The Ambient Sole
Sarah Beth Evans
North Carolina State University
Critical Essay: Embodiment, Attunement, and Reciprocity in the Act of Moving through Space
In this essay, we combine rhetorical theories with digital engagement media to call attention to what it means to move through space and reveal how familiarity with such movement causes humans to forget the motions involved. Through existing literature and our implementation of the Ambient Sole, a digital engagement project consisting of an Arduino-powered, sound-effects-generating floor mat, we explore how humans' synchrony with the world shapes humanity as co-constitutive with the environment. By inviting participants to engage with the world around them, the Ambient Sole provides a perspective that precludes viewing influence as the result of interactions between distinct subjects and objects. Instead, this project engages the scholarly discussion of rhetoric that resides outside of the purview of human agency. Utilizing the affordances of "maker" technologies, anyone will be able to transform a common floor mat into a unique and fun digital engagement project using simple pressure sensors connected to an Arduino Uno microprocesseor, with programmed MP3s. This project is designed for novice users to create a working mat by assembling the pieces, and loading a variety of sounds to engage users with the souls of their shoes.
Ambience in Theory
The Ambient Sole is a response to ongoing conversations in materialist rhetoric (e.g. Blaire, Jeppeson, & Pucci, 1991; Dickinson, 1997; Stewart & Dickinson, 2008; Ott, Aoki, & Dickinson, 2011; Greene, 2012; 2013; Rickert, 2013) concerned with conceptualizing spaces and the agency that one's environment has in shaping who/what they are. Indeed, dualistic theories of agency, and the subjects/objects birthed from those theories do not appear to account for non-human agents within complex networks and assemblages (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). Instead, the authors look to the rhetoric of space, and in particular ambient rhetoric, as a tool to answer a different set of questions afforded to a monistic approach that is not afforded via dualism. In highlighting withdrawn elements—meaning those that are present but out of focus—those elements' ability and agency to shape bodies and trigger action comes to the fore for examination. This project draws focus to embodiment and materiality from an ambient and ecological perspective in which the act of moving through space conveys a revealing re-attunement to one's environment. In this sense, acknowledgment of this influence affords agency to the invisible environmental factors that exert influence on human actors' being in the world.
Thomas Rickert's (2013) Ambient Rhetoric set the precedent for this study. Rickert challenges readers to view the environment as an encompassing, encircling, surrounding presence "in which boundaries between subject and object, human and nonhuman, and information and matter dissolve" (1). His work comes at a time in which ubiquitous computing allows humans to more easily see how ambient environs, such as heat, light, or sound, affects their embodiment and thus brings humanity closer to recognizing rhetoric itself as an ambient force. Rickert describes ambience as conveying the "elusive" qualities of a practice, keyed to a mood or affect (6). Ambient rhetoric, then, is "a responsive way to reveal the world" to others by bringing the ambient environs to the forefront of consciousness (186).
The encounter in which movers engage the Ambient Sole is not intended to be representational, as meaning emerges from individual experiences. Instead, the media experience guides participants to become aware of background relations between bodies and environments, in order to rethink assumptions about the unconscious act of moving through space. Drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987), the Ambient Sole engages participants to experience their pedestrian travel rhizomatically — in the middle of a range of possible connections. John Mucklebauer (2009) introduces the "singular rhythm" to help navigate the rhizome. He argues that a singular rhythm "requires a kind of performance, an immersive responsiveness" (42), which human beings interpret through their inhabiting of a space. The Ambient Sole positions the various mobilities employed by travelers as examples of singular rhythms, as they are experienced rhizomatically; having "no beginning or end," these rhythms are "always in the middle, between things" (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, 25). Finally, much like David Gruber and David Rieder's (2012) cybertextual engagement piece, "Tunnel Vision," this piece intends to generate a "hyper-awareness of [participants'] own body movements." Such awareness invites participants to experience the reciprocity between their mobility, their inner "being," and the environmental conditions in which they move through space.
Ambience in Bodies and Experience
Both physical and metaphysical bodies play a role in the intellectual construction of our project. We employ a materialist approach that analyzes the ambient rhetoric of everyday environments, which will speak to the metaphysical experience of moving through space and its attunement with the world. Attunement, as described by Rickert (2013), is an on-going process in which ambient environs shape bodily experiences (10). While ambient environs are always "there," shaping human experiences, most remain elusive to human consciousness, resulting in a limited view of what it means to be in the world as it shapes us and we shape it. Second, we continue our materialist approach by analyzing the physical embodiment and enunciation of the practice of moving through space. In doing so, we attempt to jar loose the uncanny experience, engaging what Artaud (1958) calls the "Theater of Cruelty", or an unraveling of the binds concealing subconscious emotions. We do not seek to discover which emotions the Ambient Sole elicits, but rather to provide an experience that elicits the discovery of embodiment in the world.
Ambience as a rhetorical force is not unheard of outside of academia. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore (2011) claim that America's service-based economy is shifting into what they call an "experience economy." Such an economic state describes the way in which retailers, restaurants, and other previously service-centered entities are concentrating their efforts on creating a unique and memorable experience for their patrons. The experience economy achieves this primarily through intentionally designing architecture, furnishings, signage, and even smells within locations where patrons might venture. The desired outcome is to entice customers to associate the experience with the product so that they ultimately make a purchase. These concepts dovetail with Richard Lanham's (2006) attention economy. Lanham suggests that attention, as a force and even as a currency, drives a new type of economy that informs culture and community. Performances from any medium (painting, television, memes, dance, etc.) create experiences that ideally garner attention. The initial attention may then go on to garner more attention until the performance becomes part of a larger cultural theme, wherein attention is indicative of cultural worth.
Combined, attention and experience work as suasive forces that infiltrate every aspect of our being. To expand, experience economies and attention economies suggest that at some level contemporary Western economies are dependent upon invisible ambience and the attention afforded to specific environs (those that are experienced) within a vast array of possibilities. By partaking in mediated experiences and offering attention, humans learn how to be in relation to human and non-human agents alike. Therefore, if attention is a scarce resource that must be "paid" (Lanham), capturing one's attention through stark disruption is potentially the singular way to bring attention to ambience's rhetorical power because it provides a jolt of awareness in the sense that the sudden drop of a rollercoaster reveals the height and speed at which patrons are flying through the air. The Ambient Sole provides moments of clarity in which movers discover that many events depend upon ambient relations, and clash between metaphysical influencing forces.
To formulate a metaphysical construct, one must understand the experiential invitation provided by a given environment. In the case of the Ambient Sole, the metaphysical plays a central role. Drawing from Heidegger, Rickert's (2003) conception of "attunement" assists in understanding how the physical environment (in its ambient forms) can help to shape the metaphysical self of travelers. Attunement here denotes oneness, so to speak, with a world in which affects are always-already present and have influence in both directions, from human to world and world to human. Human agency is thus constructed as a side effect that becomes muddled by the dissolution of such binaries (14). In this case, Rickert focuses on rhetoricity as a disclosure of the world that surrounds us and shifts our manner of being by calling us to respond or act in particular ways (xii). Simple mechanical processes, such as the way that someone walks, reveal the rhetoricity of contact between human and floor surface. Walking depends upon the environment to disclose a person's attunement with the world, expressed through physical practices called embodiment. We recognize the production of spaces, and more importantly the bodies that inhabit spaces, as an inventive practice of memory (de Certeau, 2011: xxi). No body is identical, and no experience is identical, nor can it be fully repeated—the two co-constitute each other through our being in the world. The human body is part of a system interrelated to other bodies within the ambient environment, including the technological.
The corporeal body, to which we return via Artaud, is the coming out into the world of a series of memories, properties, shapes, forms, and ambient environs into a machine aesthetic in which non-human agency reigns. To jolt human actors from their complacency as parts of this machine, Artaud (1958) introduced the Theatre of Cruelty—not sadistic brutality but rather a form of figurative violence through which metaphysical meaning was forced upon an audience through physical expression. For Artaud, the use of lights, sounds, motions, and utterances executed in a disturbing manner during theatre performances represented a violation of the senses that revealed repressed truths and shocked audiences into breaking through perceptual shrouds. Artaud believed humankind was devolving into a cluster of empty vessels within a false reality and that the Theater of Cruelty was one way to break humans from these chains. By inflicting cruelty, spectators enter a "state of degeneration" through which "metaphysics must be made to re-enter our mind" (99). This effort means to shake spectators from merely existing, reverting them to states wherein they can explore their essence beneath their culturally framed perceptions and reactive habits. Similarly, the Ambient Sole attempts to shock us free from the normal stasis of routine, with a material provocation initiating hyper-real awareness.
The floor mat's emission of sound is intended to draw attention away from our primarily visual attunement to the surrounding world and lead us into the hyper-reality of ambience. We contend that downplaying the sense of sight creates a uniquely informative experience that vision typically obfuscates. De Certeau (1984) laments that"our society is characterized by [the] cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown and transmuting communication into a visual journey" (xxi). In connecting the haptic senses of mobility with the aural senses, the Ambient Sole reconfigures the everyday experience of moving through space. Pallasmaa (2012) argues that "Aesthetic and cultural practices are peculiarly susceptible to the changing experience of space and time" because spatial representations are drawn from human experiences in a given environment (19). Hearing is very much a part of experiencing space, albeit one humans often fail to notice. What is important here is how one dwells, experiences, shapes, and is shaped by the world surrounding them when one experiences themselves in the world, and when the world "exists through [their] embodied experiences" (Pallasmaa, 40). Dwelling suggests interlocutors utilize ambient environs to encroach, shift, and appropriate through material practices and recall of haunting memories (de Certeau, xxi). Pushing further, in embodying these practices of memory, our research draws back on conceptions of production, in particular the production of space through the productive practices of people-making.
Mucklebauer's (2009) conception of the singular rhythm supplements this people-making. Singular rhythms are forceful, something humans cannot control fully, if at all, yet are fully ensconced in what it means to "be" in the world. The Ambient Sole interprets "being" in the sense that new and surprising sound waves can manipulate the bodily practices of its interlocutors. Mucklebauer argues: "The crucial factor that distinguishes the performative mapping of singular rhythms," that is a particular frequency on which "being" exists, "is that these rhythms are repeated intensively.. . . Rather than attempting to understand a particular concept, to figure out what it is, this immersive mapping attempts to find out what it can do" (42-43). If the ambient environment is enunciated through the push and pull of forces on human bodies, then modifying the enunciative capabilities of the body through sonic manipulation can tell us more about the capacities of the ambient environment, which surrounds.
We understand here that 1) the act of moving through space is considered "normal" to the individual and becomes a singular rhythm and 2) the second-nature of the singular rhythms obfuscates some ambient environs, but not others, through the practice of movement. Because one typically becomes so familiar with their mode of mobility, it does not invite the recall of memories in the same way as other bodily practices. Instead, not moving through space, or in this case, disturbing the practice of moving through space reveals the withdrawn ambient environs. The Ambient Sole seeks to shock the system, to reboot the machine, and to reveal the environment in which we so comfortably dwell, through interruption in the ambient environment.
Ambience in Reflection
Moving through space is individual and transitory, a function to travel from one point to another, yet so commonplace in the millions of years since humankind evolved bipedalism that its regularity and familiarity make it a nearly unconscious practice, so ordinary that its ability to shape bodies often goes unnoticed. The Ambient Sole links a recurring experience (moving through space) with sensory discord (sound), not to cause anxiety, but to enact recalibration. Adding new sounds to the footstep provides an uncanny experience in which participants can transgress the norm by linking unusual experiences to explorations of the elusive aspects of an everyday occurrence. Thus, it is not fruitful for our discussion to ask, "what is contact with a floor surface?" because the mechanical process inherent in the act is not interesting rhetorically. Instead, the Ambient Sole asks how moving through space attunes us to the world, and how that attunement shapes our engagement with our environments.
The Ambient Sole uses each contact with a sensor, as well as each new sound introduced to the environment, to "ceaselessly [establish] connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles" (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, 7). In revealing the ambient environment, the Ambient Sole also seeks to illuminate the bodily practices associated with our attunement to our environment. Elements such as pace, choice in shoes, natural pronation tendencies or unevenness, temperature, surface material and location contribute to the synthesis of a body in imperceptible moments that become a constantly changing whole. The Ambient Sole requires modest incompleteness in order for the participant's experience to constantly alter and push against corporeal boundaries. Individual energies, continually undergoing their own shifts as mood and environmental factors adjust, as participants re-experience the occurrence of this engagement, invite and reinforce awareness beyond this project. Furthermore, the Ambient Sole forcefully introduces sounds that challenge sensory normalcy. Such dynamic shocks generate intentional disturbances to provoke encounters with an everyday act.
Ambience in Construction: Building the Ambient Sole
Prototype – Alpha Version
The initial design concept for the Ambient Sole was simple: a nondescript mat that, when pressure was applied to a particular area, would generate a sound effect. The mechanics were a bit more complicated. Though initially limited, our existing knowledge of basic electronics was enough to get us started, and using Arduino microprocessors had the added benefit of multiple open-source code and tutorials available online.
The first step was becoming more familiar with Arduino. To access the desired pressure sensory input, we experimented utilizing piezometric sensors and the Arduino Knock Sensor tutorial. The knock sensor code issued a text-based output on the Arduino serial monitor when the sensor was triggered. We needed to turn to another coding language in order to produce sound rather than text, so we used Processing. We attempted to modify a pre-written Processing program to trigger MP3 playback through the serial input function, allowing us to join the Arduino sensor program with the MP3 playback. However, this proved to be a higher-level endeavor than our novice programming skills could handle. In order to move forward with the prototyping phase and to build a functional product for demonstration and further refinement, we acquired a Bare Conductive Touch Board.
This board's touch-triggered electrodes, onboard MP3 player, microSD card to load selected MP3 files, and onboard audio jack make it much easier for novices to manipulate without combining code from different programming languages or building complicated circuitry. Within minutes, we had the Touch Board working and uploaded our chosen MP3 files. We used conductive copper tape for sensory input. While this design required participants to walk on the mat without shoes, it allowed us to experiment with sensor placement and identify programming issues in order to move forward with our prototype for demonstration.
The prototype configuration initially consisted of seven strips of copper tape running the width of the mat in approximately eight inch intervals, each with a string of 12-guage insulated copper wire attached at the end and leading to a mini alligator clamp attached to a Touch Board electrode. It functioned properly, to an extent. We encountered several technical issues, first among them frequent board overloads. We swapped the insulated wire for shielded, three-strand antenna wire to compensate for interference, and reduced the number of sensors from seven to four, increasing the interval between steps. This counteracted two remaining issues: 1) fewer sensory triggers allowed the Touch Board time to process playback without overloading, and 2) reduction of a functional limitation within the code in which contact with one sensor must be broken in order to trigger another. When walking, we don't lift our back foot until we've already taken the next step, meaning the second sensor would never be triggered because our back foot was still down when we stepped on it with our front foot.
We also adhered a second strip of copper tape to each input, converging the two at the edge of the mat with a strand of wire attached in order to increase the surface area for contact to trigger input. This configuration functioned as intended, however its most limiting factor was the requirement of skin contact in order to trigger the sensors. We intend for everyone to be able to experience the Ambient Sole, regardless of how they travel through space, and that spectrum is, of course, not limited to walking.
Prototype – Beta Phase
The next iteration of the Ambient Sole resolved the issue of conductivity by returning to pressure sensors as the source of input. We constructed a series of homemade pressure plate switches from cardboard, aluminum foil, and perforated foam. Each sensor was connected to a breadboard with phase and ground wires, and jumpers in sequence connected to the microprocessor. For this version, we utilized an Arduino Uno with an attached MP3 shield that included an onboard audio jack and microSD capability.
We followed the steps for soldering headers onto the MP3 shield and installing libraries available at Sparkfun.com (https://learn.sparkfun.com/tutorials/mp3-player-shield-hookup). We also utilized the example code included in this kit, with minor modifications to correct issues that resulted in the Arduino not registering breaks in trigger input, and therefore preventing multiple sensor triggers.
We attached the sensors to a cardboard sheet, on top of which we placed a basic floor mat. In comparison to the earlier prototype, this version required pressure rather than touch, and therefore appeared less conspicuous, save the wires collected at the end of the mat and leading to the microprocessor. Future iterations of this project will work to increase the covert qualities of the floor mat by hiding wires, speakers, and the Arduino from plain sight.
The goal of this project is to engage in the ongoing academic conversation on materialist rhetoric by strongly attaching to the concept of embodiment through the push and pull of humans on environments and environments on humans. At the outset we questioned whether a startling experience could bring us closer in both a physical and metaphysical sense to the world in which we live. By revealing what is taken for granted, we can adapt, experience, give attention, embody, and become attuned to things we have ignored in our daily lives.
A further goal of this project is to encourage participation in project-based critical exploration. Rethinking modes of composition and scholarly practice through digital engagement projects like the Ambient Sole invites us to consider both human and nonhuman agencies and encourage reflexivity within the performative nature of the experience. These encounters illuminate the typically hidden affective relations into which we enter in the everyday ambience of our environment.
Special thanks to Jameson Hogan and Dr. David Rieder for their advice and technical support throughout the construction of the Ambient Sole.
Arduino. "Arduino Knock Sensor tutorial." «http://www.arduino.cc/en/Tutorial/KnockSensor»
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