Considerations on audio-geographical dérives or how to listen to the electromagnetic spectrum
+ a Manual for the Construction of an electromagnetic aerial
Version 0.1 by Julien Ottavi (June 2008) translation by Hervé Gosselin & Jenny Pickett
Urban Dérive and electromagnetic spectrum
«What counts is not what is said (the content) or saying it (an action), but the transformation, and the invention of yet unexpected devices that nurture a multitude of new transformations…» Michel De Certeau «Inventing the everyday» Starting from one spot and walking across the city; meeting somebody by chance; getting lost; observing what is beyond the real; finding yourself once more at the point you started from. The Dérive - an approach to urban walking that has been widely developed by the Situationist movement, especially after Guy Debord's «Report on the construction of situations» in which he proposed that we «change the world» by outstripping all the artistic forms through the unitary use of all the the available contrivances that will revolutionise everyday life.
The Dériver: a body drifting across an urban space or area such as a street, a building, a park etc., without any preconception of where he/she is going to or what is going to happen along the way. As if flowing along an imaginary stream, beyond situations that cannot be foreseen. Since the original concept of dérive was developed by the Situationists, new forms of dérives have emerged with various new elements that have been conceived and realised by following specific constraints: straight lines, particular signs or maps; by revealing certain occasions noticed in passing, chance meetings, discovering hidden paths or stumbling upon an incongruous event. In other words, these dérives generate an informal game, with many facets emerging from within and outside of the context in which the walker participates, often leading him/her to a point of no return, modelling an abstract form where reality is reversed into countless and infinite results. Geography intervenes in this schema as a continuum of action, as a way to decipher or rather to inscribe the physicality, the movement – sketching our own movements with their intangible spans of unconscious gestures on asphalt – possilble routes unfold before our eyes – both physical and psychological transcriptions are revealed as an automatic writing of the space. «Our central idea is the construction of situations, that is to say: the concrete construction of momentary ambiances of life and their transformation into a superior passionate quality . We did not seek the formula to overturn the world with books, but by wandering. Ceaselessly drifting for days on end, none resembling the one before. Astonishing encounters, remarkable obstacles, grandiose betrayals, perilous enchantments […]. Psycho-geography is the study of the exact laws and specific effects of geographical environments, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The new architecture will establish a sonic plasticity that will match the setting. […] That's when we'll discover heartbreaking climates.» (Guy Debord) The Situationist's movement also unfolded the concept of ambiance, encouraging us to transcend the rationale of urban planning and city architecture in order to read and to experience the urban space differently. «One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psycho-geographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.» (Guy Debord) An in-depth study of the means of creating ambiances and of their psychological influence is one the tasks we (the situationist) are currently undertaking. Ambiance is the affect that influence us in any given location: the depth, height, width, lighting, walls, sound, all manner of things, all kinds of matter, and all the constituents that produce the context of that location: they act upon us, upon the body, play with our senses, enter insidiously our mind. What the Situationists ultimately propose is to disrupt the settings of built established ambiances, to rebuild other ambiances with the residents, tourists, passers-by and dreamers not only by virtually tearing down and rebuilding the townscape as it stands, but also by taking into account the way our mind perceives anunderstand these conditions. We need to free our subconscious, unbind our imagination… We are proposing to make the electromagnetic phenomenon an object of our dérive. Man has always been living in a natural electromagnetic environment: the earth magnetic field. But for over 40 years, we also have had to live with a multitude of machines that generated their own electromagnetic waves (EM). An EM wave is the combination of two «disturbances», one electric, the second: magnetic. These two disturbances, vibrating simultaneously, but also perpendicularly, travel at the speed of light. An EM wave can thus be perceived as a moving electric disturbance of matter. It is possible to create a magnetic field at any time, by respecting the basic laws of electricity: by building your own generators, amplifiers and loud-speakers; and by adapting the electromagnetic phenomenon: with copper induction coils, magnets, and surfaces that capture charge or vibrations. The combination of a magnetic field and an electric field, which may vary in time and expand in space, has the consequence of the waves being kept alive within an EM field.
In order to generate an EM field, you must simultaneously produce:
1. an electric field, out of electric charges
2. a magnetic field, by displacing these electric charges
EM waves come out of the combination of these two fields. In other words, an EM wave is a periodic variation of an electric and magnetic field. Such a wave can be absorbed by a dipole (a type of antenna) moment receptor. Submitted to a sinusoidal or oscillation attraction, a dipole will turn or vibrate. With higher energies however, the connection might get s evered. For instance, if we are dealing with an aerial, we choose to install a loop that will produce this dipole moment. When you test the aerial, you find out that you can detect waves via two poles and pick up the outcome from two different angles, but this reception may possibly be better from only one of the two. This is the electromagnetic phenomena, it creates two phases that could creates attraction if you place a magnet in the middle. Beyond this physical inference, there is a reality that can be uncovered by its use in our dérives: the vibration of EM waves and a resulting electromagnetic spectrum can be translated into the waves of a sonic vibration - a small electrically powered amplifier will make these vibrations audible. The dérive then becomes a listening walk - listening to the EM spectrum - and the city is perceived as a bottomless pit full of frequencies and noises generated by a multitude of electrical machines and apparatuses. A soundscape is created infact by any device that runs somehow on electricity and will find itself in the midst of an EM field and become part of this listening experience .
There lies the difference with what the Situationists originally anticipated: no longer the diverse ambiances (or their deconstruction) will be showing us the way – rather just the movements will expose the invisible life of the city, the machines that play on our bodies, the underlying, unstoppable urban mechanics. The audio-geographical dérives and the listening of the EM spectrum may be viewed as a visitation to a parallel dimension within the day-to-day or as the hidden geography of an normally invisible, inaudible world: a world of mechinic forces in action, whose ubiquitous production and accelerated overdevelopment, has built new ambiances – new ways for us to experience the city Where Situationists considered social relations as the foundation of the urban space, EM detection gives us the power to investigate the relationship of man-machine. As we listen to new, unexpected, sonic products, we are thus introduced to a new ways to comprehend a machinic- city-architectural-body paradigm. A new game is established through this investigation and simultaneously a few cracks are revealed by the flux (the urban-machine). At this stage one guesses that, what he/she overhears, is a new entity - another living being speaking to us. However, we understand this to be a omnipresent being to which we also belong. This living entity constructs us, insidiously influencing us, from below and in the shadow of our own walls, locked in questionable certainty: do we really know what is going on? Armed with our aerial and a mobile amplifying system, we (our spectrometer group) are seeking an inaudible thing, made audible by upsetting the usual function of the aerial as a device for transmitting and receiving mediated data: The normal usage of the aerial is subverted when it allows you to hear, as well as create new situations – the resulting sounds surge from the device as it moves into any given public space. The city itself also undergoes a disassembly in becoming the transmitter of the EM spectrum, an inaudible temporality.
«constructed situation: A moment in life, physically and voluntarily constructed by the collective organisation of a single ambiance and a combination of events.» (Guy Debord) The resulting situations are then caught in an inbetween zone. On the one side, an unusual sound is perceived, disturbing the current sonic environment; then the captured phenomenon is described and made to be heard. The situation is subverted when something that we know about, but that we don't usually hear, is made audible with the singular production of a crude, unrefined, aggressive sound. The detected sounds come in an infinite variety of sorts, producing a wide range of timbres, from the highest pitch to the indistinctly lowest pitches, via an assortment of noise: white, brown, pink etc., repetitive and/or a-synchronic rhythm sections and frequency clusters. Every sound is then mixed into a combination that is never evenly distributed, this is because its constituents are dependent on the various individual electrical machines or devices that surround it, each with its own independent EM fields. This combination is organised according to criteria of utility rather than depending on the values measured by the sonic spectrum or an eventual musicality. When these (sonic) urban spaces are listened to, they tend to unveil the city, provoke some form of dissent, create a dialogue, and a break in the flux; a kind of poetry of the elusively rough - since the sonic result can effectively be raw. A dirty force evoked by a break in the day-to-day, by disrupting the routine, the habits, the habitus, the mechanistic usage of all these spaces etching its prescence upon a place, a street etc.,
Audio-geographical dérives and EM listening raise sensory perception to a poietic level inasmuch as the listener can potentially become active, in terms of transposition and sensation, motion and inversion. The listener re-creates for himself the blurred connection between the form: where the sounds are coming from and the physicality of these sounds themselves. There are no authors as such, of this research or these dérives; there is a smuggler, an initiator, a rouser of a substance behind our immediate understanding of the world. Let us consider Christina Kubisch, a German artist who has been using this phenomenon for a few years, both as a system of transmission of sonic pieces and as a way of listening to the EM spectrum in the city. In our view, transmitting the technique of capturing/recording, and understanding the related phenomenon, are both essential; even if we just want to think in terms of exploration, our approach to this is different from Christina's: in that she decides on the option of listening through a couple of earphones connected with a copper coil that amplifies the signal sent to a specific listener, while we broadcast to an 'outside', not just one person. Still, her work is captivating because she endeavours to expose a field that remains largely unexplored and to endow it with an understanding that is not only scientific, but also poetic and sensory, since she also uses wandering and dérive as uncategorised means to capture the sounds of our environment
Here is an example of what she has written about her recordings:
Invisible/Inaudible: Five Electrical Walks - Electromagnetic Investigations in the City «Electrical Walks is a public walk with custom-made sensitive wireless headphones by which aboveground and underground electromagnetic fields are detected, amplified and made audible. The transmission of sound is accomplished by a built-in set of induction coils which respond to the electromagnetic waves in our environment. The palette of these noises, their timbre and volume vary from site to site and from country to country. They have one thing in common: they are ubiquitous, even where one would not expect them. Light systems, wireless communication systems, radar systems, anti-theft security devices, surveillance cameras, cell phones, computers, street-car cables, antennae, navigation systems, automated teller machines, wireless internet, neon advertising, public transportation networks, etc. create electrical fields that are as if hidden under cloaks of invisibility, but of incredible presence. The sounds are much more musical than one could expect. There are complex layers of high and low frequencies, loops of rhythmic sequences, groups of tiny signals, long drones and many things which change constantly and are hard to describe. Some sounds are “global players”, they sound much alike all over the world. Others are specific for a city or country and cannot be found anywhere else. Electrical Walks is an an invitation to a special kind of investigation of city centres (or other locations). With the magnetic headphone and a map of the environs, upon which the possible routes and especially interesting electrical fields are marked, the visitor can set off on his own or in a group. The perception of everyday reality changes when one listens to the electromagnetic fields; what is accustomed appears in a different context. Sound can transport you to different time areas, sound can transport you through your knowledge of space. Your brain is trying to get together what you hear and see in new ways. Nothing looks the way it sounds. And nothing sounds the way it looks.» by Christina Kubisch, July 2007
At this point, we effectively encounter a novel perception that separates what we see from what we hear. C. Kubisch's course implies that the listening follows an introspective, self-centred, path; in our case of audio-geographical dérives and the audition of the EM spectrum, the listening is outbound; reality comes in, even at the cost of provoking a rupture in the unfolding of space, as well as of the relations that may have developed inside that space. The object is to create a situation of disruption by listening. For example: in our dérives, we have come across cases where curiosity and a certain rejection of different things appear simultaneously, objectified in the form of EM waves, rather than scientifically defined within a legal series of constraints. In this example, the laboratory is the urban space and we are not talking about modelling and testing in a closet laboratory but about experiments in situation. In the course of one dérive in the city of Marseilles, we were listening to an (external) cash-point, playing it by inserting our banker's card and drawing cash or questioning our accounts. Some employees then asked us, out of curiosity, what we were doing. We explained why and kept playing. They asked us again, somewhat incredulously and pressingly. Then they realised what we were trying to do, that we were just exploring artists, indulging in an unofficial game of derivation, and they demanded that we stop, since we had no right to do that, pretending in an authoritative tone to be on the right side of the law, and thus exposing their fear, of an unknown oddity, like meeting a stranger who upsets somebody's tranquillity, the good order of things and the operations of a desiring, paper-spitting, machine, Reading and writing the city (reflections on the city as a manuscript to decipher?)
In the continuation of the reflection on the works of Gordon Matta-Clark who marked the architectural space by cutting up various buildings, on Jacques Derrida's 'Dissemination', on Stéphane Mallarmé's writings, on a page considered as an architecture to be lived in, de- constructed and rebuilt, out of a book of deveni (becoming). «A singular work which was and was not a book: «Un coup de dés…», by Mallarmé, about which Blanchot wrote his essay «The book to come», where he used this title/expression to evoke the ideas of binding, gathering, collecting, and particularly, welcoming (for Mallarmé, the reader is also an 'host'). What strikes me, and what I am leading to, is that through your choice of words, your masterly stratagem, we can mix, confuse (but this what lies at the heart of the difference) all these texts, under the one title: 'book to come'. But it does not really matter; what is important is not so much the text but what it designates (in vain, would have added Blanchot): exactly this thing that we do not know, that has no shape for the moment, does not exist yet, but that goes under the designation 'book to come'.» (POSOLOGIE DE JACQUES DERRIDA - by Benoît Vincent)
This research has to be considered in relation to another kind of writing: that of the invisible book of EM waves on urban space and machinic architecture. Writing that incorporates fixed signifers and poetry, where those signs are both static and maluable, meaning is inscribed through a multitude of senses. Urban space and architectures form the pages of this book that may at once be read as it is written. The movement of the dérive becomes a pen, a writing tool, EM waves – the ink as they put form to the writing. The EM spectrum/spectre (ghost or range) is both a script and a combination of signals that makes sense in audible terms, as well as in terms of machinery, an invisible machinic script that can be decrypted when focused upon with some kind of magnifying glass or a translation machine for a language that remains obscure. The city then becomes an open book where we can compose our own reading, as we pass through its streets and find areas with a high density of EM waves. We come across the symbols of a language full of timbres, rhythms and compositions of heterogeneous and diverse melodies. Such a language may be understood in different ways: from the nature of its machinic and mechinist soul that produces a specific audible extension, possibly with a certain musical charm, or deciphering its sense from its context: a supermarket, a car, a street full of jeweller's shops, a cross-road, a billboard, not to mention by its significant polar resonance of the earth itself. In one of our dérives, we encounter a form of writing that has sprung out of two different sources: the rough script of the event, as we listen to it, and a form of de-location. Listening and creating a context comes out of our past experiences. Raising questions such as: How does a context change a space? How is the mechanism of a space progressively modified as we write onto it? Are the meanings of the signs that we had previously read in a space is transformed into something else, has it acquires another sense? Yet, we are dealing here with a temporary, a vanishing script… the sound being the transcription, the urban or building space: the page, the EM aerial and the amplifying/magnifying pen: devices that write and read the context. The readers feel roused, whether they be guests, participants or passers by attracted by the movement/action they happen upon. We are writing the multiple story of our movements in one place; dérive opens up at random the book of motion and the city finally becomes the tangible space of our sensory subconscious, moving out of an informal status to a materiality that can be reclaimed. After some time, the time it takes to put things into words, we write (literally this time) on the locations where the EM fields are captured. We mark with signs that warn of the kind of sound that has been captured: frequency, noise, rhythm, pitch… and throughout our dérive, we leave traces on walls, asphalt, concrete, billboards, shops and various metal parts of buildings… These traces allow us to imprint a sign of our dérive onto the city, to convey the fact that an invisible object has been uncovered in a specific location, that an invisibility has been exposed or an inaudibility, a spectre… To imprint a sign of a spectral existence, an uncertain, possible, presence, suggesting to our subconscious that the existence of an entity that can be exposed outside of our common perception is always possible.
1- Get hold of a roll of copper wire of a diameter of about 0.25mm.
2- Prepare an object (approx. 40 cm diam.) around which you will wind the copper wire about 100 times. The form of the object must allow you to take the coil out of it in the end
3- Wind very tightly and closely the wire about 100 times for a better reception
4- When the coil is finished, you should end up with 2 easily accessible tips: the beginning and the end…
5- Think of a system that keep the wire coil together once it is removed from its support: gaffer, pipe, scratch…
6- Remove the outer sleeve at the ends of the wire with a lighter or a cutter so that you can connect one to an audio jack plug (3.5 or 6.5 mm.)
7- Connect the other end to the ground
8- Plug the jack into an audio amplifier to test the system. You should then hear various sounds, depending on how close you are of a mobile phone, a computer… an electric socket will produce a 50 Hz buzzing trail that can be followed around the various halls and studios.
9- With a mobile audio amplifier, you can start a derive in your area and chase the normally inaudible sounds!