Visualizing “Hertzian Space” | MARISA GÓMEZ
For centuries, we human beings have coped with our environment just thanks to the set of sensorial systems biologically developed for that scope.
However, as we have built technological tools, our ways to approach the environment have changed. And not only in a practical level, but also because these devices have expanded the limits of our perception, revealing what until then had been imperceptible to us as it couldn’t been apprehended by direct sensorial impressions.
The multiple scientific intuitions that pointed to the existence of certain kind of invisible forces and particles fostered, especially from 19th century, the development of technological systems able to grasp, measure and visualize them. This would make possible not only to understand how they work, but also to explore their practical possibilities and to work inside them, manipulating and redefining those invisible universes until they are part, now in a conscious way, of the human scale world.
This is, in techno-scientific and knowledge’s history terms, a brief account of how genes, quantum particles or black holes have become major figures of a new way of understanding and explaining reality. It also a brief account of how radio waves – those that occupy the less energetic part of the electromagnetic spectrum – have become progressively, from its discovery and by means of their visualization and manipulation, “hertzian space”, the immaterial infrastructure that supports our current telecommunication universe and, therefore, the current structure of our socio-cultural system.
In the last decades, it’s been widely discussed how the rise of virtual spaces and networks has profoundly altered our conception of space and the ways in which we relate to it. For instance, the “space of flows” defined by Manuel Castells as opposed to the “space of places”, would be a result of how all the cultural logics of the current society are articulated regarding to this virtual space of communication, the Cyberspace. As it lacks of form or dimensions, it generates an image and an organization of material space based on fluidity and movement.
However, as explained by Anthony Dunne, who coined the term “hertzian space”, “whereas cyberspace is a metaphor that spatializes what happens in computers distributed around the world, radio space is actual and physical, even tough our senses detect only a tiny part of it”. It is an unstable space, defined from the different wavelengths and frequencies that arise from interaction with the natural and artificial landscape. Therefore, hertzian space is not only the set of radioelectric waves that fluctuate around us, but the space that merges from our own interaction with those waves; an interaction articulated by means of the use of different electronic devices. So, herztian space is a hybrid space between visible and invisible, artificially modelled from the proliferation of technological devices.
Precisely from this proliferation of technological devices and specially in relation to the growth of wireless telecommunication networks, together with the discourses about how digital media have altered our understanding and relationship with the material environment by generating their own virtual times and spaces, has arisen also an increasing interest in radioelectric waves, in the ways in which they work, and in how their management and manipulation have redefined and are still redefining our world in its formal, aesthetical and social aspects. The very appearance of the tern “hertzian space” shows this interest, and the attempts to analyze the imbrication of electromagnetic waves universe with our relationships with and in physical space.
Throughout the 20th century, artists have explored the hertzian space, contributing to its cartography, to defining its complex topology and to make it perceptible by using radio waves as a creative material. The futurist Radia, the works of Stephen Mcgreeve, Alvin Lucier or John Cage, or more contemporary proposals by Radioqualia or Bestiario, Ingeborg Dehs Thomas, Usman Haque or Gordan Savicic –among many other projects that use locative media or augmented reality systems– are examples of that. Examples of the ways in which artistic practices have approach to the aesthetical, political or sociological dimensions of this invisible environment by means of different visual, audible or tactile strategies.
When we visit the exhibition “Campos Invisibles: Geografías de las Ondas de Radio” (Invisible Fields: Geographies of Radio Waves), curated by José Luis de Vicente and Honor Harger and recently opened at Arts Santa Monica, we could maybe hope to find a route around this history of relations between art and radioelectric waves.
However, the exhibition is conceived as an interdisciplinary approach that includes the aesthetic dimensions of hertzian space from a contemporary point of view, but also the different socio-political and communicative dimensions linked to it. Therefore, it’s conceived, according to the curators, as an “observatory” that offers the visitor the possibility of perceiving the radioelectric spectrum, of which existence and managing we are barely conscious. It deals, in short, with visualizing the hertzian space, both literally and metaphorically.
For this scope, the exhibition has been organized in various thematic blocs that take us from becoming aware of the material existence of radioelectric spectrum – by visualizing the vey radio waves in projects as Simiconductor’s or by experiencing the “radioelectric silence” inside a Faraday cage – to the possibility of creating waves. Participating in different workshops, we can build broadcasting devices with Luthiers Drapaires, participate in citizen networks as Güfi.net or explore the distant realm of satellites with Plataforma Cero (Laboral, Gijón).
Among these poles, the route approaches us to the dynamics of radio waves in urban space – by means of the Clara Boj and Diego Díaz’s Observatorio or Timo Arnall’s Light Painting Wifi –, to the geopolitcal tensions linked to the spectrum regulation – which shows us, for instance, Lozanno-Hemmer in his Frequency and Volume – or to those darker points of the spectrum controlled by the army or intelligence services, which are explored in projects as Jon Ramos’ Twillinght Immunity Museum or Skundra Signal.
Radioelectric space has been divided, privatized and organized according to an infrastructure that responds to commercial and control interests. Being aware of hertzian space existence and dynamics is, maybe, the first step to be able to recognize it as la real public domain space. As this exhibition shows and as others as “Reclaim the Spectrum” (2006) have shown, the artists, designers and activists, have been the first in beginning to appropriate this space to re-elaborate it and subvert its uses.
Observing the trend of many-to-many communication, which increasingly heads for free and shared content production (Do it Yourself) – the evolution of Internet to the Web 2.0 and the “Cloud” in parallel to the increasing development of free software and practices as crowdsourcing or crowdfunding are examples of it – we may ask ourselves if anytime in the future, anyone could be able to hack or to re-elaborate the space of radio waves to convert it, without mediation, in a real public space.
The condition of “observatory” and the possibilities of experimenting in this domain offered by “Invisible Fields” seem to bring us closer to that possible scenario. The required question then is, how would our information universe, our material space and our society be, if citizens get to freely control the hertzian space? What kind of communicative and socio-cultural practices would arise? Even if we could barely risk an answer in practical terms, there’s something certain: they would be very different from the current ones.
 See: CASTELLS, Manuel, La Era de La Información. La Sociedad Red. Vol. 1. Madrid: Alianza Ed., 2005,
 DUNNE, Anthony, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Prducts, Aesthetical Experiencie and Critical Design. Cambridge Massachussets: MIT Press, 2005 (1999), pág. 101.