Prototyping Situations: Interdisciplinary Free Improvisation in Technology Development and Latour’s Mode of the Technical


Dominik Schlienger, Centre for Music & Technology, Sibelius Academy, Uniarts Helsinki, Finland


Interdisciplinary improvisation provides an innovative tool for technology development, based on the principle of prototyping the situation of a problem and letting the solution develop from within that situation. This stands in a contrast to the conventional paradigm by which technological prototypes are presented as solutions which then are tested as to their suitability, in hindsight. A participatory design practice which resulted in the development of spatial interactive technology for sonic arts provides a case study for this method. In focusing on the situation, rather than a (proposed) solution, technology is contingent on practice. This resounds with the description of the technical mode of existence the French philosopher Bruno Latour gives in An Enquiry into the Modes of Existence: According to Latour, the technical does not show itself directly as an object and is not directly experienceable. On that premise, the implications for technology development are intriguing: The fact that the technical is mostly only noticed when it is not working, needs to be considered in development methodology – evaluation has to become the main phase of development.

In the beginning was an idea for a spatially interactive musical installation.

A first implementation was chosen for the "470 Degrees" - Degree Show at the Bristol Institute of Technology in 2010 (UK).

Eventually, experiments at Aalto University's Motionlab in Espoo (FI) on acoustic localisation techniques followed...



In 2009 I had an idea for a spatially interactive musical composition/installation, wherein the spatial position of a listener/participant controls a musical parameter. By changing the position within the room, some parameter of sound or musical parameter is affected. Parameters of sound are, e.g., amplitude, pitch, duration, timbre, and overtone. Musical parameters are, e.g., melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and expression (dynamics, tempo, articulation). Initially, I thought that I could use the GPS locations of mobile phones. Once I understood that a GPS position can be off by several meters, and typically doesn’t work indoors, I embarked on a long exploration of various technologies to find the one which could provide the required update rates with the necessary precision. When I started, I thoought that the necessary technology is available and “somewhere out there”, I just had to find it. Eventually, I realised that Acoustic Localisation techniques, (AL) provide exactly what I needed. However, no actual implementation was available. So I decided to develop an implementation specifically for the above-mentioned spatial interaction.


At this point, it became clear that such an implementation could be the subject of a research project. To generalise my specific artistic idea, I envisaged an experimental artistic practice in which my application would just be one example of spatial interaction in music, the subject of the practice. The Workshop on Music, Space & Interaction, consequently came to be. Hence, besides the actual implementation of an AL system for interactive sonic arts, which is discussed in more detail elsewhere, [18] the question of how to develop technology from within an artistic practice became an integral strand of the research project. 


In parallel to, as much as through the development practice, I engaged with technology as the branch of knowledge dealing with everything technical. I found that French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour's work resounded in many ways with my practical experiences. There might have been other worthy works to consider, also, no doubt, within Science and Technology Studies (STS) of which Latour is a prominent proponent amongst others. Latour's take on technology in his magnum opus An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence (AIME)[10] is not so much a work of STS, but an anthropology of the modern, which the book explicitly states to be.

I see in  AIME an emphasis on the performative nature of the technical. (Latour uses the adjective technical as a substantive term, to include "all things technical" in the technical mode of existence. Techniques, as well as technologies, are included.) He criticises Heidegger's conception of technology for being based on a philosophy of "being as being" which he contrasts to "being as other", a term he derived from Alfred North Whitehead [10](p.217). If we follow Heidegger, writes Latour, technical beings would rely on a technical substance – an anathema for Latour, as substance as an explanation of subsistence would create an endless hall of mirrors. Being as other expresses that every existence is contingent on other existences. This implies a performative nature of technology's subsistence, which stands in contrast to Heidegger's conception of technology. The ontology in AIME is based on the Whiteheadian principle that "What endures is not caused by anything that lasts", a distinctly non-Heideggerian position, if, as Latour suggests, Heidegger's position is one of being as being.


Latour's source for the mode of the technical is evidently not Heidegger, but primarily Gilbert Simondon's Mode of Existence of the Technical Object [19]. Whereas Latour's earlier work Aramis or the Love of Technology [8] dealt with technical projects as examples of actor-networks [9],  Latour dedicates in AIME a whole chapter to the mode of the technical per se, stripping it even of the object, which has an almost essential position in Simondon's account. For Latour, the technical object is a consequence of the technical mode of existence.

I will argue with Latour that the technical is mostly experiencable through its failure. The notion of failure is present in Aramis, too. But there it is the importance of failure as the defining moment of technical projects. Latour argues that failure of technical projects is often linked to actants other than technical ones (this is very much his point: "Aeroplanes do not fly, but airlines do" [9]). In AIME, and in my take on it, it is the failure of the technical itself which is of interest: The technical mode of existence can be best experienced through its absence.


To show the weave of connections between Latour's mode of the technical and the experimental development practice of the case study, the nature of the practice needs to be delineated: The  media files in the left-hand column of this exposition are intended to provide a direct access to that practice. The audiovisual examples hopefully add a form of complex knowledge artistic works are able to provide but escape verbal scrutiny. Whereas the right hand column provides direct access to my theoretical sources,  this middle column tries to bind the two together in an exploratory narrative.


But let's be unambiguous: Although the performance practice which developed as part of the project has its own artistic merits – not least due to the many excellent performers who took part in it – this article is not about how a Latourian understanding of technology impacts on the practice of improvisation. Rather, I argue that a Latourian understanding of technology can theoretically underpin a technology development practice based on free improvisation: Not because technology makes for a particularly good improvisational performance, but because an improvisational practice makes for potentially better technologies: My claim is that Latour's technical mode of existence can provide a plausible explanation as to why this is so.


A further disambiguation might be helpful: I use the term technology as the singular of technologies, referring to machines, or other socio-technical arrangements (a technical practice) [22]. If I refer to the second meaning of technology, as the branch of knowledge, I indicate this in the text. 


After outlining the background of the case study project, the method section introduces the practice as a development method. The discussion section finally links the practice to Latour's technical mode of existence.

Background and Previous Work


Most of the project’s previous works discuss the development method to some extent and explain various concepts related to Interdisciplinary Improvisation (II) and the workshop on Music, Space & Interaction (MS&I), in the following occasionally referred to as the workshop. And findings from the MS&I workshop are reflected in the rationale of almost all of them

For example, in [15] and [16], I explore how tracking technology could be applied to overcome limitations experienced with audio technology in practical application scenarios. Namely the disconnection experienced by musicians when using electronic and electric instruments without built-in acoustic sound sources, and the gestural limitations of many electronic instruments is discussed. (Also other writers describe the gestural limitations inherent to electronic instruments, for example, [4][14][11] and [13].)

[15] Schlienger, D. (2016a). Acoustic Localisation for Spatial Reproduction of Moving Sound Source: Application Scenarios & Proof of Concept. In International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Interaction 2016, Proceedings. Available here. Accessed 22.8.2022

In [16], I further conceptualised a notion of a kinaesthetic interface based on Carrie Noland's account of kinaethesia in  Agency and Embodiment [12] to generalize the technical requirements on interfaces for spatially interactive sonic arts: “It records kinetic events at the right resolution, over the necessary distances, at sufficient speeds and with the necessary accuracy to make them relevant enumerations and encodings as parameters correlated to kinaesthetic experiences.”

[16] Schlienger, D. (2016b). Requirements on Kinaesthetic Interfaces for Spatially Interactive Sonic Art. In Proceedings of the Audio Mostly 2016, AM ’16, pp.162–169. Available: here. Accessed 22.8.2022

The idea of using Interdisciplinary improvisation for technology development is based on the work done by the Research Group on Interdisciplinary Improvisation (II), which was launched in 2012 at the University of the Arts Helsinki. Interdisciplinary Improvisation is an experimental practice bringing together practitioners of various disciplines to seek common ground, educe significant differences, and identify challenges [2]. Their members’ input was essential in the emergence of the MS&I workshop, brought to life in 2013, with the idea to apply the practice of II to technology development, specifically in the field of spatially interactive sonic arts [17]. It combines concepts of II with Participatory Design (PD), where all stakeholders in a development are involved at all levels of it [20]. II, as applied in MS&I, helps to find unexpected, simple and sustainable solutions, by prototyping a situation in a problem area, rather than the solution to a problem (A description of this principle is provided as methodological background in [18]).

Participatory Design, (PD), in contrast to other user-centred design approaches, acknowledges the existence of power structures within development practices and is thus better prepared to mediate them in the interest of designing technology not just for the people who use it, but by the people who use it.

[2] Andean, J. (2014). Research Group in Interdisciplinary Improvisation: Goals, Perspectives, and Practice. Available: here. Accessed 22.8.2022.


[17] Schlienger, D., and A. Olarte. (2016). Carte Blanche, Right Now! In Art Without Boarders, Proceedings. Available here. Accessed 22.8.2022.


Another tool applied in this project is the gathering of qualitative data through field notes, which is an ethnographic method [7]. The importance of ethnography for technology design is recognised not only in PD practices but also in design methods for ubiquitous computing: Dourish and Bell (2011) point out that ethnography in the field of HCI research should not just be a means to formulate implications for design, as “Sometimes, after all, the most effective outcome of a study might be to recommend what should not be built. More to the point, an analysis of the cultural and social organisation of some specific setting or occasion is often best articulated independently of specific systems, technologies or design opportunities“ [Emphases in the original][6]. With this in mind, a balance had to be found between the project’s purpose to explore Acoustic Localisation technologies (AL) and a tendency to favour pet ideas which could constitute an agenda for a particular technology. 


[6] Dourish, P., and G. Bell. (2011). Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Available here Accessed 22.8.2022





Fee Improvisation grants access to a "meta-discipline" in MS&I

(Media Centre Lume, Helsinki, 2015)

Participatory Design

When looking for participants for the project, no explicit mention was made of PD design principles. The participants signed up for an experimental, improvisational exploration of spatially interactive technologies. In the arts university context in which the workshop took place, the majority of participants were possibly in the majority artists first, and technologists second.


Many participants in the group did not have any technology design experience, none of them were from a technology design-only background. All of them were involved in artistic activities So the PD perspective here demanded awareness of the potential advantage of participants with technological experiences over the participants without. Yet, to a certain degree, the simple explicit acknowledgement that everybody who holds a stake has a say in PD allows for the blurring between the lines of who is a user/practitioner and who is a designer.


Considering that all participants were aware of the technology development aspect of the workshop, the following was a surprise: A large part of the group described themselves as technophobic. This included technologically literate participants (The discussion below will come back to this, as it highlights how technology was initially experienced by many participants.).



Development through Free Improvisation

The Research Group on Interdisciplinary Improvisation at the University of the Arts Helsinki was formed to find the common ground between the various disciplines represented in the different academies of the University, namely music, sound art, theatre, painting, drawing, performance art, dance, film and video through free improvisation. The group’s understanding of freedom in improvisation is based on the conscious awareness of its relativity between maximum freedom (free, as, for example, in free jazz) and maximum constraint (scored, as for example, a classical symphony), and also stretches to the understanding that a performer can experience freedom through constraint, as experienced in traditional jazz improvisation, where sets of harmonic and melodic rules apply. The group is also aware that even at the maximum freedom end of the spectrum a certain set of rules still tends to apply, even if it is just the agreement on where and when an improvisation takes place. The contrast between totally free and totally scored (constraint), is a continuum and to be on the very extreme of it impossible, or at least, unlikely.


Of importance here is that the group’s work highlights the possibility of the interdisciplinary participants to merge in what could be described as a meta-discipline, where the concepts of space and time are not bound to how they are understood within a single participating discipline but how they are shared between them. This provides a great tool to explore how space is applied as a shared material or concept in this meta-discipline.


To gain access to this meta-discipline a participant needs to some extent leave her or his own discipline behind. And, what’s important, must leave the safe haven of her or his own expertise with it. When this happens, the participants can gain an understanding of how other disciplines express themselves, they can freely explore other disciplines without being an expert and find areas of their own disciplines mirrored in the meta-discipline. This constitutes a form of unlearning or deskilling as described in [12] (p.154).


This process however takes time, improvisational sessions are often longer than 20 minutes and can last hours. In these cases, the documentation through audio and video recordings, as well as artefacts and stage scene settings created during the session are important cues to trigger the memory during the following discussions. As the research group’s findings assert, the length of performances and the seeming lack of expertise is challenging for an audience. This, in reverse, has direct repercussions on the improvisational practice, as performers perform differently if they know that there is an audience: Participants might leave things unexplored which they might otherwise have followed up if they knew they were amongst themselves, rather than in the gaze of an audience. For this reason, in MS&I, we consciously did perform with a public in mind and never performed in public.


Music, Space and Interaction


The MS&I workshop looked for answers to a series of research questions which might help to formulate problems with technological solutions:


  • How do we interact musically with space in improvisation?

  • How can technology increase musical spatial interaction in performances?

  • What can new technology provide, that cannot be provided by old technology?

  • How does existing technology impact on spatially interactive musical practice?


To find answers to these questions we consciously set ourselves scores which highlighted a particular factor of spatiality. As a participatory practice, suggestions for particular experiments came from any member of the group. Throughout the workshop’s existence, a few scores or exercises proofed to be particularly helpful and became part of a repertoire, of sorts. These included scores or rules like "Use no instruments or tools other than your body," or "use the room as a found instrument" or "Start at the centre of the room and disperse while getting quieter." These and other simple exercises helped to formulate the following concepts which we experienced as fundamental in our practice:


  • The notion of space as a narrative

  • The space as a sounding object

  • Space in time manifested as movement.

Every improvisation was followed by a discussion of which the participants made written notes. Participants were encouraged to write down their thoughts and also to contribute to the workshop blog. Other ways of documenting happened through the participants’ disciplines: Visual artists’ output and audio recordings along with photographies and also stream of consciousness style poetry all formed part of the data, whereby care was taken to differentiate between data created in the practice and data which is reflective of it.

In contrast to traditional approaches to technology development, the workshop did not presuppose any given technology whatsoever but tried to engage with spatial concepts through the physical spatiality of sound and the movement of the human body within space and the sounds which are created by this movement. Thus, participants ranged from musicians, composers and dancers to scenographers, landscape architects, painters, poets, video artists, lighting designers sculpturists and many more. As the workshop was offered as a course at the University of the Arts Helsinki, a fair amount of participants were students of all levels of that university. But the course was also open to non-academic participants, via Open University. Generally, a third of the practitioners were from a non-academic, but professional background. The workshop was running between 2014 and 2019 and took place on 3 - 4 weekends per term. Group sizes varied from 4 - 15 participants per weekend. Some participants came for a day, some were part of almost all workshops since their inception.

Here is an example of an exercise which led to a fairly structured series of improvisation, as an illustration of the inner workings of MS&I:

Let’s say the situation everything you find in the room is an instrument was set as a score for the improvisation. This meant participants moved about to explore the room and its objects, inventing “instruments” through improvisation. chairs scraping over the floor, the swoosh sound of opening and closing of curtains, the sound of steps and clapping but also the echo of the human voice in an adjoining cleaning cupboard, all became the material of the musical interaction, and the basis of their technical aspect in the discussion thereafter.

In reflection on an a session, a particular aspect – say, the echo of the cleaning cupboard – may have inspired a discussion on reverberations and their place-specificness. In a following experiment, artificial echo was being compared to natural echo, leading to a further discussion on surround sound reverberation, etc...

In this sense, this is an antidote to consumer evaluations of technologies which are already user - ready, where a handful of test subjects test a gadget for typically less than half an hour and then tick a few boxes in a multi-choice questionnaire. Arguably, questions which are leading by default, as answers are formulated and limited in numbers. In contrast, the guiding principle behind MS&I was to germinate new ideas for development over time, developing practices and techniques along with the technology.


Audio Recording from a session at Media Centre Lume 2015 No 1

Audio Recording from a session at Media Centre Lume 2015 No 2

Audio Recording from a session at Media Centre Lume 2015 No 3




Results and Discussion

A Latourian Interpretation of the Findings

The theoretical background found in the works relating to PD providing tools and methods resounded with an initial hunch to develop though playing. But also broader concepts and ideas on development in the works of researchers at PARC struck a chord, particularly the writings by Lucy Suchman [22] on the role of anthropology in development practices, and Dourish & Bell [6] on ubiquitous technology and infrastructure, and also by Anne Balsamo [3] who provides an account of design as culture-design.

It is hopefully evident from the earlier examples how the application of II concepts germinated new and novel ideas in MS&I. But it was difficult to pinpoint one particular approach in the literature which described exactly what we were doing. Although role-play and theatre have been used by some developers [19], a method giving free improvisation the same pivotal role as our approach, could not be found. Following this strand of research more independently from the original project design, led to rumination on the nature of technology and its role in the arts. And progressively over the time of the project, I noticed how the findings – and particularly aspects in them which seemed at first counter-intuitive, became clear and accessible via the concept of the technical as a mode of existence, by French philosopher Bruno Latour in An the Inquiry into the Modes of Existence (AIME) [10]

[18] Suchman, L. A. (1987). Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-machine Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available here Accessed 22.8.2022








Spin off I, Leluhelikvartetti

Leluhelikvartetti, a hommage à Stockhausen, used an early implementation of the software developed in the workshop.

To summarise this work in a paragraph is bound for failure, so the interested reader is kindly asked to refer to the original. Latour’s AIME is a philosophical anthropology in which he describes many possible modes of existence, based on a plurality of truth conditions which are distinct for each mode. He defines the modes with the help of a Research Protocol, which he applies to each of them [10] (p.49-64).


Latour develops the modes of existence from two more or less simultaneously occurring works in France which proposed an ontology based on modes of existence. On the one hand, the above-mentioned work by Simondon [9], which plays an important role in Latour's conception of the technical mode in particular and, on the other hand, Souriau's Les différents modes d’existence [21]. For both authors and hence Latour too, modality is not a compartmentalisation of the world, but an interrelated polyphony. Although every mode is distinguishable, every being can be seen from within every mode of existence, to varying degrees and relevance. The mat a cat lies on is therefore as much a fiction (art) explaining finer points of ontology (science), as well as an example of a technical object (the technical use of the mat). It can also be political if the mat is actually the dog's. A thus enriched ontology explodes the restricted possibilities of a Cartesian dualism into a far more complex multiverse.

[10] Latour, B. (2013). An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. Harvard: Harvard University Press. Available here Accessed 22.8.2022

Please Note: While signed in to the Open Access web version of AIME, (sign-up required!) the respective links below will lead you directly to the place of the quote in the original.


"Research Protocol: Collecting Documents for the Inquiry"
(Latour; AIME, pp.49-64)


"Making The beings of Technology Visible"
(Latour: AIME, pp.208-230)

Latour describes 15 distinct modes in AIME. As Latour describes them empirically, he reserves judgement if there are more modes yet to be found. One of the modes is the technical, which includes technologies [10](p.208-230). According to Latour, the technical is hard to grasp. It is only conspicuous through its absence, as it is often only noticed when it fails. Latour exemplifies this with the breaking down of a car on his way to work and the necessary visit to a garage. After the car is fixed: “There, you have felt the breath of technology pass over you, but - here is the whole difficulty - only for a brief moment. As soon as you have paid the bill and left the garage, the purring under the hood will make you forget everything right away [...]" [10] (p.216) Of course, the reader might presume the “purring under the hood” to be the technical, but, Latour would argue, the purring is just the sound of the object the technical left in its wake: “We shall never find the mode of technological existence in the object itself since it is always necessary to look beside it: first, between the object itself and the enigmatic movement of which it is only the wake; then, within the object itself, between each of the components of which it is only the temporary assemblage." [10] (p.221)

The 15 modes and their crossings:

(Latour, AIME) Accessed 22.8.2022


When looking at a technical object out of context, say, if an archaeologist dug it out in ten thousand years, she might be as perplexed about it as if we were looking at a tool from ten thousand years ago. We might not be able to tell what its purpose was. This situatedness of the technical is also expressed in Latour’s work on Actor-Network Theory: “It is not aircraft but airline companies that fly.” [9]

“It is not aircraft but airline companies that fly.”  also describes the impossibility of the technical automaton. Latour suggests the "heteromaton" as a more practical alternative term.

So, in the light of this, how is it even possible to develop technology, particularly as he even denies that the technical can be a means to an end, initially? (“If there is an unworthy way to treat technologies, it lies in believing that they are means toward ends.” (p.217)) Furthermore, he also questions the authorship of the developer: “There is a great temptation, in fact, to think that if there are technologies, it is first of all because there are technicians! If we gave in to this view, we would be firmly placing the origin of technological beings in thought, or at least in the gestures of Homo faber." [10] (p.228)


But it is at this (surprising) point, where what he describes chimes with the experiences in MS&I. As he continues:

“Instead of situating the origin of an action in a self that would then focus its attention on materials in order to carry out and master an operation of manufacture in view of a goal thought out in advance, it is better to reverse the viewpoint and bring to the surface the encounter with one of those beings that teach you what you are when you are making it one of the future components of subjects (having some competence, knowing how to go about it, possessing a skill). Competence, here again, here as everywhere, follows performance rather than preceding it." [10](p.228, §5)

I hope the kind reader will agree with me that this resounds with the earlier assertion: Let’s prototype the situation of a problem area, to arrive at a solution


As was kindly pointed out to me in peer review: "Competence follows performance" is a simile for the physical fact that every state of equilibrium is preceded by a certain degree of entropy. So a solution, a competence, is the possibly irreversible result of a performance, but the performance itself happens through a necessary amount of chaos. 


If we equate competence to authorship, the implications for the field of arts because of copyright and ownership issues is self-evident. What was never a problem in discussions with participants with MS&I, (probably because they were part of the discursive construction of the narrative) caused a considerable upset in discussions outside of it, particularly in debates with other (sonic) artists in an academic setting: To see the reversed viewpoint, the questioning of the operational order of “manufacture in view of a goal thought out in advance,” challenges the sense of authorship many artists, musicians and engineers hold dear.




Competence follows performance (Latour, AIME, p.228 §5)

Spin off II, Aparatus for (Intergalactic) Radio Propulsion

Video recording of a performance with gym balls which were fitted with wireless speakers.

I don’t think it is Latour’s intention to jeopardise art and engineering by upsetting their makers, (imagine if they stopped doing what they do - there would be no innovations anymore, without a doubt!) but he questions the order of precedence: “Competence” (authorship) “follows performance”. This might be due to his affinity with French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who points out in Of Grammatology  [5] that if we hear two musically different notes (two phonemes), the difference is not something that can be heard, it is not an extra (third) sensory cue . This is counter-intuitive, as we feel we hear the difference. But, and for musicians this is easy to grasp, we understand intuitively that the second note only makes musical sense in relation to the first one: It is unfair to cut this trail of thought this short, but maybe here we have to trivialise the idea so: The decision to write (design, invent or author) the melody consisting of note 1 followed by note 2 is based on the pre-existing conception of this being experienced as a difference: It is only after adding the second note that we can claim authorship for it. If we don’t have the conception already that adding note 2 might make a melody (make sense/have meaning), we can not claim authorship for it. Similarly, we can make sense of new ideas coming up in improvisation only after we had them. Hence, for technology development, the prototype has to be the situation in which we find the solution in hindsight.

Looking at the established practice of development feedback loops of coding, testing, practice-based experiments, and back to coding and more testing, developers everywhere, can sympathise with the following description of the innovation process:

[5] Derrida, P., J. Derrida, and G. Spivak. (1976). Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Available here Accessed 22.8.2022.

“This sideways, crablike motion, this perpendicular movement of rummaging around, exploring, undulating, kneading, which so obstinately misses the relation between form and function and the relation between ends and means, is precisely the motion that will perhaps (but not necessarily) produce forms or means corresponding to functions or ends. To say that technologies are effective, transparent, or mastered is to take the conclusion for the pathway that led to them” [10] (p.226)


“Don’t try to grasp the movement of a technology that’s ‘working,’ but rather the gropings of innovation, precisely where something is not yet working and obliges the artisan to start over several times, going from one obstacle to the next. ‘Judgment,’ ‘adjustment,’ ‘rectification,’ ‘fresh start,’ no question about it, here we find ourselves confronting difference [...] between the true and the false, the well made and the poorly made.” [10] (p.226)


A constant bone of contention in discussions tends to be the above-mentioned absence of technology in our experience of it, which particularly gets disputed in the context of technically excellent performances, - even more contested, if I point out that technology and technical are the same mode of being. For example, surely we appreciate the faultless delivery of a particularly difficult piece of music, and the effortless lines of a solo! Looking back at this sentence the words faultless effortless make the point that it could have failed. I argue that this is the reason why we experience it as enjoyable. (There are, of course, many other reasons why we would enjoy an experience or not, this, exactly, is Latour’s point, the world does not exist in a single mode, but is multi-modal.)

But I challenge the critical reader to find examples where the appreciation of the technical in isolation as a mode of existence is not expressed through its relation to possible failure.

Maybe less problematically, according to Latour, technology can be understood as everything. When somebody

"However lazy he may be [...] is just shifting position in his hammock, it is through this hammock he must pass to keep himself up in the air. [...] He delegates the task of holding him to the weaving and ropes of the hammock. [...] everything, on this basis becomes technology. Not just the hammock but also the two solid tree trunks to which it is attached!” [Emphasis and punctuation in the original](p.214).

It is important to remember that what Latour refers to as technologies here can be paraphrased as 'beings which behave technical' rather than "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes,"  as some dictionaries define it. The latter implies a pre-set plan of action resulting in a technical arrangement (In contrast to the above established fact that competence follows performance.)  Yet, the prevailing narrative in technology development builds on such a causal definition, whereby pre-existing "scientific" knowledge is applied.  This stands in contrast to the playful "non-scientific" approach many artists and performers have towards the technical and explains why many workshop participants felt alienated by such a (mis-)conception of technology.


In keeping with this, It is not the case that the group in the workshop just embraced all technology as an integrated part of a ubiquitous techno-culture, but rather the contrary, they often felt hampered by the existing technology, even technologies they introduced themselves to the workshop from their own disciplines. “It was hard for me to get into the Improvisation just now. I realised how technology takes you away from interacting... I realised that it is the burden that technology puts on you. It should be a tool, it should be an instrument, but you end up working on the technology, not on the gesture of music you should be working on. Even when it’s not digital, just analogue. It’s a burden.” (Participant L.) Interestingly enough, Participant L. is a very knowledgeable experienced and innovative sound designer, whose use of contact mics and loudspeakers on very long cables were considered a great technological success by the rest of the group. He does not deny that technology can be something else than a burden: “An instrument is just a set of limitations, and so is technology, but it takes a lot more time to learn it, it might take 20 years to learn a contact mic. That’s the truth with software and digital too, it becomes an instrument when you limit yourself to it too, also, in Supercollider or Max MSP.”

"However lazy he may be..."
(Latour, AIME p.214)

Spin off III, 3.141...


3.141, a composition in 3 parts for 16 channel hemispheric dome, recorded viola, cor anglais and cello, uses musical material consisting of a series of intervals losely based on the number Pi. The fixed media creates a spherical universe in which the improvising performers have to find their place in the sound-world revolving around them.


Here a recording from 2021 of Part III, Eπlogue. Cello: Saara Viika); English Horn Saku Mattila):

Here is a stereo rendering of the fixed media:


Documentation on the piece, with players instruction and technical details:

Again this supports the conception of technology evident through its failure: It is not the object, the gadget or the gimmick, it is the breaking down, the not working, the failure of technology, and through this failure, that we notice technology as being technology. We can’t find technology in the technological object itself.

Latour asserts that the technical also extends to the most vital of human tools, the body: “And the same thing applies to the skilful gestures that the artisan eventually makes habitual, after long practice: when we began to establish them, they required the presence of a technological detour-which was painful and strenuous; but once these gestures become assured, routine, regulated, adjusted, we no longer feel them, any more than we feel the presence of the mechanic "in the purring of the engine under the hood" (p.221). Or as participant T has it: “Acoustic instruments are also technical and have many strange and long stories but also with your body, it is all technical.”


Many participants who considered themselves technophobic at the start, changed their attitude through the realisation that the technical is as much about techniques of the body as it is about finding a technical solution to a particular problem in the shared (artistic) practice, and has very little to do with gadgets, buttons, or even computers, which are all just the objects the technical leaves in its wake, as Latour says.


Over the time span of the workshop it was notable how there was a lot of talk about technologies which after a while just simply disappeared completely from later notes: When we first introduced the use of wireless microphones to record audio for documentation purposes but then also for amplification, many participants were highly aware of them to start with. Participant F, for example, stated “I was moving more to get more sounds on the microphone”. But after a while, they were not given any second thoughts. They became part of the infrastructure, they were invisible, ubiquitous, as described by Dourish and Bell [6].


The process from technology to (invisible) infrastructure is reflected in the following anecdote Participant D. brought into discussion: “I had to choose a bow some years back, from a huge collection, and I tried out maybe over 50 bows. But I kept coming back to one bow again and again, but I could not tell why. For all other bows, I had an opinion, like, too heavy or too light, not balanced, too long, too short. Some I thought were really good, some better, and so on, but there was that one bow I could not form an opinion on. Then I realised that with that bow, I just played, and didn’t think about choosing a bow anymore, I forgot all about it!”


Yet, from the perspective of a conventional development process, it might not be obvious how this process can substitute evaluation which might be part of a design brief. Herein lies a paradigmatic difference which, frankly, puts the convention into question: If the outcome of a development relies on situation and context in the way discussed above, the type of design brief which asks for an evaluation against a set of criteria set up a priori runs the risk of becoming, at best, a self-fulfilling prophecy.


What is more, a conventional development practice is bound to fall back on existing solutions, a bit like a mechanic exchanging a rusty screw with a stainless steel one. If the brief is for new technologies, a conventional development process might not be adequate: If “competence follows performance’’ it puts the cart before the horse. From this, it seems evident that questionnaires are systemically problematic, as they typically only ask for ratings of presupposed answers. In the case of a rusty screw, this might seem adequate, say if the evaluation is on the performance of the stainless steel screw (or a new material used in lieu). But it won’t tell us, for example, how the machinery could be improved in a way which would avoid corrosion in the first place. The mechanic might have had that answer, after playing around with the machine for a while, but, as he wasn’t asked, he didn’t tell.

Audio Autopanned

In 2017 we started working with, rather than on the tracking system.

 Here some binaural recordings of the outcome:


Concluding Remarks


The development method for technology development I described in this article came into being as part of a doctoral project, with the aim to implement a particular type of technology. If the implementation of the project in question will eventually provide the smooth working, ubiquitous and invisible technology originally aimed for, remains yet to be seen. But describing its development might contribute to an approach for a more sustainable way to develop technology in the arts. It might put in question the common practice of “evaluation questionnaires” mentioned before: Answers to questions like “on a scale from 1-5, how captivating, entertaining, intuitive was the app?’ can not give anything of value to the developers, as they can not respond to anything technical. They are as useful as ‘42’ as the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything" [1]. To make participatory development more goal-focused, it could help to leave out the prompting and let participants talk freely and take note of what they say, once they are given the opportunity to play - or improvise in a situation.


If I have chosen to compare the experiences of the workshop with Latour's technical mode of existence in AIME, it was not as much to validate the practice, but rather to show how the practice resounds with Latour's description of the technical. If the experiences in the workshop support Latour's description, this might validate in turn Latour's account, of course. But that was not my primary aim either. That the workshop's particular practise is congruent with the paradigm change Latour's approach to technology constitutes, shows that its findings might be applicable beyond the initial purpose to develop one particular tool. I aimed to contribute to a deeper understanding of technology development, and emphasise the important role art can play within it.



Many thanks to Kone Foundation Finland, which has supported this project with a researcher’s fund.

The following list of participants in the workshop on Music Space and Interaction is long and possibly not complete. If I have forgotten somebody, it is not because their contribution was not valid, but because of my inadequateness in keeping track of everybody involved. My sincere apologies to those left out. My thanks go to all participants:

Adam Bonser, Aino Kangas, Alejandro Olarte, Anatole Buccella, Anders Karl, Anna Ypyä, Antonio Garcia Ruth, Athina Drakonaki, Ava Grayson, Bastadjian Roupen, Bradley Blalok, Carlo Polo, Christina Lassheikki, Christopher Senn, Daniela Pasqual Esparza, Debi Wong, Dirk Handreke, Emilia Mariaana, Esssi Laurila Evelyne Lauwers Fatima Boix, Fikrete Miftari, Flora Bouteille, Iiris Tonttila James Andean, Janne Storm, Jari, Jari-Pekka Koho, Kaisa Kukkonen, Kalev Tiits, Janne Masalin, Joel Peguero, Joost Van Duppen, Laura Mellanen, Lukas Nowok, Maija Hymninen, Marek Pluciennik, Mark Mitchell, Maria Jaakola, Maria Lindeman, Marianne Décoster-Taivalkoski, Miguel Carazon, Moritz Cartheuser, Niklas Nybom, Otso Aho, Paola Livorsi, Reeta Puska, Salla Hakkola, Salla Vasenius, Sara Lindemann, Sampo Pyhälä, Sergio Castrillon, Stephanie Laimer, Stephen Webb, Sirpa Jokinen, Tero Hytönen, Tiina Myllarinen, Timo Pyhälä, Timo Viialainen, Tua Hakanpää, Ulla Arnold, Victor Khashchanskiy, Virpi Nieminen, Whang Zhe.


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