Lore of the Radio Fossil
by Sophie Dyer and Sasha Engelmann
This essay tells the speculative story of a ‘radio fossil’: a radio-borne image that traverses the bounds of Earth’s surfaces, elements, atmospheres and techno-geographies. The story itself is a technique for attuning to a parallel wireless world, an electromagnetic commons, in the aim of witnessing the radio Anthropocene. The accompanying audio files of radio interferences are ‘tuning forks’ for scenes of mythical, imaginative and perceptual journeying.
LOCATION: Sodankylä, Finland
There is a small lake in North Finland, isolated, approximately 100km inside the Arctic Circle and 1km from Sodankylä Meteorological Station. Imperceptibly, the lake’s taut surface oscillates, agitated and energetic. Waves of different media — water, visible light and radio — dance, scatter and diffuse.
The hum and rush of an Anthropocene epoch borne on radio waves surrounds and engulfs us. We excite and are excited by its sinusoidal currents. We pass through its infra and ultra oscillatory structures, both accepting and wary of the operations they conduct beyond our immediate awareness.1
Below the lake’s hydrophilic membrane, ice-cold sediments rest, laced with deposits of magnetic ‘fly ash’, Americium 241 and Caesium 137, generated by nuclear weapons testing post 1954.2 We will begin our journey with these “nano-artefacts” because they are the candidate boundary markers of a still informal Anthropocene.3 Undisturbed by currents, the isotopes decay at a slower pace to the rotting vegetation around them. In place of carbon dioxide they emit alpha, beta and gamma radiation. From the ‘zero time’ of their synthesis, the isotopes keep their own pace: intervals eternal in the watery depths.
Scene I: Elemental bodies
FREQUENCY: 10,000,000 THz (γ radiation)
LOCATION: Ollinlampi lake bed, moving to lake surface
We are travellers in a radio Anthropocene. Ours is a journey from frequency to frequency and from water to air to the near vacuum of space. Our interscalar and stellar lens is the elemental body of lake Ollinlampi. With the technique of a story, we sense the lake as it mediates, reflects and diffracts electromagnetic interferences. Some of these interferences, we suspect, make lake Ollinlampi a radio relay into the cosmos.
From the rhythmic waves of decaying Americium 241, Caesium 137 and the magnetic signatures of ‘fly ash’ we move up through the turbid waters of Ollinlampi until we reach the lake’s drum-like membrane. The membrane moves with the arctic air. It also trembles with perturbations from very low frequencies generated by teleseismic activity and heavy weather events, which permeate its watery media in infrasonic waves.
These ultra long, low frequency transmissions are distinct from the ultra-short gamma waves of the submerged radioactive isotopes.
Scene II: Magnetosonic
FREQUENCY: 1 – 20 Hz
LOCATION: Troposphere, moving to Stratosphere
Infrasonic waves are longitudinal air waves of compression and expansion.4 Sometimes clouds may form along the crests of these waves: visible striations of an invisible and inaudible field. To invoke the radio Anthropocene is to imagine a parallel wireless world in which the limits of visuality and audibility are suspended as we become radio beings.
As we frequency-shift from the membrane of lake Ollinlampi, the atmosphere ‘above’ is evanescent with multiple waveforms and emissions. We are entering a bandwidth of signal traffic, man-made interferences and information scattering from communications devices. If “the sky is only an antenna with a wide range” radio is a transducer of a multiplicity of wireless events: telecommunications, synchronisation, industrial, infrastructural and commercial activities.5
We pass through the carrier waves of AM radio stations, the data streams of radio astronomy and radio taxis, the calls of aircraft transponders and flight control systems at Sodankylä airport, interjections from fishing trawlers communicating in the Gulf of Bothnia near Sweden. The Earth’s atmosphere is an electro-acoustic media capable of holding and transmitting these varying emissions and modulations, in simultaneity and perpetuity.
Scene III: Transient luminous events
FREQUENCY: 61 Hz
LOCATION: Ionosphere, magnetosphere and moving to the Earth’s outer radiation belt
Our radio Anthropocene is luminous and sonic. We follow the signal traffic to the edge of the ionosphere and to the Earth’s so-called ‘natural’ radio: the musical electromagnetic phenomena caused by interactions between Earth’s magnetosphere and the Sun. “Musical atmospherics” are the outbursts and pulses in lightning strikes, whistlers, sferics and the ‘dawn chorus’.6 As we reach the outer radiation belt, magnetosound from “giant micro pulsations” of mysterious origins form waves that resemble “pearl necklaces” and propagate over great distances as Aelectrosonic murmurs.7
Since Sputnik’s launch in the International Geophysical Year of 1957/8, thousands of satellites encircle the Earth. Their electromagnetic transmissions envelop the globe in a second atmosphere, a technosphere. Through their mirrored eyes we practice an inverted astronomy of “looking down from space onto the earth rather than from the ground up into the skies”.8 In sun-synchronous at 700 km altitude, Sentinel-1A and Sentinel-1B are radar imaging satellites operating in the C-band at just over 5 GHz, with a swath of 250 km and geometric resolution of 5 by 20 m.
Amidst a multi-spectral politics of sensing and signal processing, Sentinel-1A and Sentinel-1B carry out the capture and transmission of an image. The image is distorted due to the satellites’ tilted gaze vis-à-vis the uneven terrain of the Earth. We attach our radio-selves to the compressed file as it leaves the two Sentinels at 8095 MHz and 520 Mbit/s in the direction of Sodankylä.
Scene IV: Errant transmissions
FREQUENCY: 8095 MHz
LOCATION: Ionosphere, returning to Sodankylä and ground level
Spectre-like, the data feed passes through other transmissions in a preordained choreography decided months ago by the strata-like bands of a Frequency Allocation Chart. To those who can sense its coming, the data manifests as a sinusoidal melody. Transmission is an art, generative of ‘radio artefacts’.
Unobstructed the transmission is pristine and prismatic until Sodankylä abruptly rises up to meet it. Only a fraction of the data is captured by the Meteorological Station. The majority of the signal is absorbed or scattered back by surrounding vegetation, rough ground and nearby bodies of water: Kitinen river and sylvan lakes, including Ollinampi, where we began.
Agitated by the satellite data feed the lake is transformed: its still waters become a radio mirror. Unlike the other terrain, Ollinampi does not scatter, it reflects the errant transmissions of an optical technosphere back into the thinner-matter of air from which they came.
HARD CUT TO:
Scene V: Earth images
FREQUENCY: 0 – 300 GHz
LOCATION: Ollinlampi lake surface, to exiting the heliosphere
Reflected by the taut surface of the lake, the raw image now travels on multiple frequencies. Its prismatic quality is fractured. Earth’s image is an electromagnetic anti-pattern. A new and vagrant signal. A ‘radio fossil’.
The radio fossil captures multiple technogeographies. It began as a photograph of the Earth and is now textured by the electromagnetic conditions of this planet. It intermingles with human-made signal traffic, thermal noise, ‘natural’ radio of geomagnetic and atmospheric origins, the Sun’s polyphonic emissions and cosmic background radiation that peaks at 120 MHz in harmony with Jupiter at 40 MHz.
In marking these traces we are witnessing an event of transperception: “a poetic disjuncture of immanent distances and large powers”.9 The fossil tells a shimmering, electromagnetic story of its zero-time, its elemental journey and its ultimate diffraction.
There is a poetics in this story: in knowing that the fragments of a raw image of Earth are also textured by the Earth and are traveling into space. The radio fossil is an Earth-image on a vast trajectory, a coded representation that is attenuated, dispersed and foreshortened, as the air thins into the darkness.
After all, the near vacuum of space is the ideal “environmental archive” for the radio fossil (Oldfield, 2015). As the fossil departs from us, always expanding, the scale of fractured ‘Earth image’ grows: 1:1000, 1:500, 1:125, 1:1.
Thank you to the following people for so generously answering our undisciplined questions, sharing ideas and sound recordings: Larry Dodd (K4LED); Bill Liles; Thomas Ashcraft; James Thieman (Radio Jove/NASA);, Timo Sukuvaara and Ryyppö Timo Ryyppö (Finnish Meteorological Institute); Anatol Guglielmo (Borok Geophysical Observatory); Susan Schuppli (Goldsmiths) and Veronica Della Dora (Royal Holloway University).
Sophie Dyer is an designer and researcher based in London whose work investigates the aesthetic and spatial dimensions of “slow violence”. Her current work at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, explores a new material politics of radio. Her radio alias is: M6NYX
Sasha Engelmann is Lecturer in GeoHumanities at Royal Holloway University in London. She collaborates with contemporary artists to explore questions of environmental and atmospheric sensing and politics. Her newest project addresses the cosmological aesthetics of radio; on the waves she is M6IOR.
- Hansen, M. 2015. Triggers: Introducing the Technosphere. 100 Jahre Gegenwart. Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Audio. 15. ↩
- Oldfield, F. 2014. Can the Magnetic Signatures from Inorganic Fly Ash Be Used to Mark the Onset of the Anthropocene? Anthropocene Review 2(1): 3–13. Print. ↩
- Nowack, B. and Bucheli, T.D., 2007. Occurrence, behavior and effects of nanoparticles in the environment. Environmental pollution, 150(1), pp.5-22. ↩
- Bedard, A.J. and Georges, T.M. 2000. Atmospheric Infrasound. Physics Today 53(3), pp.32-37. ↩
- Breton via Kahn, D. 2013. Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print. ↩
- Eckersley, T.L., 1935. Musical atmospherics. Nature, 135(19.1): 104-05. ↩
- Kahn, D. 2013. Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print. ↩
- Sloterdijk, P. 1990. Versprechen Auf Deutsch. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. Print. ↩
- Kahn, D. 2013. Ibid. ↩