Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Institut für Europäische Ethnologie


Urban vibrations: How physical waves come to matter in contemporary urbanism




Cities are critical zones where the intermingling of environmental processes, infrastructural arrangements and human lives is increasingly apparent and disputed. Physical waves, particularly heat radiation, sound waves and radio frequencies, constitute major environmental disturbances that invisibly cross the urban built environment affecting bodies, human and nonhuman, in harmful and uncertain ways. By asking how they come to matter, this project explores how waves become associated to specific bodies and environments, as well as how they become matters of public concern and design intervention.


To answer these questions, this project entails extended ethnographic fieldwork at key locations where urban projects aimed at mitigating the urban heat island effect, abating environmental noise and building 5th generation wireless communication networks are currently unfolding. Following techno-scientific researchers, city officials, professional consultants, affected groups and concerned residents, the project will address two major research problems:

  1. How bodily exposure is done in practice, paying attention to both knowledge production and controversies concerning wave-related exposure, as well as to how individuals learn to be affected by and bodily attune to physical waves.
  2. How waves problematize forms of urban coexistence leading to design interventions that reassemble (and disassemble) urban environments, as well as to practices of imagining other possible urban environments.

A unique feature of this project is its emphasis on expanding conventional ethnographic research by means of multimodal collaborations with actors from the field, thus actively engaging in multimedia forms of knowledge production, prototyping or community building. This is indeed crucial to reassessing the material politics of the Anthropocene as entailing contested practices of materializing abstract or imperceptible environmental disturbances.


The overall aims of this research will be:

  1. To analyse the practices, stories, concepts and things through which different urban actors relate to the problem of exposure and engage in urban design interventions.
  2. To foster, in collaboration with concerned and affected urban actors, multimodal modes of inquiring and representing waves, their effects and alternative futures.
  3. To develop a wave-centred conceptualization of the relationship between bodies and environments and, more generally, of cities as critical zones of the contemporary.