Sputnik Shuffle

If the governing scientific metaphors of the 19th century are those of thermal dynamics and Brownian physics, most aptly captured in the language of Freudian psychoanalysis, with its systems of repression (pressure) and release, then the governing scientific metaphor of the 20th and early 21st centuries is that of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, most clearly discernable in the philosophical language of Derrida and Deleuze, with their systems of spatial, temporal and cultural discontinuity and disjuncture.  Sputnik represents the first fully modern foray into a contemporary communications model based entirely on perceptual symptoms of quantum living, and its early space-based transmissions of telemetry audio represent the most radical announcement of the kind of spatial and temporal disjuncture that have, today, become commonplace.  The American response to Sputnik, including Eisenhower’s 1960 “Echo 1” speech, the first speech to be transmitted via a space-based satellite, and the televised images and audio of the first moon landing, represent, in many respects, one of the most complete expressions of the kind of quantum experience that has been fully realized in today’s smart phone technology.

It is the combination of extraterrestrial context and space-based documentation that make these events so poignant.  However, they cannot be reduced to temporally fixed happenings, because they announce an entirely new medium in human history – the space-based, seemingly instantaneous transmission of information across vast distances.  As Marshall McLuhan argues in “Understanding Media:  The Extensions of Man,” the “media is the message,” and just as Guttenberg’s press announced not only the rapid reproduction of texts, but a system of textual normalization that would bleed into the codification of behavioral norms, space-based transmissions represent the establishment of entirely new experiential conditions of being.  As such, images of the moon landing, and interest in vast space-based communications networks became a paradigm for new spatial constructs for radical artists and architects, like Buckminster Fuller, Konstantino Doxiadis, John McHale and, later, the Archigram group.

Like these artists and architects, Sputnik Shuffle attempts to explore new spatial paradigms based on the experience of emergent technologies.  It does this by focusing on a particular element of quantum mechanics, an aspect of quantum entanglement, codified by Edwin Schrodinger, and labeled by Albert Einstein “Spooky” movement at a distance.

Spooky movement at a distance is the simultaneous interaction of particles at immense distances.  Since the interaction between particles occurs at velocity greater than the speed of light, by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, their interaction is not only anomalous, but, in Einstein’s terminology – Spooky.  The argument of Sputnik Shuffle is that, while “Spooky” motion at a distance might have confounded the founder of General Relativity, it is increasingly becoming the existential norm for contemporary communication between people, and thus, not only for their interaction at a distance, but also for their movement in space.  This is perhaps more clearly discernable in the use of location-based communication media as a means for orchestrating the movements of large numbers of people in real time, as seen in both the 2004 Seattle protests, where text messaging proved instrumental in aiding protests to organize movement based on police presence and intent, and most recently in Egypt, where Twitter (in particular) proved incredibly effecting in doing the same thing, on a much larger scale, and under much more adverse conditions.

The goal of Sputnik Shuffle was to model this kind of simultaneous action at a distance on a scale where it became readily perceivable, in a playful, but direct manner.  In order to do this, a simple grid was designed on the maximum throw of an average webcam, mounted on a ceiling.  The average area covered, with good image granularity is approximately 6 ft. square.  Movement between zones was then mapped, based on both individual and collective experience.

Movement into any of the zones would trigger an auditory/visual response in another zone, prompting the participant to move in that direction.  By moving out of his/her original zone and into a new zone, a new auditory/visual response was triggered.  In essence, a single user would find him/herself chasing the auditory/visual response indefinitely.  However, with three or more participants, it became possible for the users to learn the response systems, and coordinate their movements in ways that allowed them to hear the audio being played – which, for the prototype, was historical recordings marking specific moments in humanity’s attempt to transcend distance, including the crash of the Hindenburg, Werner von Braun discussing the development of rocketry, audio from the first moon landing and the first signals sent by Sputnik.

In order to realize this project, a number of sound lamps were designed, each housing a speaker, an amplifier, and an LED.  The speaker was connected to an M-Audio 2626, which was fed by a computer running PureData, and receiving motion tracking information from a ceiling mounted webcam.  The LED was connected to an arduino, which was run through a separate computer, receiving motion tracking information from a second ceiling mounted camera.  Thus, movement into any zone covered by the two cameras would trigger a response in one of the sound lamps.

The soundlamps were designed in a way that the combination of low-volume and internal resonances would make the sound audible, but not discernable, at a distance, providing an incentive (complemented by a visual message) for the participant to move towards the soundlamp.  The following images represent tests that were done to determine the ultimate size of both the enclosure and the aperture.

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