Interview Mark Wigley: “We are living in an ecology of antenna”

Ruben Baart
March 17th 2018

With the invention of the radio antenna in the late 19th century, we became a different species: Introducing the human insect. A species, able to communicate across oceans using far-reaching antennae abilities, residing inside a shared, yet networked space. With this in mind, we recently sat down with architectural theorist, scholar, and author Mark Wigley, on his latest curated exhibition, The Human Insect.

Insects have been around for 4 million years and humans for just 200.000 years. We have just arrived.

The internationally renowned theorist took us on an intellectual expedition through the wonderful world of antennae, and shared with us his viewpoints on how modern humans and insects are not so different. In his view, “the history of the antenna equals the history of the human becoming something ‘other’.”

This examination of ‘otherness’ resulted in an unearthing theory of the widespread synthesis between humans and technology, exploring the notion of the human insect. Wigley argues that, both species use antennae to mediate the world and each other, in turn allowing humans to organize themselves across the world.

Today, antennas are omnipresent: they are embedded in buildings, streets, vehicles, pets, medicine, and even in the products we buy in the supermarket. In short, “we are living in an ecology of antennae.”

Using the idea of ‘feelers’ to conceptually overlay our technological augmentations, Wigley explores the history of radio and the humans living inside of it, and wonders, what are the new human feelers?

It’s not that we have the phone, but the phone has us; it is our portal to the world.

At their core, smartphones, and all cell phones for that matter, are mini radios; sending and receiving radio signals through antennae. The antenna transmits signals just like a radio station, and your phone picks up those signals just as a radio does, allowing you to call your mom from a distance.

“Nowadays,” Wigley says, “we all carry smartphones in our pockets, each containing six miniature antennas that connect us to the world. It’s the first thing we touch in the morning, and it’s the last thing we touch at night. We have developed an intimate relationship with this device, and we could almost start to see it as our lover. It’s not that we have the phone, but the phone has us; it is our portal to the world.”

Considering the smartphone ‘feeler’ as a prosthetic technology, we were curious to hear Wigley’s thoughts on McLuhan’s extension theory, in which McLuhan defined media as an extension of ourselves. Wigley: “McLuhan says that with each new technology, we develop new prosthetic arms, legs and so on. But this process is so frightening that we numb ourselves. Therefore, we are never able to see the technology that’s changing us right now - we can only see the previous one.”

Is our phone more human than us? - It’s possible.

“What McLuhan means is that we can never see ourselves right now. We cannot look in the mirror, as we can only see the world through the ‘rearview now’. This is why the exhibition looks back on the history of antennae, in order to face our current issues; What are we doing right now? What have we done to the human life form? Are we still human? Is our phone more human than us? - It’s possible. Moreover, if we really knew what a human was, would we like it?”

For Wigley, it’s important for us to question if we’re still the biological humans we think we are. But at the same time, we should harbor such a change. “Being afraid of technology means being afraid of ourselves,” Wigley adds. “We are not the victims of our technology. We are our technology!”

Participate in Wigley's walk-in timeline. Dissident Gardens, The Human Insect - Antenna Architectures 1887-2017, 2018 (c) Petra van der Ree

Throughout the exhibition, Wigley argues that, antennae are for us, what the stone ax was to our ancestors. Considering the hand ax being world’s first piece of social technology, Wigley states that humankind has undergone a series of radical changes over the course of the 20th century, which resulted in us becoming something different:

“Looking back, this began with our first tools. With these tools, we have changed ourselves. However, what makes us human is our technology. In fact, the most human thing about us is our technology!”

Wigley gives us a sneak peek through the exhibition and introduces us to his “open workshop”. Stepping inside, the space is divided in multiple chapters. “This is not your typical exhibition,” Wigley says, “but rather a research show by a scholar, containing nearly 2000 projects in representational form.”

We are not the victims of our technology. We are our technology!

The largest part of the expo is without a doubt Wigley’s open laboratory, which consists of a large walk-in timeline, where visitors are invited to participate in the scholar’s ongoing research. Starting from 1901, this was the first time antennae was used to radio broadcast across the Atlantic - “this was the first time when the world became small,” Wigley adds - and ending in tomorrow’s history, you are invited to add your ideas to Wigley’s mind.

“It’s an exhibition about a part of architecture that’s barely visible [antennae], but at the same time, this is where the physical world meets the electromagnetic world.”

The Human Insect exhibition is on display at Het Nieuwe Instituut, in Rotterdam. The exhibition is part of the Dissident Gardens program, which broadens your perception of the current expressions between nature and culture. The program includes five exhibitions and a series of lectures and debates, and will be on view until September 23rd.

Cover photo: Argema Mittrei. Photo: Naturalis, Biodiversity Center.

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