The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of wavelengths that can be seen as light, felt as heat and utilized in human technologies like x-rays. The energy in all matter emits some level of electromagnetic signal. Electromagnetic waves are both inherent to our galaxy and generated by our species. It is an omnipresent force that we can observe, feel and utilize. The waves are generated by excited protons so, for example, both the sun and our bodies generate electromagnetic waves but at very different levels. The portion of the electromagnetic spectrum from 300 GHz to 3 kHz are radio waves. Radio is an example of utilizing this natural phenomena as a relational navigation and communication tool and has a long history that oscillates between military and amateur use. In this project I used radio’s history and metaphors to create a series of proposals that reconsider how we relate to place, other species and the omnipresence of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Research and Context
The United States Navy used seven radio towers positioned around the Earth as a navigation system for ships and airplanes until 1997 called The Omega Navigation System. This system was the first global scale radio navigation system and used triangulation between the known points of its transmission towers to place a vessel in space. The same technology is used by amateur radio enthusiasts in radio orienteering competitions where people race to find locations of hidden radio beacons. This form of navigation give users a relative position that they can use to understand where they are.
Other radio competitions connect people. HAM radio is the amateur spectrum that can connect enthusiasts from around the world. In HAM competitions people try to connect with as many different people as they can in as many places as they can in a given amount of time. The HAM radio community prides itself on the importance of respectful communication. The technology for HAM radio was initially used by the military for combat communication but was domesticated as military technology advanced. It has moved from a weapon of war to a tool for respectful personal interaction.
The radio spectrum can also be understood as a common resource. In the Bogota Declaration of 1976 equatorial countries claimed their sovereignty to be three dimensional and recognized geostationary orbit as a valuable resource. The Declaration proposes extending localized agency over electromagnetic resources into outer space. It was rejected by the United Nations because it would have severely limited powerful countries’ access to fixed orbit, particularly in the global north where the technology was being most aggressively developed. The global north did not have the appetite to contend with the equatorial countries’ regulation of space and did not want to give them autonomy over the resource. However, by claiming three dimensional sovereignty, the equatorial countries create a framework to understand invisible forces as a common resource. While the equatorial countries are proposing regulation of geostationary orbit, they are doing so to protect themselves from exploitation by wealthier nations, to avoid a tragedy of the commons. The Declaration converts invisible forces, like radio waves, into a resource that can be protected and shared or neglected and exploited.
Each of these moments in history presents radio’s strong metaphors. It is a tool of relative navigation, relating one place to another. It is a tool of communication, connecting interested people. And, it is a resource that must be shared. Further, radio broadcasting shares a name and structure to seed broadcasting, the practice of spreading seeds by hand rather than planting row crops. This method is thought to be healthier for the soil and was common before the industrialization of agriculture. Radio also depends on line of sight for transmission. While it is possible to bounce some radio waves off the ionosphere to increase transmission range, most radio is dependent on line of sight creating a dependence on connection in space. These metaphors create a framework to understand human relationships with the natural world. Radio connects natural phenomena to human needs and desires, like communication and navigation. It also depends on real world constraints like proximity and weather. The regulations and customs of broadcast are set to ensure equal access to radio for all people. Applying these metaphors to our view of the human-Earth relationship creates a more sensitive and long term construct to engage with the natural world.
The defining moment in my inquiry came when I found the work of George Squier. Squier was the Chief Signal Officer for the US Army during World War One, inventor of Muzak and was responsible for the first purchase of an aircraft for the US Military from the Wright Brothers. In 1919, Squier published an article in Electrical Experimenter entitled “Talking Through The Trees.” In this article, Squier describes how he and the Signal Corps Experimental Laboratory had developed a method of radio transmission using living trees as antennae. Squier reports that tree antenna were able to receive transmissions from domestic and international sources, specifically capturing radio signals sent from Berlin, an impressive and strategically important feat. In his 1919 patent, “Improvements in & Relating to Radio Communication Systems,” Squier lays out technical configurations for using trees as antennas including schematics that include the tree in the circuitry. He also names the devices using a tree as an antenna a floraphone. “The messages carried over this tree telephone and telegram system have been named by the writer. They are to be ‘floragrams’. The tree telephone is to be a ‘floraphone’; the tree telegraph a ‘floragraph.’” (Rexresearch.com) This naming acknowledges the trees’ central role in transmission. Squier is quoted as saying, "It is significant that a tree, possessing utility and natural strength, architectural beauty of design and endurance far superior to artificial structures prepared by man, should be able yet further to minister to his needs". (Rexresearch.com) This admiration and technical use of a tree was inspiring to me. It was a way to connect the metaphors of radio to the physicality of a tree. It also presents a unique relationship to the tree because it requires that a tree be living and thus implies that for the technology to advance, we must care for them.
The drawings that I created respond to this research and place the tree antenna in both contemporary and historic landscapes. The drawings allowed me to make proposals at an infrastructure scale while moving quickly between concepts. These provocations present a range of relationships to the tree and a range of time scales for the technology. In some proposals the tree grows with the technology while in others the technology is grafted onto a fully grown tree. These drawings visualize radio’s relational and utilitarian values in a new context and suggest a relationship to the tree, and all other species, that is based on care and interdependence.