Sonic Acts 2010: On the Poetics of Hybrid Space

I just visited an interesting panel on the Sonic Acts 2010 Conference called The Poetics of Hybrid Space.

When over here at The Mobile City we talk about Hybrid Space, we usually refer to the work of Adriana de Souza e Silva who in several articles has convincingly argued against the dichotomy between physical or real space on the one hand and virtual or mediated  spaces on the other. The very fact that these two can longer be separated is one of the central themes of The Mobile City: media spaces and virtual networks extend, broaden, filter or restrict the experience of  physical spaces, and the other way around.

Interestingly, over at Sonic Acts they have adopted a broader concept of hybridization. Moderator Eric Kluitenberg explained that hybrid space is not a technical concept. Rather hybridization is about heterogenic logics that are simultaneously at work in the same space. For instance there is the top down logic of the build environment developed by the architect. But the same space may also be subjected to the logic of an informal street economy that may or may not be compatible with the ideas operationalized by the architect. The mediated experiences of the mediascape make up only one of the logics that operate in a space. Sometimes these different logics clash, sometimes they overlap, sometimes they just negate each other. However, we should understand all these different logics as real. They are all operative at the same time and together make up how a place is lived and experienced.

Having said that, the addition of the new media technologies such as mobile phones has increased the density of different logics operational in (urban) space, and new cultural practices and adaptations of space are emerging as a result. This makes the urban experience more complex and messier than ever. It’s even doubtful whether we can truly get a grasp on these processes. What we can do is try to increase our sensitivity of the complexity of different logics at work. It was this issue that most of the presentations in this session addressed.

Duncan Speakman’s Subtlemob

The work of sound artist Duncan Speakman, who discussed his subtlemob-project, addressed several aspects of the hybridization of space through the advent of digital media technologies.

A Subtlemob is a collective urban audio-experience set in urban space. Participants download an mp-3 file, head to a location in the city, and at a particular time they all press play at the same time, thereby collectively experiencing the same soundtrack. The soundtrack does not only consist of music but also of spoken instructions that the participants have to carry out (And sometimes there is different instructions for different groups of participants). It is like a flash-mob, yet more subtle. That is: flash mobs are often staged experiences that gain most of their audience and impact not at the moment itself, but because the event is taped on video and broadcasted on Youtube. A subtlemob is only to be experienced live, there are no recordings, it is all about the experience you have when you are there. You just have to be there to get it.

One of the starting points of this project is the work of audio culture researcher Michael Bull (I happend to do a podcast interview with him a few years ago, just in case you’d care). Bull studied the experience of the city of first walkman and later iPod users and came up with a few conclusions.

First of all, a lot of people used music to augment their experience of the city, they purposely add a soundtrack to extend or alter their mood. This is not something most composers take into account, Speakman realized. Usually music is not composed with a particular spatiality in mind. One composes for an abstract listening experience, not for the person that listens to an iPod in the back of the bus. But how can you compose for those specific experiences? Speakman therefore decided to change this around, so when composing he often goes to the location his music is intended for to check out if the match is right.

The second theme that has come up in the work of Michael Bull is the idea of the bubble-experience. Digital media have the affordance to make personal spaces warmer, but at the same time they make public spaces cooler. With an iPod one constructs one’s own intense experience in urban space, but it also privatizes this experience. Similarly many critics have argues that also mobile phones play a similar role. They create a ‘full time intimate community’ in which throughout the day a network of friends keeps continuously in touch with each other, even if friends are not physically present. Again this can be understood as a privatization (or parochialization) of public space.

Speakman:Digital media make personal space warmer, public space cooler

The idea of the subtlemob is to ‘hack’ these devices to turn their logic around. Can mp3-players also be used to construct collective experiences that heighten the experience of being in public? That encourages people to observe one another rather than retracting in their mediated bubbles of private space.


The other three presentations, including work of Peter Westenberg and Elizabeth Sikiaridi, addressed related issues.

Karen Lancel en Hermen Maat showed their Teletrust-installation, which consists of a full body veil that on the one hand extends the idea of a personal bubble-space. Yet at the same time it enables the wearer – by touching oneself and activating the sensors in the veil – to get in touch with stories told by other people. Is it possible to use networked media to create intimate spaces within public space?

In TELE_TRUST [we] explore how in our changing social eco-system we increasingly demand transparency; while at the same time we increasingly cover our vulnerable bodies with personal communication-technology. For TELE_TRUST Lancel and Maat designed a hybrid play zone for a vulnerable process, of balancing between fear AND desire for the other. In a visual, poetic way they explore the emotional and social tension between visibility and invisibility; privacy and trust.

Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)