Report Summer School Riezlern (Austria)

Report Summer School ‘The Spatial and Sensorial Appropriation of Technology’ in Riezlern, Austria.

By Fabian de Kloe & Tim van der Heijden.

On the 20th of August we came together for a full week Summer School program in the beautiful mountain area of Riezlern, Austria to discuss the theme of ‘The Spatial and Sensorial Appropriation of Technology’. The Summer School was organized by Dr. Andreas Fickers (Maastricht University) and Prof. dr. Mikael Hård (TU Darmstadt, Germany), and guest lectures were given by Prof. dr. Petra Gehring (TU Darmstadt), Prof. dr. Josef Wiemeyer (TU Darmstadt), Dr. Carolyn Birdsall (University of Amsterdam), Dr. Andreas Fickers (Maastricht University), and Dr. Jo Wachelder (Maastricht University). The aim of the Summer School was to improve our understanding of the everyday appropriation of technology, with a specific focus on the sensory and spatial processes involved in it. Within an interdisciplinary and international setting, it provided a common platform to discuss this theme. In doing so, the participants investigated the specific role and importance of the senses in the spatial adoption of technologies in everyday environments, bringing together expertise based on the disciplinary and thematic profile of the participating graduate schools.

Each day of the week dealt with a specific sense. Tuesday was dedicated to the sense of sight, the visual perception of technology. Wednesday and Thursday were dedicated to the sense hearing; in particular the auditory perception of social space and hearing in history and radio documentary. Friday was dedicated to the sensory appropriation of touch in interactive games. Each day was divided into three parts: a morning lecture, a group discussion of one of the readings, and a hands-on activity for a multi-sensory experience of the everyday technologies discussed. In addition to discussing theme related texts, Michel Serres’ The Five Senses (2008) was read to explore and rethink the role of the senses in the ways technology is experienced by its everyday users. To encourage the participants to mobilize Serres’ phenomenology, Prof. dr. Petra Gehring gave a brief introduction of his philosophy with a specific focus on the book The Five Senses.

Prof. dr. Josef Wiemeyer kicked-off the first day of the program with an empirically oriented presentation on the visual perception of space to explain how sight functions and to outline the basic approaches within the fields of (cognitive) psychology and sport science towards sight. After an introduction in 3D television technologies by Kathrin Weigelt (PhD, TU Darmstadt), we experienced the visual perception of space first hand by applying several visual categories provided by Wiemeyer’s and Weigelt’s presentations (i.e. occlusion, relative size & density, height in visual field) in relation to 3D-imagery technologies (television, photo, and video). This experience led to an interesting critical discussion about the ways cognitive psychology defines and researches perception of depth and how this differs with humanities-oriented approaches.

Whereas the first day was devoted especially to the sense of sight, often regarded as the dominant sense of contemporary culture, the second and third day moved beyond the visual. Inspired by a morning lecture by Dr. Andreas Fickers, we discussed the history of the transistor radio along with its three interrelated processes of appropriation: hybridization, domestication and symbolical capitalization. We further complicated the issue of appropriating auditory technologies by discussing two texts dealing respectively with the phenomenology of sounds in the city and the user-appropriation of the iPod. In the afternoon we experienced the appropriation of auditory technologies by recording sounds of the Austrian valley in small groups. The organizers proposed nine different themes with the aim to create a fifty-minute audio-track called ‘mountain murmur’. It was interesting to see how the various groups dealt with their themes in rather different ways, varying from an attempt to frame a ‘realistic’ portrayal to a more dramatic translation of the valley’s soundscape.

Building on a text on radio documentary and narrative strategies used by BBC radio documentary makers, we discussed the tensions between such ‘realistic’ and more dramatized approaches and, moreover, how this is received and interpreted by the audiences. Our discussion also dealt with how audio documentaries and radio broadcasts can be explored as sustaining and enforcing the listener’s imagination as well as a sense of personal, national and even international identities. Dr. Carolyn Birdsall’s introduced some of these themes earlier in the day in an inspiring lecture on hearing in history and radio-documentary. In the afternoon our awareness of the political dimensions of acoustic space (‘sight-hearing’) was raised in a discussion led by Dr. Ludger Fittkau about Peter Androsch’s “Acoustic Manifesto”.

On the final day we discussed the sensory and tactile appropriation of technology by discussing and practicing interactive game-technologies. In the morning-session Dr. Jo Wachelder gave an historical outline of the bodily and sensorial appropriation of toys and games as tactile and playful technologies, with a special focus on the phenakistoscope.

We learned from the lecture that it is important to emphasize the tactile experience of users in the process of appropriation. This enhanced our discussion on how besides sight and hearing touch should also be considered as an important sense when analyzing processes of domestic appropriation of technologies. After an introduction by Anna Lisa Martin (PhD, TU Darmstadt) on the technologies of Wii and other sensory-motor games, we assessed these insights by playing and comparing these game technologies. We were amazed by their immersive powers.

After a week of interesting text discussions and stimulating hands-, eye- and ear-on experiences, we came together for a last meeting to discuss possible avenues for future research under the promising title ‘The Sense(s) of Technology’. One of the first proposals was to consider the relation between the senses in the everyday use of technology rather than focusing on one sense in particular. Such a multi-sensorial approach to appropriation and domestication processes of technology is fruitful for exploring new ways of making sense of our relation to technology. We concluded that this summer school functioned as a perfect start for opening up interdisciplinary research on the role of the senses in everyday technologies.

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