Stones and numbers: new media and the production of space | GIOVANBATTISTA TUSA

 

Before the end, something is coming to an end. The general digitalization of channel and information erases the differences among individual media. […] Inside the computer the computer themselves everything becomes a number: quantity without image, sound or voice. […] With numbers, everything goes. Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, storage, transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping – a total media link on digital base will erase the very concept of medium. Instead of wiring people and technology, absolute knowledge will run as an endless loop

F. Kittler

 

 

Manuel Castells, in The Rise of the Network Society, remarks the importance of information flows into the production of space of our society, which is, for him “constructed around flows of capital, flows of technology, flows of organizational interaction, flows of images, sounds and symbols. Flows are not just one element of the social organization; they are the expression of processes dominating our economic, political and symbolical life.”[1]

At the same time, our cities,  public spaces are becoming material, made by stones, squares, gardens; but also immaterial, ‘city of bits’, as Mitchell called them, and in a world of “ubiquitous computation and telecommunication, electronically augmented bodies, postinfobahn architecture, and big-time bit business, the very idea of city is challenged and must eventually being reconceived”[2], the elements of urban architecture – points, lines, and surfaces –  are all transformed and redefined in this technological shift. For Novak, we are now living in the age of the ‘transphysical’ city, which is not a postphysical city: our cities will become “our interfaces to the net, that we will really be able to ‘reach out and touch someone’ across the planet and as far as our transmissions will allow. As important as the understanding of those changes will be, we must not forget to see the larger change: a new, nonlocal urbanism is in the making.”[3]

Physical spaces are filled with immaterial information, as with digital media, the body could be here and there, amplified, ‘opened’, distributed by digital means. The French architect and theorist Paul Virilio suggests, the new technologies of communication isolate the present from its ‘here and now’, creating a difference not between the present and the past, but into the actuality of present, real time itself, disseminating a “commutative elsewhere”  that is not more our present, actual location, but an intermittent telepresence, so that our ‘horizons of visibility’ are just a matter of light, of relative intensity of speed: horizon shifted from our naked eye’s sight to what is visible electronically at the speed of light.[4]

As Lev Manovich points out, during the second part of the 1990s “the daily dose of cyberspace – using Internet to make plane reservations, to check email using Hotmail account, or to download MP3 files  – became such a norm that the original wonder of cyberspace so present in the early cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s and still evident in the original manifestos of VRML evangelists of the early 1990s was almost completely lost”[5], and while a typical VR system is totally independent from the ‘real’, physical space, there is a tremendous increase of the fact that physical spaces are filled with electronic and visual information, and thus “the previous image of a computer era – VR user traveling in a virtual space – has become replaced by a new image: a person checking her email or making a phone call using her PDA / cell phone combo while at the airport, on the street, in a car, or in any other actually existing space.”[6]

An interesting example of this space made dynamic, ‘opened’ to a collaborative interaction with the users by the use of electronic devices, is “Son-O-House”, a project by Lars Spuybroek, a structure which is both an architectural and a sound installation, which allows people not just to hear sound in a musical structure, but also to participate in the composition of the sound.

Lars Spuybroek himself states what was the aim of his project: “in the house-that-is-not-a-house we position 23 sensors at strategic spots to indirectly influence the music. This system of sounds, composed and programmed by sound artist Edwin van der Heide, is based on moiré effects of interference of closely related frequencies. As a visitor one does not influence the sound directly, which is so often the case with interactive art. One influences the real-time composition itself that generates the sounds. The score is an evolutionary memoryscape that develops with the traced behavior of the actual bodies in the space.”[7]

These spaces, augmented with media that interact with the environment in real time, are essentially relational spaces, ephemeral structures which change ceaselessly, and even if any experience of artwork has always been, and will always be, interactive, in the sense that it will always rely on the complex relationship between the artist and the viewer, there is a peculiarity about art and spaces produced using interactive media: the ever-changing structure of digital environments or artworks “allows different forms of navigating, assembling, or contributing to an artwork that go beyond this purely mental event. While the user’s or participant’s involvement with a work has been explored in performance art, happenings, and video art, we are not confronted with complex possibilities of remote and immediate intervention that are unique to the digital medium.”[8]

Interactive media, not only shape the new cultural production of our current age, but they also supplement museum’s spaces, cinema screens, books, so that in some way “all culture, past and present, is being filtered through a computer, with its particular human-computer interface. Human-computer interface comes to act as a new form through which all older forms of cultural production are being mediated.”[9]

In the fall of 1995, artist and architect Laura Kurgan exposed in MACBA, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, his work “You Are Here: Museu”, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona became the surface on which were projected the flows and the displays of a GPS satellite positioning data, which were registered in real-time by an antenna placed on the roof of the museum itself, together with other data recorded in other days, in order to provide the visitors the cognitive experience of the interferences between the digital and built space.

This work, as Laura Kurgan writes, maps the spaces of a building, “and then installs that map in and on the building itself: not in the name of self-reference but rather of superimposition, of the overlay of asymmetrical spaces”[10]. The data on the wall, on the monitors, on the building, were the traces of an interaction with the satellite network, and the physical space is mixed and folded with the immaterial remnants of this superimposition; a sort of reflection on the concept of museum itself as a space, seen as “a machine for collecting and preserving, for inscribing, the traces of a culture. Two styles or spaces of inscription cross with each other, two conventions of description or interpretation: the precise coordinates, in longitude, latitude, and altitude, of the building, and the letters of the name, both common and incipiently proper, of the institution which, as such, sets off and demarcates that space as a zone of preservation and display. Two information networks, two virtual spaces, condensed into a map of this museu … and exposed.”[11]

As it becomes perceptible through the works of Laura Kurgan, new immaterial infrastructures exist alongside the classical ‘material’ infrastructures of communication and transport (motorways, air communication corridors, railway lines, etc.), so that informational infrastructures are becoming the basis on which a ‘new territory’ is growing; and more than based on physical space and distances, it would be dependent on a series of relations established in an immaterial space.

But although the so-called Network Society is based on the rhetoric of connectivity and accessibility, we can still notice the unequal geographic and social  distribution of informational infrastructures, and the fact that those areas that have poor access to the Internet are presently excluded, since while cyberspace or the Net is usually seen as a ‘democratic’ space where you can get information and communicate at any time, actually “what we commonly apply the word to, the web, is a little more mundane. You type; you connect. Your computer nuzzles into another and sucks off a loving, coded flow. You follow a link, you traverse, you search, you back out again”[12], and the lack of ‘accessibility’ leads to marginalization, to a periphery, which is no longer situated far from the city’s centre, but that could just be anywhere. The only discrimination between ‘central’ and ‘peripheral’ will be the commercial reason, according to scenario described by Jeremy Rifkin in The Age of Access “in a wired global economy […] Those who can afford access to cyberspace and the shared networks and virtual worlds that make up the new ethereal plane of human existence will be connected, and everyone else will remain outside electronic gates.”[13]

As Geert Lovink and Florian Schneider point out in a very stimulating article on the ‘State of Networking’, since the classical antagonisms between public and private, global and local, became obsolete as categories for a political analysis and praxis, and the networking paradigm seems to be more abstract, based on invisible processes, on the “flexible attitudes of managing singularities and fluid differences”[14], they suggest that there is a task for media activists, if they wish to engage a radical critique of the information society, analyzing the shift from the “state of territory and the state of population to the state of a networked globality or Info-Empire. […] Investigate the limits of networking in order to be in a better position to overcome those boundaries. This era is blinded by the light. As technologies are still an expanding universe it is hard to see its limits, to recognize its damages, without falling back into technophobia and cultural pessimism.”[15]

At the same time, as traditional space is being overlaid by electronic networks of mobile telephones, GPS, and other wireless media, and networked environments are becoming self-controlled and self-managed, tactical media try to establish an alternative network within the official one, which is for Lovink a highly unstable system, uneven and constantly changing, always on the brink of collapse.

Smart mobs, flash mobs, hacking, open-source software, specialized mailing lists, are acting ‘tactical’. As he writes “acting tactical is a question of scale. How does a phrase on a wall turn into a global revolt? These days a well-designed content virus can easily reach millions overnight. Tactical activists invest a lot of time to research how to design a robust ‘meme’ which can travel through time and space, capable of operating within a variety of cultural contexts.”[16]

Tactical media, instead of amplifying the observable, make an effort of creating unforeseen, unpredictable new temporal, ephemeral alliances, both in the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ world, remembering the fact that when a distributed network attacks, “it swarms its enemy: innumerable independent forces seem to strike from all directions at a particular point and then disappear back into the environment. From an external perspective, the network attack is described as a swarm because it appears formless.”[17]


[1] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996, p. 412-413.

[2] William J. Mitchell, City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 107.

[3] Marcos Novak, “Transmitting Architecture: The Transphysical City”, 1996,  http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=76

[4] Paul Virilio, A landscape of events, translated by Julie Rose, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000.

[5] Lev Manovich“The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada”, 2002,

http://www.manovich.net/DOCS/augmented_space.doc

[6] Lev Manovich, “The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada”, cit.

[7] Lars Spuybroek on the website ARCspace.com

[8] Christina Paul, Digital Art, Thames & Hudson LTD, London, 2003, p. 67.

[9] Lev Manovich, “New Media from Borges to HTML”,

www.manovich.net/DOCS/manovich_new_media.doc

[10] Laura Kurgan and Xavier Costa, eds. You are Here: Architecture and Information Flows, MACBA, Barcelona, 1995, p. 128.

[11] Ibid. p. 126.

[12] Robert Nirre, “Spatial Discursions: Flames Of The Digital And Ashes Of The Real”, 2001,

http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=134.

[13] Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access, Penguin Books, New York, 2001, p. 230.

[14] Geert Lovink and Florian Schneider, “The State of Networking”, 2004,

http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0402/msg00099.html

[15] Ibid.

[16] Geert Lovink. Dark Fibre, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, page 258.

[17] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, The Penguin Press, New York, 2004, p. 91.