“Music is more than an object of study: it is a way of perceiving the world”
Jacques Attali, Noise: The political economy of music
The Network Is a Blind Space is a distributed, micro-telematic, interactive sound installation that explores the physical yet invisible electromagnetic spaces created by WiFi networks.
We make wide use of electromagnetic radiation in our daily lives and depend on it increasingly to wirelessly transmit and receive information of all sorts, for all sorts of uses. However, despite relying on this radio space that engulfs us, it can be difficult to truly understand its nature or even acknowledge its very physical presence in a manner that involves our bodies directly. Moreover, while wireless network spaces co-exist and interact with physical ones, they follow their own rules, which are not always intuitive from the point of view of every-day experience. To explore and navigate these spaces a new sense is needed, as vision falls short. In nature, many animals that inhabit environments where vision is not a sufficient navigational tool – such as bats and dolphins – have developed echolocation, transmitting sound and listening to the echoes of a space. The Network Is a Blind Space creates an electromagnetic musical echolocation system in which visitors can use WiFi-enabled mobile electronic devices (smartphones, iPods, tablets, laptops) to poetically and viscerally explore this hidden Hertzian dimension, as it exists within the particular space the piece is installed in.
The piece addresses the physicality of WiFi waves together with the deeply social nature of computer networks. It explores how such a network behaves inside a space, how it modulates the psychogeography of that space affecting visitor behaviors and interactions, but also how it reacts itself to visitor presence. To this extent, The Network Is a Blind Space reveals the network as a dynamic, navigable space, as an open score spread in that space, and as a large, invisible, collective idiophone – a collaborative distributed instrument which devices of connected visitors excite into resonance.
The Network Is A Blind Space extends as far as its WLAN can reach, inside the exhibition building, as well as outside it. It is meant to be installed in a space with multiple rooms, with one of them being the central listening area. The specifics of the layout depend on the particularities of the site; for example, during the Jack Straw New Media Gallery exhibit, (Seattle, USA, 09/12/2011-03/02/2012), two computers were installed near the opposite sides of a long corridor - the most prominent architectural feature of that building - to create an electromagnetic line-space that could be transversed and examined.
Sound is generated and modified in real time by visitors logging into the network with ordinary, WiFi-enabled, mobile electronic devices (smartphones, iPods, tablets, laptops, etc). Devices joining the network become part of its space as active nodes and resonant objects, dynamically shaping its properties. Each device’s view of the network can be heard individually, with synthesized sound diffused from a dome of speakers hanging from the ceiling of the main space. Additionally, by installing an application such devices can themselves become sound-producing echolocation sonars, directly exposing the electromagnetic properties of a space – together with its acoustics - while a visitor moves in it. The state of the network itself, from the point of view of each of its computers/nodes, can be listened to as well: At the Jack Straw exhibition, two speakers were located on the floor of the main area at the respective positions of the computers they represented within a scale model of the building - marked as a semi-cryptic navigational road-map and duplicated in the mobile app’s interface. Depending on the exhibition site, these speakers can be located where the computers/nodes themselves are.
The rules of engagement are consciously kept simple, intuitive, and directly tied to the piece’s concept. Visitors activate and navigate the space and the piece simply via the WiFi interface of their handheld devices, by turning on and off the app, and with their bodies, judging how to relate to the network and the physical space according to the sounds they hear.
A framework for indoor WiFi localization was created and developed for this piece, providing a variety of control data for various types of musical echolocation, generated by visitors exploring the installation. Implementation details to appear soon in the paper ‘Network spaces as collaborative instruments: WLAN trilateration for musical echolocation in sound art’.
The system is implemented in the SuperCollider real-time audio programming language, which interfaces with various OSX command line tools as the project’s networking backbone. Visitors can also download and run a ‘scene’ for the RjDj app on their mobile devices (a free iOS port of the Pure Data audio programming environment), or they can run a standalone program on their laptops, created with SuperCollider..
The piece was developed and exhibited at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery with kind support from the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS).
Additional thanks to Juan Pampin, James Coupe, John Sahr, Richard Karpen, Nicolás Varchausky, Martin Jarmick, Vincent Hill, Marcin Paczkowski, Mike McCrea, Stephanie Pan; Anders Aamodt, Annabel Castro, James Hughes, Ha Na Lee, Shi Wei Lo, Shaoyu Shu, Ania Stachurska, Andrew Theisen, Robert Twomey, James Watkins.