Wireless After the End of the WWW:
An Interview with Dennis de Bel and Roel Roscam Abbing
For the 2015 FIBER Festival, taking place 15 & 16 May in Amsterdam, new media theorist Michael Dieter spoke with artists and researchers Dennis de Bel and Roel Roscam Abbing about their current project on radio transmissions and wireless technologies. At the event, they will run a workshop ‘Write the Wave’ which explores the possibilities for reutilizing the radio spectrum as a new commons in the forthcoming ‘digital radio switchover’. The conversation took place on May 1st at Open Coop, Amsterdam.
Michael Dieter (MD): Can I start by asking you a bit about the workshop? What sort of things will you be doing at FIBER Festival?
Roel Roscam Abbing (RRA): We want to start the workshop with giving the participants an insight in what happens with radio signal all around us, everywhere; everything that has no strings attached (wireless) is basically using radio technology, so it’s nice to give the people an impression of what is happening. For FIBER Festival in Amsterdam, we want to scan the spectrum around the A Lab space, we want to listen to the ferries, to the air traffic into Schiphol airport; well, everything up to the GSM 3G signals which we can hear.
MD: And the idea is that then you’ll also build transmitters in the workshop to use the FM spectrum, but for data?
RRA: We have not really decided which spectrum we’ll use. Generally the lower in the spectrum you go, towards 1MHz and lower, the further you can reach, but the larger your equipment needs to be. The antenna always has a relation to the size of the physical wave; in the case of 1MHz, it’s 300 meters. So then you take 1/100 of that you have a three meter antenna, so for FM it would be 100 times smaller, it’s around a 100MHz range, but then you have interference of radio stations.
Dennis de Bel (DB): We want to create devices that can be parallel to the devices we already have in our pockets and then create some sort of a parallel network based on existing consumer hardware, but solder it yourself from scratch. Therefore, we still have to decide what’s going to be practical in the workshop.
MD: Do you have a background in radio?
DB/RRA: No, no, no…
RRA: We always start working with something that we know nothing about and then you dive straight into it.
DB: Then you ‘die’ straight into it.
MD: So how did you come to work on radio transmission?
RRA: We came from different backgrounds. Personally I researched a lot into the physical infrastructure of the internet and sort of the politics behind that and the implications. I did a few projects and as I was reading about the history of telecommunications, there was this recurrent theme when it came to power over networks. That wireless managed to give an alternative to people who did not have power over cables. At the end of the 19th century, the British had the entire world connected to London. They had all the islands and geopolitical sweet spots that they needed for their shipping network, like the Rock of Gibraltar, and could use these to run that vast cable network. The competing European powers also wanted private communication networks to connect to their colonies, but had a hard time doing so because they couldn’t make direct connections. Because of this their telegrams flowed partly through British cables which made it possible for the British to censor or eavesdrop messages or cut it off when they found it inappropriate but then radio happened. So Germany and France were excited and invested a lot into radio technology to make direct links to the colonies so they would not need to rely on British cables anymore. From that moment on you see that wireless versus wired is a bit of a recurring trend so when I started thinking about network infrastructures my interest drifted towards wireless because of the different way of how things can be done.. one can own cables but one can’t own radio waves.. And yeah then you also realize there was already an internet as we know it, you already had radio amateurs making worldwide with data connections via radio in the 80s; a bit of forgotten history about a technology that we are only familiar with in the form of Giel Beelen and 3FM.
MD: This workshop, of course, is also interesting from the context of critical media theory that runs alongside the history that you are tracing. With Bertolt Brecht’s famous essay on radio picked up by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and then Jean Baudrillard’s response to that, the technology inspired an ongoing discussion on the ‘two faced’ aspects of media and how it always seemed to end up in another centralized arrangement. But this is especially interesting with radio as it stands today; well, I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that some of the spectrum has been abandoned, it’s almost as if it has become available in a new way as the technology is superficially superseded.
RRA: Well, that is indeed how we would read it, but I think the people who give licenses wouldn’t read it like that. But it’s an interesting thing that’s happening. As things move to more digital higher bandwidth frequencies, they move from MHz to 100s of MHz to GHz. Longer waves don’t get used in that same way anymore, except for RFID chips, so in that sense, a space opens up that can be pirated.
MD: And that’s another a key part of this history, right? Pirate radio or activist uses like Radio Alice in Italy, they encompass a very rich tradition of experimental and political practices.
RRA: Yeah and that’s one of the nice things of the radio wave as an object that it literally doesn’t know boundaries. You have radio waves that go across the world all the time, which allowed them to be used for propaganda purposes. You have Radio Free Asia, Free Europe. The other day I was listening to Radio Havana Cuba which uses these very long waves to transmit the Cuban point of view all the way here. In the same way you can listen to radio from Uzbekistan. They air their point of view across the world and there is basically no way to stop it and that’s a nice thing and that’s why radio pirates are interesting. Once they transmit, you can destroy the transmitter, but the message is still out there.
So I would say that look towards the radio pirate for inspiration in contrast to the radio amateur who is so in love with the technology that he gets a sanctioned licence and thereby limits the field of view in a way; they cannot send encrypted communications, they can only use specified bands which can be subject to change. As long as they are perceived as useless, there are amateur radio bands, but as soon there is a new use for it, they are subject to change. Nowadays, for example, there is a discussion about NFC chips using the same band (14mhz) as amateur radio, so there could be a risk that amateur radio jams things like wireless paying cards. So it is not unimaginable that amateurs would not be able to transmit on these frequencies. For their love for the technology, they really have to comply and cooperate with the governments that give licenses. And then you have this other history of people just grabbing the frequency which I find more interesting.
MD: Do you have an idea of what kind of content you will transmit at the workshop?
DB: There is a reason why the commercial parties are moving up the spectrum because of the bandwidth I guess. So we have some interesting limitations in our system, it’s ultra slow, it’s quite nice actually because you become aware of the materiality of digital stuff like files. For example, you could send an image and see it build up on your screen but it can take up to 30 minutes for a JPEG. But you also have auditory feedback as well.
MD: It’s this old problem of latency and bandwidth. While travelling I became more aware of bandwidth and how the signal varies on your phone significantly, and made me think about how web content is optimized for latency. For instance, when you look at digital content from the perspective of performance optimization, you can see how the it’s arranged in particular ways to allow for speedy delivery, what Wolfgang Ernst calls chrono-engineering. It’s used in web and app design to target particular audiences in certain locations using certain devices. This is part of the new research program I’m doing on user interface design practices (rather than art practices). But it’s also why I am really interested in your project, to see how digital content and wireless transmission can work together in different ways.
DB: Indeed, you really have to choose what to send what to watch/see. A nice thing is that it really reacts to your body, the proximity, you can either become an antenna or a shield.
RRA: This is all analogue electronics which is a bit of black magic; there is a lot of physics going on. You can calculate nice formulas and approach each value of a component, but then indeed your body has its own capacitance and you come close to your transmitter and it sort of shifts the whole signal.
DB: Humidity, air pressure…
RRA: Temperature plays a large role. In that sense, analogue electronics are hell, but at the same time with only a few components you can make a transmitter. You really get down to the physics of how radio works. To send radio you need to make a carrier wave which is a wave that oscillates at a certain frequency, which will carry your message basically and then you write your information on that, hence Write the Wave.
When new technologies are unstructured and undefined, it creates a space where interesting things can happen, but as soon as things scale you lose all of that potential.
MD: Are the transmitters that you’ll build in the workshops your own designs?
RRA: No, actually we’ve got these from a pirate radio manual that is floating around the internet. I don’t really know the history behind this manual, but it’s really good; it’s called The Complete Manual of Pirate Radio by Zeke Teflon. It’s a zine with all these designs and also this ideology: ‘you should grab the wave!’ And a Japanese media artist provided some designs.
DB: Yeah, one design is from Tetsuo Kogawa who does narrowcasting sound art, really local hosted radio shows, but using feedback from the radios themselves or musicians; he also did some workshops.
MD: I’ve heard that there’s quite a long history of experimental radio in Japan. For instance, in the recently translated writings of Félix Guattari on his time there, Machinic Eros, he discusses the mini-FM community (Radio Home Run) that Kogawa initiated with others in the 1980’s.
RRA: The modern transistor radio is basically what Sony made the big player that it is now.
The funny thing is that radio started off not as analogue but rather as a digital medium with Morse code, turning the transmitter on and off and transmitting discrete values. Analogue transmission was invented only while people were looking at how to multiplex these digital signals, so that you could put two or four signals on one cable, that was goldmine in the nineteenth century. All the ‘start-ups’ back then — these were the heydays of the inventor geniuses we are so in love today with — were all about multiplexing signals; putting as much data through a cable. And then Alexander Graham Bell’s start-up found out that accident that if you multiplex enough signals they begin to resonate at enough frequencies, to carry sound or voice. That was the invention of telephony and that’s when transmission became analogue in a way. And later when people were looking at sending digital data again, they had to come up with a hack on the analogue system again. This is what the old modem does; modulates and demodulates data into sound and back and that’s what we want to do with this workshop.
MD: Actually, there is another question I wanted to ask you both; maybe it’s a bit of an unfortunate question. But when I was looking at Dennis’ work in particular, I was thinking about the post-digital concept. I don’t know if you have any thoughts about the concept or how you see it applying to your work.
RRA: For me, it’s a realization that each medium has its own merit. If you take the 2000’s and 90’s wave of technology, everything was inevitably becoming digital and networked. And from that perspective, it’s illogical to see people actually decide what medium they use, based on the characteristics that each medium has and not on something is digital or not. I think that’s what post-digital is, this realization. We’re not going to use the internet because it’s the internet, or vinyl because it’s retro, but because of the intrinsic qualities of each medium. But you, Dennis, are the post-digital artist!
DB: First of all, I’m not. I’m still figuring out what I will be for the rest of my life. Or I hope so at least. I don’t see it really reflected in this whole thing that gets labelled as post-digital art. It stays so digital all the time. I don’t know… It has become a poisoned term.
MD: When I was first studying, we were still being taught a lot of postmodern theory and when I shifted to thinking about media, it was really refreshing. Because all of those complex questions about history, time and representation that come with a term like ‘post’ could be put aside. And yet, there is something interesting in the way Florian Cramer, for instance, talks about post-digital. He tries to be very precise about it, which I appreciate — especially given that there are other competing terms that are also problematic such as ‘post-internet’, ‘new aesthetic’ or even ‘neo-analogue’.
There is a sense though that the digital is not what it used to be. And it feels that there is a historical shift in thinking about new technologies as necessarily progressive politically. Post-Snowden is another term that can be mentioned in this context. And I see some of these themes in the workshop that you are running, in the sense of trying to discover a new stance towards media infrastructures that somehow is also taking account of the current climate. Would it be fair to say that there is some kind of contemporary media politics going on in your practice and how would you describe it?
DB: As soon as you’re not uploading your work on Behance you’re political in a sense…
RRA: Uploading to Behance is also a politics..
MD: Let me put it another way, there is obviously a pragmatism to your practice in terms of putting things together in new ways, but is there a radical pragmatism as well where you can see these practices radically scaling? Given that the latency is so limited and that there is kind of slow dimension to putting together DIY radio in a workshop with a small group of people like this.
RRA: I think maybe that might be one of the post-digital things about this. This is also the realization that people might have had is that when new technologies are unstructured and undefined, it creates a space where interesting things can happen, like the early web. That’s the thing we keep romanticizing about the internet, because it was unstructured and it wasn’t fully commercialised, and as soon as things scale — which is, of course, one of Silicon Valley’s buzzwords, does it scale? — you lose all of that potential. That’s why I decided that some things shouldn’t scale. And maybe in that sense you could speak about a post-digital theme. Media have specific properties which get lost as they scale. And obviously these transmitters are not a tool..
DB: It’s not an optimised product. There is a lot of noise which gives a lot of room for discussion.
If you see an image or a website loading on your screen you just interfere with your body and you break the whole thing. You realize how hard it is and you see what’s happening.
RRA: It’s not a solution for any sort of thing but its more a way in which people look at other communication infrastructures that they use and get a new viewpoint.
DB: It’s also media archaeology, because it’s really hard to get these components nowadays. Ten years ago, there were still shops, but we’ll soon lose it.
MD: Where did you get these components? Not at Media Markt I guess.
DB: There is only one electronics shop in Rotterdam where you can only by a maximum of five of these components. But we bought Chinese knock-offs online. It’s almost undoable.
DB: I really like to think by myself and work with my hands and when it gets out of your hands, you don’t have any control. There is a nice balance between control and uncontrol with these analogue components.
RRA: And also the scale of the components we use is important because these one can grab and touch. Electronics always trended towards miniaturization to a point now where most stuff is so small you cannot pick it up with your fingers let alone arrange and connect them. Designed by machines, built by machines.
DB: Built for the masses, you have to build a million otherwise it makes no sense.
RRA: There is a lot to be said about being able to do it yourself. You learn a lot by doing this, also by failing.
DB: You burn a lot!