Connectivity in Action / Form: Non-human Performativity of Wireless Communication and its implicit Architecturality

by Selena Savic | selena.savic@attp.tuwien.ac.at

Appeared online: January 21, 2017

 

Media and Design Laboratory
École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland)

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Abstract

Architecturality is a concept that emerged from research into the importance of infrastructures of wireless communication for the experience and interaction with our surroundings. The concept affords a comprehensive perspective towards phenomena that occur in the environment and have a structural effect on the way organisations or systems operate. Architecturality is not concerned with how a structure or a system is, but what it does. It can be used to explain the effects of that system on its immediate surrounding, to register the interactions that are taking place.

This discussion on spatial effects of wireless connectivity is based on the argument that architecturality of wireless communication infrastructures results from the fact that agency of wireless signals, like that of architecture, can be observed and qualified. Agency is not the most pronounced property of architecture­—it is a contested feature and requires complicated argumentation. Nevertheless, I will demonstrate how it is precisely here that we should build foundations of a model for evaluating the effects of wireless communication on the experience of space.

Infrastructures for wireless networking—built from scattered devices, base stations, repeaters, access points and ‘a bouillon of waves’ that connect them—have a prominent place in our interaction with the environment and with each other. Whether or not this new layer reconstitutes our experience of the ‘real’ world or recomposes social interactions, we have to recognize the difficulty in reading its effect on space and people. One way to address this problem is to examine waves as agents that deliver connectivity to people and devices across built environments.

Wireless communication signals partake in the production of urbanity as connectivity that is or is not available to people and devices. Ultimately, they outline a binary spatial configuration: connected and disconnected places. In this respect, relying on the post-humanist and flat-ontological discussion on non-human agency, I regard waves as structural infrastructure.

Architecturality refers to a property common to all architecture but it exceeds the limits of built artefacts and urban spaces. It is defined through the notions of performativity and form-giving action as a potential for affecting the experience of space in a significant way. This conceptual framework enables the comparison between physical architectures and information technology through an external lens—their effects on experience. I will demonstrate some possibilities for a meaningful experience of wireless communication signals. In these experiments, the materiality of connectivity—a phenomenon beyond mere functioning connection—takes the form given to wirelessness through action.

keywords: architecturality, wireless connectivity, experience of space, performativity, non-human agency

Introduction

Wireless-communication infrastructures form an omnipresent network of base stations, repeaters, access points and ‘a bouillon of waves’ that connect them. The public primarily regards wireless-networking technology as a technical infrastructure which should provide a seamless flow of information across a network of base stations, access points and mobile devices. From this perspective, wireless infrastructure is evaluated in terms of network availability and speed. The engineering perspective on wireless communication is even more pragmatic, seeking to optimise speed and network coverage and respond to the growing demands set by service providers and network users. If we take a step away from such utilitarian perspectives, we can observe that, while serving their main purpose, wireless network signals make changes to our environment that are not reducible to the act of communication itself.

Wireless communication is a social activity that involves an exchange of information between humans. It is a technical activity that enables transmission of data packets across signals, cables, and a network of devices. It is a spatial activity that involves transmission of information and energy across distances, occupying territory in different ways. How do wireless-communication infrastructures, in particular the signals they produce, coexist with the built environment? How do they perform? How can we research wireless communication from a spatial perspective?

The notions of agency, performativity and architecturality of wireless communication signals produce a conceptual framework enabling a complex view of wireless connectivity, which is suitable to consider its effects on the experience of space. Agency as a property of living and non-living things will serve to unfold complex relationships and observe the effects of wireless-communication signals propagation. Performativity describes the capacity for activity and effect. Architecturality, a property common to all architecture but exceeding the limits of built artefacts, is a measure of the effect something has on the experience of space. Through the lens of the built environment, the inquiry in the complexity of wireless-networks presence exposes the complex transactions that take place between networks, people and space.

The structure of this paper follows the logic of the argument. The complicated task of interpreting architecturality of wireless communication, or any other structurally and spatially ubiquitous system, begins with the necessity to define and interpret agency in the activity of non-living things. Building on the idea that non-human agency is essentially performative, the notion of performativity becomes a tool to discuss effects of non-human entities on experience and matter. The discussion on performativity that follows relies on posthumanist and poststructuralist non-representational theories, with a particular focus on architecture. The notion of architecturality is constructed on the grounds of the particular case of non-human performativity, which affects the qualities and experience of space. In order to evaluate architecturality of wireless communication signals, I conducted a series of practical design experiments. The design experiments, presented in detail at the end of this paper, offer a possibility to interact with wireless network information in alternative ways.

Defining Agency

In contemporary humanities discourse (Science and Technology Studies, Digital Humanities) and in ontologically-minded philosophical frameworks (Latour’s flat ontology, Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, Bryant’s onticology), agency is the inherent property of a token (a unit, an object, a thing) by means of which it is granted activity (Latour, 1993a, 1996b, 1996c). Agency can also be understood in terms of the cognitive sciences, which originally used the concept to discuss the possibility for artificial intelligence (Barandiaran, Di Paolo, & Rohde, 2009). Next to this, agency is an elastic concept that can be suitably applied to questions of the effect that something (a roundabout, an urban plan, a computer in a call shop or a wireless signal transmitting data) has on something else.

Agency acts as “a conceptual currency across different sub-disciplines” (Barandiaran et al., 2009) —a kind of intellectual interdisciplinary glue. Barandiaran et al. (2009) give a comprehensive overview of the evolution of different definitions of agency, in the context of synthetic robotic research. They used this discussion to develop a generative definition of agency, determining the minimal template organisation (a system) where agency can be observed. According to their definition, an agent is “at least, a system doing something by itself according to certain goals or norms within a specific environment.” Throughout their analysis, we can observe how the understanding of agency has evolved over time. From anthropomorphic expectations that evaluate consciousness and volition in living and artificial systems, the concept of agency has expanded to include non-living, non-volatile things that interact with other things. We can thus discuss the agency of imperceptible phenomena such as wireless communication signals.

Robotic research engages with the cognitive evaluation of systems, including their effect on the environment. Nevertheless, it often has an anthropomorphic perspective on these systems, looking to prove the existence of some sort of consciousness in the combination of software and electronic circuitry. The first definitions of agency that came out of these efforts could not accept wireless signals as agents: for example, Russell and Norvig’s account in 1995 of an agential system as “anything that can be viewed as perceiving its environment through sensors and acting upon that environment through effectors.” Wireless signals have no built-in sensors or effectors. Other definitions are less attuned towards a perception of the environment and more towards realizing goals. For example, Maes (1994) defines an agent as “a system that tries to fulfil a set of goals in a complex, dynamic environment.” Beer’s (1995) definition of agents includes “any embodied system [that pursues] internal or external goals by its own actions while in continuous long-term interaction with the environment in which it is situated.” Christensen and Hooker (2000) define agents as “entities which engage in normatively constrained, goal-directed, interaction with their environment.” This can be applied to waves if we regard normativity as reflected in the physical laws of wave propagation, the goal being to provide connectivity and the interaction being the propagation throughout the environment. Barandiaran’s final generative definition, “an agent is an autonomous organization capable of adaptively regulating its coupling with the environment according to the norms established by its own viability conditions” (Barandiaran et al., 2009, p. 8), leaves enough room for an interpretation of agency in wireless signals.The humanities studies of science (such as Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Sociology of Scientific Institutions (SSI), Science and Technology Studies (STS)) and the movement in social sciences towards non-anthropocentric or posthumanist discourse (Barad, 2003; Hayles, 1999, 2005) have embraced agency in non-living things. This has had a strong influence on the development of philosophical frameworks that question the primacy of humans in the organisation and functioning of the world. The scepticism towards human primacy emanated from efforts in sociology to study and accurately convey the complexity of large technical systems (Latour, 1996a). Latour introduced the principle of irreducibility to account for this complexity. Ontological theories such as object-oriented philosophy (Harman, 1999), onticology (Bryant, 2011) or Latour’s own flat ontology put people and non-living things in perspective, which makes them fundamentally ontologically indistinguishable from each other. It is only through “uncertain, fragile, controversial and ever-shifting ties” that their relationships are established (Latour, 2005, p. 28).

Agential effects of non-living things are also elaborated in the work of Karen Barad, in the approach she calls agential realism. A theoretical physicist and feminist scholar, Barad develops a critical philosophical account of materiality and discourse. Materiality is a product of agential intra-actions (involving humans or not). Hayles’ account of posthumanism recounts a systemic view of relationships, which is coming from cybernetics, and recognizes communication as a way to deal with uncertainty (Hayles, 1999).

The subtle (and not so subtle) nuances in understanding non-human agency in the aforementioned discourses make interpretations of agential effects of wireless communication an interesting task. Clearly, flat-ontology and posthumanist theory remain indifferent towards the materiality of information exchange, such as wireless-communication signals. Cognitive science and robotic research are even less concerned with broadcast and propagation of hopelessly unintelligent waves. Nevertheless, while attuned to interpreting phenomena in their own scope of interest, these frameworks enable a systematic interpretation of agency and performativity inherent in wireless network transmission. Barad introduces the notion of apparatuses, which she describes as “dynamic (re)configurings of the world” (Barad, 2003). With no inherent outside, apparatuses are open-ended practices. Beyond their mere function in executing machine-to-machine communication, wireless communication signals propagate through the air continuously, reaching as far as possible, with as much signal strength. Barandiaran et al. (2009) introduce the question of adaptive coupling with the environment, which is also an important feature of the propagation of wireless signals, whose capacity to transmit information is dependent on the conditions of the environment. Can we say that the signals adapt when they reflect or get absorbed? Object-oriented ontology poses an important question: What is it like to be a thing? (Bogost, 2012). Taking this question closer to the way wireless networks co-exist with the built environment, we can ask: What is it like to be a wave? What is it like to propagate through space while carrying information?

The Posthumanist Turn or The Agency of Everything

The past twenty years have brought an inflation of non-anthropocentric theories and studies in a wide range of fields. Literary studies have seen titles like Alien Chic Posthumanism (Badmington, 2004) or My Mother was a Computer (Hayles, 2005). Simultaneously, ontologically-oriented philosophical frameworks (such as Harman’s metaphysical project, object-oriented philosophy (Harman, 1999, 2010) and Bryant’s onticology (Bryant, 2011)) developed around objects as central ontological units. Transdisciplinary scholars began reflecting on Posthuman and Spatial performativity (Barad, 2003; Smitheram, 2011). This turn originated in several different discourses, most notably as a consequence of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics and complexity theory (Hayles & Piper, 2010) and Latour’s irreductionist account of the world of non-human interactivity (Harman, 2009; Latour, 1993b). All these intellectual efforts are in fact part of a larger project dismissing the scientific paradigm of a linear cause and effect in favour of the theory of complexity.

It is important to note here that posthumanism should not be confused with transhumanism with which it does share some common ground. Ranisch and Sorgner offered a good account of this distinction (2014). Transhumanism is a techno-optimist movement, attuned at transforming human condition through technological enhancement of human intellectual, physical and psychological skills—the human perfection. Posthumanism is a worldview in which anthropocentrism is challenged in favour of a distributed, non-hierarchical view on people and things (Ferrando, 2012; Hayles, 1999).

As much as it is difficult to define or describe the scope of posthumanism, the most important underlying threads are the challenging of logical positivism in science and the efforts to dismantle the common anthropocentric worldview. Katherine N. Hayles describes posthumanism as a process in which “Enlightenment inheritance that emphasized autonomy, rationality, individuality and so forth, was being systematically challenged and disassembled — in a whole variety of fields” (Hayles & Piper, 2010). Taking from cybernetics, particularly complexity theory, she roots posthumanism in the awareness “of being located within a large-scale complex system characterized by multiple recursive feedback loops.” The notion of the feedback loop is useful when assessing the different relations and actions between and within organisations and systems.

Ranisch and Sorgner describe posthumanism as “an umbrella term for ideas that explain, promote or deal with the crisis of humanism” (Ranisch & Sorgner, 2014, p. 14), related to post-modern and continental philosophy, science and technology studies, cultural studies, literary theory and criticism, post-structuralism, feminism, critical theory and post-colonial studies.
The radical re-conceptualization of agency in philosophical and cybernetician discourse goes back to Deleuze and Guattari’s argument for recognition of agency in cellular automata and non-living units that make up our world. The cells which are “completely mechanistic, computational, and non conscious but nevertheless display complex patterns that appear to evolve, grow, invade new territories, or decay and die out.“ (Hayles, 2005) are a perfect unit for a rhizomatic (non-arborescent) organisation (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987).

One of the central questions in discussions on non-human agency is: Does agency imply consciousness? The answer depends on the lens. In the view of cognition scientists, it was primarily interesting to identify the different levels and forms consciousness can take (Barandiaran et al., 2009). In fact, the concept of non-human agency has been often used as a way to discuss the existence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) (Hayles, 2005). Hayles calls this “a crisis of agency.” On her account, this discussion has not only failed to prove the intelligence of non-living systems but actually challenged whether agency can be securely located in the conscious mind. The mind, reduced to a mechanistic network in this AI discourse, can be challenged in the same way artificial systems are. Consciousness—a feature of mind—is not equal to agency. If agency does not instantiate consciousness, then consciousness is not required for something to have agency.

Outside of the AI discourse, the question of consciousness in agents becomes less critical. In contemporary philosophical traditions, it is clear that consciousness is not the only thing that has an impact on other things, to borrow one of the slippery terms used to name epistemological units in a worldview. Opposing the typical Kantian view on objects that are products of human cognition, object-oriented philosophy puts things at the centre (Harman, 1999). In contrast to causal relations typical for the Newtonian paradigm, it advocates instead “to think imbroglios of difference” (Bryant, 2009). We read here again Latour’s influence in the rejection of intentionality in the action of an actor, because “an actor is what is made to act by many others” (Latour, 2005). Latour’s definition, however, entails certain mechanistic determinism.
How might we evaluate agency of the non-living, not-intelligent and non-consious wireless network signals? That signal availability is acting on people to make them change their location has been demonstrated in numerous studies in the past ten years (Gordon & de Souza e Silva, 2011; Montola, Stenros, & Wærn, 2009). Psychologists continue to write about the “Internet addiction disorder”, a contested medical condition (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011; Young, 1998). Outside of these two poles of impact, I will look at action (as defined by Easterling (2012)) of wireless signals. I will look to unravel something much more subtle and at the same time more plausible than the intelligence of wirelessness. What I am searching for is the agential effect of waves on space, where space is seen as an experience of both people and networks. A purposeful change in space can result from the waves propagation.

Non-human Performativity

Performativity in this discussion is a quality constituent to any entity capable of actively and purposefully acting on or adapting to its environment. This means that it derives its way of being in the world from an interaction with its surrounding. When we look at performativity of something—be it an actor, a word or a building—we assume its ability to change the meaning or experience of the context in which it performs.

As a general trend, the performative turn is a reaction to the limitations imposed by a representational worldview in social constructivism, which was the dominant intellectual trend throughout the 1960s. John Austin’s influential theory of Speech Act (1962) inspired performance studies in performing arts and theatre (Schechner, 2003) rooting also in the discourse of natural and economic sciences and science technology studies (STS) throughout 1990s and 2000s.

The ongoing critique of representations and constructivist worldview, as in the work of Karen Barad, challenges the positioning of materiality as either a given or a mere effect of human agency (Barad, 2003). Materiality is evaluated through experience, not mere measurement. Promising to “sharpen the theoretical tool of performativity” Barad destabilises the idea of accurate world representation in scientific knowledge and the process of its acquiring. For Barad, phenomena are the primary epistemological units constitutive of reality. She advocates for a causal relationship between specific exclusionary practices embodied as specific material configurations of the world (i.e., discursive practices rather than words) and specific material phenomena (i.e., relations rather than things). Phenomena are produced “through agential intra-actions of multiple apparatuses of bodily production.” These intra-actions may or may not involve humans.

The performative paradigm entered architectural discourse from different grounds in relatively recent years. Schechner’s performance studies, as well as optimisation of building’s performance, have both played a significant role. This lead to an extraordinary multitude of meanings and a complete lack of consensus on how performance, performative and performativity relate to architecture. For example, a chapter of Chris Salter’s book Entangled, titled Performative Architectures details what we are going to discuss here through a similar list of reference points (Salter, 2010). However, his reading of these points, attuned at the theatrical performance, is reading the sources through this sometimes distorting lens. This is the case with most architecture informed literature that simply picked up on the sufficiently ambiguous term performativity, and applied it to the way buildings could save energy or decay over time.

Carving and performing the architectural envelope

From a relational perspective on space, architecture is a product of the activity that takes place within it. We can trace the origins of these ideas to Lefebvre (space is a product of some form of social interaction (Lefebvre, 1991)) and the Situationist International, to whom performance was instrumental in challenging city structures. Inspired by this concept, other artists and architects took it to their practice to find a way of interpreting spatial practices architecturally and socially. Bernard Tschumi’s early work, for example, engaged with immaterial, performative architecture, in order to subvert constraints of materiality and thus circuits of capital (Tschumi, 1994).

After form divorced from function in post-modernist practice, there were attempts in technologically minded circles to establish a “form follows performance” logic. Architects who embraced digital form-making tools, sometimes also focusing on energy efficiency, understood performance as something that can be simulated and assessed qualitatively and quantitatively by digital technologies (Kolarevic & Malkawi, 2005). This view stemmed from Leatherbarrow’s observations on weathering of buildings in time, or the acknowledgement of the interplay between the architectural project, its construction, maintenance, and the natural forces. Accounting for the life of buildings in time, Kolarevic advocated an approach to the design of buildings which perform together with the environment. The experience of architecture makes it performative, Kolarevic recognized. Similar to Tschumi, he observed that the movement of people around a building gives architecture its performative capacity. Although this discourse promised to answer some of the basic questions on how architecture performs, the notion of performativity stayed closer to a design principle than to a method for evaluation. It fed into the deterministic form-oriented architectural discourse driven more by economic and environmental than philosophical concerns.

More recently, Michael Hensel wrote about performance-oriented architecture, synthesizing the discussion on performance in the humanities’ performative turn and the work of Kolarevic and Malkawi, Grobman and Neuman but also Bernard Tschumi, Kengo Kuma, and Diller and Scofidio (Hensel, 2013). Jan Smitheram defined a similar intellectual ground for her discussion on spatial performativity and performance, including Russian Futurists and Cubists, Tschumi and Goffman (Smitheram, 2011). Finally, Keller Easterling discussed performativity of infrastructures from a political and spatial perspectives, offering a unique understanding of complexities involved in the relationship between the urban fabric and telecommunications (Easterling, 2012, 2014).

How Architecture Comes to Matter

It is not new or unusual to say that architecture is a result of a performance, or that it itself performs on this world. Nevertheless, an important distinction exists among the theories discussed above. Performative is opposite of representational, but it is also different from performance. For example, in the work of Koolhaas and Tschumi, performance and event invert the additive process of design into a process Tschumi calls carving (McGaw, 2009; Tschumi, 1983) – architecture is thus an envelope for an event, not an actively performing entity. On the other hand, performative denotes a potential for action and emphasizes experience. Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler distinguished between performance, which presumes a subject or some-body performing; and performativity which contests the very notion of the subject – it exists in action, it is made through discourse (Barad, 2003; Smitheram, 2011). Butler’s idea of performativity was central to the feminist critique of deterministic social roles but, as Smitheram observed, proved inspiring for dismissal of other types of determinisms, such as the givenness of architecture. In this context which explored architecture as an active performative agent, Butler’s notion of the inherently discursive subject (one which is disciplined through regulatory power of discourse) was often lost. This does not, however, devalue the resulting architectural framework: a composite of performance and performativity.

figure-1
Figure 1: Manhattan Transcript 3 (1980), Bernard Tschumi. How can movement ‘carve‘space? How can space carve movement, in turn? A succession of volumetric exercises of form. From Bernard Tschumi, Architecture et Disjonction, HYX, 2014.

Hensel identified a shift in architectural thinking from a representational way of knowing into acting, time-based, location specific and eventual. He defined performance-oriented architecture “based on the understanding that architecture unfolds its performative capacity by being embedded in nested orders of complexity and auxiliary to numerous conditions and processes: such architectures are essentially non-discrete“ (Hensel, 2013, p. 30). The key to understanding performativity of architecture in this performance-oriented context is its environmental and social embeddedness; its active exchange with these auxiliary processes.

figure-2Figure 2: Katarina Bonnevier, E.1027: Living-room with balcony fringe in Behind Straight Curtains: Towards a Queer Feminist Theory of Architecture (2007)

According to Smitheram: “[performativity in architectural discourse] is used to critically re-describe how we experience space, as being of equal importance to the end product of architecture” (Smitheram, 2011). Making a bridge between Butler’s writing on space and her interpretation in the contemporary critical architectural discourse, Smitheram proposed the concept of a composite between performance and performativity: between a constructivist subject and a performing subject. Spatial performativity, observed through the experience of the build environment is “a way to understand how power relations structure, and are embodied and performed, in relation to architecture”. This is close to Easterling’s argument about the performativity of infrastructure space. Easterling describes what she calls active form as an “updating platform unfolding in time to handle new circumstances, encoding the relationships between buildings, or dictating logistics”. It is information itself which organises buildings. For her, (this) action is form (Easterling, 2012).

As we have seen, the performative paradigm is unfolding in architectural discourse in three distinct directions – as architecture performed by bodies (carving, void), as a complex interaction with the environment and finally as performativity of non-human actors, architecture included.
Agency residing in architectural entities is clearly debatable, but it is nevertheless evident when evaluating spatial experience defined by the architecture (Smitheram, 2011). It is through this agency that architecture realises its performative capacity to structure flows of energy and people in space.

Architecturality

figure-3Figure 3: Relating agency, performativity and architecturality

The term architecturality, instead of the adjective architectural, designates a property which found in built artefacts, such as buildings and urban spaces and beyond those. Architecturality is in direct relationship with performativity of architecture, which I evaluate in terms of its agency and experience it creates. Performativity applies here in its broadest sense, as agency or capacity for action residing in objects, structures, infrastructures. The parallels that can be made between architecturality of wireless communication signals and architecturality of architecture or built artefacts will demonstrate the capacity of the former to act on space in a significan way.

Although it might seem at first sight, it is not absurd to discuss architecturality of architecture. Just as Barad takes on the performance studies question, asking whether all performances are performative? (Barad, 2003) we can ask whether all architecture exhibits strong architecturality? “The notion of architecturality is significant in the question of what makes architecture architectural?”, asked Adrian Lo, the author of the blog “Architecturality” (Lo, 2010). Just as the suffix -ness in Adrian Mackenzie’s concept of wirelessness conveys the notion of a state, condition, or mode of existence (Zitouni, 2011), Lo argues that -ity in architecturality re-forms it into an abstract noun which expresses a state or condition.Architecturality applies to the evaluation of the capacity for affecting the experience of space in a significant way. It is obvious that architecture has this potential. I will try to explain this obvious fact through some tangible examples.

In one of his early essays, Le Corbusier observed the effect of architecture on our senses: “By forms and shapes he [architect] affects our senses to an acute degree, and provokes plastic emotions”. He continues with even more enthusiasm: “by the relationships which he creates, he wakes us in profound echoes, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty” (Braham et al., 2007). It is the disposition and visual qualities of architectural elements that connect us to the world around us and determine our experience of it.

One of the better examples of Brutalist architecture in London, the infamous Robin Hood Gardens estate is currently awaiting demolition. Approved by the city council after a fourty year long legal battle, this demolition is one of many similar projects for the redevelopment of post World War II public housing estates. Tenants, who never appreciated the living conditions created by Robin Hood Gardens, took part in a fierce debate over the recall or preservation of Modernist and Brutalist public housing architecture. Regardless numerous attempts by heritage organisations to enlist it as cultural heritage, demolition was deemed the only solution for this large concrete structure.

Forty years ago, the spectacular implosion of St Louis Pruitt-Igoe housing estate was labelled by Charles Jencks as “the day modern architecture died” (Jencks, 1977). Pruitt-Igoe was notorious for problems of concentrated crime, poverty and racial segregation. Some twenty years after its completion all 33 buildings were detonated. The critique was often blaming large, disassociated corridors and disowned semi-private areas for facilitating criminal and generally irresponsible, antisocial behaviour (Newman, 1972). What is striking about these examples is the recognition of the strong influence on people’s lives by mere way of organising corridors and windows. The fact that these buildings needed to be demolished indicates the amount of agency they had by simply standing on the ground.

figure-4Figure 4: Tilted Arc, Richard Sera, 1981. The publicly commissioned artwork provoked a clash between people frequenting the square and the art world, resulting in its removal by the authorities.

The examples above describe how buildings affect the experience of space. A wall is not just a passive entity in space – it actively stands in the way, it visually and functionally organises space. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc provoked a similar controversy (Serra, 2001) which was also resolved by its removal. This confirms the observation made by Easterling, who insisted that activity is inherent not only in things that move (cars, people) but also in urban organisations and spaces, in general, residing in the relationship of its various parts (Easterling, 2012). ”Infrastructure space is performing, and the changing shape of that stream of activities constitutes information.”

Architecturality has to do with organisation and structuring of both construction elements and people. It also has to do with the message built structures are trying to convey – whether it is an implicit political propaganda (people walking on top of the parliament as in Niemeyer’s Brasilian Parliament, or Foster’s German Reichstag dome), eclectic visual stimulation (typical of contemporary media façades) or purist and declared functionalism which is engineering lifestyles together with the rhythm of windows (as in the case of Brutalist housing projects).

In this respect, we can measure architecturality of architecture as the extent to which it is able to actively shape the flow of activities, objects and people, as well as to affect their experience or perception of space. Far from aesthetically-minded observations of Le Corbusier cited above, but agreeing that our emotions are plastically shaped by different architectures (hardware and software architecture, information or cytoarchitecture included), the analysis of architecturality in this paper focuses on activity inherent in what Easterling calls spatial products. Easterling is often constructing her arguments on computational metaphors. In this respect, spatial products are the outcomes of algorithmic performances on space. These algorithms are inscribed in both zoning rules and regulations, state legislation of free trade and master plans for a ‘city in a box’, 3D modelling software rendering these mater plans, the aesthetic of architectural designs. The algorithmic performance of space “privileges these repetitive activities and renders the act of making an individual house into a marginal gesture. What is really being made is something like a protocol or a non-digital spatial software that is both shaping and generating the activity of making houses“ (Easterling, 2012).

Towards a Model for Evaluating Spatial Impacts of Wireless Communication

How can the notions of agency, performativity and architecturality help construct a model for evaluating spatial impacts of wireless communication? As it is the case with phenomenological inquiries – object, units, phenomena, actants are all already there, but we need to attune our senses to them in order to be able to grasp them intellectually. This is similar to Rancière’s concept of emancipation. According to Rancière, emancipation does not imply a reformation, a change of positions or roles. It suggests a change of perspective, looking at acting as an act of spectating at the same time.
Bryant warns: “If something makes a difference then it is, but the degree to which a being makes a difference on other beings can range from nil to perhaps infinity” (Bryant, 2009). How much does connectivity make a difference in space? And how might we attune our senses to this difference?

One obvious answer is to measure signal availability with our numerous Wi-Fi enabled devices. A manifold of studies mapping signal availability and propagation in space sprouted with the appearance of first wireless communication standards (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth). For example, a research team at IST, Lisbon correlated the extension of AP signals with the physical space, using a space-use analysis model (SUAm) based on Space Syntax (Heitor, Tomé, Dimas, & Silva, 2007). The Senseable City Lab researched the impact of WiFi on people’s spatial preferences through real-time map visualisations illustrating space/time usage patterns (Sevtsuk et al., 2008). Pervasive urban gaming projects also studied spatial preference, showing how people are likely to adapt their paths to signal availability (e.g. take the bus instead of the metro to stay online, as in Mogi game) (Montola et al., 2009).

If we take space, networks and people into account as ontologically equal, we are forced to think of connectivity as a phenomenon that is not contained within or limited to human perception and agency. In this way, one has to observe waves’ interactions beyond human interactions – to observe a network which involves buildings, air moisture, wind, waves, people. Mackenzie offered a perspective on connectivity which focuses on the experience of relationships. Mackenzie used William James radical empiricism as an intellectual framework which he expanded to contemporary network media conditions (Mackenzie, 2010). In Wirelessness, he shows that “the sense of being connected occurs at the edges of our perception” (Zitouni, 2011). Being connected is site-specific – as it passes through numerous intermediaries (mouses, keyboards, local interfaces, pop-ups, passwords, Airport lists, reception details, etc.) and more complex than information on signal availability can explain. This sense of connectivity adapts to the state of the device, lighting up when it’s working and disappearing when it’s not. Thus, “it becomes geographically and ontologically more correct” (Zitouni, 2011) to locate these sensations in the realm of signals and devices. Mackenzie situated connectivity at the edges of consciousness, both ours and the infrastructure’s (Mackenzie, 2010).
How might we account for the expression of this infrastructure? Mackenzie gives us two useful tools to work with. One is the empiricist perspective on the equipment involved. The other is the notion of the conjunctive envelope formed out of wireless chipsets, radio frequency signals, algorithmic processes, space, time, etc. A conjunctive envelope is “a spatial-temporal fold that configures and concentrates” what Mackenzie calls “arrivals” and “departures” (Mackenzie, 2010) or what we might interpret as different interactions with the infrastructure. It is the envelope that alters sensations of location and situation. In Jamesian terms, it alters the way “the world hangs together” (James, 1912).

Wirelessness was published at the time mobile broadband (3G) standard was just introduced, thus it doesn’t account for a completely pervasive spatial connectivity – Wi-Fi is static and mobile connectivity is mobile. Although conjunctive envelope is a very spatial concept, Mackenzie offers us only hints at the spatial experience it accommodates, staying focused on a rather general notion of experience (of humans and of devices).

Keller Easterling discussed extensively the performance of infrastructures (Easterling, 2012). Her account of action which is form, is a spatial phenomenon, but with a very conceptual scope. She does not look at how a particular space is experienced but how an algorithm, in the sense of a procedure of operations prescribed by different actants, performs globally on space, generating repeatable spatial practices and experiences.

Easterling proposed a twofold view of architecture. There is water and there is a stone in the water (Easterling, 2012). This stone is normally what we consider architecture, single masterpiece objects, distinguishable form, representation of power or social order. Nevertheless, architecture creates spatial consequence as water as well, but it is architecture that is not declared as such, it is a flow of spatial products – an algorithmic pattern for design of houses, not a single house. Such architecture is information itself. Information which manifests in the activity.

While architects often focused on object form and how it is generated, Easterling advocated recognition and design of active forms. Active form is the expression of activity and not its representation, as is the case with both architectural masterpieces and the proliferating spatial products. Active form, an algorithm itself, establishes what an organisation will be doing. Easterling called this infrastructure space, recognizing infrastructure as not only a substructure of built spaces but as the structure itself. “Infrastructure space is performing, and the changing shape of that stream of activities constitutes information” (Easterling, 2012).

Wireless Signals: Agents of Connectivity

Wireless communication signals act as agents of connectivity. Their goal is not to simply transmit a message but to exist as radiation, covering as much area as possible with as much signal strength. Connectivity is inevitably linked to a spatial configuration, connecting one point with another through mathematical propagation models. A wide range of devices (base stations, access points, smartphones, laptops, Bluetooth headphones) broadcast wireless communication signals, but the ideal propagation models used in infrastructure planning and disposition can never fully account for their actual propagation. Built space and people, as well as natural effects, have a significant impact on waves. On the other hand, connectivity has its own materiality, which is articulated through its continuous performance on space and people. Taking these transactions in consideration, the agential view of wireless communication signals keeps the perspective on space, people and networks as ontologically equal. This permits us to examine the form given to wirelessness through action.

Wireless network infrastructure has a prominent place in our interaction with the environment and with each other. Whether or not this new layer is indeed “reconfiguring people, places and information” in space (Forlano, 2008, 2009) we have to recognize the difficulty to read its impact on space and people.

This difficulty stems largely from the habit to evaluate connectivity from a purely utilitarian perspective. It is also caused by the lack of bridges between knowledge about wireless infrastructures, knowledge of urban form and architecture and knowledge about (the human) experience. Nevertheless, some bridges appear in existing literature – most notably the writing of Mackenzie (Mackenzie, 2010) and Easterling (Easterling, 2012, 2014).

The Form of Wireless-Communication Signals’ Action

What could be the form of wireless communication signals’ action? How might we approach the design of this active form?

Interaction with wireless networks usually consists of connecting to an intermediary device in order to send or receive data from a remote location through this connection. A wireless client such as a smartphone authentifies to a wireless network access point or a cellular base station. What all wireless communication systems work against – from radio transmission to near field communication – is distance. Thus they always act on space, allowing interaction between remote actants in real time. If we focus on Easterling’s view of wireless network infrastructures, we can argue that its signals, together with the rest of the equipment, perform on space they propagate through, changing the stream of activities through (dis)connectivity. In order to explore practically and tangibly the agential effects of wireless communication on the experience of space, I constructed interactive structures that enable real-time interaction with wireless signals. The installations serve as a tool to re-experience waves – through an out-bodied interaction model. Out-bodied interaction presumes an indirect relationship between information accessible to networked devices, people who use them and space they occupy. It recognises agency equally in people and in waves, and enables testing the perception of phenomena by both people and things. I will show the application of architecturality as a conceptual framework to evaluate the impact of wireless networks on space through the concrete example of Connect or Not installation as presented at Pavilhao Civil, IST Alameda campus in Lisbon in September 2014.

figure-5Figure 5: Connect or Not installation. Pavilhao Civil, Campus Alameda, IST, Lisbon, Portugal; September 2014

First of all, the design of active form asked for an interactive structure, in order to take into account the different actants at play (people, networks, space). This meant that the structure should react to both people’s action and network action. People’s action here is limited to the use of network traffic and space – communicating over wireless networks and changing positions in space. Space and people are at the same time obstacles to network signals propagation. I imagined the structure as an interface between the actions of people, signals and space. Thus, the reaction of the structure had to be spatial – a movement and a deformation that materialises the invisible actions – as well as social – inducing an action of communication (or disconnection) in the audience.

Which volumetric form best describes the activity of wireless networks? How does the disposition of the interacting elements maximise their spatial effect and how far can it be from mapping to an actual dataset? Do we expect a surface that describes wireless network activity to be also their map? I addressed these questions with the interactive structure that had four arbitrarily positioned dynamic points on a deformable surface. The disposition of these points was in no relationship with their geographical location so that the experience of interaction would move from the idea of an accurate representation towards interpretation. I expected this to path the way for the active form to emerge.

Connect or Not was a room-sized installation which acted as a reconfigurable spatial element, activated by motors that were stretching a large sheet of fabric according to the amount of wireless communication traffic. The installation comprised the structure made of stretchable fabric, a computing system which communicated the record of the network traffic from the smartphones, and the hardware that deformed the surface of the fabric. The information on network traffic was collected from the people’s smartphones using a specially designed application.

Coming back to the idea of the conjunctive envelope (Mackenzie, 2010), I imagined Connect or Not as an open form. It would start from a flat (or regularly deformed) surface and would then get deformed through action, by the force of motors attached to it. Aesthetically, the form was at the same time referring to a waveform (a standard representation of waves, or wireless signals) and to an architectural archetype – an arcade.

I gave a twofold appearance to the presence of wireless communication signals through this design experiment. Firstly, they were present as information they delivered to the communication devices and their users. Secondly, they were interpreted through the movement or deformation of the interactive structure which had a separate meaning from the meaning of the information they carried. The possibility to experience these two appearances simultaneously opened an interesting design problem of channelling the attention of the visitors. Clearly, people cannot have their attention equally on both the message and the movement of the structure, and they are more likely to choose to communicate than to observe the effect of this communication on something else. Still, creating this choice or dilemma was a step towards understanding the qualities and quantities of wireless network signals presence in space. Conclusions

Wireless-communication signals and their propagation are a complex topic which spans a number of fields of expertise and experience. No single lens on the matter, such as the technical or the social, is able to independently grasp the effect of this infrastructure beyond their field of observation. Latour identified similarly complex topics that cannot be discussed within the “purifyingly modern scientific method that uses a singular disciplinary lens” (Latour, 1993b) – the Ozone debate, global warming, deforestation and even the concept of black holes, which is not only explained through physics but also through philosophy. Wireless communication infrastructure is one of those complex topics. This points to the importance of preserving an irreductionist perspective in the discussion on wireless connectivity.

The agency of wireless signals is hard to assess from a technical perspective of network engineering. Even the performative aspects of signals and space were so differently addressed by the different schools of thought in architecture. Having demonstrated this in the discussion on non-human performativity, I placed wireless communication signals, people who use them to communicate and space where these activities occur, at an ontologically equal level. This set the stage for an interpretation of architecturality through performativity of architecture, as it was extensively discussed by Smitheram (2011). I further deconstructed architecturality of connectivity through Mackenzie’s empiricist discussion on wirelessness (Mackenzie, 2010) and through Easterling’s account of active form (Easterling, 2012, 2014). Connectivity needs to be observed as a phenomenon beyond mere availability of connection.

Wireless communication signals act as agents of connectivity. Just like any other infrastructure, they perform as active form (Easterling, 2012). This means that their appearance – propagation is determined by algorithms which are inherent in their equipment and protocols (Mackenzie, 2010). This also means that they are in an active relationship with the rest of the environment, with the disposition to affect it similar to a ball on an inclined plane. Through its own activity or performance, this infrastructure becomes structural. The experience of designing active form served as a way to bring the discussion on wireless-communication signals propagation to a more tangible level. This work was fundamentally anti-representational. The way the design addressed the phenomenon was categorically not related to the actual shape of wireless-signals landscape. The behaviour of the installation – the deformation of the surface – related to the activity in the use of networks, and not to a measurement of signal strengths. Thus, the direct experience of the pre-represented active form – a deforming surface which does not follow geographical logic or simple signal availability – enabled interpretation of interactions or intra-actions within the network layer. Rather than synthesising a solution to the problem of dynamic representation of activity, Connect or Not is an attempt to design analytically.

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figure-6cFigure 6: Connect or Not installation with a group of people experiencing the activity in the wireless network layer. Pavilhao CIVIL, IST campus Alameda, Lisbon, Portugal; September 2014

The contribution this experience can make to understanding of architecturality of wireless signals is not only relevant on a building scale. Wireless network infrastructure bridges the computer industry and the telecommunications industry, both of which have a strong impact on the design and experience of urban spaces. The debate in engineering circles on the future of wireless network infrastructures is centred around efficiency and rationale of providing us with more speed, bandwidth and using as much as possible of the existing infrastructure. For example, the preferred infrastructure model is under consideration: carpet coverage (as in cellular networking) or mesh networks (as in Wi-Fi access points)? Will we need more high-power base station repeaters or will the infrastructure rely on a combination of portable and static antennas? These questions address the future of the physical infrastructure which will be embedded in our environment. This debate is hence, highly relevant for the development of future urban infrastructures, and for the question how our cities will look like, who will be using them and in what ways. It is extremely important to participate in this discussion. A model for evaluating the effects of wireless communication on the experience of space works in this direction. Escaping the expectation that this will recompose the way we interact with each other or with urban space, the conceptual model presented here enables us to look at roles wirelessness will play in the design of future urban interactions.

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