Connectivity in action/form

Presentation given at the Agency/Agents of Urbanity research symposium, held in June 2015 at EPFL, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Connectivity in Action/Form. A model for Evaluating Spatial Impacts of Wireless Communication
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In this talk, we will walk through several transdisciplinary paradigms needed to build a conceptual framework for evaluation of wireless communication’s impact on space.
What I will talk about will have very little to do with urbanity directly, but it has a lot of importance for urbanity as many of you have described it.
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I will try to explain how wireless communication signals partake in production of the space of connectivity that is – or not – available to people and devices.

This is a form. And an action.

This is a representation of a ‘binary’ space, made by the view of video surveillance cameras.

Connectivity propagates through space in a similar way.
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This is a standard representation of wireless signals at a given place and time – and it is not very spatial.
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This is a more distributed representation of wireless network infrastructure – built from scattered devices, base stations, repeaters, access points and ‘a bouillon of waves’ that connect them
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wireless network infrastructure has a prominent place in our interaction with the environment and with each other
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Nevertheless, it is rarely studied in its full complexity, including all actants that are involved

Ideal propagation models cannot fully account for their propagation. It is actually really hard to accurately represent wireless signals.

Thus, we recognize the difficulty to read its impact on space and people – caused mainly by the lack of bridges between knowledge about wireless infrastructures, knowledge of urban form and architecture and knowledge about (human) experience
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In order to bridge (a part of) this gap, I introduce the term architecturality:
a property common to all architecture but exceeding the limits of built artefacts and urban spaces.
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Architecturality is examined through the notion of performativity and form-giving-action as a potential for affecting the experience of space in a significant way
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architecturality of wireless communication infrastructure should result from the fact that wireless signals, like architecture, have agency.
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can we say that wireless signals have agency?
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often used in contemporary research discourse as conceptual currency across different (sub)disciplines
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My understanding of agency relies on a combination of cognitive and philosophical perspectives

For this study, we will describe it as a capacity of a system to actively regulate its relationship within the environment.
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I look at wireless communication signals as agents of connectivity. Their purpose is not to simply transmit ‘a’ message but to exist as radiation, covering as much surface as possible with as much signal strength.
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Connectivity is inevitably linked to a spatial configuration, connecting one point with another.
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On the other hand, connectivity has its own materiality, which is realized through its continuous performance on and of space and people. We will try to account for these inter/intra-relations/actions and examine the form given to wirelessness through action.
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In this respect, we adopt a posthumanist* perspective and the notion of non-human agency discussed in flat-ontological* philosophy as well as poststructuralist accounts of agency and performativity
*Posthumanism is an intellectual effort to dismantle the common anthropocentric world view
*Flat ontology is made of entities differing in spatiotemporal scale but not in ontological status.
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In humanities, performative turn was a reaction to the limitations imposed by a representational world view in social constructivism, which was the dominant intellectual trend throughout 1960s. John Austin’s influential theory of Speech Act inspired performance studies in performing arts and theatre rooting also in the discourse of natural and economic sciences and science technology studies (STS) throughout 1990s and 2000s.
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The performative paradigm has entered architectural discourse from different grounds in relatively recent years. Inspired by de Certeau’s notion of ‘tactic’, artists and architects took it to their practice to find a way of interpreting spatial practices architecturally and socially. We can trace the origins of these ideas to Lefebvre’s notion of space as a product of some form of social interaction or to Situationist International, to whom performance was instrumental in challenging city structures.
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Performative is opposite of representational but it is also different from performance – not a mere adjective;
“performative” denotes a potential for action, focusing on experience.
Following on Judith Buttler’s distinction of performance which presumes some-body performing; and performativity which is made through discourse – or event, we explore the performative paradigm in architectural discourse.
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it is unfolding in in three distinct directions –

(1) architecture performed by bodies (carving, void)

(2) complex interaction with the environment which can be measured, simulated and used as a design parameter

(3) performativity of non-human actors, architecture included. created by experience or algorithms
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So firstly, architecture as event in the work of Koolhaas and Tschumi, meant that performance and event invert the additive process of design into a process of ‘carving’ – architecture is thus a product of an event
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Another prominent interpretation of performativity in the architectural context is what Kolarevic described as ‘form follows performance’ logic . Performance is understood as something that can be simulated and assessed qualitatively and quantitatively by digital technologies. This “reduces” performance to a design principle, and we would like to keep it in a more general perspective
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according to post-structuralist theorists spatial performativity is “a way to understand how power relations structure, and are embodied and performed, in relation to architecture.” . They talk about experience-space, which is a composite of its performance and performativity.
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Finally, in Easterling’s writing about the performativity of infrastructure space, it is information itself which organises buildings. It is the undeclared political and economic algorithms of incentivised urbanism that generate ‘spatial products’ from repeatable formulas. For her, this action is form .
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it is not a nonsense to discuss architecturality of architecture, no less than it is to talk about the transparency of the air.
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architecturality is in a direct link with performativity of architecture.

Performativity is understood in its broadest sense, as action residing in objects, structures, infrastructures.

The suffix -ity conveys the notion of a state, condition, or mode of existence
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what is architecture able to perform?
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taking one classical example, this is architecture that raised so much debate about design responsibility, directly blamed for facilitating criminal behaviour
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notorious for problems of concentrated crime, poverty and racial segregation, twenty years after its completion, all 33 Pruitt Igoe buildings were detonated.
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We have already seen how buildings can render experience.
A wall is not just a passive entity in space – it actively stands in the way, it visually and functionally organises space. Otherwise, why would Serra’s Tilted Arc provoke such a strong reaction to be finally removed by a court order?
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architecturality of some architectures is more architectural.
These houses, for example, are rather neutral, they are not putting forward their aesthetic or organisation principle, they act partially as a shelter, partially as an expression of their inhabitants. This is not architecture we learn about in school.
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On the other hand, we have recognizable, signature architecture whose influence on both its use and its surrounding is much higher; here we have everything from political propaganda, such as citizens walking on the rooftop
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or watching the parliament in seat…
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eclectic, delirious experiments…
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to hard core (declared) functionalism which is engineering lifestyles together with concrete supports and the rhythm of openings…

Architecturality of architecture can be measured as the extent to which it is able to actively shape the flow of activities, objects and people.
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How can thoughts on agency, performativity and architecturality help us construct a model for evaluating spatial impacts of wireless communication?
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as in phenomenological inquiries in general – 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.
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For example, if we attune ourselves to signal interference, we will see that active form of wireless signals gets absorbed by buildings, human bodies
Here we have a manifestation of this interference. Trying to develop a more reliable method for deploying wireless connectivity during flight, BOEING runs tests using potatoes
in place of humans, because they work well at replicating the normal interactions between wireless signals and a living, human body
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2413533,00.asp
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Attuned to signal availability, numerous research projects engaged with mapping signal availability and propagation to space (here an example from a research conducted at IST, 2007 synchronizing spatial information in a crossover of space syntax and spatial information visualization)
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This is an attempt at visualisation of the ‘conjunctive envelope’ formed out of wireless chipsets, radio frequency signals, algorithmic processes, space, time…. is “a spatial-temporal fold that configures and concentrates” inter-actions or exchanges. in empiricist terms, it alters the way ‘the world hangs together’ .
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Easterling advocates recognition and design of active forms. Active form is the expression of activity and not its representation, as is usually the case with architectural (master)pieces. Active form established what an organisation will be doing.
Infrastructure space is not only a substructure of built spaces but a structure itself.
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What could be the form of wireless communication signals’ action? How might we approach the design of this active form?
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Connect or Not questions current wireless signals space occupancy in a playful way.
The structure reacts to both people’s action and network action. People’s action here is limited to the use of networks and space – changing positions and generating network traffic. Space and people act as interference in network signals propagation, the latter trying to cover as much surface as possible with as much signal strength. The structure acts at the interface of these actions. The reaction of the structure is spatial – it is a materialisation of actions in the change of its form.
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Connect or Not uses an Android application under the same name which acted as a network traffic counter.
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Besides this, the system offers different position tracking techniques based on Bluetooth beacons and Wi-Fi access points, introducing spatial relevance into the reaction of the system.
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Coming back to the idea of conjunctive envelope , “Connect or Not” was imagined as an active manifestation of activities of both devices, and people, and network protocols, and properties of the space.

Aesthetically, the form is at the same time referring to a waveform (a standard representation of waves, or wireless signals) and to an architectural archetype – an arcade.
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One of the main questions when observing people’s interaction with Connect or Not was whether they would change their behaviour to achieve a particular impact on the installation (i.e. try to generate more or less traffic)? Also do people make the connection between their actions (i.e. watching an online video) and the reaction of the installation.
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The reality is that they don’t, or not for long.
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Connect or Not creates a sense of tangible interaction with wireless network signals. However, it goes against the actual use of networks, forcing the person.
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Besides some obvious obstacles of having to install an Android app, Conncet Or Not provided a unique opportunity for observation of people’s behaviour when they are given the tools to interact with WiFi.
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References



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