Distributed Control / by Kiersten Nash

By the mid-90s Muzak's strategy shifted from stimulus progression to "audio architecture." In attempt to immerse individuals in a various contexts, site-specific soundtracks were designed according to topology—tempo, color, rhythm, popularity, etc. "The sonic discipline of stimulus progression gave way to the atmospheric control of quantum modulation," Kazys Varnelis and Robert Sumrell point out in Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies: "ensuring that intensity can be maintained even as the music appears to have changed.…Atmospherics address individuals as they traverse different ambiances through their everyday lives." From background to foreground and from here and now to everywhere and nowhere, Muzak meandered through restaurants, banks, and shopping centers of all shapes and sizes into our psyche and soma. According to innovator of audio architecture, Alvin Collis, the moment of eureka greeted him at the entrance of a popular retailer: "The company built a set, they've hired actors, given them costumes, and taught them their lines, and everyday they open their doors and say, "Let's put on a show." …I realized then that Muzak's business wasn't really about selling music, it was about selling emotion—about finding the soundtrack that would make this store or that restaurant feel like something, rather than being just an intellectual proposition." Everything old is new again—quantum modulation supplanted Edison's mood tests from one end of the assembly line to the other, in order to quell the 'noise' of consumption, so as not to disrupt the  spectacle. And the band plays on!

Affective modulation via sonic branding employs an operative logic identical to that found in Cuomo's advertising campaigns: When signs have no logical connection with their meaning (signifier), familiar songs (symbols) are employed to convey meaning (tbd). Consequently, the attributes and values of the symbol are transferred to the signified via the sign. "By embedding ideological fragments as cultural symbols in the social and material practices…the designer succeeds in coordinating the cognitive and emotional (and capital) investments solicited by these practices and linking them back to itself⁄himself⁄herself." In this brandscape, the [sub]politics of frequency is merely one part of "full-spectrum dominance …operating in the gaps between sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell...or the fabrication of branded memory, a second skin channeling processes of desiring production." As Steve Goodman, electronic-based musician and author of Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, points out "Muzak in this sense provides a sonic microcosm of what Deleuze described as the shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control." "With the Stimulus Progression abandoned for Atmospherics…the individual becomes a human chameleon, lacking either strong sense of self or a guiding plan, but instead constantly looking outward for social cues, seeking an appropriate background condition to settle upon so as to comfortably lose distinction from the world."

Likewise, while the L.E.E.D. program may "improve morale" for its proponents in the short-term, its most egregious failure is its total disregard for fostering long-term sustainable° behaviors, such as individual accountability and adaptation. Consider for a moment, electricity. Like Muzak's sonic brandscape, electricity pulses in, around, and through our constructed environments providing the soundtrack to our everyday. Sun up, we wake. Sun down, we sleep. Lights on, we rise. Lights off, we rest. Inhale, oxygen. Exhale, carbon dioxide. We are subconsciously, and at times, consciously aware of these actions. But, what if, as political theorist Jane Bennett suggests in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, "the electrical grid is better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood—to name just some of the actants?” In this context, simply opening a blind, flipping a light switch, or even inhaling and exhaling, become monumentally different acts. Unless, however, there are no blinds, the lights are automated, and breathing is calibrated° by a system known as Aircuity.  

The Aircuity OptiNet system, similar to Squier's multiplex communication network, "takes samples of air remotely throughout a facility and routes them to a centralized suite of sensors." According to the Aircuity website, "By measuring critical indoor environmental parameters, the OptiNet system provides intelligent input to building ventilation systems for energy efficiency and high quality indoor environmental quality." But who defines our "critical environmental parameters"? And how do our bodies actually respond to such 'high quality' indoor environments over time? One of the leading theories regarding the recent rise in childhood allergies throughout the U.S., indicates that we're too clean!* The hygiene hypothesis argues that "exposure to microbes and parasites in childhood reduces the risk of autoimmune disease."

This phenomena is particularly prevalent among kids that spend their early childhood on farms. Allergist Mark Holbreich references the farm effect in his study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Holbreich's research correlates low rates of allergies amongst children living on a farm in Indiana with early exposure to dirt, animals, and drinking raw milk.

Actually, in the early 1900s, Indiana was home to one of the first Open Air Schools in North America—a model based on Dr. Bernhard Bendix and pedagogue Hermann Neufert's Waldeschule. The movement was precipitated by a scourge of tuberculosis. "Although children were somewhat less exposed to the conditions causing tuberculosis, a significant number were excluded from school because they were considered too 'delicate" and consequently sent into the woods for 'open-air therapy'—reading, writing, and arithmetic in the panacea of fresh air. As popularity for open-air therapy and tuberculosis spread, classrooms were fashioned out of tents, prefabricated barracks, and other re-purposed infrastructures.

  Open Air School Netherlands, 1918.

Open Air School Netherlands, 1918.

  Potter Fresh Air School Indianapolis, Indiana, 1914.

Potter Fresh Air School Indianapolis, Indiana, 1914.

In sharp contrast, The New School University Center's impenetrable façade draws a definitive boundary between inside and out.

TheNewSchool_UniversityCenter1.jpg
TheNewSchool_UniversityCenter2.jpg
   Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP: SOM.  The New School University Center 65 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 2012.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP: SOM. The New School University Center 65 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 2012.

Sixteen stories of Muntz metal are penetrated periodically by thin slivers of glass, 30% to be exact—the U.S. Green° Building Council's golden ratio according to the project's LEED scorecard. Though the Council provides two additional opportunities to maximize the façade's potential and score a few more credits: Credit 8.1 requests that designers provide "adequate daylight in at least 75% of all regularly occupied spaces." Credit 8.2 asks designers to afford individuals "direct line of sight to the outdoors between 2'6" and 7'6" above the floor for 90% of all regularly occupied areas." The New School University Center design team determined that both credits were "not possible." Instead, the majority of windows are arranged in horizontal bands. Half provide individuals a visible link to the outside. The other half function as a clerestories with a light shelf that bounces daylight off the ceiling into classrooms and offices.

  "Interior Renderings: Classroom Section." The New School University Center Design Development Vol 1. SOM LLP, NY, 23 Jul 2010: G-073 .00.

"Interior Renderings: Classroom Section." The New School University Center Design Development Vol 1. SOM LLP, NY, 23 Jul 2010: G-073 .00.

Rather than send today's delicate undergraduates and graduates into the mortal milieu of the metropolis, The New School University Center provides a safe haven within which students can study rather than directly participate or engage in urban ecologies, social justice, and sustainability° (amongst myriad other topics).


* I distinctly remember the phrase, "It's ok, it'll build your immune system" being repeated throughout my childhood. Old milk? "It's ok, it'll build your immune system." Chilling temperatures? "It's ok, it'll build your immune system." Exposure to chicken pox? "It's ok, it'll build your immune system." Needless to say, I never missed a day of school between kindergarten and 8th grade. Taylor   would've been proud.