ter Weel / Architectural Plug-In

Architectural Plug-In Explorative Machine for the Sonic Recomposition of Space

Author: Taufan ter Weel, TU Delft

Supervisor: Roberto Cavallo, Dr. ir., TU Delft; Heidi Sohn, Dr. ir., TU Delft

Research stage: intermediate doctoral stage

Category: Artefact

The human use of ultrasonic waves and electrical energy as carriers of information – from early electric telecommunication and radio to electronic media to computing and global networks – changes and complicates the relationships between bodies, media technologies, and lived environment. Gilbert Simondon pointed out the importance of the advent of signal transmission in machines – of electric currents and electromagnetic waves as “vehicles for information.” “Their ability to be modulated makes them faithful carriers of information, and their speed of transmission makes them rapid carriers.” He argued that this caused a “profound change in the philosophy of technics” characterized by the increasing importance of “the accuracy and fidelity of the modulation transmitted by the information channel.”1 Coupled with the increasing precision of clock time, from mechanical to electric to atomic clock, signal transmission enabled the development of radio-navigation systems, such as the satellite-based Global Positioning System.2 (See fig. 1.)

Research context (image by author).

Figure 1: Research context (image by author).

Transmission with the speed of light brought about a shifting sense of space and time (or space-time) and computing and global networks change the modes of operation and governance. In addition, there is an increasing dependency on media technologies to carry out activities and sense, build, or change our environment, which runs parallel to a decreasing clarity of their inner workings which is inherent in their expanding complexity. In the context of this concrete entanglement between abstract machines and sensing bodies, or abstract space-time and social realities, how could we address the problem of automated subservience and spatial control in order to recuperate the recognition of the right to actively engage in the making of our habitat? And, how to develop the means to do so? How can we better understand and act upon and within the complex relationships between bodies, media technologies, and lived environment through an experimental and diagrammatic architectural approach based on sound and signal processing?

A focus on sound and signal processing allows for an intensive and diagrammatic way of thinking and making to explore the inner workings of media technologies in relation to bodies and lived environment. On the one hand it helps us to understand space in terms of vibrational energy, or waves, and on the other hand it becomes possible to draw and spatially articulate abstract relationships and operations, from continuous modulations to algorithmic processes. Sound here is the vehicle to approach the irreducible spectral and vibrational complexity outside the field of vision. The relationship between sound and signal – between acoustic (or mechanic) and electromagnetic energy – provides an opening into the machinic dimensions of the production of subjectivity. Lastly, through signal processing in spatial practice we can connect circuit diagram, algorithm, and architectural diagram.

Theoretical framework (image by author).

Figure 2: Theoretical framework (image by author).

Architectural diagramming is understood here as a material-discursive process that reconfigures our relation to the world, exploring latent potentials within an associated milieu, exposing frictions and discrepancies, and suggesting a broader set of relations connecting multiple environments, spaces and times (see fig. 2). Following Karen Barad’s notion of material-discursive practice, the process entails both epistemology and ontology, both meaning and matter, and is performative.3 Second, in this material-discursive process, theory is not isolated from practice but is intertwined with it, aiming to move beyond this dualism. The production of concepts (theory) and the production of spatio- temporal configurations, designs, and compositions run in parallel, or are entangled. A diagram is deterritorialised, it is trans-spatial and trans-temporal, allowing to cut across and link different spatial and temporal coordinates.4

Signal processing ranges from analogue to digital, continuous to discrete, modulation to algorithm, transmission to computing. By understanding the analogue and digital not only as intertwined modes of technological mediation, but also ways of thinking, the aim here is to move beyond the opposition and incompatibilities between analogue and digital thought (between material and discursive, matter and meaning, ontology and epistemology or dialectics) which cuts across architecture theory and the philosophy of technology, distracting attention away from the formation of new architectures of automated control.5

Aside from being a scientific subfield itself, signal processing is inherent in the production of electronic or electro-acoustic music and explored in sound art as long as it exists as a field, if not before. Also in media studies, and more specifically in the emerging cross-disciplinary field of sound studies, there is a growing interest in signal transmission and perhaps to a lesser extent processing. Most notably, Douglas Kahn contextualised signal transmission in the sciences and sonic arts, questioning how electromagnetic energy became audible. By starting with natural radio he moves beyond an anthropocentric notion of communication – that is, the signal as carrier of information – and from this position discusses the work of Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, and John Cage, among many others.6 Although my research certainly draws upon Kahn’s highly original survey, it does focus on control – on processing and the political.

The presented sound installation is a machine which is as it were plugged into the physical space by means of electroacoustic transducers – more specifically, microphones, piezoelectric elements, exciters, speakers. These transducers are attached to or positioned in relation to the material elements, structures, and infrastructure on site such as ventilation shafts, pipes, resonance chambers, antennas, network lines, existing sensors, and switches. The precise positions are carefully chosen through an acoustic survey on location by means of listening instruments, in relation to the available exhibition space. A transducer’s function is either to pick up signals or to make them audible. An object or structure can become, for instance, a vibrating surface, resonator, or medium.

Signals are extracted, processed and spatially redistributed into a continuous sound composition. In technical terms, a wide range of vibrations (electromagnetic, acoustic) are converted into electrical signals, processed, redistributed, and converted into mechanical energy, acoustic waves, sound. The space’s acoustic properties are integrated in and modified by the installation. It deliberately disorients and modifies perception through the spatial redistribution of sound. In doing so the installation implicitly directs attention to broader questions regarding the shifting sense of space-time.

Rather than using the input signals for extracting data in order to capture behaviours or convert them into exchange value, which in the context of cognitive capitalism relates to what is called ‘immaterial labour’ or ‘mental labour’, or for pattern recognition and machine learning (Artificial Intelligence), the signals are treated as direct source or sound material in the sense that they are not decoded or demodulated. These sources can nevertheless function as control signals in a basic cybernetic sense: they can trigger automations and modulate processes or other signals (electroacoustic processes, sound signals).

Through focussing on sound material and signal rather than data, the installation indirectly looks into the possibilities of an explorative machine which moves beyond the machine’s function of replacing or extending an existing division of labour (industrial machines replacing manual labour, computers extending mental labour). Attempts to move beyond the merely utilitarian, to explore the ethico-aesthetic dimensions of machines, can certainly already be found in various artistic practices – in particular, in media and sound art as well as electronic music (e.g., the design of experimental electronic musical instruments).

The input signals are selected, processed, and distributed by means of algorithmic processes, probability density functions, and various, more basic forms of cross-modulation (see fig. 3). Through this the installation attempts to explore and expose various instances and dimensions of the politics of amplification, algorithmic governance, and information distribution, in a real-but-abstract way.

The audience is invited to improvise with the installation’s components and explore the site’s spatial and material properties, aiming for more than a simple one-to-one relationship between action and response associated with more simplistic examples or interpretations of what is generally known as interactive design. The work, for instance, seeks to enable the exploration of material properties (e.g., textures, acoustic properties) and technological, spatial, and social relationships (think of musical improvisation). The audience can to a certain degree modify the sonic environment and its spatio-temporal relations by actively engaging with the machine. It enables a degree of unpredictability or indeterminacy in the process.

General diagram of installation (image by author).

Figure 3: General diagram of installation (image by author).

  1. Simondon, Gilbert (2017 [1958]): On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, trans. by Cécile Palaspina & John Rogove, Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, pp. 143-44.
  2. See Mackenzie, Adrian (2002): Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed, London & New York: Continuum, pp. 87-115.
  3. Barad, Karen (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham, London: Duke University Press.
  4. See Guattari, Félix (1995): Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis, Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  5. On the analogue and digital in philosophy, see also Galloway, Alexander R. (2014): Laruelle: Against the Digital, Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
  6. Kahn, Douglas (2013): Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts, Berkeley: University of California Press.