Michael Dieter on Fri, 8 May 2015 17:09:18 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Wireless After the End of the WWW

Dear Nettime,

I thought the following short conversation/interview I recently
conducted with the artists Dennis de Del and Roel Roscam Abbing might
be of interest to the list. It covers their currently work on
post-digital, wireless, radio, DIY and other critical media topics.


Wireless After the End of the WWW:
A Conversation with Dennis de Del and Roel Roscam Abbing

For the 2015 Fiber Festival (http://2015.fiberfestival.nl/), Michael
Dieter spoke with the Rotterdam-based artist 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 âWrite the Waveâ which explores the possibilities for
reutilizing the radio spectrum as a new commons in the forthcoming
âdigital radio switchoverâ. 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 the 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 itâs nice to give
the people an impression of what is happening. For the 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 youâll also build transmitters in the
workshop to use the FM spectrum, but for data?

RRA: We have not really decided which spectrum weâll 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, itâs 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, itâs 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 whatâs
going to be practical in the workshop.

MD: Do you have a background in radio?

DB/RRA: No, no, noâ

RRA: We always start working with something that we know nothing about
and then you dive straight into it.

DB: Then you âdieâ straight into it.

MD: So how did you come to work on radio transmission?

RRA: We came from different backgrounds. Personally I was 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 couldnât 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 Brechtâs famous essay on radio picked up by Hans
Magnus Enzensberger and then Jean Baudrillardâs response to that, the
technology inspired an ongoing discussion on the âtwo facedâ 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 donât know if itâs true, but Iâve heard that
some of the spectrum has been abandoned, itâs almost as if it has
become available in a new way as the technology is superficially

RRA: Well, that is indeed how we would read it, but I think the people
who give licenses wouldnât read it like that. But itâs an interesting
thing thatâs happening. As things move to more digital higher
bandwidth frequencies, they move from MHz to 100s of MHz to GHz.
Longer waves donât 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 thatâs 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 thatâs one of the nice things of the radio wave as an
object that it literally doesnât 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 thatâs a nice thing and thatâs 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 license 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

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, itâs ultra slow, itâs 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: Itâs this old problem of latency and bandwidth. While traveling 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 itâs
arranged in particular ways to allow for speedy delivery, what
Wolfgang Ernst calls chrono-engineering. Itâs used in web and app
design to target particular audiences in certain locations using
certain devices. This is part of the new research program Iâm doing on
user interface design practices (rather than art practices). But itâs
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 pressureâ

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.

MD: Are the transmitters that youâll build in the workshops your own designs?

RRA: No, actually weâve got these from a pirate radio manual that is
floating around the internet. I donât really know the history behind
this manual, but itâs really good; itâs called The Complete Manual of
Pirate Radio by Zeke Teflon. Itâs a zine with all these designs and
also this ideology: âyou should grab the wave!â 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: Iâve heard that thereâs quite a long history of experimental radio
in Japan. For instance, in the recently translated writings of FÃlix
Guattari on his time there, Machinic Eros, he discusses the mini-FM
community (Radio Home Run) that Kogawa initiated with others in the

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 analog 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 âstartupsâ  back then
â these were the heydays of the inventor geniuses we are so in love
today with â were all about multiplexing signals; putting as much data
through a cable. And then Alexander Graham Bellâs startup 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 thatâs 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 thatâs what we want to do with this workshop.

DB: There is this software modem that emulates a hardware modem called
'minimodem', for example.

MD: Actually, there is another question I wanted to ask you both;
maybe itâs a bit of an unfortunate question. But when I was looking at
Dennisâ work in particular, I was thinking about the post-digital
concept. I donât know if you have any thoughts about it or how you see
it applying to your work.

*long silence*

RRA: For me, itâs a realization that each medium has its own merit. If
you take the 2000âs and 90âs wave of technology, everything was
inevitably becoming digital and networked. And from that perspective,
itâs 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 thatâs what post-digital is, this
realization. Weâre not going to use the internet because itâs the
internet, or vinyl because itâs retro, but because of the intrinsic
qualities of each medium. But you, Dennis, are the post-digital

DB: First of all, Iâm not. Iâm still figuring out what I will be for
the rest of my life. Or I hope so at least. I donât see it really
reflected in this whole thing that gets labelled as post-digital art.
It stays so digital all the time. I donât knowâ 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 âpostâ
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 â especially given that
there are other competing terms that are also problematic such as
âpost-internetâ, ânew aestheticâ or even âneo-analogueâ.

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 youâre not uploading your work on Behance youâre
political in a senseâ

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. Thatâs
the thing we keep romanticizing about the internet, because it was
unstructured and it wasnât fully commercialised, and as soon as things
scale â which is, of course, one of Silicon Valleyâs buzzwords, does
it scale? â you lose all of that potential. Thatâs why I decided that
some things shouldnât 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: Itâs not an optimised product. There is a lot of noise which gives
a lot of room for discussion.âIf 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 whatâs happening.

RRA: Itâs 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: Itâs also media archaeology, because itâs really hard to get these
components nowadays. Ten years ago, there were still shops, but weâll
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. Itâs almost undoable.

DB: I really like to think by myself and work with my hands and when
it gets out of your hands, you donât have any control. There is a nice
balance between control and uncontrol with these analog 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!


Also on Medium w/ some images:

Michael Dieter
"Social Media Expert", Gentequemola, Internet
Old West Amsterdam
"I'm on computers profusely" - Lil B

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