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Hertzian Rain a project by Mark Shepard

November 2, 2009

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Hertzian Rain is a variable event structure designed to raise awareness of issues surrounding the wireless topography of urban environments through telematic conversations based on sound and bodily movement. As with other aspects of the physical world such as land, water and air, the electromagnetic spectrum is a limited resource. Wireless topography of urban environments? Are we talking about the Sentient City? The so-called “real-time, database-enabled city” with its synchronized Internet of Things?

Mark Shepard presented this project in March 2009, describing it with these words: “Hertzian Rain is a variable event structure designed to raise awareness of issues surrounding the wireless topography of urban environments through telematic conversations based on sound and bodily movement. As with other aspects of the physical world such as land, water and air, the electromagnetic spectrum is a limited resource. Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (1968) illustrates the dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in her/his own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even when everyone knows this is in no one’s long-term interest. Hertzian Rain addresses this competition for signal dominance through a participatory scenario for real-time, asymmetrical communication between sound makers and sound listeners – or hybrids thereof.”

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Live sound from multiple sound makers (sound artists, DJs, spoken word performers) is streamed from a set of wireless transmitters placed at opposing sides of an urban space. These transmitters broadcast these audio streams locally on the same radio frequency to a group of participants wearing wireless headphones tuned to this frequency.

Participants carry umbrellas made of electromagnetic field (EMF) shielding fabric that enable them to actively shape the surrounding environment of radio waves. By orienting the umbrella in different ways, one is able to filter the interfering radio signals and select a single audio stream to listen to.

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Shepard’s motivation and inspiration comes from his interest in the so-called Hertzian space and Peter Cook’s observation:

“When it is raining in Oxford Street the architecture is no more important than the rain, in fact the weather has probably more to do with the pulsation of the Living City at that given moment.”

Shepard’s reflection is that today, as the dataclouds of the 21st century descend on the streets, sidewalks and squares of contemporary cities, we might ask: to what extent are these Hertzian weather systems becoming as important, possibly more important, than built form in shaping our experience of the city?

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These kind of experiments remind us of the issue of Wired UK edition 17-11 Unlock the Digital City where they talk about the impact of the ongoing digital revolution on the viability of cities. Carlo Ratti quotes in his article Digital Cities: ‘sense-able’ urban design:

“The digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way. Sensors, cameras and microcontrollers are used ever more extensively to manage city infrastructure, optimise transportation, monitor the environment and run security applications. Advances in microelectronics now make it possible to spread “smart dust” networks of tiny, wireless, microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensors, robots or devices.”

The Hertzian Rain project is only one more of the infinite ways we have now to be part of these always communicated cities where we are acting like information producers but also like information receptors, we became prosumers [the new figure that produce but also consume information] all of the time. As Ratti reminds us, in 1963, the British architect Cedric Price created the idea of a Fun Palace. “Every town should have a space… where the latest discoverings of engineering and science can provide an environment for pleasure and discovery,” he said. We need Fun Palaces for the post-digital era. And we agree with Ratti -more experiments like the Hertzian Rain are always welcome!

More info about the Hertzian Rain at Shepard’s web-site.

More info about Wired: Unlock the Digital City here.

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