civil twilight 5:37
south river - remote recording 2-5-2015
The notion of ecology typically describes human interconnectedness with other beings; opening the category of active agents to more than organisms allows for ecology to describe non-living but material things and systems of things. Under this expanded conception, communications systems are not only part of environments, but also active within and themselves forming environments. Radiophonic or transmitting devices are examples of things which participate in actively shaping the functions, forms, contexts and conditions of wireless communication, which I broadly refer to as transmission ecologies.
To think ecologically about transmission is to include the materiality of wirelessness and its accompanying social symbolic infrastructure as taking part in fundamentally relational processes between people and things. Jonathan Sterne notes, materiality must needs refer “to both physical things and the irreducibly relational character of reality” (Sterne, 2014: 121), meaning that a such materiality is hardly fixed, but the subject of constant change in response to perpetually shifting constellations of intersubjective influence. Things are agents too, even on a small scale; they are not mere mute objects awaiting activation by human will. This separate life of things means that they act and are acted upon by other things outside of human intention, including devices, fields, weather, geology, or sunspots. Thinking ecologically about transmission is to consider processes of relationship and power, not just the quantifiable or saleable real estate of the state-controlled electro-magnetic spectrum.
Things exert influence, are in turn influenced, and are located within complex fields of influence. I apply the term transmission ecologies in reference to both the symbolic spaces of cultural production such as a radio station, and to the invisible but very material space of dynamic electromagnetic interactions, both of which feature the collaboration between people and things. Transmission ecologies can thus be expressed in a number of ways: on a macro scale, the earth's magnetic field, atmosphere, and proximity to the sun comprise a specific set of fluctuating conditions in which electro-magnetic signals propagate and travel at the scale of the planet; a transmission ecology could also be defined by the set of radio receivers tuned to a particular station in a single urban area, or by the all the activity across the various frequencies on the electro-magnetic spectrum (or Hertzian space) in a particular place like your tabletop. Thinking ecologically demonstrates that transmission and communication is not a game of one-to-many broadcast or a polarity of senders and receivers, but always already a many-to-many field of relations, operating at micro and macro levels simultaneously.
The term Hertzian space (Dunne, 2005) references Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, who demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves through experiments with UHF and VHF frequencies and whose name is now the unit of electromagnetic frequency measurement. Hertzian space is the physical space of electromagnetic activity, overlapping visible empirical reality while remaining itself mostly invisible; accessed, influenced, and manipulated by electronic and magnetic objects, and informed by imagination and experience.
Electro-magnetic waves are both imminent and immanent in the urban landscape. Signals saturate any contemporary city, and wash across all municipal boundaries to expand the urban footprint across countryside or wilderness. Much as rail lines and highways are extensions of urban infrastructure beyond the bureaucratic city limits, so the signals from across the spectrum serve as material if invisible infrastructure, from broadcast and two-way radio communications, to the more recent proliferation of the high frequency mobile telephony signals into so-called remote places. Listening at specific sites using acoustic and radiophonic means reveals great contrasts of tempo, surface tension and depth, and the diminishing horizon in the contemporary city as a result of urban design and an exponential increase in wireless communications infrastructure (or EM clutter). The contrast in rhythms between acoustic and Hertzian recordings can be remarkable (for instance, a quiet residential street described by occasional cicada drones and a passing car is a completely different scene when experienced through a variety of VLF or UHF antennae—suddenly the street is ruled by the pervasive drone of the local telephone company's transformer box at the corner, the storm of encrypted high frequency communications between mobile phones and nearby base towers, or punctuated by a tiny tick tick tick transduced from nearby blinking bicycle lights), and reveals the otherwise invisible interpenetration of objects and frequencies in urban space. Frequencies are in fact not discrete but dense and overlapping; noisy, full of fluctuation, interference, and dynamic activity. Listening to waves and understanding the many objects (human and non-human) operating in a transmission ecology strengthens the notion that wirelessness is not at all a disembodied condition, but taking place in a material reality populated by a multitude of bodies.
These overlapping acoustic and Hertzian spaces are not homeostatic, but in constant flux. The limits of such territories and relationships would be very difficult to map, as a device or a person belongs to various sets of fluctuating relationships at any time, depending on the shifts in position by all agents and conditions. A two-way police radio is part of an ecology of other radios on the same frequency, as well as other activities which effect that frequency such as nearby electrical infrastructure, the physical body of the person using the radio, weather, proximity of other two-way radio networks, etc. This police radio can also be defined as part of a social infrastructure of state-controlled wireless communications, or as a voice compressor. The transmission ecology is neither essential, fixed, nor holistic: thus one actant inhabits many positions within many overlapping ecologies, and the irreducible condition of wirelessness is not space overcome but place multiplied.
Contemporary transmission art practices seek to reveal these complex circumstances of wirelessness where systems are active, intricate and extensively interconnected, in order to better perceive and experiment with the ambiguous terrain of Hertzian space which exceeds the dominion of spectrum allocation, lease, license, or ownership. Potentially massive “on-air, on-site, on-line” international events of the sort pioneered by ORF Kunstradio are an obvious example, but small clandestine circuits can be equally revealing of the prolific and pervasive unstable systems in which we humans are implicated by design and use, and with which we collaborate, wittingly or unwittingly. Rethinking radio was the starting point for such experiments, which now expand out into installation and performance practices, and public interventions into our shared Hertzian space.
What social relations are implied if the circuit of transmission shrinks to the space of a performance venue, where receivers and transmitters are actants mingling among the audience, who are themselves also implicated as antennae and instruments of interference? What relations between people, devices, and landscapes are possible when alternative networks are formed, such as an international REVEIL? Brandon LaBelle notes the close relations of transmission towers to other towers associated with political, religious, and military power or magic (LaBelle, 2008: 68). In a transmission ecology, these are the dominant architectures. An alternative to towers of power are the “crude monopoles” of the human variety (Dunne, 2005: 111), collaborating to create temporary collaborations among networks and devices: softly subversive, no longer mysterious or remote, but still able to generate everyday, this-worldly magic.
Dunne, Anthony. Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. London and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.
LaBelle, Brandon. "Transmission Culture." In Re-Inventing Radio: Aspects of Radio as Art, eds. Heidi Grundmann, Elisabeth Zimmermann et al, 63-85. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Revolver, 2008.
Sterne, Jonathan. “What Do We Want? Materiality!” When Do We Want It? Now!” In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Kirsten Foote and Pablo Boczkowski, 119-128. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014.