to call out the unrecognized, to bore into the “black-boxed.” Grand Tours of nuclear infrastructures and key sites in telecom history are the new Bildungsromane of the blockchain age. Apps and data visualizations, soundwalks and speculative design workshops, DIY manuals and field guides, urban dashboards and participatory mappings, hackathons and infrastructural tourism – strategies employed by artists and activists and even some city governments and federal agencies – all seek to “raise awareness” among a broader public about infrastructure’s existence and its politics. They aim, further, to motivate non-specialist communities to contribute to infrastructure’s maintenance and improvement, to inspire citizen-consumers to advocate for more accessible and justly distributed resources, and perhaps even to “engineer” their own DIY networks.
The underlying assumption in many cases is that by making infrastructures visible or otherwise sense-able or experiential – in other words, aesthetic – those systems thereby become sensible, comprehensible, and perhaps even manipulable and hackable. Sensation translates into cognition, engagement, a sense of “ownership,” and, most ambitiously, technical competence and “emancipation.”
Visualization is certainly our main mode of aestheticization and enlightenment. We’re all about mapping and diagramming and trace-routing and video-documenting. The past couple years saw the release of publications informing us How to See the World and “How to See Infrastructure,” which harken back to George Nelson’s 1977 How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Man-Made Environment. We also got field guides helping us identify key visual markers of internet infrastructure and container shipping (as a footnote, I’ll mention also that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, reintroduced us to the Green Books, travel guides published from 1936 to 1949 to help African-American motorists find social and technical infrastructures that would enable them to avoid “difficulties” and “embarrassments” on their travels.)
We could organize these visualization strategies into a typology of topologies. In describing the rise of what they call “topological” culture, Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi, and Tiziana Terranova note the prevalent use of lists, models, networks, clouds, fractals, flows and assemblages to describe myriad contemporary cultural forms – from technology to financial markets to geographies transformed by dynamic forces and mobility. Infrastructures, as we know, elicit much topologizing. As media theorist Anna Munster says, “When we imagine a network these days, it is hard to stave off the flood of visualizations – tangled threads, fractal webs, uneven distributions of interconnected circles and lines – that populate our contemporary connectionist imaginary.”
This typology of topologies should make us wonder about the different epistemologies or “patterns of mind” embodied in each representational technique – and about how each strategy crystallizes a different ontology, or understanding of how infrastructures exist in the world. Lists and fractals, photographs and diagrams, maps of stasis and maps of flow – each embodies a different ontology of representation (a photo doesn’t exist in the same way that an illustration does, for instance). And each constitutes a different proposition regarding what infrastructures are. Munster discusses the particularly potent politics of the network diagram, whose link-and-node “uniformity”
makes us think that we perceive networks everywhere. Instead, via techniques such as data mining, networks have been computationally rendered as perceptible. Moreover, the frequent misalignment between ideas about human perception and models of computational learning and pattern recognition… has meant that what is perceptible comes to stand in for what is perceived.
Yet in rendering infrastructure, we often go after the imperceptible. We marshal all of these topological strategies to “make visible” our dynamic flows and forms. The implication here is that we’re fighting against invisibility – which tends to cultivate an air of the clandestine or the conspiratorial, and which in turn elicits what Ricoeur calls a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” In her recent book on the Limits of Critique, Rita Felski suggests that such a suspicious approach – which requires us to “dig down” beneath the surface (of a text or site), to de-naturalize its seemingly natural order – has become commonplace, scripted, even trite. “At this point,” she says, “we are all resisting readers; perhaps the time has come to resist the automatism of our own resistance, to risk alternate forms of aesthetic engagement.” Munster, too, exhorts us to consider “how networks might be understood differently.”
Despite a long history of critique surrounding the master-plan and conventional cartography and other institutionalized, naturalized modes of spatial and visual representation, today’s developers, civic officials, and corporate contractors – and many scholars and designers and artists – continue to pursue the comprehensive data visualization, the exhaustive network diagram, the completist map, the “seamlessly integrated” urban dashboard – the ideal means of representing their version of infrastructural intelligence. Theorist Alex Galloway suggests that we simply have yet to create “adequate visualizations” of our network culture and control society and the infrastructures that undergird them.
Or perhaps instead, representation itself is insufficient as a source of infrastructural intelligence. Architect John May proposes that pretty much all of our strategies for representing or mediating “infrastructural events,” including especially their moments of failure, are suspect: “Real time” mass media; the practices of scenario modeling and accident investigation; the managerial discourses of prevention, monitoring and response; public relations and engineering bravado” — all, he says, ultimately “reify and reinforce the grand theater of modern functionalism.” They suggest that the failures of containment, the leaks and glitches and inefficiencies, are the exception rather than the rule.
“So many of our unfolding catastrophes” – and even the mundane operations of infrastructural systems, I’d add – “are simply not amenable to the kinds of spectacular productions to which we have grown accustomed,” May says. Nor do they lend themselves to the de rigueur data visualization or map. May argues that the problem is scalar, both temporal and spatial: “the scale of their incidence renders them invisible to our methods of documentation”; invisibly small and slow phenomena accumulate over time into assemblages that are, “paradoxically, imperceptibly large.” Computationally-driven infrastructural operation, conversely, executes at a scale that is imperceptibly fast.
These failures of representation may in part explain why many promoters of infrastructural intelligence resort not to representation, but to sensation, affect, process. They recognize that there is intelligence in experience and practice, even if we can’t always diagram, map, or model it. I think the limits of infrastructural representation may be among its most illuminating dimensions: our failures to sketch out its contours show how the systems we create, as they intermingle and reshape one another, often grow beyond our perception and conception, perhaps taking on agency and intelligence of their own.
I explored these limits of representation, and other modes of aesthetically engaging with infrastructure – mapping, touring, hearing, smelling, signaling, playing, and performing – in a 2013 article on “Infrastructural Tourism,” a recent book on mapping infrastructure, and an infrastructural mapping class I’ve taught at The New School since 2010. In all of these projects, I’ve discovered that our prevalent ocularcentric “patterns of mind” often lead us to overlook infrastructures that are right in front of our eyes, on the surface we’re so busy digging beneath. Or they might be under our noses, or tangibly accessible. The “making visible” mandate primes us to experience and investigate through our eyes – yet aesthetics aren’t limited to visuality. Neither are our means of engaging with infrastructure. “Infrastructure, broken or not, often evokes a multiplicity of embodied sensations across the human sensorium,” anthropologist Christina Schwenkel argues. And engaging with that range of sensory experiences, she says, can “help to produce more culturally and historically specific accounts of encounters with infrastructure.”
I’ll offer just two examples, which we can discuss further in the discussion period, if you like. First, Listening: For the past several years I’ve been examining what we can learn by listening to infrastructure – from the work of sound artists like Christina Kubisch and Bill Fontana and the Institute of Algorithmics, to the field research of archaeoacousticians, to the oceanographers researching the impact of naval research on aquatic life, to the manufacturers of acoustic building materials, to the design work of acoustic engineers. I wrote about hearing infrastructure as a network-archaeological method in a special issue of Amodern for which Nicole was a co-editor.
Interestingly, just yesterday Loughborough University posted a PhD “studentship” focused on “listening to infrastructure”:
When structures within the ground move and deform they generate noise some of which propagates as stress waves, Acoustic Emissions (AE). This project shall develop techniques to use these AE to listen for deterioration of critical infrastructure assets to provide early warning of deterioration and facilitate targeted maintenance and renewal. The project has vast potential applications [for] the UK’s aging geotechnical assets: [rail track, petroleum pipelines, potable water pipelines (we can’t help but think of recent infrastructural disaster in Flint), offshore wind turbines, tunnels, bridges, and earth-retaining structures].
Second, smelling. Let’s take a familiar example: the Internet. It’s more multisensory than the sounds and images it summons to our devices. In the course of dozens of visits to exchange points and data centers, Andrew Blum became aware that “the Internet had a smell, an odd but distinctive mix of industrial-strength air-conditioners and the ozone released by capacitors” (and of course data centers are haptic and audible, too). Exploring the senses of infrastructures can reveal not only how those systems indicate their functionality for us — via blinking lights, beeps, etc. — but also their own operational modes and logics. We can smell air pollution and organic byproducts in the waste-removal system; and as Nicola Twilley regularly points out in her blog, Edible Geography, olfactory perception is a key dimension of food production and distribution infrastructures. Mineral deposits in drinking water, chemical contamination of water or air, malfunctioning refrigeration on a shipping container — all have potentially sense-able consequences.
Bruce Robbins writes of infrastructure’s “smell of corrosion, rust, and rottenness”; we can smell infrastructures, he argues, when they are unattended and uncared for, when they decay. Schwenkel describes the smell of leaks and mildew in socialist housing in her field site in Vihn City, Vietnam. In California, recent water-preservation efforts have resulted in insufficiently-flushed sewage systems – which have had some pretty profound olfactory consequences. Meanwhile, the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of Southern Central Michigan have banded together to fight farm pollution; they’re concerned about the spread of feed lots and their impact on the watershed – and, yes, the local olfactory conditions. To help manage the expectations of city-transplants looking for rolling hills and fresh air, Ottawa, MI, published an “If You Are Thinking About Moving to the Country” brochure, complete with a scratch-and-sniff manure sticker. And Penn State University’s Agriculture school has produced an “odor management” guide for farmers.
This is a digital art conference. Why am I talking about manure? Because some infrastructural events – like fertilizer day on a hog farm – defy representation. Because infrastructures are more than just visual; our engagements with them are multisensory and affective. Because infrastructure is more than the Internet and telecom; it’s also farm management and library classification and legal codes. And because closing my comments with cows is necessarily a humble ending, and I happen to think that both the art world and the academy could benefit from a great deal more humility – particularly when engaging with systems that, while potentially sexily clandestine and intriguingly corrupt, still constitute a public good and are the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and excretory systems of our Anthropogenic Earth.
 Daphne Dragona, “Counter-Infrastructures: Critical Empowerment and Emancipation in a Networked World,” Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus 10.3 (2014): accessed December 28, 2015, http://median.newmediacaucus.org/art-infrastructures-information/counter-infrastructures-critical-empowerment-and-emancipation-in-a-networked-world/
 Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, “Introduction: Becoming Topological of Culture” Theory, Culture & Society 29:4/5 (2012): 3-35; Shannon Mattern, “Gaps in the Map: Why We’re Mapping Everything, and Why Not Everything Can, or Should, Be Mapped” Wordsinspace (September 18, 2015): https://wordsinspace.net/shannon/2015/09/18/gaps-in-the-map-why-were-mapping-everything-and-why-not-everything-can-or-should-be-mapped/
 Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 1.
 Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 5-6.
 John May, “Infrastructuralism: The Pathology of Negative Externalities,” Quaderns 262 (2011): accessed December 28, 2015, http://quaderns.coac.net/en/2011/09/262-may/
 See Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space | Politics | Affect (New York: Routledge, 2008).
 Bruce Robbins, “The Smell of Infrastructure: Notes Toward an Archive” boundary 2 34:1 (2007): 25-35.
 Jenn Stanley, “California Cities Smell the Consequences of Saving Water” NextCity (September 1, 2015): https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/california-drought-water-conservation-consequences
 Christopher Weber, “Stink Wars: When a Foul Wind Wafts From a Farm, Is It a Problem” Modern Farmer (January 27, 2014): http://modernfarmer.com/2014/01/stink-wars-foul-wind-wafts-farm-problem/
“Animated Spaces: Experience and Context in Interaction and Architectural Design Exhibitions,” Senses & Society 9:2 (Spring 2014): 131-150
on designing exhibitions for multisensorial experience
Review of Hillel Schwartz, Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011), Current Musicology 93 (Spring 2012 [actually published Spring 2014!])