If walls could speak
Made by Ann Li
Created: April 26th, 2023
Ann Li (MDes ‘24)
What traces of our digital presence are unintentionally left behind, and how might they take on a life of their own?
If walls could speak gives form to contradictions between the transient, yet indelible, nature of our digital footprint. As the divide between cyberspace and reality blurs, the disembodiment of data raises questions around what it means for the origin–and transmission–of information to be untraceable. The spillage of digital technologies beyond the screen is inevitable, whether we perceive it or not. Despite this, we expect networked technologies to behave in certain assumed ways– ways that, when subverted, create a deep sense of unease.
When our private thoughts and conversations inadvertently leak; when our every move is observed, documented, and predicted; when we gain access to the most intimate aspects of others’ lives; when representations and recordings of our past selves haunt us from beyond their time– using the power of sound to mediate connection over time and space, If walls could speak explores these ambient presences and aims to revive ghostly digital pasts imprinted within these walls.
For this exploration, I was curious as to how I might blend an object-oriented design approach while pulling from cultural mythologies and otherworldly references, designing an artifact that taps into a common form and interaction modality while serving a different function and operating under a series of unfamiliar operations. This was originally inspired by my personal fondness for voicemail and perceived lack of remote and ambient presence to mediate communication. Voicemail is “obsolete”, yes. But during a current analog revival and revolt against hyperreality and instant gratification, could it make a comeback? If our relationships and expectations of this mode of communication have changed, what could they be instead and what would that afford? I’m inspired by my personal interest and experiences with the voice memo/answering machine message, but this is augmented by others’ experiences as well- there are countless examples of people saving voice messages from loved ones when apart, or of those who have passed away. Often memories of voice are the first thing to go, the first thing people miss and wish they had access to. These observations all inspire this concept.
I knew I wanted to experiment with a technology I hadn’t gotten a chance to explore yet, and wanted to play with outputs that translated or represented past interactions. This lent itself to concepts around telepresence as ghostly or otherworldly presences “trapped” or “residing” within objects, ranging from enchanted (otherworldly, awe-inspiring, +) to possessed (unsettling, haunting, -). I drew initial inspiration from Durrell Bishop’s Marble Answering Machine concept, which explores the embodiment of voice messages and offers an interesting tangible alternative to familiar interaction sequences.
I wanted to experiment with RFID, which lent itself to the localization of disembodied sounds as outputs. Because I imagined this exhibit to be situated in an entryway or somewhat open setting, the design needed to account for perceived risk-taking or vulnerability during use. I’ve been inspired by classic horror tropes involving the idea of mysterious “voices in the walls” or haunted recordings/possessed objects. Since this was going to be situated in the Haunted Smart Home, I wondered what it might be like to imbue the house itself with some living presence. Initially, this took form in a Monster House-style concept, whereby the house itself is alive and sentient, with a specific agenda that is projected onto its inhabitants. In exploring the affordances of disembodied voices and sound as a hallmark of past events, work such as Daniella Petrelli’s FM Radio: Family Interplay with Sonic Mementos served as great reference. The final concept blends these precedents with common cultural references, such as using an overturned glass to eavesdrop and hear through walls.
If walls could speak is an installation of 2 parts– a panel of walls with hidden RFID tags embedded within or behind it, and an “enchanted” tech-enabled cup equipped with an RFID sensor, microcontroller, DF Player Mini, amplifier, potentiometer, speaker, and battery. Each RFID tag ID links to a unique mp3 sample, with 13 tags adding up to 5 minutes of audio total. These audio recordings were sourced from across the world, either from personal archived memos or from consenting friends and acquaintances. The contents of each audio sample range from lighthearted cafe conversations, to deeply personal heart-to-hearts, to cathartic tell-alls, intended to reflect the variable, personal, unpredictable nature of leaked digital presences. Because of the sensitive nature of this content, all voices were altered in Adobe Audition, a distortion that was intensified through the lofi effect of the bone conductor transducers used.