Sounds From the Other City: Anechoic Chamber

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Credit to Mike Hodson for the image above.

So a while ago a friend and I visited the University of Salford’s anechoic chamber. If you don’t know what one of those is the clue is in the name. An-echo literally means ‘without sound’. Such spaces are commonly used to test the sound levels of varying things from washing machines to new speaker systems.

The reason we did so was for an article I wanted to write for the modernist – a magazine dedicated to 20th architecture and design. But words alone wouldn’t really be able to do justice to the anechoic chamber itself, so I roped in my graphic designer, book-binder, master photographer friend Mike Hodson to take some pictures too. The magazine liked the photos he took so much they not only form a double-page spread in the physical publication itself but one also sits pride of place on the landing page of their website too.

You can find the full photo essay in the new issue of the modernist – #16 ‘Experiment’. You can buy it online here, or from these physical stockists both for the princely sum of £5.00. There’s a great array of articles in the new one, all centered on the notion of experimentation, including a wonderful piece on Berthold Lubetkin and another on the Futuro House. The full text is below.

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The anechoic chamber is a distinctly 20th century invention. The world’s oldest with the iconic ‘wedge-based’ interior design, the Murray Hill anechoic chamber, was built in 1940 in New Jersey, USA. As a laboratory for sonic experimentation they are revered by acoustic engineers and musicians alike. As a space, quite literally, ‘without echo’, the anechoic chamber is perhaps one of the most unique of modern architectural creations.

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Unlike many other architectural spaces, the anechoic chamber is defined by an absence. A kind of ‘lack’ that no other space courts. We routinely associate ‘lack’ with a loss, a subtraction, a depression. Yet it is through this lack, this sonic absence, that the anechoic chamber gains its hidden power for experimentation. Its wedge-based interior is one of a thousand tiny Brutalisms with each individual protrusion violently jutting out from a dark abyss that, in turn, hides the four walls of the shell we find ourselves in.

In the anechoic chamber we discover a veritable source of inspiration: not only for the acoustic engineers who call this their home, but for the theorists and dreamers. The chamber is an abstract space that, with a sonic absence, propagates not simply a stark, visceral visual presence, but a visual abundance. A cornucopia of visual abstraction, even. There are depressions. Deep depressions. There are also surfaces. Many, many surfaces. Whilst there is a uniformity and a familiarity to this arrangement, there is also a trickery. It is a space of, and for, the jester. Deep, golden lights cast infinite shadows over the sometime-glowing, sometime-lurking physical forms to create even more powerfully abstract volumes that play with the eyes as well as the ears.

The anechoic chamber is the bastard kernel of Brutalist thought. A trickster of form and a joker of function. And yet this kernel produces an unlikely inversion. Every iconic Brutalist structure – from the South Bank to Chandigarh and beyond – is fawned over from the outside. Do a quick image search for your favourite. How many photographs do you have to scroll through before you actually witness an interior? Modernism indeed has its celebrated interiors, but Brutalism, hardly. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to note a Brutalist interior that didn’t in fact fail to some degree – at least relative to its exterior. Take the Birmingham Central Library. Soon to be sadly demolished. Yet it has taken 45 years of administrative hate to see the outside disappear from the city skyline. Its interior was gone, redesigned beyond recognition, in 20. Madin and his team forgot to realize that developers are also bastards of another kind.

All this time, Brutalism forgot to look inside. It forgot to not only look a little more carefully inside its own designs (“interiors can be Brutalist too you know!”) but also inside itself. Why so monumental? Why so voluminous? Why so preposterous? 17x13ft should be all you need. And what’s more, when inside the anechoic chamber, Brutalism’s most infamous – synonymous – material is nowhere to be seen. Instead, of Béton brut we are hit with four walls of sound insulating foam. Matte, grey and granular perhaps, even rough to the touch, but foam nonetheless. The shell itself is concrete, granted. A suspended mass balanced on shockproof springs. But who’d have thought it? Brutalism’s finest abstract space not only an interior design but also decidedly un-concrete on the inside! What’s more, there’s one hiding in the underbelly of the School of Computing, Science & Engineering at the University of Salford and you might not have even ever known it.

With thanks to Danny McCaul and Joshua Meggitt for access.

“Si vous réussissez, vous serez bientôt couverts de gloire” – Thoughts on 200 Posts

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So WordPress told me today that I’d made 200 posts on The Semaphore Line. I had no idea! So I thought I’d throw a few thoughts out on this obviously momentous occasion.

I set this blog up in April 2012, 5 months before I started my PhD. I wanted it to be a space where I could develop my own thinking in a relatively public way. I wanted to link to things I’d read online that I liked and felt like sharing. With my starting of the PhD it gave me an opportunity to write on various topics that – although not knowing whether they would comprise my final thesis interests – would at least allow me to explore the terrain in some way.

I named it The Semaphore Line after the Chappe Brothers’ communication system. The title of this post references the first message that was sent between the two signal towers in 1791 (“if you succeed you will bask in glory”). I wrote about it in my first post, going back to say a little more on it in November 2013. As I said in April 2012:

As a historical example of the nexus of military needs, political and revolutionary events, and visual informational devices, the Semaphore Line acts as a grounding for thinking through the dynamics of geospatial technology, interactive media and the digital frontier. This blog will collate some of the work done at the intersection of these fields.

I’d like to think I’ve stuck to these interests over the last 3 ½ years – and as the sub-title of my blog hints at, I like to think I’ve appropriately covered ‘technology, space and politics’. Even if I may have gone a little off-topic sometimes.

Of course, the stats are important to a degree. 11,933 total views. 95 followers. 57 comments. 4 thematic categories. 560 unique tags. And of course: 200 posts. Hardly earth-shattering – but for a personal research blog I’d say not bad. Although, I’m hardly going to be topping my other (now long retired) blogging site for hits anytime soon (69, 253!). And nothing is going to top being linked to on a Guardian live football blog.

During 2012 and 2013 I blogged more prolifically. I think this is a fairly common experience. The first year of a PhD has a certain freedom to it. You can get away with saying ‘I’m still thinking about it’ and not be challenged on your output. Blogging, it seems, was the output itself rather than a means to an end. This year (2015) as primary research, journal article drafts, collaborative book editing, conference session organizing, fieldcourse game design and *actual* thesis chapter writing (!!!) have ‘got in the way’ I’ve been restricted to a whole lot more re-blogging and ‘signposting’. That’s to say, trumpeting (for better or for worse…) my work in other spaces (journals, websites) than using the blog to throw ideas down.

The top 3 posts in terms of hits (ignoring the home page and ‘about’ page), however, do somewhat sum up my evolving, shifting priorities over the years. In 3rd place: a muse on ‘Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon and Henri Lefebvre’ from December 2012, in light of a first-year presentation we had to give on our thesis topic. In 2nd: a dissection of ‘The Abercrombie Plans’ from May 2013; stimulated in part by coming across the Utopia London (2010) film. In 1st place: ‘A Night in Balfron Tower’ from July 2013 – a photo-led article on gentrification in London spurred on by – yep, you guessed it – spending a night in the (in)famous Balfron Tower. Each of these seem to have cross-cut the blog’s general themes quite well, intersecting with spatial theory, the city and architecture along the way.

This like many of my posts has been written in transit on the CrossCountry train (a typical view is above!) back from Warwick (where I study) to Manchester (where I live). It’s provided me with both the space and the rhythm to write some more explorative and provisional things. And whilst sometimes it’s certainly been easier to sit back, mindlessly flick through twitter or just fall asleep, I’ve often found my most lucid moments on such journeys – and when I have I’ve tried my best to share them on here. 200 posts later and that hasn’t changed much. Writing can be tough but not writing is tougher. Blogging – however frequently, lucidly, expansively, briefly, or rambling-ly – has given me space to discover that.

*Update* Maps, Kettles and Inflatable Cobblestones: The Art of Playful Disruption in the City

Back in February I posted an article I wrote for Novara Wire on protest mapping. In it I mentioned I had a forthcoming article in a themed issue of Media Fields on ‘Spaces of Protest’. Since I mentioned it the issue still isn’t live is now live. Until that time I’ve decided to upload the pre-publication author copy to The full version is now on my ‘selected publications’ page. If anyone is so kind as to reference it please do so as: ‘S. Hind (forthcoming, 2015) Please reference as normal. I’ll post a link to the entire theme issue when it goes live – hopefully sometime soon. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the other contributions.

In short the paper is on ‘the art of playful disruption’, and attempts to draw some connections between Situationism and recent playful, urban protest events involving ‘maps, kettles and inflatable cobblestones’. I argue that these are ‘urban embodiments of jouissance, playful articulations of political matters’.

I make this case with reference to Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord’s A Game of War (1987) strategy game – something I’ve mentioned briefly on this blog before, in November 2013. Rather than go over (once again) some of the classics of Situationism, I’ve drawn on A Game of War because, as I’ve suggested in the article, it ‘was the closest any Situationist work had got to actually devising a practically and tactically useful guide to territorial engagement’. That it did so via the medium of a board game is ‘testament to the movement’s enduring playfulness’.

Two case studies testify to this continuing sensibility. One concerns a smartphone app created by student activists in London in 2010, another centres on the design of so-called ‘inflatable cobblestones’ by the Eclectic Electric Collective (now Tools for Action). Again, I’ve mentioned both previously: here and here (in relation to the Disobedient Objects exhibition). Needless to say I find both quite wonderful examples of what Graham St. John (2008: 172) has called ‘carnivalesque hacking’, i.e. a way to ‘provide creative possibilities’ to ‘deliberately danger the smooth running’ of otherwise sanitized and restricted protest events.

The cobblestone of course has deep links to urban revolt, and specifically to Situationist rebellion, echoed in the famous evocative call of “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the cobblestones, the beach”). The design of glossy, enlarged, inflatable cobblestones for the purposes of contemporary protest gestures towards this history, but also subverts it in its obvious fragility. As police officers – disarmed by the frivolity an inflatable object brings to a protest demonstration – attack, deflate and confiscate the cumbersome objects it mocks and ridicules them. Watching a police officer attempting to attack an inflatable with a weapon is, well, rather funny, if not wholly farcical. Thus laying bare the unnecessary force of the state for all to see. Each example ‘depends on the successful mobilization of ludic action’. In other words, on the ‘playful articulation of political matters’.

Digital Mapping as Double-Tap – A Reply from Gavin MacDonald

Gavin MacDonald has been kind enough to offer a reply to the article Sybille Lammes and I wrote in Global Discourse recently on Latour and digital mapping. This is a short personal response – and does not necessarily represent the views of my co-author, Sybille – just to avoid any possible confusion.

In it Gavin draws attention to Latour’s celebration of ‘touching at a distance’ – rather than the aura of immediacy (in the form of ‘double-tap’) we identified as the ideal focus of Latourian work at present. In so doing, MacDonald attempts to qualify our own efforts at conceiving the relationship between phenomena and representation, vision and touch.

In short, MacDonald plays up Latour’s use of haptic terminology – especially the likening of mediation to the work of termites (!) and other ‘blind insects’. As MacDonald says:

Access depends on a relay of mediators, each of which touches the next. For Hind and Lammes, vision and touch are bound up with each other in the operation of touchscreen in such a way that the latter secures the former. A question that isn’t explore or answered here is whether or not we can conceive of these glossy interfaces [of phones, tablets etc.] in a way more attuned to Latour’s celebration of ‘the world at your fingertips’.

Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with MacDonald in this – Latour is remarkably keen to show how mediation is an inexact haptic science; of groping, fumbling and struggling to make connections, I’m keen to see how the interface erases this distance and smooths the otherwise unstable relays. It may be true that in order to load OSM or Google Maps onto my smartphone a huge number of commands need to be issued – to code, capacitors and cell towers – but I don’t need to (or do) consider this each and every time I do so. Put otherwise: the interface user barely – rarely – experiences this. Until, of course, like we say in the paper, things go wrong. I’m interested in this normalizing force. I think this as much an issue of methodological orientation as any conceptual approach – do we look being the scenes or into the audience itself? To use a theatrical metaphor.

MacDonald also rightly questions whether Latour’s notion of immutability mobility is still fit for purpose. I think this is an incredibly valid point – especially in relation the digital map. Is there value in attempting to trace the various im/mutable or im/mobile elements in each enterprise? As MacDonald says, we’ve stretched Latour’s sense of the term somewhat and pushed it out to refer to wider systems rather than objects themselves. I think this is necessary – to refocus our attention away from the objects and specifically the map – but I don’t think we need to do so in reference to exclusively  Latourian terms. Indeed, squeezing our efforts back into an ill-fitting framework is a recipe for disaster. Nonetheless, I’m still intrigued by the tension in immutability mobility. There is no agreed answer; maps are ‘in general’ neither immutable or mutable mobiles. Moreover, there is no need to find one.  As ever, we need to trace the connections in each and every case – just as Latour would rightly suggest.

Once again, thanks to Gavin for his reply.

TeachHigher: a critique of claims from the University of Warwick

A brilliant analysis of Warwick’s new ‘internal outsourcing’ initiative for casual academic labour, TeachHigher.

Warwick for Free Education

Initially published here.

Last week I received an email from a departmental secretary about TeachHigher. The department I am based in – Sociology – has been enrolled in the TeachHigher pilot scheme for several months now, but this is the first time that PhD students have been officially informed of this.

TeachHigher emailI strongly suspect that this email (identical to emails also sent to PhD students in the Politics & International Studies and Philosophy departments) was written to counter some of the negativepublicityreceived by TeachHigher over the past couple of weeks. It repeats a number of claims also made on social media and in press statements by University management and their representatives.

It’s a horrible feeling to have, but I honestly believe that our institution is being deeply dishonest with us.

In this post, I outline why this is the case, with reference to claims both made in…

View original post 1,119 more words

Digital mapping as double-tap: cartographic modes, calculations and failures

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I have a new co-authored, open access article (with Sybille Lammes) recently out in Global Discourse. Entitled ‘Digital mapping as double-tap: cartographic modes, calculations and failures’, the paper is a constructive reading of Bruno Latour’s latest project: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME) from a critical cartographic perspective. It should be part of a special forthcoming issue on AIME, although at the moment it sits orphaned under ‘latest articles’.

It aims to do a few things. In the first instance it’s a reading of AIME in relation to Latour’s previous cartographic work. That is, his Visualization and Cognition chapter (1986), the Paris: Invisible online project (2006), the co-authored article with Valerie November and Eduardo Camacho-Hubner (2010) and various other texts in which he’s employed some kind of cartographic metaphor or narrative in order to construct, elucidate or strengthen a conceptual argument. We think it’s worth re-visiting and re-analyzing them in light of the mapping stories that litter AIME.

Secondly it’s a constructive critique of AIME. In particular, it aims to strengthen Latour’s account of the moderns, by re-framing the double-click mode (introduced in previous articles, but foregrounded in AIME) as double-tap. Although this may seem like an inconsequential revision, the tweak in terminology allows Latour (and others) to actually further strengthen a conceptual argument concerning access and knowledge to the world. With the rise of ‘double-tap’ devices – touchscreen phones, tablets and other such technologies – talk of ‘double-clicking’ sounds oddly outdated.

Then we look to how thinking in different modal registers – ontological, cartographic and methodological – can help us to identify the ‘operative elements’ in different mapping enterprises. As critical cartographers have also talked of ‘modes’, we’ve drawn connections between Latour’s ontologically-pluralist variant, Matthew Edney’s cartographic version and Chris Perkins’ methodological one. Whilst there are huge differences between the three, we think this can serve as a kind of matrix for thinking about mapping endeavours – whatever they may be.

In the final section of the article we work with the above to expand on Latour’s conceptual legacy within critical cartography (the use and re-use of various terms including: immutable mobility, inscription, calculation etc.), to suggest another productive path: through cartographic failures rather than successes. Two cases – a flood event (image above) and a protest demo – are introduced to provide evidence for this methodological re-emphasis. Whilst Latour is keen to stress the contingency of socio-technical systems, we argue that there is still comparatively little space given in his many texts for failed projects (Aramis notwithstanding). In short, we think failure – and specifically failure in cartographic systems – needs to be attended to more thoroughly. This is a modest attempt to do just that.

‘Print this Map. Get off the Internet. Take to the Streets’: 5 of the Left’s Best Mapping Moments

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Mapping and activism have a long history. In the final days of the Paris Commune the military advances of the Versailles army were mapped on a daily basis as the revolutionaries sought to keep them at bay. Fast forward nearly 100 years and the Situationists were once again mapping Paris in altogether more abstract ways – this time to resist the advances of the modern city. In more recent times we’ve seen the rudimentary mapping of protest camps in Madrid, New York and Hong Kong.

The above is from another article I wrote for Novara Wire. This time on mapping and activism. There’s at least one in there that critical cartographers should be familiar with (Detroit) and a few more they may not be. It’s hardly a definitive list but just a couple I think crystallize some of the political issues the left has dealt with historically, notably race relations, anti-globalization, immigration/detention and student activism. The maps themselves aren’t particularly radical in the sense of production and style, I’d argue, but they certainly contain radical content. Moreover, all were produced by extra-state, autonomous actors – historically those without the power to map.

If you want a little more on the intersection between mapping and activism there’s plenty to go at. A recent open-access article [PDF] by Rhiannon Firth (UEL) in Interface is fantastic, and draws on the wonderful map archive at the 56A Infoshop in Southwark to argue for an ‘anarchist pedagogy’.

On the notion of ‘radical cartography’ I’d suggest reading Mark Denil’s critical piece in Cartographic Perspectives, as it seeks to explore what radicality really means in relation to mapping practice. He also suggests the Fürth map I selected has a radicality due to it ‘cutting across the cartographic schema itself’. In other words, it pushes the boundaries of what a map is, and can be. Hackitectura‘s work does similarly.

The final map I chose (‘Sukey takes it off again’) is the subject of my PhD work, and I have an upcoming article in a special issue (‘Spaces of Protest’) of Media Fields on the connection between it and playful protest action. I’ll post a link when it’s live.