Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 10, 2008

Presentation on Shepard’s TSG Toolkit

Tomorrow I’ll be presenting on Mark Shepard’s Tactical Sound Garden (TSG) Toolkit.  The website can be found in the Browse section of this week’s readings, so I won’t spend too much time describing the project, and hopefully I’ll be keeping my discussion relatively short, it being the last class and all, and this being a fairly long-winded introductory blog-post.

Obviously there are lot of connections between TSG and the readings, Urban Computing and its Discontents being co-authored by Shepard himself, and he directly references Michael Bull’s work therein.  Therefore I’ll be focusing on framing our discussion through those articles.  The Sterling piece, as interesting as it is, I found less directly applicable to my own thinking about the TSG Toolkit, but I’d welcome any insights any of you might offer.

I do, however, want to chime in with one or two bits about Bo Walther’s “Pervasive Gaming: Formats, Rules, and Space.”  There seems to be much at stake in all these works regarding the dichotomy (perceived or actual) between physical and virtual realities.  Walther describes, to some extent, what Shepard’s work enacts: the blurring of this dichotomy or the disclosure that we might take it less as a dichotomy and more as a gradient.  Of interest to me is the fact that pervasive gaming and urban computing or ambient informatics seem to be approaching the dichotomy from opposites sides of the spectrum.  That is, games like Human Pac-Man or WoW seem to make virtual reality more physical or “real,” and Shepard’s work takes real, physical urban space, and makes it more virtual – when Michael Bull discusses “technologized space” (288), it is interesting to note that the space itself is primary to the technologizing, even if in the end this distinction is ultimately blurred.

I also want to focus on how the TSG Toolkit negotiates notions of privacy in public space via a series of Michael Bull’s assertions:

(1) “Personal stereo use reorganizes users’ relation to space and place. Sound colonies the listener, but it is also used to actively re-create and reconfigure the spaces of experience. Through the power of sound the world becomes intimate, known, and possessed” (283).

(2) “The users’ sense of space is one in which the distinction between private mood or orientation and their surroundings is abolished” (285).

(3) “Thus users are able to transcend geometrical space through the use of these mobile sound technologies. The nature of this technologized space is often experienced as all-engulfing, enabling the space of habitation to be infused with its own sense of heightened experiential aura. Users habitually exist within forms of accompanied solitude constructed through a manufactured auditory environment, either through mediated music or the voice of the ‘other’” (288).

First of all, do we buy this argument that Sound can have this sort of extreme affect, and doesn’t “abolishing” the distinction between private mood and surroundings constitute a sort of solipsism?  And how does this play out in Shepard’s Toolkit?  How effectively does the TSG alter or augment our experience of public space?

Lastly, I want to address the discourse of hallucination and “augmentation of reality” in these works.  Are ambient informatics hallucinatory?  Is the Tactical Sound Garden?  I think hallucination can be an effective metaphor for thinking about Shepard’s work.  For example, most hallucinogens (and for those of you with a richer knowledge of bio-chemistry than I, and there are assuredly many of you, please chime in here) work not only by affecting the brain’s processing of received sensory information, but also by intervening at the neuro-chemical level (changing incoming patterns of fired synapses) to alter the perception of sensory input.

That is, it’s not only the perceptions themselves that are being altered, but at the most fundamental level our perceptive modes themselves are altered.  I think this is an important distinction because the latter, by destabilizing conventional notions of perception, reveals a more fluid image of our relation to our physical environment.

If that wasn’t clear (and admittedly I’m not confident that it was) then consider this (inappropriately long) passage from Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a novel concerned very much with the intersection of LSD, new media technologies, subjectivity, and popular music:

She drove into San Narciso on a Sunday, in a rented Impala. Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken. She suspected that much. She thought of Mucho, her husband, trying to believe in his job. Was it something like this he felt, looking through the soundproof glass at one of his colleagues with a headset clamped on and cueing the next record with movements stylized as the handling of chrism, censer, chalice might be for a holy man, yet really tuned in to the voice, voices, the music, its message, surrounded by it, digging it, as were all the faithful it went out to; did Mucho stand outside Studio A looking in, knowing that even if he could hear it he couldn’t believe in it? (24-25)

Rather than spending too much time close-reading this passage (which desperately calls out for close-reading), I’ll leave it at this: Pynchon seems to be making, even as early as 1966, some sort of connection between subjectivity, hallucination and technological innovations in sound.  In a strange way, I see this passage as an unlikely precursor to The Tactical Sound Garden.

Other points I’d like to quickly make in case I forget them or don’t get to them are:

(1) The project’s reliance on Google imagery: the TSG takes for granted a dependency on the bird’s eye visualization of standard Google-mapping, so that the user is always located both in the physical garden and mapped into a digital representation of that garden.

(2) Shepard makes an interesting aesthetic statement in his visualization of sound as digital orbs of light hovering in real space and the appropriation of iPod marketing imagery.  What can we make of the project’s aesthetics?

(3) In many ways, the TSG Toolkit is an excellent example of a “Media Ecology.”  Shepard asserts on the site that “The TSG Toolkit is a parasitic technology,” which parallels my favorite line in the Fuller: “A media ecology is a cascade of parasites” ().  The TSG Toolkit mingles multiple media technologies and engages them with each other in complex ways.  Examples include: playlist sharing, Google mapping, mobile audio devices, 3D sound engine from gaming environments, pervasiveness of wi-fi, etc.

(4) I’m not sure what to make of the temporal element of the piece – that the digital representation is mapped in terms of hours, days, and weeks, so that the evolution of the garden, in its Google-mapped representation, is relatively slow.

Well, that was probably far too much, so, apologies.  At least I didn’t bother getting into how I came to decide to present on TSG based on my interest in encountering new media experiences in every day life which radically alter and/or hybridize our perception of reality after my own personal experience with MRI technology, which fostered an entire speculative post and presentation on MRI Art (or the lack thereof), and which, thankfully, I scrapped.

~Nick

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