"One day, during those months I spent in Japan as a resident artist in the IAMAS school, I was in my room trying to call from my mobile phone, and I noticed that I had no reception in some areas, whilst in others the signal was perfectly received. I could almost feel that the space of waves was a different topographic reality, like a layer placed on top of the architectural space."
This anecdote was told by the new media artist and architect Usman Haque, but it could actually be told by any user of mobile phones who is desperately looking for reception from any area forgotten by the relay stations of a telephone company. Or those who connect to the internet via wireless thanks to their neighbors' charity and go all over their flats trying to get any wireless network coming in through the window. The experience of contemporary citizens, apart from the streets they walk on and the buildings they live in, depends more and more on the electromagnetic frequencies which shelter them and can be accessed by them. This invisible dimension, hertzian space, has gone from just being a concern for telecommunication engineers and regulating organizations to a rich field of cultural analysis, political tensions, and artistic exploration.
Hertzian space - a term coined by the industrial designer Anthony Dunne in his founding text Hertzian Tales - is part of daily reality to the same extent that vegetation, concrete or glass is; it is not virtual in any sense. Scientists use a gaussmeter to measure it, but a mobile phone, a wireless laptop or a pocket radio show its outline and topographies in the same way.
The fascination with revealing the evasive nature of hertzian space and the stories hidden behind it have been the subject of some of the most interesting projects carried out in the last months in the field of new media. In Life: A User's Manual, for instance, Michelle Teran from Canada scoured the streets of a big city equipped with a frequency scanner to reveal the information flows which soak through every urban space. Teran taps into signals from wireless video cameras surrounding the area and shows these images on a monitor placed in a shopping trolley she pushes as if she were a homeless person. Daily scenes of anonymous figures emerge from this analogical fog like ghosts, taking place in hotel receptions, cash dispensers and other spaces under surveillance. Sky Ear, the best known project by Usman Haque, constitutes one of the first architectural interventions existing in both hertzian space and the urban environment at the same time: a huge cloud of balloons full of sensors, changing its colour when gaining height and receiving sounds from the electromagnetic waves that it finds in its way.
It is not just the artists. What happens in the herztian space has more and more implications affecting, for instance, industrial designers, architects, the media and political activists or defenders of cyber-rights. Bruce Sterling, the cyberpunk novelist recently turned into industrial design guru, has foretold for years the appearance of a new type of daily object ("spimes") that, thanks to the standards of wireless connectivity and location technologies such as RFID which create a permanent link through hertzian space between an object and an online database, "are always exactly located in space and time. They have stories. Each one has its own story, registered, inventoried and tracked." Activists in pursuit of opening the spectrum defend that hertzian space should be in every level considered as public space, and its management and control as an open and democratic process.
And for architects, the electromagnetic spectrum is a powerful stimulus to understand the design of space not as the construction of big static and inert structures, but as a field where the "hardspaces" have to coexist with dynamic and fluid fields ("soft spaces") made up of hertzian waves but also of ventilation, sounds, smells… The domain of the invisible elements that, after all, determines our experience of the environment in the same way as concrete and glass do, or even more so.
José Luis de Vicente is a journalist and curator specialized in digital culture, art and technology. Since 1999 he is part of ArtFutura organization committee. He has also carried out curation projects for organizations and festivals such as FAD, La Caixa, Sónar, OFFF and others. He is member of Elástico (www.elastico.net), a platform of content generation about emerging cultures, producing the project COPYFIGHT with them. He lectures in theory and history of the Internet and interactive media in the Escuela de Diseño Elisava of Barcelona.
Text originally published in ArtFutura's 2005 catalog.