To feel the space: head, ear or body?

The theme of space is a cornerstone in the philosophical investigation. It appeals to the world experienced by the subjects in terms of perceptual knowledge, the aim then is never the metrological and scientific analysis of change, but the attempt at clarification of the common sensitive comprehension of those data which the outside world offers to those who meet it.

This having been said, space has never ceased to be a current topic, in the two basic forms in which philosophy has investigated it, in the first place the Cartesian spatium understood as the interval between one another and the Aristotelian topos or place. In the latest aesthetic debate, which is developing in Germany as well as in Italy, the topic emerged once again strongly seeking a new path of investigation which could depart from the previous two.

The development of research, both theoretical and scientific, from the twentieth century until recent years [1], underlines more and more the subject through relational and contextual parameters in relation to the environment. The intertwining of relationships forms itself from the disappearance of dualism: the non-abstraction of a subject, a mind, which opposes itself to an object, basically the subject which has to be known and analyzed. Thus, the sensory perceptions are unmarked by the rationalist critique which used to relegate them to the realm of secrecy in order to gain the knowledge value which is based on the immediacy and awareness of their subjective presence in the environment.

Space itself moves from the Cartesian spatium, a measurable interval, to that of our bodily presence, in other words, to the concept of atmospheric space. In this sense Aesthetics by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten is relevant, both for the sensory journey of rehabilitation that is mentioned and for the theoretical foundations of speech by Gernot Böhme on the atmosphere. He develop a terminological analysis, labelling aesthetics as the science of sensory perception, then epistemological and ontological conferring a logic to the senses and, with it, the opportunity for it to establish itself as a route to knowledge: epistemology is inferior compared to rational logic [2].

The same “sensitive” approach characterizes the recent survey by Gernot Böhme, the German philosopher who originally studied physics. Several elements which belong to the history of philosophy can be found in his writings and his theories: Baumgarten and the rehabilitation of sensitivity; the phenomenological tradition derived from Goethe, who sees in philosophers like Johannes Johann Von Uexküll and his concept of Umwelt an important point of view on the relationship between man and nature; the way Benjamin deals with all those perceptions, which is typical of the twentieth century where the object reveals itself at a distance; the concept of affordance by Gibson, in other words the theory that the geometric shape of an object perceived visually, indicates possible ways of interacting with it [3].

From these opening bars I think it is easy to understand that space is not seen as a common substratum of everything which has a form, not considering its function but as something which can be modelled, something deformable and which can be altered depending on the point of view in which we have. Space is a real environment actually experienced at an emotional level; to use the words of the philosopher: The Space of moods is the space which, in a sense, attunes my mood, but at the same time it is the extendedness of my mood itself. The space of actions is the space in which I can act, but also the scope of my possibilities.

The space of perceptions is the space in which I perceive something, but also the expansion of my involvement with things [4]. Here is the theme of relationship with space through a situational sense and that of behaviour that was mentioned previously. On the one hand, the fact that the elements characterizing an environment form a figural moment which has the same overall value of individual moments; on the other hand that the perception of the complex is based on imago-motor reactions which are half-conscious in the subject who relates himself to the environment in a synaesthetic way.

Therefore the atmosphere, which is a concept both an immediate and at the same time, precisely because of this, hard to tackle question, is an emotional-affective state induced by certain environmental factors where the opposition by the subject who is taken out of the environment stops, and gives way to a maximum continuity between the two [5].

The environment Böhme wants to study is the actual site of interaction between subjects and objects which move in it animating it and creating direct or indirect relationships: the choice of points of view for the perception of space is not optical, but synaesthetic and it has an essential element, the qualitative aspect which is related to “how” we feel in that place.

The man-environment interaction relationship is not sought by Böhme in primary contexts, the ones in which cultural and technological stratification has failed to impose its dictates, but, and this is the merit of the speech by the philosopher from Darmstadt, in its applicability which focusing on emotional and perceptual data, does not fossilize in the search for judgments of value nor on the legitimacy of the use of technology. Being in the environment means to be affected by feelings of different types, feelings which bind to memories as well as to our future projections which provide a meaning for our being there.

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Almost a matter of acoustics. Where does the environment play?

Moving the debate towards acoustic data, I hope it can be clearly seen right from here that an aesthetic that qualifies itself as the study of being in an environment has many qualities which make it a matter of interest and a grid to be used to analyse contemporary world. Both from a general point of view of the living conditions of individuals and as a method of reading that can address those new forms of art where the presence of technology is becoming more important with the aim of rewriting and reshaping the relationship with space. In the first place, referring to the situational and to the way we relate to the environment, it should be stressed immediately that the first noise- environment imprinting is the prenatal and intrauterine one.

The one which the child, in the particular situation without needs, lives, listening through the vibration of the heartbeats, through bowel sounds, to his mother’s voice which he will provide him with an emotional connection to that particular tone. Since being in an environment characterised by a noise level prenatally becomes a key element in determining emotional stimuli and a cradle of resonance for the perception of our state, be it positive or negative, rewarding or needful. However, let’s try to go deeper and articulate a sound’s capacity to dramatize a space and the individual ability to react differently with regard to the environment [6].

Suppose we are walking at night along a empty street in two different contexts, one urban and one rural. The sound of a car approaching at full speed disrupts a deadlock acoustic situation where the perceptive emergence of that noise occurs with basically the same characteristics: what strikes us is the roar of the engine increasing and coming towards us. In the former case, however, the emotional response of concern conveyed by our being in that environment is more or less diminished by the consciousness of a human presence inside the buildings or a situation of increased visibility due to street lighting.

The latter case where the environment does not offer any shelter, nor human presence in the neighbourhood or illumination is in fact inhospitable and quite unusual for walks at night and it immediately makes that noise become charged affectively with a state of concern about the possible developments of a warning so chaotic and sinister.

The sound atmosphere is therefore located at an interstitial position, between the subject and the object: it is not only due to the perceived noise, the noise of the car, or linked only to the act of imagination of a person who attaches a mood to a stimulus. As Bohme says, the atmosphere is “an almost objective sensation spilled into space” [7], creating difficulties for the ontological level: it is something inter-subjective, but still not objective because it does not reside in the qualities of the object in spite of the subject; and secondly placing it as an interesting phenomenon that undermines the fixed plans of subject and object and production-reception.

In relation to the theme of the sound landscape, both real and virtual, we can clearly observe how its perception and production, do not ever relate to the specific ontology of objects, that represent the objective characteristics of the object that allow the knowledge of it, but its enactment, in other words, the qualities through which it spreads or radiates into space [8].

Precisely because of this extremely ecstatic orientation, their importance for the contemporary artistic experimentation emerges, not only as a result of the use of multiple possibilities of spatial diffusion, but above all due to the desire to outline a sound or a sound landscape and see its scenic presence and the reaction of the listener, which leads to a succession of contrastive moods, or direct them towards perception inputs.

Indeed compared to the theories of association that have characterized the relationship between music and emotiveness, the theory of atmospheres starts from a given body-sound report that is as basic as essential: sound is the modification of the space investigated by the body, a sound which is able to shape the emotional position of listening in an environment. In this case then the experience of a lot of contemporary music is meaningful, not just concrete, based on records of the real environment, not so much to show that each corresponds to a sound, but that sound describes a “living” space immediately understood by its inhabitants and condensed and reassembled for those not accustomed to those sounds [9].

Moreover, the debate also overlooks the modern trend of technological and musical experimentation to exclude the role of the score as the best way to understand music, rehabilitating instead a direct and sensory immersion with the data of sound. Indeed the innovative aspect of the aesthetic approach by Gernot Böhme is to try to weave the possibility that the subject has to perceive the environment as an interaction mediated by the same spatial sounds that cross it and characterize it through a primary state of policy-situational context [10].

This eliminates the need for music to be made by man, and so all the discussions on technique and the artificiality of technologies, and secondly, it redefines the meaning of music as an experience whose core is listening to a particular acoustic atmosphere.

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The relationship between a new state of music or listening experiences and the new statute of sensitivity and emotion that according to the philosopher lies in the perception of space mingle at this point. The development of technology and its application has led increasingly towards the creation of art forms explicitly dialoguing with each other and voluntarily unstable. A successful example of this is the marriage of architectural space and sounds: at the dawn of digitalization, as can be seen in the Prometheus by Luigi Nono, which will never surrender to the stability of this relationship, but always uses an emotional tone to convey the totality of the environment and channel through the perceptual stimuli of different sound qualities.

Böhme’s position on one final point needs to be clarified which, besides ending his examination of the acoustic atmosphere, is, at the same time, the most complicated matter. Within normal listening, sound signals help us to get to know the space around us, and through their vibratory and diffusive characteristics tell us about the object which emanated them. The correspondence between the spatiality of the resonant body and that of the sound produced, supported phenomenologically by a logical structure, is the source of recognition [11].

The point, however, according to the philosopher, is rather that sounds and their diffusive nature are detached from the object that produced them and from its specific spatiality in order to acquire their own. In this electronics was significant in explaining that acoustic spaces exist as such and not necessarily in relation to the spatial reality.

Listening requires an opening where acoustic events can be let in, or better, where an extension can be let in: the question by Cartesio on where the perception place of a rock hit with a stick takes place, find answers thanks to Böhme, in being outside the subject and inside the body’s ability to extend its perceptual space. The set of real sounds that characterizes the sound landscape resonates with our body space helping to reshape it [12].


[1] In this regard it is interesting to see the study of neurosciences as gestures, tone of voice, music, the snap of the fingers and the surrounding environment which become the gym where learning takes place. See Rizzolatti-Sinigaglia, I know what you do. The brain that acts and mirror neurons, Cortina, Milano 2006 and for the more musical aspects, Bencivelli, Why we like music. Ear, emotion, evolution, Sironi, Milan 2007./p>

[2] For a primary knowledge of these topics, see: Ophälders, Philosophy, aesthetic art, Mimesis, Milan 2008, and German, “Ästhetische Arbeit. The atmospheric aesthetics by Gernot Böhme and the relevance of rhetoric”, in Messori, Telling the aesthetic experience, Aesthetica Praeprint, aesthetic ~ / download / Messori.pdf

[3] Having mentioned it, see the criticism based on the understanding of acts and object function that lead to this theory-Rizzolatti Sinigaglia, I know what you do, op. cit., p. 38.

[4] Böhme, The Space of Bodily Presence and Space as a Medium of Representation,, p. 5.

[5] On this way of perceiving the environment and the situations, the twentieth century is full of examples, just think of Proust. But in my opinion it is essential to read one of the most intimate text related to the places of Benjamin, Berlin Childhood. Around nineteen hundred, Einaudi, Torino 2007.

[6]Always remembering that familiarity with the environment plays a major role in the emotional stimuli.

[7] Böhme, “Acoustic Atmospheres. A contribution to ecologic aesthetics” in Colimberti, Ecology of music, ed, Donzelli, Roma 2004, p. 105, of which the English text can be downloaded and Böhme, “The atmosphere as the fundamental concept of a new aesthetic,” in Journal of Aesthetics, ed Griffero-Somaini, No. 33. (3 / 2006), Year XLVI, pp. 5-24..

[8]Basic example of this is found in Benjamin, not only in the famous passage dedicated to the aura as a sheath of the object, but within the Berlin Childhood in the chapter dedicated to “Kaiserpanorama, pp. 9-10. It would also be interesting in this regard to seek a confrontation on the relationship between object and space also within different disciplines such as complicating the text and the neologism Rampichini, Acusmetria. The visible sound, Franco Angeli, Milano 2004.

[9]The reference is directed to the experiments and the many writings that can be found on the World Soundscape Project by M. Shafer.

[10] We do not want, here, to recall a type of spatial mapping and the one of acoustic stimuli that could be detected in some experiments by Societas Rafaello Sanzio, but rather the ability to change the space around the listener, not by depriving themselves of visual perception. The modelling which we talk about is more likely related to a qualitative use of spatial elements in the production and processing of sound. You may find the most appropriate approach in physical computing and the use of sensors.

[11] On the phenomenology of music, see Piana, Philosophy of music, Guerrini e Associati, Milan 1991 and Serra, Music body expression, Quodlibet, Macerata 2008

[12]In addition to Prometheus, exemplary but old, we recommend reading the book by David Toop, Hounted Weather. Music, Silence and Memory, Serpent’s Tail, London 2004, especially chap. 2 “Space and Memory” pp. 40-109, where the author elegantly relates the themes of atmospheres to the work by Lucier, Ikeda and others with a lot of great references.