Contactless contact

Position paper for Digital Cities 6 conference workshop

Ross Harley
University of New South Wales
Sydney, NSW2052
612 93850758

Gillian Fuller
University of New South Wales
Sydney, NSW2052
612 93856813

Fuller + Harley are an interdisciplinary research-production team who fuse new media theory and practice in a variety of formats. For the past five years, they have been working on a multi-modal project that analyses the flows and network spaces of contemporary airports. Gillian Fuller, who trained as a semiotician and now specialises in new media theory, has worked in museums and published in journals such as Borderlands, FibreCulture and Social Semiotics. Ross Rudesch Harley is an artist and writer whose media work has been exhibited in venues such as at the Pompidou Centre, New York MoMA, Ars Electronica, and the Sydney Opera House. His writing has appeared in Art + Text, Convergence, Screen, Rolling Stone and The Australian. Their recent work, Aviopolis: A book about airports was published by Black Dog Publishing, London, in 2005. They are both researchers at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. For further information about their work, visit, and

The intimate relations of architecture to information in the new ‘u-city’ raises a set of questions around aesthetics, intimacy and constant interfacing with communication networks of all kinds. The relationships between architecture, movement and the city have long been discussed in terms of regimes of vision” eg the panoramas of railways and the cinematic city (cf Friedberg). This project is about tracking a genealogy/topology of mobile concepts, techniques and aesthetics located within the invisible waves of radio and an emergent logic of touch around “contactless technologies”. Rather than follow a representationalist logic of vision, we propose a new conceptualisation of touch and contact (Abelson et al, Benkler, Greenfield).

Here we initiate some discussion around the ontological and sociological implications of ubiquitous networks and automatic identification procedures, including mobile telephony,RFID, Bluetooth, wi-fi, and other wireless technologies. We ask how the interpenetration of architectural surfaces, bodies, and mobile devices involve a range of interrelations that guide and track human bodies and material objects in constant motion. Our focus is on reconceptualisation of the relation between architecture and radio” the different channels, “frames” and thresholds that bodies are folded into. If architecture is not only about the construction of the built environment and material forms, what new insights can be gained by considering the relationship between architecture and radio in the context of the contemporary wireless world?

General Terms
wireless, radio, networks, architecture, mobility, ontology, aesthetics

wireless, transparency, radio, networks, architecture, mobility, haptics, aesthetics, touch,

Moving within an architectural surround, a person fashions an evolving matrix, an architectural surround not entirely of her own making’” ( Arakawa and Gins 2002, p 40)

This position paper proceeds from a rhizomatic assumption that people form topological constancies within their environments and that these relations have (among many other things) an aesthetic dimension. What happens when the political aesthetics of screens, windows and motion through the “cinematic city” meets the beeps, whirrs, clicks and often inperceptible codes of ubiquity or “u-city”? If the political realm of aesthetics delimits what is visible/invisible, audio/inaudible, what do we make of wireless systems, in which one navigates a dynamic aesthetic often unknowingly? In this paper we breifly look at relations of radio and architecture through a consideration of the aesthetics and politics of touch.

Following Erin Manning, ‘to touch is to engage in the potential of an individuation’ (Manning 2007, p xv). When we speak of people navigating a city scanning and being scanned, it is important not to monumentalise the nature of control society in this dynamic. From such a perspective, this is not a Big Brother style pat down from a broadcast radio imaginary. Instead, we would like to suggest that our daily navigation through networks are more modulated than this. For the touch we are dealing with is on the whole, a light and intimate touch that often happens in the background of other complex negotiations with the city/architecture. “I reach out to touch you in order to invent a relation that will in turn , invent me’ (Manning 2007.p vx). As we sign up for various plans and attach various wireless prosthetics to our already thoroughly layered skin/phone/car/etc assemblages, we reach out to institutions of transit, information, and architecture in a loaded handshake” the compulsory exchange of personal data has never been made so easy or seemingly painless (for those who comply at least).

Once locked into this grid of the “urban sensible” we flex and move within a constant background hum of touch, in which one threshold just folds into another. Bodies and machines generate and radiate electromagnetic waves in seemingly infinite compositions. This is a tantalising proposition: the constant motion in which hard architecture and mobile traffic communicate may in fact impede the nomadic imperatives of everyday life. However, as is often the way, the decentering of bodies and subsequent deinstitutionalisation results in an ever tighter integration into a modulated system of control that is both public and pervasive.

“The centre is no where the circumference is everywhere at once”, says Paul Virilio. From outer space to inner space, it has all been colonised and integrated precisely because everything is now so converged and connected. And network connections are (at the least) two way. This is not always a good thing, as Vilem Flusser has noted: “An omnipresent dialogue is just as dangerous as an omnipresent discourse”.

In an increasingly seamless world of ubiquitous computing and low-powered transmissions, there are no more hard-line borders. There are just intersecting thresholds of intensity. While the recognisable architectural thresholds of window, door and entrance continue to be invoked in the construction of contemporary space, ubiquitous radio identification systems add a significant number of background thresholds into the equation. Often unnoticed or at least not foregrounded in an obvious visible fashion, these transmissions between transponders and radio frequency readers have become pervasive in the background architecture of contemporary urban life. We are in touch with a highly variegated system of tracking and identifaction without being in direct contact with the surface of objects or places.

This “contactless contact” is one of the key characterisitics of low-powered radio and the miniaturised and ubiquitous modulation-demodulation procedures. The digital communication systems that facilitate the transfer of data are brought about by a series of intimate transmissions and signal decodings that are achieved by way of electromagnetic waves in the radio spectrum. This contactless transfer of data between the data-carrying device and its reader constitutes an new set of spatial and material protocols that give shape to the ubiquitous city. In order to understand this in more detail, we need to to turn to a discussion of radio’s genealogy and transformation into a new procedural system for the construction of contemporary spaces.

For us, radio offers a crucial way to understand the networks of ubiquity. It is not visual, its distributive in waves, frequencies, and modulations, it is quite literally invisible. Radio is a “refrain” that gathers us in. RFID systems construe people and objects as particular shapes in ephemeral dynamics, haptics and channels.

The new deployment of low-powered radio generates a new intimacy. It’s about the constant collapsing of the near and far, but in a seamless way. The layers of two-way radio communication operate at a series of scales, from long distance high powered radio signals to nearfield low-powered signals. Across a variety of different technical layers and devices, automatic identification and tracking operates in an apparently seamless fashion. A high density of information is packaged, processed and recognised by a number of quite different technical systems, each of which has its own parameters.

Large and small devices talk to each other constantly, creating an enormous amount of background chatter that we hardly ever hear, let alone see. Machine recognition is largely achieved today through low powered radio identification systems that utilise the radio spectrum in ways that confound traditional theories of radio. The old broadcast models of radio and the subsequent regulatory practices are no longer appropriate to describe or understand the present plethora of radio based identification systems.

It also cannot be reduced to the increased use of two-way functionality which has rarely been taken up by mainstream broadcasting and corporate ventures (as in talk-back radio, Top 40 radio etc). The multiplicity of today’s radio has little to do with the singularity of “the radio” which we’ve come to associate primarily with AM or FM radio stations. New radio technologies such as WiFi, bluetooth and RFID show us how some of these potentialities are being realised. They draw our attention to the relationship between bodies and spaces.

The liveness and invisible aesthetics of classical radio also have little to do with the rapid evolution of the new “urban sensible” that is emerging. Our topology does not privilege the visual, but focuses on the way that coding and modulation happens over a complex assemblage that is invisible. A new approach to the wireless city is not about mapping the urban panorama. It is instead about mapping the “urban sensible” so that we focus on how the complex interplay of bodies, spaces and data become intelligible.

Our topology is also what we might call “membranic”. If classical radio is largely concerned analogue wave and modulation procedures, digital modulation procedures invoke a concatenation of low-powered and spread-spectrum signals, coding, transcoding . Wireless architecture is no longer just about physical supports and the construction of lived space. It also about negotiating and understanding the different channels, “frames” and thresholds that we are folded into. In this sense there are multiple variations on the “wireless body”, which is why architecture needs to attend to this new topology: the design and construction of buildings needs to take into account the new wireless, which facilitates “contactless contact” and flow, rather than stability of form.

Hence the skin of architecture is digitally modulated, it oscillates, and contains a spectrum of code-signal that organises the body and architectural spaces in a variety of ways. At this point we might ask the question “what body?” This biometricised body is one that is endlessly varying, in constant oscillation. “When a body is in motion, it does not coincide with itself. It coincides with its own transition: its own variation.” This modulation of the body and identity across distinct and simultaneous systems of reference is both utopian and in Foucault’s terminology “pitiless”. In other words, the utopia of the ubiquitous network has collapsed into the Baroque complexities and Gothic horrors of real space-time. “Utopia is a place outside all places, but it is a place where I will have a body without body, a body that will be beautiful, limpid, transparent, luminous, speedy and colossal in its power and infinite in its duration”. This utopian body needs grounding, it needs to be contained again in the body that is “never under different skies” but an “absolute place, the little fragment of space where [one is], literally embodied”.

“Bringing abundant computation and communication, as pervasive and free as air, naturally into people’s lives.” MIT Project Oxygen

When the city follows the new principles of non-classical radio, what does that mean for our understanding of architecture? While there has been much discussion about the nature of spectacle and subjectification (in relation to the visual concept of the city), there are many questions that arise from the perspective of considering the city under the logic of touch, nearfield radio frequency and contactless contact. We would therefore need to develop an aesthetics, an ontology and a politics that has to do with wireless. There are a range of issues emerging from this reconceptualisation, and we need to construct a language in order to do this.

“Touch” is a research project that investigates Near Field Communication (NFC), a technology that enables connections between mobile phones and physical things. They are developing applications and services that allow people to interact with everyday objects and situations through their mobile devices. More importantly, the work of Touch researcher Timo Arnall points to the kind of aesthetic framework that helps articulate many of the things we are signalling in this position paper. His work “explores the visual link between information and physical things, specifically around the emerging use of the mobile phone to interact with RFID or NFC”. Specifically, his work concerns the ways we might visually link information and physical things. His work asks how we can represent objects that have a digital function, information or history beyond it’s physical form. The dotted line stands as one such exemplar in the visual language and aesthetics of touch.

For us, the use of the dotted line is the equivalent to what Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera” was for Walter Benjamin in his search for an aesthetic approach and visual vocabulary that embodied the prosthetic eye” that 20th century body pulled apart, the mobile eye that could go anywhere. The dashed line that Arnall and his colleagues identify in a range of visual strategies, points to the lightness of touch that is part of the emergent wireless city . Radio frequencies are what cohere the mobile architectural body (an assemblage of material/immaterial, hard/soft etc) in place. It is also about the pernicious ubiquity of radio frequencies in everyday accessories of mobility: the car key, e-tag, bus card, and money cards that give us access (or not) to networks of data, objects, mobility, and highways. These diagrammatics and aesthetics refer to the ways we enter physical and data portals, pass through the threshold, open the door, enter the passenger section and so on.

The logic of access, control, tracking, and supply chain management grant unique identifiers by way of radio waves that define new shapes for the city. They promise synchronisation, anti-collision protocols, and “automatic” identification on the fly. The signal spectrum, coding and modulation procedures fold into haptic relations and new possibilities of touch.

Even when you’re not touching something you’re touching something. There’s a contact of some sort, even if it’s “contactless contact”. Within the parameters of the new control society we need to focus on the politics of touch. It is a politics and an aesthetics that has moved off the body (without organs) and shifted elsewhere. The sources of control happen within the realm of touch, and we need to think about this in terms of the politics of this new aesthetics.

Bounded by skin and under the same regulatory sky, biometrics inserts the body into the distributed database, and in so doing pushes the edge of the network to a new threshold. This, coupled with the increasing granularity of biographic data, emerges as the final loop in the network’s logic and actions. If biometrics capture the body, biographics captures its actions, its extensions across time and space.

A number of thematics emerge: the inadvertancy of the network; the ineluctable nature of data transfer; distributed processing; compulsory dialogue in the background of the u-city. These machinic communications are largely unseen, unknown, but not unfelt. This thresholding activity is happening all around us and all the time. It is registered on bodies with the intensity of the communications handshake. The lightness of touch and the intimacy of radio we are invoking here is highly charged.  It is almost a sexual intimacy that emerges between you and the things in your pocket being read by a machine. All of these things are associated with closeness, personalisation, the touching of the senses, the penetration of a vibration that literally goes inside your body.

In the emergent wireless city, we are increasingly enmeshed in the informational loops of feedback and emergence that modulate boundaries between bodies and objects/spaces of all sorts. The wireless city is organised into differential degrees of speed and intensity that invoke new techno-social relationships between embodiment and information, between bodies and borders. As we pass through the thresholds of networked life, we become an organism of that ecology. In this seamless world of ubiquitous computing, there are no more borders, only thresholds of intensity.


[1] Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis, Blown to Bits: Your Life Liberty and Happiness after the Digital Explosion, Addison Wesley, Boston, 2008.

[2] Arakawa & Gins, Architectural Body, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

[3] Arnell Timo and

[4] Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yale, New Haven, 2006.

[5] Boyer, M. Christine, Cybercities, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996

[6] Klaus Finkenzeller RFID Handbook: Fundamentals and Applications in Contactless Smart Cards and Identification. John Wiley & Sons, 2003

[7] Friedberg Anne, The Virtual Window: from Alberti to Microsoft, Cambridge:MIT Press, 2006.

[8] Adam Greenfield, Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, New Riders Publishing, 2006.

[9] Andrew Lippman and David Reed, “Viral Communications”, Media Laboratory Research, 2003.

[10] Manning Erin, The Politics of Touch” Minneapolis: MInnesota UP, 2007.

[11] Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Penguin Press, New York, 2008.

[12] David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, Times Books, New York, 2007.