Release date: March 15, 2016
Edition: 20 copies
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Notes on this issue:
The subject of this issue is listening and archives. It asks the question: what if we think about collection and archival processes (broadly construed) as a kind of listening organ, the cochlea of culture?
It’s less of an essay on this subject than it is a formal experiment, as you can see in the video above. In addition to paper ears and plastic basilar membranes, each copy includes a speaker made with tissue paper, a bit of copper, some wire cut from an old stereo, and a replacement headphone jack that I bought at RadioShack.
To use the speaker, you plug the jack into a sound-emitting source (like a laptop; the signal from a phone usually isn’t strong enough) and place a magnet under the tissue paper. Your typical ceramic magnet won’t work; you need a neodymium magnet, sometimes labeled “rare earth.” These can be dangerous to ship if not properly shielded, sticking to the inside of mail trucks and wreaking all sorts of havok, so unfortunately I can’t include one with the issue. Luckily, though, they are cheap and readily available at local hardware stores. (I bought my set at Home Depot for around $4.) The sound from the speaker is faint, but given that the zine doesn’t include any amplifier module, it’s surprising to me how loud it can be.
It’s just copper, some tissue paper, and a magnet! And it’s playing recorded music! Our world is bananas!
If you’d like to make your own simple speaker — and you definitely should try it — you might start with this tutorial on creating an embroidered speaker or this tutorial on paper speakers. I attempted fabric before switching to paper. The speaker was loudest when I embroidered a small, tight coil of conductive stainless steal thread (purchased at Radio Shack) on a piece of silk.
You might intuitively think a stiffer fabric would be louder, but the floppier and more tightly knit the better, in my experience. This is because the speaker’s fabric or tissue paper is your medium: it’s an intermediary between the electrical signal coming from your source on the one end, and the electrical signal sent to your brain via the auditory nerve on the other. This medium’s vibrations are caused by the slight movements of the conductive thread as it is variously attracted to and repulsed from the magnet; these vibrations of the fabric in turn cause the air around it to compress and decompress, creating sound waves that travel to your ear. There, these sound waves move your eardrum, which moves the tiny bones behind it, which then transmit this movement to the fluid in your cochlea. The cochlea, essentially a tiny mechanical frequency analyzer, sorts out the frequencies and sends that information to your brain. (Big props to my friend Josh Stohl, an electrical engineer who designs cochlear implants by day and plays drums by night, for helping me play around with different fabric speakers as I asked endless n00b questions about audio engineering and the ear.)
In short, it’s just (“just“) a series of material transformations — a bunch of stuff whose unique properties interact in interesting ways with other uniquely-propertied stuff. Like all technologies. So simple — and yet so complex!
To play audio on the embroidered speaker, I used leads to connect each end of the coil to a cheap bluetooth speaker module that I had busted open. You don’t need to use an amplifier, strictly speaking, but it does make it louder.
I was teaching Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms around the time that I began playing with these little things and found that the process really brought into relief his oft-cited distinction between formal and forensic materiality. The formal materiality of electronic audio has become very familiar to me through software like Audacity or ProTools; I have a mental map of what an audio signal looks like as a manipulable digital object, and a basic understanding of how that representation will relate to the sound I hear. But the forensic materiality of digital audio — its existence as a series of wires that transmit a signal from my iPhone to a pair of earbuds that will then turn that signal into nuanced shades of sound — has always been opaque to me. Until now! It is my hope that playing around with this issue cracks open the black box a bit for you, too.
Thanks for reading.