Subliminal Frequencies

January 4, 2011

Urban environments constantly emit vibrational forces affecting the bodies of their occupants, whether these be auditory or electromagnetic forces, asserting a subliminal influence upon the movements, physiological and emotional states of citizens. Forming part of a wider project of atmospheric research in to ambiences, atmospheres and backgrounds, Subliminal Frequencies maps a deterministic ecology of spectral influence through the establishment of a pedestrian research structure. Insinuating itself into the city, this project charts bandwidths of the invisible yet influential components of the landscape.

Concerning itself with the ecological relations constitutive of functional interactions between bodies, objects and events, this project develops the broader concerns of a programme of atmospheric research concerned with both determination and contingency. This broader project concerns itself with various backgrounds, ambiences and atmospheres that comprise a subliminal and affective substrate. Of particular interest are the natures, capacities or potentials of mediums themselves when considered devoid of significant or ‘meaningful’ content.

Electric Light and Pure Information

Lighting installations can be considered to form luminescent islands, set apart from both the given environment and solar chronography, performing a geo-modulation according to which 35 cubic meters of street in South Yorkshire can be illuminated to a level that forges a synchronous relation with the natural ambience or solar illuminations on the other side of the earth, thereby performing a spatio-temporal distortion (as explored extensively in the work of Philippe Rahm and discussed by McLuhan.1 This distortion or modulation performed by electric light is not limited to geological concerns but extends into the realm of the individual and its individuation. In this sense we adopt McLuhan’s assertion that “the message of electric light is total change. It is pure information without any content to restrict its transforming and informing power”.2 This absence of content refers to an affectivity beyond symbolic operations and to information as a generative process of development or determination more than encoded, representational units for consumption. As pure information, light is understood according to its potential for modulation, its manipulation of bodies and involvement within individuations more than a means of linguistic transmission or illumination. As pure information light is considered in-itself—according to its inherent affective capacities—as much as its affective and sensual relations.

This informative capacity of light is here understood according to a peculiar Pythagorean perspective according to which the soul is understood as a harmonic structuration capable of modulation. Where the Pythagorean approach takes the soul, self or individual to be susceptible to sonorous attunement, concordance and discordance, this disposition is extended to include a larger vibrational continuum inclusive of electromagnetic vibrations constituting and exceeding the visible spectrum. While this project initially focuses upon electromagnetic vibrations occurring within the visible spectrum, their study nonetheless contributes to an invisible ecology and architectonics, as its is the pure information or internal spectral composition of the medium itself that is focused upon rather than the object illuminated, represented or identified, the medium which—importantly for its implication within sight and the symbolic—otherwise remains invisible. Where we focus upon the affective capacities of light itself we focus upon its processing by non-classical or “non-image forming photoreceptive pathways”, the infraesthetic functionalism of a medium remaining invisible yet nonetheless affective:

ambient light is known to regulate processes other than vision, such as hormone secretion, body temperature, and sleep, but also alertness and cognition. These nonclassical [also called “non–image-forming” or “nonvisual” response] responses to light are mediated through a nonclassical photoreception system, which is maximally sensitive to blue light (≈480 nm), as opposed to the classical photopic luminance visual pathways, maximally sensitive to green light (≈550 nm).3

Insofar as Subliminal Frequencies investigates the informative and influential capacity of light, this particular electromagnetic bandwidth of speculation investigates our subjection to the solar system, as most clearly manifest in the regulative patterns of circadian rhythms. The nocturnal, electromagnetic reterritorialization or islanding practiced by town planners makes use of the undetermined potentials offered by the night and by darkness, turning the nocturnal into a time of terrestrial or tellurian experimentation beyond solar imposition. Here the dead of night does not imply vacuous absence or void but an unthinkable depth of potential anthropically rendered as fear or horror. A similar experimental practice of electromagnetic reterritorialization is carried out the production of architectonic interiorities, the engineers of which perform experiments amidst the freedom and potentials presented through localised terrestrial isolation from cosmic and specifically solar rhythms. This practice of electromagnetic or spectral reterritorialization or ‘islanding’ can be understood, in accordance with an assumed sense of doom, as pragmatic preparation for one last winter, nuclear or otherwise, wherein we might realise the calamitous consequences of our ‘liberation’ from the solar system.

Background Noise and Informative Ambiences

Being concerned generally with the mediums of a subliminal and spectral influence—with both mechanical and electromagnetic vibrations—this research also takes into account the background noises constitutive of an informative ambience. Being concerned with the nature of mediums themselves as opposed to their communicative or representational ‘content’, attention is given to that which is considered meaningless or mundane, the residual excess of significant events, as it is this relative invisibility or imperceptibility that marks a certain—potentially ideological—efficiency of influence and determination through the conditioning of thersholds of perception which determine this background noise as such.

Just as urban lighting installations can be considered to form luminescent islands within the city, acoustic design within the city often performs a similar function, particularly where large scale water features are used to mask the noises of the city’s constitutive interactions, setting an acoustical space apart from that of the city at large. Of particular interest is the extent to which such situations present the utmost confusion of acoustical quantities or infomation, manifest in the high bandwith noise of fountains and waterfalls, while being associated with a sense of subjective calm, collection and relaxation within the city. An intriguing contrast emerges in such situations between the confusion or lack of distinction between the individual frequency components or internal quantities comprising a body of noise and the sense that such urban sound installations serve to calm and help collect towards a sense of subjective distinction and consolidation. We might push this further into the realms of the esoteric by noting correlations between the ‘whiteness’ of such noises and that ascribed to the crown chakra (see body and wavelength image above), which is broadly considered to manifest a “presence” and, in resonance with the spectral composition or confusion of frequencies constitutive of white noise, “an integration of the whole“, thereby presenting a stark contrast between confusion and distinction, both of which are thought in relation to a certain “whiteness” of noise. This “whiteness” is described by Deleuze as the ‘Idea‘ of both sound and light:

the Idea of colour, for example, is like white light which perplicates in itself the genetic elements and relations of all colours, but is actualized in the diverse colours with their respective spaces; or the Idea of sound, which is also like white noise. 4

The Idea of both light and sound, manifest in a confusion of ‘genetic elements’ constitutive of their respective whiteness, identifies a spectrum of infinite potential, lacking distinction or discretion in the form of dominant wavelengths or tonalities. It is this confusion or absence of distinction that defines the “whiteness” of each medium’s sum total of distinct possibilities, frequencies or colour, as noise. While this noise defines the obliteration of distinction, it is also figured as a kind of ultimate generative potential or possibility for the creation or ‘actualization’ of colour, tones or signals. In this sense the emergence or generation of distinct signal components, wavelengths or colours is exectued by means of a subtractive synthesis, with each signal event being a reduction and contraction of elements or frequencies that are embodied yet remain confused within the Idea of sound or light, both of which describe a kind of white noise. A similar kind of subtractive approach towards the discernment of distinct tonalities within an otherwise confusing body of noise is carried out by Dawn Scarfe, whose Listening Glasses are used to subtract distinct tones and signals from sources of naturally occuring high bandwidth noise, making mobile the work of Helmholtz.

Such contrasts between confusion and discretion embodied within background noise become more interesting when we consider the auditory confusion constitutive of noise and the extent to which such bodies of noise lend towards territorial distinction, setting one part of the city apart from another towards the construction of a localized spatial distinction or acoustical island. These contrasts between confusion and distinction are perhaps made clearest if we consider the acoustical expressions of the fountain at the centre of Sheffield’s Peace Gardens, at the heart of which lies an intense noise:

In analysing these frequencies, these spectral compositions, we hope to uncover something of the information comprising a sonic unconscious, the tonalities that assert and insinuate themselves within human minds, the agents of a subtle and subliminal influence. R. Murray Schafer identified a particularly influential component of such a sonic unconscious in asking for the ‘random’ humming of a note from workshop participants:

It is, however, only in the electronic age that international tonal centre have been achieved; in countries operating on an alternating current of 60 cycles, it is this sound which now provides the resonant frequency, for it will be heard (together with its harmonics) in the operation of all electrical devices [ … ] during meditation exercises, after the whole body has relaxed and students are asked to sing a tone of “prime unity”–the tone which seems to arise naturally from the centre of their being–B natural is more frequent than any other.5

For Schafer, this sonic unconscious manifests itself as a tone of “prime unity”, an international yet nonetheless personal tonal centre that is in excess of the individual. It is the persistence of the electrical hum or ground noise that Schafer mentions that defines it as background noise, as that which is ubiquitous to the point of imperceptibility, tuned out in order to seek more dynamic signals. This electrical murmur or background noise permeates much of the urbanized world, a murmur which through the insistence of a fundamental and ‘municipal’ frequency carries out an individuating operation within audition while marking a silence that attests merely to the absence of attention.Yet, in being tuned out, in its becoming imperceptible, its informative potential is perhaps given free reign as it seeps in through an unconscious and unguarded audition.

In documenting the spectral composition of urban environments it is hoped that this spectral influence constituting—or at least giving shape to—a sonic unconscious, will become better understood in its various and complex forms.

*** Further details to follow ***

Exhibition of Provisional Findings

The preliminary research for this project was carried out during a residency at Access Space in Sheffield between 10th and 29th January 2011.

The provisional findings of this speculative research structure were exhibited at Access Space between 28/01/11 and 05/03/11. This exhibition included a tangible mapping and reorganisation of the city according to its lighting installations, their particular intensity and internal spectral compositions, and theories relating to their impact upon the human somatic complex. This was all mapped out using wool (See map and wool image above).


Information is gathered from specific instances of city lighting deemed suspicious or of particular interest by its inhabitants. Routes are planned around areas of interest and intrigue, or alternatively nothing is planned and investigations are executed according to a meandering trajectory through the city. The internal spectral composition of urban lighting environments is investigated by means of a simple yet “high resolution spectrograph“.

This procedure reveals the internal quantities or spectral composition of a particular lighting installation in the following manner:

Background noises and auditory ambiences are recorded using hard-disc recorders, mobile phones, pencils and paper. This information is then analysed using human minds and WaveSurfer. The functional orientation of this research project directs attention primarily towards the internal quantities and affective capacities of a given medium ahead of the qualities associated with its perception, and so the sound of an acoustic event is perhaps considered of secondary importance to its spectral composition, which is itself considered the affective capacity of an acoustic event, only a part of which is accessed in its being subtractively rendered audible in the ear.

Subliminal Frequencies Collected Research Notes

… to be continued.

  1. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 137 []
  2. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 62 []
  3. Vandewalle et. al., ‘Spectral Quality of Light Modulates Emotional Brain Responses in Humans’.pdf []
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 258 []
  5. R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape, XX []
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