Sketching The Senseability Of Hertzian Territories

During one of my first visits to the Natural History Museum in London I remember reading about how RF waves had no impact on the human body whatsoever. Which is strictly true when considered on the flesh and blood level but since we first began colonizing the electromagnetic spectrum apprehending this invisible yet potent aether has remained a source of fascination and inspiration.

Or perhaps that’s just me. Nevertheless I’ve decided to do a round up of the means by which Hertzian space is made sensible (inspired in no small part by the Media and The Senses Event taking place at Goldsmiths tomorrow and Friday)

As digital resources have squeezed ever more bang for buck from the Hertzian Spectrum there have been a number of project which have devised ingenious ways to make this realm apprehendable to our sensorium

Providing the sonic exploration of Hertzian space is the ever delightful (and ever esoteric) work of Shintaro Miyazaki and Martin Howse’s Epistemology of Electromagnetic Waves

Surrounded by invisible electromagnetic waves we live in an age of unhearable cacophonies. Serial coded signals and their rhythms are flying around us making a kind of unheard music.The investigations try to analyse those signals and reconstruct their content using contemporary technologies such as software-defined radio (USRP).

Appealing to our most glaringly obvious sense has provided some beautiful and enigmatic works. Though a little frivilous in execution (I object to the arbitrariness of the stick used to measure the signal) the ‘Immaterials’ light painting project by Timo Arnall, Jørn Knutsen, Einar Sneve Martinussen certainly turned out some stunning visuals

Arguably more interesting for me due to it’s refusal to pander towards infographic obsession is the Wi-Fi Camera Obscura

The Panoramic Wifi Camera takes ‘pictures’ of spaces illuminated by wireless radio signals, in much the same way that a traditional camera takes pictures through visible light. In effect, it is a camera which captures the invisible. Wireless radio networks are increasingly part of our daily lives throughout the developed world. The camera reveals the topology of this electromagnetic ecology, or ‘Hertzian space’, showing that even our own bodies cast their ‘shadows’. Wifi uses wireless radio signals in the of 2.4 Ghz range which behave similarly to light waves, in that they are reflected off almost all solid objects. When we perceive colours, we see the light that is reflected off an object into our eyes. The Panoramic Wifi Camera allows us to perceive the radio environment in a similar manner

Making the communication aether through which we pass unnoticed palpable in a visceral manner should also be commended and to my mind no project does it better than Gordan Savicic’s Constraint City. Using a hacked DS Savicic rigged a custom chest strap with motors which tighten and constrict based on the proximity of WEP and WPA encrypted networks to your body:

We never experience access-restrictions by walking through the streets unless we unsolicitedly want to enter a private space. But since the advent of wireless data networks and ubiquitous computing, private space has been shifted into an invisible layer. Closed networks, such as WEP or WAP restrain access to this layer. Thus, being expelled from the Internet can be a painful act and harm you to a certain extend. Constraint City lets you literally feel this pain, by tightening a worn chest strap which is embedded in an ordinary jacket. The stronger the signal of perceived restriction, the harder your breath! Alternative routes through the city are the only constrained conclusion

Though it takes the open or closed nature of WiFi networks as it’s starting point I feel that the BDSM overtones of the work are really impressive in evoking this important ‘other-realm’ which eludes our sensorium. It’s also a very effective psychogeographical mediation on the other paths which can be traced through the sentient city

What senses remain untapped?

To my knowledge the closely interwoven senses of taste and smell remain untapped. Given the formers consideration of texture alongside flavour and the unique rules by which the latter operates I think it’d be interesting to consider how such senses might grasp Hertzian space. What suitable appendages could be devised?

The latter may require a more poetic engagement to work with how smell works (i.e. that you can only smell something once and not again for a short while thereafter). Extend the senses, can pain and heat be considered sesnes

Given the strong ‘digital media’ inflection among the projects I’ve covered I feel it would be remiss not to mention the magnificent work of Brett Balogh. His work explores the milieux of radio waves and through a number of thought provoking interventions therein illustrates how entwined we are with it (entwined with something which our corporeal existence has no natural affinity for). His bewitching sketches of American Hertzian space are both beautiful and pertinent given the current shifts in ownership occuring in the wake of analog switchover and ‘white spaces’ wrangling

A Noospheric Atlas of the United States (2009)

..aims to map the hertzian space created by the United States’ mass media broadcast stations. This space is not definable in traditional terms of surveyed boundaries of state and local territories, but rather by electrical fields and consumer markets in the air around us. Geospatial data provided by the FCC is rendered as translucent shapes whose color is determined by the type of service (AM/FM/TV). The resulting image depicts a landscape formed by our collective communications.

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~ by Stephen Fortune on May 5, 2011.

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