Sophie "Soph" Dyer is a transdisciplinary designer, researcher and sometime writer. They co-lead the feminist art, tech and pedagogy collective, open-weather.

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Experimental practices in the electromagnetic spectrum: Towards a material politics of radio

Masters dissertation. Multi-scalar and stellar stories from a material politics of radio in the Anthropocene.
(September 2017)
Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths

“Certain kinds of practices open worlds to us. Or open parts of worlds that are precluded by our normal habits of life. I think this applies to how you and I think about radio.” Sasha Engelmann, geographer and friend, in conversation at Goldsmiths College in 2017.

In an early conference on the Anthropocene in Berlin, the American media theorist, Mark Hansen, proposed radio waves as a technological trigger for the new and still informal epoch.* As a geological model, project and instrument, the Anthropocene is rendered legible through “stratigraphic signals”.** If this is so, how do radio waves – an ethereal, diffuse and noisy phenomenon – register in the Anthropocene? What are their material traces?

BELOW Multi scalar stories from a material politics of radio in the Anthropocene. (A section of the text was included in Radio Techno Fossil: This is an Image Borne on Radio.)


Oaxaca, Mexico, 2011 at 850 MHz
In 2011 the Mexican village of Talea de Castro had no mobile network coverage. Calls could only be made via a costly landline whose wire traversed the Sierra Juárez mountain range. This was not abnormal for geographically “isolated” communities in the Oaxaca Highlands, whose population is 65% indigenous and, in the last census, accounted for over half Mexico’s total indigenous language speaking population. [43, 44, 45] Talea de Castro had its own ways of communicating at a distance. There was a community radio station, Didzah Kieru (Zapotec for Our Voice) and important announcements could be made over the village’s tannoy system. However, the tannoy could not reach the remote “crops fields” let alone the village’s large diaspora in North America. For these purposes and others, the community wanted a mobile phone network. [46]

In Talea de Castro, the local municipality had already approached one of Mexico’s largest telecommunications providers, Telcel, to ask that they connect villages in the region. Telcel responded with demands that the village could not meet. It required the community to install an antenna at a high point, with an electricity supply and highway access. Moreover, that there be 10,000 potential clients in range of the new network. [52] Talea de Castro was the only community that would be in range and its population was on average 3,000. A 2016 report published by the world’s largest mobile telecommunications trade body, the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA), declared that “in order to be viable a site needs around 3,000 active users on a daily basis.” [53] The message was clear, it is not in the interest of large telecommunications providers to offer coverage to rural, low density and low-income areas.


On 18 June 2012, an alliance 25 indigenous communities in the Juarez Sierra, represented by the municipal authorities, sent a letter to the General Director of Telecommunications and Broadcasting Policy from the Communications and Transportation Ministry. It requested support for the operation of an experimental and community-owned mobile telecommunications meshwork to cover municipalities and indigenous communities in the region. The letter was the outcome of a year of discussions between community representatives and a newly formed non-governmental organisation (NGO, Rhizomatica.

The Mexican government recognition of the communities’ shared ownership of a future network was critical to the proposal’s success. There were two reasons for the condition: in the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca private ownership of land and other resources is not customary. [63] Thus private ownership of a spectrum license would not be on the terms of the indigenous communities. Second, the project would be rendered unsustainable if each village wanting to set-up a network had to apply separately. A meshwork that used a single frequency band was the only solution.

Centre for Research Architecture, 2017 at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz
When the idea of an obtaining a spectrum license was mobilised in Taela de Castro, it became a hybrid, material, technoscientific, legal, political and social cause.

In a roundtable discussion at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College in London, I asked the theorist of political aesthetics, Esther Leslie, to describe the proliferation of radio in the Anthropocene. Her response was simple: “It is an intense agitation all around us”. [64]

The condition has been conceptualised differently by various disciplines. In her stories of “spatial products” and politics, the architect, Keller Easterling refers to our radio environment as “microwave urbanism” or “C-band urbanism”. [65] C-band refers to the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that was initially allocated to satellite communication and includes microwave frequencies used for contemporary telecommunications. Easterling’s move to account for radio in urbanism stresses its spatial dimension and prompts us to think of it as an architectural material. It also echos Buckminster Fuller’s call, almost a century earlier, for an architecture tuned to what he understood as the becoming radio of the world. [67]

More recently, in The Shock of the Anthropocene the French historians, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, refer to the Earth’s radio skein as a “second atmosphere”. [68] Bonneuil and Fressoz’s description is spatial yet diffuse. Here atmosphere implies something to which we have a reflexive encounter, through the vital and involuntary mechanism of breathing. Read together with news reports on the atmospheric changes affecting ozone levels and the Earth’s climate, such an understanding might conjure fears of environmental ensnarement. [69]

While I am stressing is the absolute saturation of Anthropocene with electromagnetic radiation, the stories I am recounting document the force of radio in things that are not radio: corporate monopolies, national constitutions, federal laws, large-scale infrastructure, highways, mobile devices, code and social formations. For these reasons, I choose Leslie’s turn of phrase, that is, “an agitation all around us”. The word agitation is able to move between technoscientific, legal, political and social registers. Put differently, it has a multiple belonging.

The political and social definitions of “agitate” are similar: to arouse public interest in a concern, to trouble or be troubled. In scientific language its meaning is to stir-up, to unsettle or disturb. Agitation is also a reference to the wave-particle duality of the photons that compose radio waves. In other words, unlike sound waves that are mechanical, electromagnetic radio waves do not displace material they excite it, which is to say, they agitate it.

I propose that a material politics of radio is occupied by how this radio frequency agitation unfolds across different scales and registers as “cascades” or “dangerous ideas”. [70]

Oaxaca, Mexico, 1917 at 850 MHz
In the letter sent to the Mexican Communications and Transportation Ministry by the indigenous communities, as legal footing, the group’s lawyers drew on Articles 2 and 8 of the country’s 1917 constitution and article 50 of Federal Telecommunications Law. The most important reference was to Article 2, Section B VI: [71]

[end of extract]

Sections not included:
New Zealand, 1999 at 700 MHz
Oaxaca, Mexico, 2013 – 2016 at 850 MHz

For the sound component of the work see: Lore of The Radio Fossil

[*] Hansen, Mark. ‘Triggers: Introducing the Technosphere’. 100 Jahre Gegenwart. Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. 2015.
[**] Hecht, Gabrielle. 2017. Interscalar Vehicles for the African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence

[43] (“México en cifras: Oaxaca,” 2017)
[44] Throughout Mexico 50,000 communities do not have access to landline or cellular telephone services of any kind. (Claudia Magallanes-Blanco and Leandro Rodriguez-Medina, 2016)
[45] To provide some context, worldwide the number of people not connected is estimated at 4 billion, well over half the world’s population. (GSMA [Groupe Speciale Mobile Association], 2016)
[46] (Claudia Magallanes-Blanco and Leandro Rodriguez-Medina, 2016, pp. 334–341)
[52] (Claudia Magallanes-Blanco and Leandro Rodriguez-Medina, 2016)
[53] (GSMA [Groupe Speciale Mobile Association], 2016)
[63] “In the communities of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, the private ownership of land is almost non-existent. Land is communal and decisions about its use are made by an assembly of community members (asamblea de comuneros), which is composed of family heads of the agrarian group.” Peter Bloom. Own translation. (Huerta, 2016, p. 6)
[64] (Esther, 2017)
[65] (Easterling, 2005)
[67] (Wigley, 2015, p. 29)
[68] (Fressoz and Bonneuil, 2017, p. 61)
[69] See Peter Sloterdijk’s texts on atmosphere, politics and war, namely the book ‘Terror from the air’ (2002) and short essay, ‘Atmospheric politics’ (2005)
[70] “cascades” (Thomson and Engelmann, 2017) (Barad, 2007) and “dangerous ideas” (Stengers and Prigogine, 1984, p. 190)
[71] (“Mexican Constitution of 1917 (with 2015 amendments),” 2017, p. 5)