Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Sound and Color as Infrastructure: Electrifying the Built Environment in the Long 20th Century

Organizer

Lida Zeitlin Wu

University of California Berkeley

Chair

Lida Zeitlin Wu

University of California Berkeley

Metadata

Session Abstract

To live in a modern metropolis is to be immersed in both dazzling color and a cacophony of sounds. From the late nineteenth century onward, both ambient color and sound have governed the infrastructure of the built environment, whether in the form of electric lighting for public use, traffic management, domestic interiors, or retail spectacle and consumer experience. And yet, these topics are rarely broached in discussions of the environment or histories of urban infrastructure. This panel addresses this gap through a three-fold lens, drawing from the largely neglected but growing fields of color and sound studies to discuss neon lighting, functional color and mood conditioning in the home, and the relationship between stereophonic sound and urban space. We collectively argue that modern life and the experience of the city would be impossible without these color and sonic technologies and the rich histories they bring us. Color, light, and sound by definition escape the rules and protocols that attempt to order and contain them and herein lie their source of power as both a fact of urban experience throughout the late nineteenth and early twenty-first centuries and simultaneously a problem for the management and control of urban infrastructures and lived environments. Our panel proposal is being submitted to both HSS and SHOT, since we feel that the topic is highly relevant to both conferences.

Presenter 1

The Neon Surround: History, Theory, and Technique

Carolyn L. Kane

Ryerson University

Abstract

The electronic colors blazing on signs and screens in countless cities around the world all seem to emanate from a single urban aesthetic. And yet, the materiality of each hue is hardly homogenous. Rather, each color ascends from a long and contested history between technological limitation and aesthetic innovation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, urban centers saw the very slow overtaking of gas lighting by more efficient electric systems. Next, a series of new color media ran their course: cathode ray tube displays (CRT) and neon, backlit plastic, light-emitting diodes (LED), liquid crystal displays (LCD), gas-plasma, and the whopping HDTVs of the present. The advent of these electric light and color systems introduced such a radical reformation of urban environments, they were simultaneously taken as panacea for social and cultural ills. This paper analyzes this trajectory, from early neon experiments in France in the 1920s through their adoption in Las Vegas in the 1930s, to post-war neon explosions in the 1970s and neon's so called obsolescence in the 1980s, with the advent of cheaper and easier to use backlit plastics. I argue that the presence of neon in urban environments (whether simulated or authentic) continues to signify a future optimism for new media, paradoxically contingent on its obsolete past.

Metadata

Presenter 2

"Choose Your Color": Mood Conditioning in the Postwar Domestic Interior

Lida Zeitlin Wu

University of California Berkeley

Abstract

The notion that color and lighting can soothe us, produce feelings of anxiety, and even alter human behavior is so deeply ingrained that it appears natural or innate. Interior design websites such as Apartment Therapy, which frequently publishes color-oriented articles, frame the home as a place where we can assert our individual personalities and identities, a space of creative potential. These platforms largely erase the historical and political origins of this way of thinking, which I seek to uncover in this paper. I locate the roots of this assumed correlation between color, environment and personality in the postwar United States, when an exponentially growing set of colors and color combinations were made available to consumers. Applying the mid-century design principles of functional color and mood conditioning, homeowners hired "color consultants" to customize their living spaces through a highly controlled use of color and light to produce desired psychological and physiological effects. It was in the domestic interior, as opposed to public spaces such as hospitals or offices, where a culture of technological progress merged with ideologies of self-expression in relation to color. According to the growing field of color psychology, "favorite colors" could determine what kind of person you were, as personality itself became subject to standardization and classification. Thus, though color consultants emphasized that the domestic space was a space to assert individual aesthetic preferences, I contend that people actually adapted to their environments and, by extension, to increasingly regulated understandings of selfhood.

Metadata

Presenter 3

Producing Sonic Space: Telephony and the Emergence of Stereophonic Sound

Harry Burson

University of California Berkeley

Abstract

The telephone is commonly understood to be among the key infrastructural media of the early twentieth century. This sound technology contributed to the notorious annihilation of time and space that typify many accounts of modernity. Yet beyond merely eliminating distance, the medium of telephony also produced the format of stereophonic sound, which in turn constituted new forms of acoustic space. Beginning with the 1881 Exposition of Electricity in Paris, stereophonic sound emerged as a novel application of multiple telephones to mediate space through multi-channel audio. I examine how this transmission and recreation of space for a performatively modern listener suggests the technology's imbrication in the imagination of space as an empty resource to be reshaped and consumed in narratives of historical progress in modernity. I explore how these initial demonstrations-along with the related technology of the stereoscope-alternately shape and challenge contemporary conventions of representing and shaping both urban and global space. I contend that stereophonic sound's continued mediation of acoustic space is informed by nineteenth century European conceptions of spatial control and mastery.

Metadata

Commentator

Sandy Isenstadt

University of Delaware