Perceiving the Invisible: Speculation as Interface at Sonic Acts Academy 2018

Assuming that human perception is like a filter that dispels the possibility of accessing the whole, and it situates knowledge only in small parts – we know very little.
– Mario de Vega

In the end of February 2018, Sonic Acts Academy hosted a three-day festival program with several preceding workshops, inviting artists, practitioners, academics, and students to Amsterdam to join forces in answering the question of how to “turn the reproduction of knowledge to knowledge that ‘resists, supplements, thwarts, undercuts, or challenges traditional forms of knowledge?” (Nora Sternfeld).
In line of this ambitious and many-faceted approach I was fortunate to take part in the workshop “Speculation as Interface“, hosted by artists Mario de Vega and Victor Mazón Gardoqui. In three days we built, discussed, and tested the small hand-held device Limenia that picks up electromagnetic radiation from the surrounding and turns it into sound. In transposing this “electrosphere” (Anthony Dunne) into the spectrum of human perception, the device serves as an interface, allowing us to undertake speculations about this ordinarily imperceptible hyperobject that we create with our skyrocketing information and communication infrastructure and that may affect us everyday, all the time.

Electromagnetic waves are biologically active and we react to them, as we are electric beings whose cells and nervous system communicates through electric impulses.
– Daniela Silvestrin

As Daniela Silvestrin explains in the artist collective’s experimental publication Limen, human-made electromagnetic waves are ubiquitous and penetrate our surroundings in a density that “has grown to 108 times higher than what we would be surrounded by naturally” (that is a hundred million times) and is still growing with the activation of each new smartphone, “security” camera, wifi-router, or any other of the many always-on devices that constitute our everyday.

“Most of the energy sources on which human life is based consist of stored or pure forms of electromagnetic radiation.”
– Daniela Silvestrin

Electromagnetic waves are microwaves, invisible to the human eye. As we know two kinds of microwaves, thermal and non-thermal ones, we only have experiential (and therefore rather undebated) knowledge about the harmful effects of the first kind: Most people will agree that thermal microwaves can harm people when they watch the effects of their radiation on a dish sitting in a microwave oven (or more exciting: on a metallic object; don’t try this at home). However, non-thermal electromagnetic waves can only be sensed by people suffering from a condition termed “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. These people experience mental and/or physical distress in ares with high electromagnetic density. The rest of us has been purposefully kept ignorant and indifferent by the colonizers and profiteers of the electrosphere: Telecommunication companies.

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(for image sources see: twistedsifter.com)

In an attempt to confuse and distract the public from potential effects of electromagnetic radiation to the human body and/or psyche, the telecommunication industry has fed the scientific community with what philosopher Harry Frankfurt simply termed “bullshit”:

The journal [Microwave News] compared the results of and funding sources for 85 studies on microwave-induced genotoxicity published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. 43 of these found some type of biological effect and 42 did not. 32 of the 42 studies showing no effect were paid for by the mobile phone industry or the U.S. Air Force, as opposed to only 3 of the 43 studies showing that microwaves have biological effects.
– Daniela Silvestrin

Similar to the tobacco industry’s strategy of creating doubt about the actual harmfulness of their addictive product, this is a prime example of agnogenesis, “ignorance as a deliberately engineered and strategic ploy” (Robert N. Proctor). Even though, much like the carcinogenic qualities of cigarettes, the potential harm of electromagnetic radiation might be an established health hazard in a future society, the public will/is most likely follow/ing the three steps of firstly believing the claim of no proof for potential danger (based on the dezinformatsiya-like marketing strategy), secondly assumption of no danger as null hypothesis (out of convenience and no-mobile-phone-phobia), and finally, acceptance of the potential hazard as common knowledge (which might be tolerated, because of the pervasiveness of mobile media and its constitutive role in our society).

rsz_h450_8_28
Limenia’s circuit diagram

To counteract this passive acceptance of top-down produced knowledge about phenomena that are not directly perceivable, the workshop Speculation as Interface turned its participants into active agents of knowledge creation by having them use their own hands (and burn their fingers) to solder a device whose sonifying power of the invisible sphere of electromagnetic waves they would (physically and conceptually) understand and be free to use for whichever practice they may envision.

Soldering the device
Soldering the device

Considering vision and hearing our most important perceptive capabilities of meaning making in the urban context, I decided to attempt a visualisation of the sonification performed by the speculative device in relation to the urban surroundings of the city I live in. Inspired by Christina Kubisch’ “Electrical Walks” and her plan to map the electromagnetic fields of the world, I undertook a number of city walks through the centre of Utrecht, recording the audio produced by the device upon reception of the environmental electromagnetic waves, and constructed an alternative street network from the recordings’ visualisation as spectrograms.

Experiment Setup
Walking experiment setup: the device, an audiorecorder, headphones

Before the recording, I drew up a walking plan, which I would follow in order to create street-specific recordings of the electromagnetic fields around me. I fixated the route of my actual walk with the GPS-tracking app OSM-Tracker:

DirectionsGPSTraces_satelliteGPSTraces_black

Furthermore I made sure that my recordings would match (more or less) the location of the electromagnetic wave’s reception, by adjusting my steps to a metronome-ticking played in loop on my headphones. Recording the audio took around 2 hours and felt almost like a walking meditation, as I was forced by the metronome to walk very consistently and slowly through the streets with no regards to the specific walking environment or other city dwellers. Here is a short extract of how the recorded electromagnetic waves sound like:

After the walk was recorded, I attempted to create an experimental map of the streets of Utrecht and their specific density of electromagnetic radiation by visualising the sound recordings with Audacity spectrograms of their volume amplitudes:

Spek_Showcase
An example recording spectrogram and two visual variations

Finally, I mapped the spectrogram images bit by bit onto the street map of Utrecht’s city centre to make the connection between site-specific recording and city space visible. I ended up with two different maps, one (in my opinion) more informative about the actual volume amplitudes at any given spot on the map, and one more aesthetically fitting the sound phenomenon of recorded electromagnetic waves:

Spek_Basic_35_whiteEM_white

I hope that this rather experimental-artistic than academic street map follows the spirit of Sonic Acts Academy in exploring new and playful ways of knowledge creation and that this experiential speculation may help contest the primacy of bullshit by adding to a growing need of the digital native for agency in a colonized post-digital life.

In a society where the prevailing view is that a person should be informed and have an opinion about everything, many of these quickly adopted opinions will be potentially based on bullshit. We have yet to acknowledge bullshit as a real enemy to a healthy and democratic society, and start fighting it with vigor.
– Daniela Silvestrin


Cover photo and photo of soldering the device by Pieter Kers.

Literature:

Daniela Silvestrin: “The Thrill of Riding the Wave” in LIMEN

Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Mario de Vega: “Phlegms Roaring: Venom vs. The Sinus Body” in Sonic Acts Academy 2018 Reader

Robert N. Proctor & Londa Schiebinger, Agnotology – The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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