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Signal Space

Signal Space is an ongoing independent research initiative exploring the historical and contemporary relationships between broadcast technology and urban form, with an emphasis on communicating information about mobile phone networks and the mobile phone infrastructure.

Despite how essential it is to modern life, the mobile phone infrastructure is little understood, entirely privately owned, and hiding in plain sight. The centerpiece of the project is a geo-located database developed by analyzing New York City Department of Buildings records, along with FCC and FAA databases. The database is used to construct the only map of all 14,000 plus mobile base stations in New York City. The map correlates antenna locations and density, building heights and age and is offers a comprehensive and searchable view of an otherwise secret infrastructure.

The project also includes scholarly texts, recently published in Urban Omnibus, and Bracket [Goes Soft], as well as a series of informational pamphlets, presentations, and banners that were featured as part of Spontaneous Interventions, the USA Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Signal Space is the space of negotiation between mobile phone networks, their infrastructures, and the City. Signal Space is everywhere there is a signal. Broadcast technology played an important role in the development of the modern metropolis, and just as the historical relationship between the city and its antennas helps to set the skyline, the relationship between the mobile phone and data infrastructure and the city is one that is helping to shape the future form and future protocols of the city.

Unlike the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, or other architectural landmarks of the broadcast infrastructure, the mobile phone infrastructure is a secret. And even though its components are hidden in plain sight, its logics and workings are a mystery. This secrecy, and the limited opportunities for the public’s input on the placement of antennas, coupled with anxiety about the effects of RF radiation exposure are reasons why people are so afraid of cell phone antennas.

We wanted to understand these relationships better in order to understand how they might influence the future of the city. And to do that we asked ourselves a series of questions and used the best technology that we could develop to answer them.

Tracking antennas visually is one way to find a registration of the mobile phone infrastructure in the City. We also utilized an Android phone with a customized antenna tracking app to collect information about each of the antennas that a single phone communicated with over the course of several days of walking through downtown Manhattan.


Project Team

Michael Chen and Justin Snider


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