Spaces for Critical Action in Urban Software Art

via Quartier des Spectacles
via Quartier des Spectacles 

Last night I attended a salon on spectacle in urban software art, featuring artists Eric CorrielKacie KinzerRune Madsen, and YesYesNo / Molmol Kuo. The event was hosted by LISA/Isabel Walcott Draves and Tanya Toft, who organized it as part of a curatorial fellowship and her doctoral research at Copenhagen University. Okay, that’s probably more detail than you need. Anyway, Tanya was my former advisee and research assistant at The New School, and I’m now serving a external advisor for her CuratorLab project. The salon marked the launch of her new Urban Media Aesthetics platform, which I announced here earlier this week. She intended for the evening’s conversation to examine how these artists’ works “embody and exercise a form of criticality in public space” — in other words, how they use “spectacle” to do critical work.

Tanya invited me to write up a response to the salon. It’ll be posted to the UMA website [and here it is!] — but I figured I’d share a draft here, too. So…


If capital-S Spectacle implies superficiality, commodity fetishism, and alienation, perhaps little-s spectacular, in its less overdetermined condition, offers at least some possibility for redemption, for the recuperation of thoughtful, critical engagement. Maybe we can still find somewhere in those dazzling urban screens and media facades, or in those captivating interactive maps of sentient urban systems, the means of critique or radical action. We might also discern in all the blinking LEDs a reminder that “to be radical” in the cosmopolitan city – where efficiency, profitability, and growth-for-growth’s sake are prime virtues – might mean, simply, making time for play or contemplation.

At the Urban Media Aesthetics salon on December 4, four computational artists presented work that, while spectacular within its urban contexts, still allowed for some form of criticality. Looking across the oeuvres of these four practitioners, however, it became clear that that critical potential resides in different places in different projects. Sometimes it’s in the conceptualization and execution of a work, and sometimes it’s in its reception or use: in the user’s active manipulation of the work; in the way the work prompts the user to reexamine herself, or her relationship to those around her; in the user’s phenomenological experience of the work – even her resignation to and absorption into the work.

By simply recognizing that there are so many means of engaging with urban media art – that they’re more multifaceted than the totalizing theories of the Spectacle might imply – we’ve already done the critical work of acknowledging that all those glowing rectangles, big and small, are more than flat screens. They represent a layering of infrastructures, a three-dimensional interface between their makers and users, a generator of social space. Rather than erecting superficial “planes of alienation,” Urban Media Aesthetics has the potential to generate environments for purposeful thinking and action.

Written Images from d_effekt on Vimeo.

Rune Madsen began his presentation by talking pedagogy. In “Printing Code,” a class he teaches in NYU’s ITP, students learn graphic design through code, by acknowledging the algorithms behind so many creative, expressive practices – the measurements behind grid systems, the geometry behind typography, the proportional relationships behind color choices, etc. He wants his students not to be “blinded by the tool” or the technique, but, instead, to be aware that those often-invisible infrastructures are present – and have been present for as long as our ancestors have been making art – and informing their creative choices. “Students often don’t know what rules they’re trying to break – or they don’t know the rules at all.” Knowing the rules – then perhaps deliberately breaking them – makes for more thoughtful and critical designers and programmers, he suggested.

via SP_Urban 

In his own work, Madsen aims to highlight, if not break, the rules governing learning algorithms, which learn what we like – in food, in friends, in fashion – and filter the future options placed before us, à la “if you like this, you’ll also like that.” For The Artist is Not Present, which appeared in the SP_Urban Digital Festival in São Paulo in 2013, Madsen created an algorithm that generated iterations of geometric art; then, by rating those works on a scale of 1 to 9, he “trained” his computer to predict his aesthetic preferences for the next generation of designs. As his algorithm generated the 50,000 increasingly complex, unique artworks that were projected on a São Paulo building façade for the three-week duration of the festival, Madsen effectively effaced his agency as the artist. And the software then effaced itself on the last day of the festival. This intentional erasure or disappearing – perhaps, if we’re into awkward neologisms, we could say “de-spectaclization” – also characterizes Madsen’s Tiny Artists series, which, again, grants aesthetic agency to the algorithm. Tiny programs generate geometric poster designs, which are then printed, before the programs delete themselves and their own source code, leaving the analog prints to stand alone, mutely hinting at the process of their generation.

Tiny Artists
Tiny Artists 

In a gallery setting, a visitor would likely be privy to Tiny Artists’ backstory, and might appreciate the critical issues – regarding authorship, originality, materiality, the creative freedom of artistic production, etc. – that Madsen is grappling with in this work. Yet in downtown São Paulo, it’s quite possible that a passerby, unfamiliar with the work’s critical play with aesthetic agency, might see little more than dynamic shapes in vibrant colors flashing on a skyscraper – a scene that might be read, as Christiane Paul suggests, as “an aesthetic visualization of a public social space or as pure visual spectacle.” There’s less control, in this urban context, over the critical context in which the work is perceived – and thus greater chance that the critical intention might be missed. Yet there are at least two cues in Madsen’s work that might enable even the uninitiated to recognize that there’s more here than meets the eye – that this isn’t a gratuitously clever techno-Spectacle. First, the work’s provocative title, The Artist Is Not Present, if displayed or broadcast anywhere in the vicinity of the projection, raises critical questions about Madsen’s intentions; and second, the obvious “pattern language” of the display – the fact that there’s clearly a rhythm, a repetition of certain formal, chromatic, or compositional elements as the designs evolve – could compel passersby to want to “crack the code,” to wonder about the logic driving the artwork’s evolution. The Artist Is Not Present thus becomes a mystery: one of missing persons and secret codes.


There’s a mystery behind Kacie Kinzer’s work, too. When a city-dweller sees one of Kinzer’s tiny, unassuming, good-natured Tweenbots rolling aimlessly through an urban park, he or she likely wonders who’s behind this small-scale spectacle. Who’s manning the robot’s controls? As it turns out, nobody. Well, actually – you are, sort of. As Kinzer explains, “the adorable and helpless-seeming ‘bots,” constructed of cardboard and the most rudimentary of mechanics, “roll along at a constant speed, in a straight line, and have a destination displayed on a flag. They rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.” And people do. Kinzer offered up plenty of video documentation of park-goers interrupting their conversations, putting down their guitars and sandwiches, parking their bikes, hanging up their cellphones, and empathetically engaging with this inanimate, yet highly emotive, cardboard object. The improbability and mystery – the small-s spectacle – of this decidedly un-spectacular object led people to choose to perform an irrational, yet compassionate, act. And in making that choice, many people seemed to be visibly vulnerable – aware that they were critically reflecting, in public, on their own code of ethics.

There’s an empathy-inducing vulnerability in much of Kinzer’s practice. She professed unease or distaste for highly scripted interaction design – for the kinds of projects in which designers might develop hypotheses regarding what will happen when they place technological objects in controlled urban environments. Rather than championing this “scientistic” criticality, she prefers a more speculative form of critical action in which the outcome is emergent. Kinzer aims to create contexts in which “connection, serendipity, and play” come together in urban space, and then she “embraces the unexpected” – even if that unexpected result is failure. There is indeed much critical insight to be gained from experiments that fail.

Molmol Kuo and her partners in YesYesNo also use fanciful, rudimentary robots to generate serendipitous encounters – encounters that, despite their seeming mundanity, have the potential to raise critical questions about ethical interaction. Their YesYesBot has the enviable job of roaming around and dispensing candy. Anyone can download the remote control app onto his or her iPhone and dispatch the little retro-style bot to share candy with whomever crosses its path. It might be a stretch to suggest that YesYesBot will inspire its beneficiaries to reflect critically on the nature of the gift economy, or that it’ll compel its remote control operators to ruminate on depersonalized commodity exchange. But perhaps the technology might allow for other applications with more obvious critical dimensions. Consider Kuo’s Walk in Shelter, a walking robot modeled after a goddess’s temple that travels around Taiwan for one week each year, drawing pilgrims who divulge their trials and tribulations. Kuo’s version is embedded with a video display showing documentary footage about sex trafficking and domestic violence. The robot’s sculptural form and animalistic movement create a small-s spectacle on the street, which draws an audience – both to the sculpture and, ideally, to the critical issues it aims to address.

via Connecting-Light
via Connecting-Light 

In “Connecting Light,” a project they created for the London 2012 Festival, YesYesNo strung hundreds of six-foot-diameter weather balloons equipped with LEDs along Hadrian’s Wall in the UK. People could visit the project’s website and post messages, which were then translated into pulses of color and transmitted down the 73-mile line of balloons. As various messages originated from different points along the wall, they crossed paths with one another, and their colors blended. Kuo’s colleague Zachary Lieberman told the Telegraph, “We are imagining a reverse wall – an inverse of the border. The border was built to separate people, and we want to bring them together again.” We’ve seen similar urban media art projects that transmit user-generated messages, or translate them into light or sound. And many of these projects – like those of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko – grapple with critical issues, like surveillance and immigration. But again, we must wonder if a public encountering illuminated balloons will see “pure visual spectacle,” pure delight and frivolity – or a form of communication that does critical breaking-down-walls work. As Zimmerman explained to the Telegraph, “We want to create experiences that are magical, and create wonder and surprise – and give people good dreams.” Do good dreams preclude critical engagement? Perhaps not – if those good dreams envision a better world.

Eric Corriel’s Pool Portals, an interactive video installation projected onto a pool of milk, created more of a psychedelic experience, one that carved out a heterotopia, or a space of exception, in the urban environment. There’s no explicit critical message here – but Corriel did tell the story of one little boy who became obsessed with the work; played in it for hours, with his mother on the sidelines, clearly fascinated by her son’s fascination; and emerged from the experience convinced that he wanted to be an artist. This – convincing young people of the value of aesthetic experience – is indeed critical work.

But Corriel also uses his work to convey more explicitly ideological messages. Water Will Be Here, a video installation positioned at street level on building facades, premiered in Dumbo, Brooklyn, in 2010 (it later showed in Atlanta, Toronto, and Southampton). The immersive installation created the sensation of floating in water, and periodically going under. Particularly in the waterfront neighborhood of Dumbo, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, the installation made the potential effects of climate change – specifically, the rise in sea levels – palpable. It transformed an abstract concern into something experiential; it made a critical argument phenomenologically. It made aesthetics ideological.

And while not all of the works explored in the salon were overtly ideological, all embodied a criticality – in their making, their reception, their manipulation, even their appreciation. It might be especially critical to recognize that even the “mere” act of contemplation – the bracketing of time to appreciate quotidian beauty and the routines of everyday experience – can itself be a critical act, particularly in an urban environment that demands urgency and productivity and profit. Those spectacular glowing rectangles can, after all, provide deep spaces where we can contemplate purposeful thinking and action.


Tanya Toft’s New “Urban Media Aesthetics” Platform – w/ Events This Tues + Wed


I’m very pleased to announce that the brilliant and talented Tanya Toft — Ph.D. Fellow at Copenhagen University, current participant in CuratorLab at Konstfack Universitet, Stockholm, and my former research assistant (!!) — has launched an exciting new curatorial/research platform, Urban Media Aesthetics, which examines the curation of digital art forms in urban environments. I had the honor of serving as external advisor for the project’s first phase of development.

“Spectacle” is the first of several themes Tanya will explore through the platform. Through invited writings, interviews, and events, she’ll examine how we might develop alternative discourses and aesthetic possibilities for “spectacle,” which don’t reduce it to illusion, commodification, and fetishization.


Revisiting Paju

Photo by Yeong Ran Kim.

I spent the month of July in Seoul, researching Paju Bookcity with my research assistant Ran. I wrote about my Korean adventures here and here and here. A landscape and urbanism journal asked me to write an article about my research — and as I put the finishing touches on that article tonight, I thought it might be useful to review my “fieldwork” and post a few pictures, so they’re easily shareable with my editor. The following research agenda is a little stilted because I had to write this up to satisfy the requirements for two different funders’ final reports:

I conducted two on-site visits to PBC: one full-day visit on July 20 and one two-day visit on July 24-25. During that time I, with help from my research assistant/translator, employed the following methods:

  • We toured – by car and foot – PBC and conducted spatial analyses of the site (e.g., examining the variety of architectural forms and facades and how companies made use of both their interior and exterior spaces, understanding how buildings are situated in relation to one another and how people who work and live in the area circulate throughout Bookcity, etc.);
  • We documented PBC via photo, video, and audio;
  • We toured the surrounding area – Heyri Art Village, the DMZ, various nearby “new towns” – to get a sense of the local landscape and of PBC’s design “context”;
  • We spoke informally with shop owners and office workers, who told us what it’s like to work in Paju, and what new opportunities and challenges working in Paju has presented to them and their companies;
  • We met on July 24 with Lee Hojin, Assistant Manger of PR and Marketing for the Bookcity Culture Foundation, who spoke with us about the original goals for Bookcity, how the Bookcity cooperative measures success, and its future plans for growth.
  • We met on July 24, for nearly five hours (which was highly unexpected!), with Yi Ki-Ung, President of Youlhwadang Publishing and Chairman of the Bookcity Culture Foundation and the Cooperative of Paju Bookcity. Mr. Yi, the driving force behind Paju Bookcity since the late 1980s, told us about his inspiration for the project and recounted PBC’s coming into being. He also addressed the core values of Bookcity and his vision for future development, and while doing so, he shared with us various renderings for future design projects at PBC.
  • We met on July 25 with Chang Ki Young, Director of the Korean Electronic Publishing Association, with whom we spoke about how digital media are changing the Korean – and global – publishing worlds, and how these changes are or aren’t reflected in the infrastructure of Paju Book City. As a tenant of PBC, Chang was also able to discuss what it’s like to work there.
  • We met on July 25 with Lee Hwang-Gu, Managing Director of the Bookcity Culture Foundation and the Cooperative of Paju Bookcity, who told us about the mechanics of the project’s development, including its financing.
  • We met on July 25 with Kim Young-Joon, Principal of yo2 Architects, who’s been involved with the design of PBC since the beginning, is leading the design of Phase 2, and has developed the macro-scale design scheme for Phase 3. He discussed the challenges the designers faced in Phase 1, discussed his plans for future development of PBC, and shared models and renderings for Phases 2 and 3. He kindly provided us with copies of the project’s design guidelines.
Photo by me.
The not-so-exciting behind-the-scenes stuff that’s still an integral part of making books. Photo by me.

We also interviewed a few individuals in Seoul:

  • On July 19 we were given a guided tour of the Kyobo bookstore and, afterward, met with Baek Won Keun, Chief Researcher of the Korean Publishing Research Institute, with whom we discussed the history and future of Korean publishing, and how that past and future have informed, and should inform, the evolution of Paju Book City.
  • On July 23 we met with leading architect Seung H-Sang, one of the primary design coordinators for PBC, who discussed with us his own involvement in the design of Phase 1 of Paju Book City, his thoughts about contemporary Korean urban planning, and his hopes for the future development of Paju.


Hearing Infrastructure

Photograph of a perspective drawing for “Lenin at the Podium” by Lissitsky…, 1924 or later. Collection Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal

Last night I gave a talk at the Canadian Centre for Architecture on hearing infrastructure, by which I mean both listening to infrastructure, and infrastructure that’s meant to undergird systems and practices of hearing.

This is of course a work in-progress; there are a lot of weak and clumsy spots, and some segments feel tacked-on. I’ve also not posted a bibliography because I simply haven’t formatted it yet. If you’re curious about sources, you can let me know.

Here she is, warts and all:

Mattern CCAPresentation

[SLIDE 2] If you subscribe to any architecture or urbanism blogs, you’ve likely encountered this new book by Andrew Blum, Wired correspondent and Metropolis magazine contributing editor. Tubes is about the physical infrastructure of the Internet, the particular materialities of specific nodes within that global network. [SLIDE 3] He takes us on a tour leading from oceanside manholes; to various buildings in downtown Manhattan where transoceanic and transcontinental lines converge; to data centers with their sophisticated security infrastructures; [SLIDE 4] and along railroad tracks, which paved the way for long-distance “data pipes.” (Incidentally, a couple years ago, while Andrew was working on this book, he took one of my graduate studios on a “walking tour of the Intenet” in Lower Manhattan.)

From [SLIDE 5] the work of InfraNet Lab, a “research collective probing the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics” and [SLIDE 6] advocating for what they call “infrastructural opportunism;” [SLIDE 7] to Kazys Varnelis’s edited collection on Los Angeles infrastructure; to the many infrastructure-related projects hosted by the [SLIDE 8] BMW Guggenheim Lab (which resided in the Lower East Side last summer and is now in Berlin), [SLIDE 9] including the walking tours of urban systems organized by design consultancy spurse; [SLIDE 10] to the infrastructurally-minded projects comprising Culture Now, a 12-university collaboration, organized by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, that “seek[s] to define, establish, program, and implement the material and immaterial substance that drives contemporary urbanity and culture”; to [SLIDE 11] to my colleagues Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruze’s recent efforts, as part of a collective called Friends of the Pleistocene, to develop a typology of America’s nuclear infrastructure – and this is just a modest sampling – is should be clear that there’s no shortage of interest in infrastructures.

Of course there’s a certain inherent beauty to infrastructures that draws our attention – in a lecture here at the CCA in 2000, Richard Ingersoll discussed the many ways in which infrastructure functions as art – and there’s a long history of thinking about infrastructure as a manifestation of the technological sublime. But the recent interest seems to be of a different quality. [SLIDE 12] Former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested in 2009 that “renewed interest in infrastructure” within the American design community was 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. It seems to me, though, 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 13] As a New York-based designer contributing to Mayne’s Culture Now program suggested to me, 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, he suggested, “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.

[SLIDE 14] There’s also a small but growing group of folks within my own field, Media Studies, and related humanities and social science fields, who are examining the systems through which media are produced, distributed, discarded, etc. [SLIDE 15] Among these scholars are Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, who have done innovative work on satellite television and [SLIDE 16] transoceanic cable infrastructures. [SLIDE 17] Of course our patron saint Marshall McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis (note book covers), along with Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Giedion and many others who have since been claimed by the “media ecology” tradition (the “Canadian school”), 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.

Immaterials: Light painting WiFi from Timo on Vimeo.

[SLIDE 18] This turn to the object or the material network has undoubtedly been inspired over the past few decades by shifting, and often perplexing, materialities in our media and urban landscapes, which are very much intertwined. Among the many data visualization and “augmented reality” projects that attempt to make sense of these hybrid “dataspaces” is this widely circulated video (see above) by the Touch research group. I’ll play just a bit of the video, which documents a project that attempts to make visible and discernible an invisible, intangible technological presence in our urban environments, while I read a few words from Adrian Mackenzie’s fabulous book on Wirelessness, which reminds us that there’s a real, tangible, physical infrastructure behind these waves in the ether:

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).

Touch’s “painting with light” is one of innumerable projects whose professed goal is to “make the invisible, visible,” but there are similarly-minded projects that attempt to use other registers to get at the uncanny materiality behind these urban networks. The Institute for Algorithmics (visit site to play audio) for instance, aims to sonify, and thereby make accessible, the “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.” Sonifying these digital processes – and even amplifying the mechanical processes that take place on a hard drive – serves not only to help us understand the mechanisms by which these technologies function, but can also have useful diagnostic applications: we can sometimes hear problems we can’t see.

What if we apply a similar methodology at the urban scale? There’s a history within sound art of sonifying 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’s 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 (visit site to play video). More recently, one of my own former thesis students created a lovely film mixing the sounds of three of New York’s major bridges – the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg – which he collected via contact mics, which pick up vibrations.

BRIDGE from Kevin T. Allen on Vimeo. [Looks like Kevin’s made the video private, unfortunately]

Our next example, which leads us into my next section, is by German composer/sound-artist Christina Kubisch. Her “Electrical Walks” use specially-designed headphones to translate electromagnetic signals within the environment into sounds, making people aware of the myriad waves and particles that make possible their ATM transactions, their reliance on various security systems, their WiFi connectivity – and that envelop and penetrate their bodies each time they walk down the street.

[SLIDE 19] These waves and energy fields are an integral part of our contemporary urban environment – an environment characterized variously by different theorists as a “code-space,” a “data-space,” etc. Today’s “sentient city” is merely the latest incarnation of what we might call the “media city,” which, before it became the name of a particular kind of [SLIDE 20] “special economic zone” created in several international urban areas, was a theoretical concept encompassing (1) mediated representations of cities, (2) cities as sites of media production and consumption, and (3) formal parallels between various media technologies and urban experiences.

There is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE 21] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE 22] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE 23] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE 24] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE 25] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE 26] the representation of the city in film (this is the dominant thread, by far); and [SLIDE 27] [SLIDE 28] [SLIDE 29] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars, like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy, have begun to address [SLIDE 30] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; [SLIDE 31] the politics of screens in public places; and [SLIDE 32] the impact of networked digital media on urban design and urban experience. [SLIDE 33] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, zoning, and urban experience.

[SLIDE 34] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. [SLIDE 35] Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media. [CLICK] Scott McQuire, in The Media City (2008), observes that the mediation of urban experience “has been underway at least since the development of technological images in the context of urban ‘modernization’ in the mid-19th century” (vii). He thus acknowledges that the history of urban mediation might stretch before the mid-19th century, yet his, and other media scholars’, relative lack of attention to this earlier period reinforces a filmic and photographic myopia, as well as ocularcentrism (and, I might add, a habitual recourse to Walter Benjamin, who dominates most urban media research). Eric Gordon, in The Urban Spectator (2010), locates the origin of the media city even later than McQuire: [CLICK] “from the hand-held camera at the end of the 19th century to the mobile phone at the end of the 20th, the city has always been a mediated construct” (2). I argue that that “always” begins well before the late 19th century – that, indeed, as Friedrich Kittler (1996) asserts, “The City Is a Medium,” and perhaps it has been since the days of Eridu and Uruk.

[SLIDE 36: BLANK] Lewis Mumford suggested that the very impetus for urbanization is rooted in communication:

What transforms the passive agricultural regimes of the village into the active institutions of the city? The difference is not merely one of magnitude, density of population, or economic resources. For the active agent is any factor that extends the area of local intercourse, that engenders the need for combination and co-operation, communication and communion… (Culture of Cities, 6)

Various archaeologists corroborate the suggestion, positing that the birth of cities is rooted not, or not only, in economics, but in the need for ceremony and communication.

[SLIDE 37] I suggest that we need to look at, and listen to, the deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE 38] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being. [SLIDE 39] The rise of print brought with it new infrastructures for publishing and education and dramatically influenced design practices, as Mario Carpo has explained. Plus the emergence of new print forms influenced how people navigated and made sense of their cities. Even to this day, metaphors of the book inform how we  “write” and “read” the city; even our locative media and “smart” buildings still “read” various data inputs, and we “read” their interfaces. [SLIDE 40] The infrastructures of a chirographic culture – of writing – have also informed, for millennia, how cities took shape. Innis and Mumford address these relationships, as do several archaeologists and art historians like Robert Harrist, who studies Chinese writings in stone, and Brinkley Messick, who examines the history of Islamic architectural inscriptions and their formal parallels in the very “articulation” of urban space.

[SLIDE 41] But what we’ll focus on for the remainder of our time is sonic media, media that resound in urban environments, and how the city itself functions as an infrastructure – a resonance chamber, a sounding board – for that mediation. [SLIDE 42] As an aside, I must acknowledge that the CCA’s fabulous “Sense of the City” exhibition from 2005-6, in which sound was one of the senses examined, has deeply informed my thinking about these issues – and about how to communicate, or exhibit, them.


We’ll start relatively close to our own time, with modern telecommunications, a term that, when it emerged in the early 20th century, encompassed the telephone and telegraph, and eventually radio, too (John). [SLIDE 43] The first broadcast centers were in cities – which, ironically, presented many material barriers to a radio signal. As Thomas Rochester, Chief Engineer of New York’s Police Department explained,

A single 500-watt transmitter station would be hopelessly inadequate for New York because of the absorbing effects of the many tall, steel-framed buildings, elevated railways and bridges and because of the area to be served. The interference caused by electrical systems and devices adds to the difficulty; and greater signal strength is required for adequate coverage than would be the case without these handicaps (quoted in Siegel 301).

Because signal strength and the location of stations’ transmitters maximized their broadcasting range, allowing them to either penetrate or circumvent tall buildings, many early broadcasts were transmitted from their cities’ highest points – the top floors of their tallest buildings, which were occasionally hotel rooms (Dennis, Hay). As communication scholar James Hay notes, in 1922 WMAQ began broadcasting in Chicago from the La Salle Hotel, then the tallest downtown building, and WGN started up in the Wrigley Building. Meanwhile, radio stations in New York were broadcasting from the Metropolitan Life Building and making use of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings’ antenna spires.

[SLIDE 44] Architectural historian Carlotta Daro, a former CCA visiting scholar, acknowledges that new telecommunications technologies gave rise to new infrastructural elements – electricity poles, cables, antennas, transmission towers – “around which cities would be built.” ([SLIDE 45] The CCA collection contains evidence of high-level debates over the functionality and aesthetics of overhead wires and the feasibility and cost of putting them underground. As electrical engineer William H. Preece commented,

Decidedly the most striking feature in New York to my professional eye is the poles that disfigure the streets in every direction. How such an enormity can have been perpetrated is simply incredible. Hideous crooked poles carrying twenty or thirty wires are fixed down the principal streets and sometimes three different lines of poles run down the same street… (quoted in Schwartz 428).

[SLIDE 46] Even today, wires (and the satellite dishes and other equipment they’re connected to) carry dystopian connotations.

City of Wires from Justin Ascott on Vimeo.

As the video suggests, the aesthetic impact of the “wire nuisance” wasn’t only visual. As Hillel Schwartz describes in his magnificent book Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond,

…there were the noises that came from the vibration of wires in high wind, which generated interfering currents, and from lightning, and then from the stringing of more overhead wires for Edison’s new incandescent lights in homes and offices, so that by 1882 “Circuits that were practically noiseless are now so bad that subscribers cannot receive messages, as the receiver makes audible every variation in the current” (Schwartz 333).

Aeolian Harp Experiment from qbit on Vimeo.

Still, some found beauty in the song of the wires: “As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us, and vibrated the lattice-work of this life of ours,” opined Thoreau. To him, the wire song was both celestial and classical: “how much the ancients would have made of it! To have a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on it by the winds of every latitude and longitude.” [SLIDE 47] I’ll briefly mention, as an aside, that there was another new infrastructural sound that often accompanied the song of the wires: the hiss of the pneumatic tube systems, which were put in place in many cities to handle inefficiencies in telegraph logistics and to aid in postal delivery. I’ve written a bit about the history of the tubes.

Daro suggests that those wires were more than a cosmetic addition to the urban landscape; they profoundly informed the shape of that landscape: “professional practice of telecommunications engineering was absorbed by modernist architects and urban planners and synthesized as a new kind of technological vision of both town and country.” Lewis Mumford represented one such group of planners – the Regional Planning Association of America. In 1937, he wrote in Architectural Record: [SLIDE 48] “The area of potential urban settlement has been vastly increased by the motor car and the airplane; but, the necessity for solid contiguous growth, for the purposes of the intercourse, has in turn been lessened by the telephone and the radio.” These new, liberating technologies – what he called neotechnics – have afforded planners an opportunity to consider alternatives to increasing urban concentration – and he, and the RPAA, of which he was a co-founder and spokesperson, advocated instead for planned decentralization.

Urban historians and historians of technology who focus on the telephone in particular seem to have come to the conclusion that it had both centripetal and centrifugal influences on urbanization. It allowed businesses to concentrate their offices downtown, while relocating their factories, warehouses, and shipping facilities outside the city, and it freed city residents to move out to the end of the streetcar lines with reassurance that the news and activity of the city was only a phone call away (Gottman, Graham & Marvin, SU).  (Architectural historian Emily Bills tells a fascinating story about the central role played by multiple, unconnected independent phone companies in agricultural production in late 19th/early 20th-c. Los Angeles. She argues that “the telephone should be recognized as the first form of infrastructure to efficiently and effectively bind the greater Los Angeles area into a comprehensive, multinucleated whole.”)

[SLIDE 49] Communication scholar James Hay finds evidence of radio’s impact on early twentieth-century city planning:

…the spatial and governmental rationality of the…city not only emphasized the beauty and scientific management of a civic center but also the unity and economy of the city radiating from that center, made possible through networks and grids for increasing the ease and efficiency of communication from one part of the city to another, and between the center all its parts. The “radio city” was born through this spatial arrangement and rationality for liberal government, welfare, and reform – through the earlier ideal of the radial city. By the 1920s radio had become a buzzword for electromagnetic waves that ‘radiated’ from a center-source outward. Over the 1920s and 1930s, radio became the invisible but audible and felt connectivity of the city as communicative space, and communicative space operated as an emerging space of citizenship and civic progress (131).

He suggests that radio – together with city newspapers and urban phone networks, which often operated cooperatively – “reorganized the US city as a communicative space” (132) – as if it hadn’t been “communicative” before? As if the urban grid, or radiating urban spaces, didn’t exist before radio.

[SLIDE 50] Others claim to hear – or rather (and this is significant) see – radio in other urban and architectural forms of the early 20th century. Eric Gordon, author of The Urban Spectator (and, again, that final word in the title – spectator – is significant), finds that [SLIDE 51] Hugh Ferriss’s drawings of New York adopt the “same formal logic as network radio” (105). Rather than depicting densely packed skyscrapers – or the radial “radio city” Hay describes – Ferriss’s charcoal drawings show “each great mass…surrounded by great spaciousness,” [SLIDE 52] affording citizens “ample vistas,” rendering the city “visible and possessable” (102). Thus radio logic manifests as a visual form. “In [Ferriss’s] drawings of the ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow,’” Gordon writes, “the city is divided into multiple centers. These ‘centers’ function as broadcasting stations, each emanating out to its proximate cluster of buildings, and each connected through a singular network.” (95). “Empty space,” ether, has been assimilated into the “structural mass of the city” (101).

[SLIDE 53] Sam Jacob, writer, critic, and co-founder of FAT architects, presented a similar argument in a recent issue of Perspecta. He contextualizes his discussion of urban form and architecture by explaining how the rise of radio effected a reconceptualization of geography, and that geographic spatial models were in turn used to make sense of the ether. Radio, as many historians and theorists have argued, seemed to represent a “new cosmology of space, time and information” – perhaps not simply a “collapse in geography,” as many a radio theory posits, but, rather, “an amplification of geographic qualities,…a topography with its own form of spatial logic” – one that oscillates “between the physical and invisible, between media and architecture” (140, 143, 144). This ethereal atmosphere could still be colonized, owned, auctioned, and controlled through regulation; “the electromagnetic spectrum is transformed from Hertzian free space into something resembling…an urban development” (140). [SLIDE 54] Continuing the metaphor, Jacob finds in the “open plan and the glazed curtain wall…signs of an architecture seeking to respond to the new experiences of wireless communication. Connecting spaces that were once separate, dissolving physical boundaries…in ways that echo the electronic dissolution of space” (137).

[SLIDE 55] I wonder if so much of what Gordon and Jacob identify as distinguishing “radio space” – its multiple connected centers, open plans, and ample vistas – might not, in some cases, precede radio, and in other cases, be equally representative of other media or cultural logics and aesthetics. [SLIDE 56] Yet even if there is some “radio” in these spaces, I find it odd that the conditions and experiences that distinguish “radio architectures” and “radio cities” are all defined in visual terms. What about radio as a sounding medium? Is there no way to “hear” radio’s influence in new spatial forms?

[SLIDE 57] Anthropologist Brian Larkin, in his book Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure and Urban Culture in Nigeria, writes about the sonic consequences of radio’s arrival in Nigeria in the 40s:

In 1944, engineers in Kano began to erect loudspeakers on the walls outside the emirate council office, the public library, the post office, and other prominent public places. The words and music coming from these speakers were radio broadcasts, mainly from England, which were captured by a central receiver and amplifier, relayed by wire to individual households and public loudspeakers, and then discharged into urban space for any in earshot to hear. Radio [thus]…began its life in Nigeria as a public technology (48).

Urban streets and houses were filled with new, foreign sounds – typically propagandistic messages, uttered in funny accents, intended to win Nigerians over to the “power and promise of modern life” offered by their colonizers (50). “Loudspeakers thus formed part of the tactile, everyday world of colonial urban life and created channels of radio waves, cables, receiving sets, and sound waves that connected that world to a larger network” (49). Eventually the arrival of wireless moved radio indoors, but then, in the 1960s, the availability of cheap transistor radios – and, equally significantly, batteries – brought it back outdoors again, in portable form.

[SLIDE 58] Many new sonic techniques and technologies that arrived alongside radio during the early 20th century also informed the sonic shaping of urban space. Acoustic zoning has a long history that, Karin Bijsterveld says, we can trace back to the separation of the “hammering trades from the learned professions” and attempts to muffle “the din of traffic in the proximity of the sick” (68). And when it became possible to measure sound, cities began to define acoustic zones by maximum noise levels. That noise could be created by traffic, airplanes – or even, in the early 20th century, as Bijsterveld explains, pianos, gramophones, and radios. [SLIDE 59] A 1930 survey initiated by the New York Noise Abatement Commission identified the radio as the third most frequently cited annoyance (cited in B 115). (Interestingly, the Commission also asked the city’s radio stations – a part of the problem – to become part of the solution: to aid in a “campaign to educate radio listeners in noise etiquette” by broadcasting, at 10:30 each night, a reminder to listeners to turn down their loudspeakers “as an act of good sportsmanship” [quoted in B 162]). [SLIDE 60] Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared a “war on noise” in the mid-1930s, which led to the city’s first noise ordinance; and in the 60s and 70s, Mayor John Lindsey helped to pass the city’s first comprehensive noise code (Radovac). “Rarely were zoning laws accompanied by revisions of building codes toward the better insulation of floors, ceilings, and walls…” (Schwartz 671).

Just as architects seemed to “bracket out” noise by expecting civic officials to banish it to other parts of the city, a surprising number of scholars who study the city in the age of radio seem to ignore the sonic dimensions of the medium, as well as fantastic literature that that could help attune them to acoustic considerations. I’m thinking specifically of [SLIDE 61] Emily Thompson’s book, The Soundscape of Modernity – a book that emerged well before the aforementioned studies were published, and which had by then received wide, cross-disciplinary acclaim. Thompson speaks at length about the design of Rockefeller Center, one of Gordon’s central concerns. Yet she addresses it as both a spectatorial and, primarily, given her focus, a sounding space. Their differences in approach exemplify a disconnect, which characterizes much “media city” research, between the “spectatorial city” scholars and the city-as-anything-other-or-more-than-visual scholars.

Thompson’s book sets the stage for Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall by addressing various shifts and developments that helped to shape the “soundscape” of the modern city: [SLIDE 62] developments including the emergence of new sound recording and broadcast technologies, of acoustical engineering, and of new acoustical architectural materials; the cultivation of new techniques and tastes in the “culture of listening” [SLIDE 63] including new definitions of what constituted noise); and, as a result of these other shifts, “the reformulation of the relationship between sound and space” (2). Steen Eiler Rasmussen, in his classic Experiencing Architecture of 1959, also explained that radio impacted the design of space on the architectural and interior scale, too: [SLIDE 64] “Radio transmission created new interest in acoustic problems. Architects began to study acoustical laws and learned how a room’s resonance could be changed – especially how to absorb sound and shorten the period of reverberation” (235). [SLIDE 65] Products like Akoustolith, Acousti-Celotex, Acoustone, Sanacoustic Tile, Sabinite, and Sprayo-Flake created architectural spaces characterized by the lack of reverberation. Rooms no longer had a signature sound based on their dimensions and materials; [SLIDE 66] these new architectural materials signaled “the power of human ingenuity over the physical environment” (171). Radio and record producers could then engineer back in the simulated sounds of particular performance spaces.

As we look toward the future, there’s potential for engineering out and in particular sounds on the urban scale – designing soundscapes for entire cities. We’ll return to these speculative ideas later.


[SLIDE 67] Let’s consider now an even older medium, the voice – which might stretch our understanding of the term medium, but which indeed was the primary means of communication in pre-literate cultures, and is still a vital part of our communication repertoires today. It would seem that the only “infrastructure” we’d need for oral communication is all packaged within our bodies, but it’s important to consider that all vocalizations happen in a setting, a space, either physical or virtual. How might the city itself function as a sounding board or resonance chamber for public address and interpersonal communication? Such considerations have, wittingly or not, informed the design, construction, and inhabitation of cities for millennia. [CLICK] “Plato limited the size of his ideal city to the number of citizens who might be addressed by a single voice,” as Lewis Mumford reminds us. He continues:

[T]he city, as it develops, becomes the center of a network of communications: the gossip of the well or the town pump, the talk at the pub or the washboard, the proclamations of messenger and heralds, the confidences of friends, the rumors of the exchange and the market, the guarded intercourse of scholars… – all these are central activities of the city. In this respect the permissive size of the city partly varies with the velocity and the effective range of communication” (CiH, 63-4)

That velocity and effective range of depends in part on the material environment in which communication happens. In recent years, archaeologists have begun to pay more attention to acoustics – from the sounds produced in ancient sites by historical musical instruments or tools, to the acoustic properties of various locations, and how they informed drama, everyday speech, or a variety of other performative and communicative activities. [SLIDE 68] Some call this sub-field archaeoacoustics.

Classicist Christopher Johnstone has drawn on some of this archaeological research to explore how [SLIDE 69] the architecture of the agora, and, later, civic buildings like the stoa, law courts, various auditoria both shaped the delivery of an orator and his audience’s engagement – and even limited the size of the audience, which might be governing body or a jury (and it’s important to note that juries usually numbered 200 or more). The physical setting also had rhetorical significance in terms of cultivating pathos and ethos. [SLIDE 70] Classical rhetorician James Fredal notes that, from the “Pnyx hill that once hosted the Athenian assembly,

…one could look toward the Acropolis and see the Nike Temple nestled neatly inside the larger Parthenon behind it, as though the arrangement of these two temples was deliberately designed for the speaker (from among an all-male assembly) with this orientation in mind: winged victory nested within the temple of the city’s patron goddess, declaring hegemony held by her citizens. A turn to the north brought into view the civic center of the ancient city — the agora and its public buildings. The ancients understood the importance of the view offered by the assembly place” (4).

[SLIDE 71] Interestingly, I found in the CCA collection a guidebook that applies similar ideas to the design of parliamentary buildings.

[SLIDE 72] In 1872 archaeologists found in the Roman Forum two marble reliefs representing an emperor – either Trajan or Hadrian – standing on the Forum’s Rostra Augusti (speaker’s platform), delivering a public address. Inspired by such finds, architectural historian Diane Favro and classicist Christopher Johanson are creating digital models of the Forum to understand how the space accommodated funeral processions.  [SLIDE 73] With further research, they’re attempting to model and understand how the Forum functioned acoustically as a space for speech:  “How did accompanying sounds reinforce the activities?… Where did spectators stand?… What route to the forum was taken by participants?” (15). In short, they want to understand in part how the material landscape functioned as an “infrastructure” for oral communication networks.

Jump forward a few thousand years, to an age when print was widely available – in fact, as David Henkins writes in City Reading, it was plastered all over the city – and the mechanically reproduced image was gaining in popularity. Even then, in the mid-19th century, the city was a place of public address. [SLIDE 74] Architectural historian Joanna Merwood-Salisbury examines how the design of New York’s Union Square has been modified repeatedly to either accommodate or contain voices of protest. Samuel Ruggles, one of the Square’s developers, claimed in 1864 that the square was “deliberately designed to support participatory democracy. The triangular parcels of land left over by the imposition of the ellipse on the grid were expressly made for ‘the assemblage of large masses of our citizens in public meetings.’” [SLIDE 75] “The recent use of the square for huge rallies in support of the Union” showed the Square to be “a theater adequate to the utterance of the national voice.” Through its continual renovation, planners aimed to use the square as an infrastructure to create “active and informed citizens as well as foster social harmony,” yet it remained, and remains, a site for radical meetings and rallies (including many that integrate a variety of media: locative technologies, text messages, cloth banners, and, still, the bull-horned or naked human voice).

[SLIDE 76] Parks were usually intended to be acoustic spaces of exception within the urban din. If we consider what it must’ve sounded like to have a conversation within the chaos of the urban street, we need to consider the city’s material properties as an acoustic environment. [SLIDE 77] The voice is interacting, or competing, with a host of sounds – traffic, whose clatter was tuned by the materials of road construction (pavement, shells, stones, wood); the noises made by a great mass of people; and “reverberations off the steep canyons of dense urban avenues” (Schwartz 309). What’s more, Schwartz says, the nineteenth-century city was “a heat sink, its large brick or stone buildings and pavement retaining heat, raising the local temperature and speeding sound along” (274). [SLIDE 78] But there were also buildings within that grid that were dedicated to public address: as Mumford reminds us, “In every…[early 19th-c. industrial] center the political auditorium became the chief civic institution: Exeter Hall, Albert Hall, Madison Square Garden, the endless Mechanics’ Halls” (Culture of Cities 182). Like their ancestors, the orators in these venues had to be attuned to their acoustics. Again, Schwartz:

Schooled or unschooled, people were veteran auditors of hours-long sermons, stump speeches, wedding toasts, union exhortations, lyceum lectures, revival harangues. Connoisseurs of such holdings forth, they appreciated delivery and style and listening for sound as well as soundness of argument (288).

Not much different from the Athens that Johnston describes. But unlike Athens, the early-20th century metropolis met a [SLIDE 79] new public sound technology – the loudspeaker – that changed how the voice reverberated off of those brick and stone surfaces. “[B]y the 1930s,” Schwartz writes, “loudspeakers were touted as capable of commanding audiences of half a million” – far larger than any Athenian stoa could accommodate (629).

[SLIDE 80] One modern-day application demonstrates that even these “old” media push us to continually reassess our relationship to the material city and renegotiate our social relations within it. The tradition of the call to prayer certainly isn’t new, but its mediation – through loudspeakers and even through radio – continue to raise questions regarding the politics of sound (or noise, depending upon whom one asks), “rights to the city,” and religious freedom. As ethnomusicologist Tong Soon Lee reports, the use of the radio to broadcast the call to prayer is occasionally a compromise to ease tensions within religiously diverse community over the call’s projection into public space via loudspeaker. Yet as Lee suggests, the radio also redefines the relationship between physical and acoustic sacred space in the cities of Singapore:

Through the use of radio, the extended and separated profiles of Muslims in the urban environment now form[s] uninterrupted acoustic space, and resultantly, a unified social and religious space. It is the radio, rather than the physical proximity of a mosque, that facilitates the cohesion of the Islamic community and maintains its identity within the larger, urban context of Singapore (92).

[SLIDE 81] And of course today, in our immediate environment, we’re negotiating with the implications of verbal (and culinary) “sounds out of place.”


What can we look, or listen, forward to in our future cities? How will its infrastructures become entangled with those of the “city of speech”? What new sonic media are to come, and how will they embed themselves in our urban landscapes – and integrate with all the sound-making communication technologies that have preceded them?

[SLIDE 82] We might consider the implications of evolving regulations and zoning practices. New York passed another noise code in 2005; it took effect in 2007. This code regulates many of the old sources of noise, but also adds a few new ones, [SLIDE 83] including noise produced by nightclubs and ice cream truck jingles. A June 2007 article in the New York Times reports that “The…code bars playing a personal stereo in public at a level that can be heard 25 feet away, and for those wearing earphones on a subway or bus, the volume must be lowered so that no one five feet away can hear.” Lilian Radovac, at McGill, is studying how these evolving codes response to evolving urban, sonic, and media contexts, and of course expand our consideration to other geographic areas.

[SLIDE 84] Another possible opportunity for designers is through urban sound, or soundscape, design. Arup, which, as you probably know, is a global firm of “designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists” focusing on the built environment, [SLIDE 85] has a team that focuses specifically on acoustics (I consulted with them on some of my earlier research on library sound design). That team, Arup Acoustics, has created a tool called the SoundLab, thorugh which engineers can listen to the sounds of simulated buildings, or recreate the acoustic conditions of buildings past. Arup is even occasionally asked to sound-design entire cities, as they were with [SLIDE 86] Dongtan, China (a project that eventually fell through). As reported in Dwell magazine, Dongtan’s automotive fleet was to be entirely electric, which created space within the soundscape for city-dwellers to hear sounds – birds, voices, wind in trees – that would’ve otherwise been masked by combustion engines. Arup’s Neill Woodger says, “People haven’t really known that they can change the sounds of a city – they can change the road surface, for example, and that has a huge effect.” In various projects around the world, sound has been a major consideration in the design of public places, at least in part so that these spaces can better facilitate socialization and interpersonal communication. But as Anne Kockelkorn and Doris Kleilein, among many contributors to the pseudo-biannual Tuned City festival, wonder, “Is this approach just about acoustical cosmetics,” about “sonic branding,” “or does it mark the beginning of a broader understanding of planning?” (105).

The political aims of sonic branding are many. [SLIDE 87] An ugly cousin of sonic branding is sonic warfare, which Steve Goodman, musician, DJ, and producer, and author of a book on the topic, defines as “the use of force, both seductive and violent, abstract and physical, via a range of acoustic machines (biotechnical, social, cultural, artistic, conceptual), to modulate the physical, affective, and libidinal dynamics of populations, of bodies, of crowds” (10). How can some of the seemingly mundane technologies we’ve already examined, along with new technologies under military development, and other sound media we’ve haven’t even conceived of yet, interact with the surfaces and volumes of our cities to function in urban law enforcement and warfare? Even the voice can be deadly: we need only recall that it was a mere blast of voices and trumpets that supposedly felled the walls of Jericho? [SLIDE 88] Architectural forms themselves can function as “sonic weapons,” as seen here, in these “concrete ears” constructed on the south coast on England in the 20s to detect the sound of approaching enemy aircraft. [SLIDE 89] Or architectural forms can be repurposed to serve in sonic resistance. Here we see public art being used to amplify the voice, which can’t be legally electronically amplified, at Occupy Wall Street.

[SLIDE 90] Goodman also talks about the potential for disenfranchised populations to use sonic warfare to create new forms of social interaction, particularly within public spaces. He asks: “What vibrations are emitted when slum, ghetto, shantytown, favela, project, and housing estate rub up against hypercapital? And what kind of harbinger of urban affect do such cultures constitute within contemporary global capitalism?” (xx). He uses the example of Jamaican sound systems, with their “intense vibrational environments,” that effect “sonic dominance” – a condition in which sound is both “physical and formal, feeling and hearing, content and form, substance and code, particle and pattern, embodying and disembodying, tactile and sonic” – and thereby to “attract and congeal populations” (28, 172).

[SLIDE 91] We might also consider pirate sound-spaces on the urban peripheries, and what Goodman calls their “rhymachinic takeover of space-time” (173). Although I am by no means an expert on the topic, low-powered and pirate radio is of particular interest – in large part because, with the rise of Internet radio and global virtual music communities, remaining pirate radio operations are typically motivated by very specific connections to material practices and urban space. This “old” medium still resonates in, and gives form to, contemporary urban landscapes. Media artist and scholar Matthew Fuller lists the material components of pirate radio:

[SLIDE 92] Pirate radio: transmitter, microwave link, antennae, transmission and studio sites; records, record shops, studios, dub plates; turntables, mixers, amplifiers, headphones; microphones; mobile phones, SMS, voice; reception technologies, reception locations, DJ tapes; drugs; clubs, parties; flyers, stickers, posters… [CLICK] [A]s all the various elements organize in combination within the sound, across the city, through a jumble of available media, there is also a sense in which the polyphony traversing the signal echoes a wider sense of connective disjuncture as a crucial term of composition… The media ecology is synthesized by the broke-up combination of parts (15-16)

[SLIDE 93] He also examines the tower block as an integral part of this combination: “The thicker the forest of towers, the more antennae perched above the city, the more the Radiant City, botched, radiates” (16). There are no open plans, open vistas, feel-good diversity in these radio cities. In the “botched” Radiant City – the city where so much of the world’s population lives, radio city echoes disjuncture, mismatch, time-slippage, grafting, hacking. But still, it resounds.

The media city resounds. It has for millennia. We just have to listen for its contemporary soundings and for its history’s echoes.


Deep Time of Media Infrastructure

I just returned from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston, where I was able to catch up with a few friends I see far too infrequently (Suze!), and finally meet some wonderful folks I had, until recently, known only online (Miriam!). I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on “Teaching the City” with Amy Corbin from Muhlenberg College, Sabine Haenni from Cornell, Brendan Kredell from University of Calgary, Paula Massood from Brooklyn College, and Mary Woods from Cornell. We talked about our various approaches to combining media and urban studies in the classroom, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the classes everyone’s teaching.

And on another day I took part in the “Signal Traffic” panel, on media infrastructure, with Lisa Parks from UC Santa Barbara, Nicole Starosielski from Miami University, and Jonathan Sterne from McGill — all fabulous and inspiring. I’m posting an excerpt from my “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” presentation:

Mattern SCMS2012 Infrastructure

For the past decade, I’ve taught, off and on, a course called [SLIDE2] “Media and Architecture.” It was inspired by my dissertation research on the [SLIDE3] Seattle Public Library – and by my appreciation for the ways that buildings are designed to [SLIDE4] house and provide material support structures for media, and for the ways that architecture itself can function as media. [SLIDES5-9] Over the years, as I’ve revised the syllabus – switching from a chronological to a reverse chronological organization; trying to keep up with new advancements in networked digital technologies and to include more international examples, etc. – I’ve come to realize that, [SLIDE10] the further backwards we moved in time, the fewer and fewer resources I was using from our own fields, media and cinema studies.

There is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE11] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE12] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE13] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE14] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE15] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE16] the representation of the city in film (this is the dominant thread, by far – as is evidenced even at this conference); and [SLIDE17] [SLIDE18] [SLIDE19] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars, like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy, have begun to address [SLIDE20] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; [SLIDE21] the politics of screens in public places; and [SLIDE22] the impact of networked digital media on [SLIDE23] urban design and urban experience. [SLIDE24] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, zoning, and urban experience.

[SLIDE25] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media….  [Skip SLIDE26, which corresponds with a  discussion of my current research projec]
…I argue that we need to look at the [SLIDE27] deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE28] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being… [Skip SLIDES29-31, which, again, correspond with more discussion about my current research project.]

[SLIDE32] What I’ve been sketching out for you is my current research project, which I’m calling Urban Media Archaeology. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration, as you might imagine, from media archaeology – a materialist, non-teleological approach to historiography. One of the key figures in the field, Erkki Huhtamo, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE33] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” (223). Media archaeology is useful not only for looking at and listening to deep time; it also encourages us to look and listen beyond representation – beyond the portrayal of material spaces in photographs and film, or beyond an augmented reality layered atop physical space. I heed the advice of another media archaeologist, Wolfgang Ernst, to look beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what he calls its “logical structure” and “hardware.” That hardware, in my case, is historical media infrastructures.

[SLIDE34] Geographer Matthew Gandy writes that “[]
he term ‘infrastructure’ has been used since the 1920s to refer to the basic physical and organizational structures such as roads, power lines, and water mains needed for the material and organizational aspects of modernity…. More recently,” he says, “the study of infrastructure has been extended to include multi – dimensional analysis of the horizontal and vertical composition of space, the interrelationships between visible and invisible domains” and new modes of service provision (58). Infrastructure historian Paul Edwards admits that, today, infrastructure “has become a slippery term, often used to mean essentially any important, widely shared, human-constructed resource”; this could include hardware, organizations, [SLIDE35] “socially communicated background knowledge,” etc. – any sociotechnical systems that offer “near-ubiquitous accessibility” (186-7, 188). Despite, or perhaps because of, the flexibility of this term, I think we have much to learn from the way Edwards and other historians and theorists of infrastructure (usually from disciplines outside ours) conceive of and work with their subject. I find that their methods resonate with the historiographic approaches of media archaeology and can encourage us to critically reflect on how we construct media histories.

In what follows, I’ll outline eight historiographic lessons I’ve learned from infrastructure studies – or things I’ve known, but which infrastructure studies have reinforced. These are by no means mutually exclusive concepts. There’s actually a good bit of redundancy – but I think that, in some cases, restating the same principle using different language can only enhance its potential utility:

  1. [SLIDE36] The Long Now / Deep Time. In their 2007 NSF-funded workshop on cyberinfrastructure, Edwards and several colleagues argued for the importance of studying the “long now” of cyberinfrastructure: the 200 years’ worth of “slower-pace[d]” political, cultural, and technical changes that have been happening “in the background” – changes like the rise of scientific disciplines and statistics – that have lain the foundation for digital networks (3). Of course I would argue that media studies could benefit from a much longer view, one that recognizes that “infrastructure” precedes the “cyber” and the electronic – but still, these scholars’ focus on historical contextualization is useful. And the concept of the “long now” – a contemporary that extends into the past – complements media (an)archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski’s suggestion that media archaeology aims to “find something new in the old.”
  2. [SLIDE37] (Techno-Socio-Spatio-Material) Palimpsests. That long now is manifested in material strata – literal layering. Henri Lefebvre has argued that urban space is formed by superimposed capital regimes and the infrastructures they create in their own image; the result, he has famously suggested, is not unlike a flaky mille-feuille pastry. But the palimpsest isn’t a mere metaphor. [SLIDE38]In his excellent study of infrastructure in urban Nigeria, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes that the “physical shape of the city emerges from the layering of these infrastructures over time” (5).[SLIDE39]
    The nature of that layering, however, is not one of mere supplanting or obsolescence. If we dig down through the strata we find much more than ruins(and this is where, I think, the archaeological metaphor can be at times a bit misleading). Digging into these layers, we often find that, depending on different contextual factors, various infrastructures have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths. Through “excavation,” we can assess the lifespans of various urban media and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors. Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete” (56).
    We find that the historical media infrastructures on the “lower levels” of our cities are often very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. I argue that these historical media are, like Raymond Williams’ (1977) category of [CLICK] the “residual,” “formed in the past, but…still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present” (122). As Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, authors of several canonical texts about telecommunications infrastructures and urbanism, argue, media networks of various historical ages can enhance one another – that is, [CLICK] “new technologies do not simply destroy older forms of communication but call into being new mobilities and sometimes intensify older ones” (6). This intermingling of temporalities fits Christopher Witmore’s definition of “archaeological time”: [CLICK] “the entanglement, the intermingling, the chiasm of pasts and presents” (279). Our infrastructural cities are a “folded, nonlinear temporal net.”
  3. Networked Histories. [SLIDE41] Graham and Marvin identify some of those “superimposed, contested and interconnecting” layers, or “scapes”: the “’electropolis’ of energy and power,” “the ‘hydropolis’ of water and waste,” “the ‘cybercity’ of electronic communication” (8). The history of any of these scapes is plugged into and inextricably linked with the histories of the others. Richard John suggests that the [SLIDE42] “concept of an information infrastructure [for instance]…highlights the fact that the transmission of information has long been coordinated by a constellation of institutions, rather than by a single government agency or business firm” (56). [SLIDE43] We need to recognize the co-dependency, the intertwining of these various systems – the telegraph and the telephone, the railroad and the telegraph, transportation infrastructures and the postal system, print and writing infrastructures, writing and oral address, and various social and regulatory systems – and perhaps write their histories together.
    [SLIDE44] Edwards lays out a general framework for how these “constellations” might form, in the cyberinfrastructure world, at least: it begins with system building; then technology transfer across domains; then the emergence of variations in the original system design and the appearance of competing systems; then the eventual merger of these various systems, via gateways, into networks; then standardization of these networks and their merger into internetworks – with, all the while, “early choices constrain[ing] the options available moving forward” (i-ii). [SLIDE45]Such a model might seem rather deterministic to those of us who are looking at technology from a humanities orientation, or those of us who are constructivists – yet I think this model identifies several phases, or pivot-points, that occur during the maturation of technological systems that we already recognize, and that we should be encouraged to look for. Edwards reminds us, too, that “modeling” the formation of these networked infrastructural “constellations” doesn’t imply that they’re rigidly interlocked systems:
    [SLIDE46] [T]he eventual growth of complex infrastructure and the forms it takes are the result of converging histories, path dependencies, serendipity, innovation, and “bricolage” (tinkering). Speaking of cyberinfrastructure as a machine to be built or a technical system to be designed tends to downplay the importance of social, institutional, organizational, legal, cultural, and other non-technical problems developers always face (6-7).
  4. [SLIDE47] Path Dependency in particular is such a useful concept for those of us who’ve been taught to avoid at all costs being labeled a technodeterminist, which, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young jokes, “is a bit like saying that [one] enjoys strangling cute puppies.” In our overcompensation to avoid the scarlet TD, we often resist acknowledging the existence of these well-trodden paths, and how they might limit future choices. Yet architectural historian Kazys Varnelis offers us a concrete example of paths’ potency: [CLICK] “…new infrastructures do not so much supersede old ones as ride on top of them, forming physical and organizational palimpsests – telephone lines follow railway lines, and over time these pathways have not been diffused, but rather etched more deeply into the urban landscape.” (27-8). [SLIDE48] In Edwards’ model, we’re able to balance a recognition that technologies do have material effects – that the channels laid and spaces configured by preceding technologies dosteer the development, to some degree, of successor technologies – with an acknowledgment of the roles played by serendipity and tinkering, by social and cultural factors, in technological development.
    Several other scholars support this model of inter-infrastructural path dependency. Graham and Marvin agree with Varnelis that[SLIDE49]…there are very close physical parallels and synergies between the development and routing of telecommunications networks within and between cities and the patterns of other infrastructures.… Because of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks, all efforts are made to string optic fibres through water, gas and sewage ducts; between cities existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used (329).
  5. [SLIDE50] Material Evidence. Things like palimpsests, networked histories, and path dependencies aren’t mere historical theorizations. Studying infrastructure, we can find material evidence of these complex pathways of historical development. We can read the archaeological record, conduct forensic analyses – or, when we’re dealing with a medium like the voice, for which there’s no collectable artifact, we can use techniques from archaeoacoustics to “listen” to spaces past – the Coliseum, the ancient marketplace, etc. We can dig up the cables, pull out the wires, analyze the disks – and observe their layering and interconnection.
  6. [SLIDE51] People as Infrastructure. That material record often shows that people haven’t been mere beneficiaries of infrastructures, but actually infrastructures themselves. I’m thinking of Greg Downey’s work on telegraph messenger boys, for instance. In Africa – and, undoubtedly, in much of the Global South and throughout much of global history – people often compensate for “underdeveloped, overused, fragmented, and often makeshift urban infrastructures” (425). The “incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents…operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used” – and constitute and infrastructure (407).
  7. [SLIDE52] Informal / Shadow Development: This mention of the flexible, mobile, and provisional reminds us that infrastructure history – and media history in general – has often deeply informed by informal and “shadow” developments. Brian Larkin writes about the jury-rigging, repurposing, or pirating of existing infrastructures in Nigeria. Such improvisations have undoubtedly appeared throughout media history. And it’s these peripheral practices, the “paths not followed” that media archaeology often likes to trace.
  8. [SLIDE53] Scale: Infrastructure makes us think about the granularity of our observations; Graham and Marvin list the corporeal, local, urban, regional, national, international, and global scales. When writing media histories, we have to consider whether we’re we writing media object histories, local media histories, urban media histories, national media histories, cultural media histories, etc. – and making such a choice is complicated by the fact that our infrastructures flow across these scales, connecting technologies into networks into internetworks. Paul Edwards suggests that scale needn’t be conceived of as merely a geographic quality; [SLIDE54] we can also consider scales of force (from the human body to the geophysical), scales of time (from human time to geophysical time), and scales of social organization (from individuals to governments) (186). Again, infrastructures span all these scales.
    But the macro view is a particularly illuminating in that it forces us to consider the forms of our media and infrastructures in relation to their long-term functions – “the reasons they came to exist in the first place” (204). Rather than thinking about how the telegraph supplanted the postal service, for instance, we can reconceive of these two systems as two instantiations of a shared infrastructural purpose. [SLIDE55] Edwards suggests that contextualizing the telephone, the telegraph, the post, and other modern technologies within James Beniger’s “’control revolution’ concept allows us to understand, not only the genesis and growth of the many large infrastructures that characterize modernity, but also the process of linking these infrastructures to each other” (207). These links allow us to appreciate the historical continuity among infrastructures – and the “deep time” of media.

And in characteristic fashion, I petered out before writing a conclusion — so I had to extemporize here. I’m pretty sure I concluded by acknowledging that most of the aforementioned examples mentioned modern infrastructures — primarily because that’s what most infrastructural scholarship deals with — and noting that my challenge, for my next book, is to show how these lessons also apply to the deep time of media infrastructure.


Producing the Public: May 9


On Monday, May 9, in my “Understanding Media Studies” lecture class, we’re introducing our “Media and the Urban Environment” curricular focus area by welcoming guest lecturer Damon Rich. The lecture is open to The New School community — but because this is my official class time, I’ll be privileging my own students in the Q&A.

Producing the Public
Damon Rich
Monday, May 9, 6pm
Tishman Auditorium, 66 W 12th Street

Damon Rich is a designer and artist, and currently serves as the Urban Designer for the City of Newark, New Jersey. His work has been exhibited internationally at venues including the 2008 Venice Biennale, Storefront for Art and Architecture and SculptureCenter, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Netherlands Architecture Institute. In Newark, Damon leads design efforts with public and private actors to improve the city’s public spaces, including the launch of the This is Newark! Public Art Program in 2009. Damon is also overseeing the design and development of the city’s first riverfront park, currently in construction. In 1997, he founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a New York City nonprofit organization that uses design to increase the impact of public participation in urban planning and community development, where he was the Creative Director for 10 years. In 2007, he was a Loeb Fellow in Advanced Environmental Studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His solo exhibition Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center was on view at the Queens Museum of Art May 31–September 27, 2009.

Some useful resources to review in advance:

Rich’s Foreclosure Exhibit @ Queens Museum: via NYT:

Sentience and Sedulousness

My review of Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space (ed. Mark Shepard, MIT Press 2011) is up on Domus.

Meanwhile, my own sapience is diminishing rapidly. Between 15 hours of committee meetings, six or seven hours of grading, another six or seven hours of thesis review, several hours of course prep, and all the regular teaching-advising-responding-to-email stuff that happens every week, I’m pretty sure I’ve dropped a couple dozen IQ points this week.