241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

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The Experts (fragment), 2014

A series of fragments from the multichannel video installation 'The Experts' that is part of the Damagomi Project by Floris Schönfeld. The work consists of a number of interviews with a group of experts on the subject of the possibility of a post-anthropocentric relationship with the natural world. The experts are; Pit River shaman Floyd Buckskin, audio ecologist Bernie Krause, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, anthropologist Ida Nicolaisen, philosopher Jacob Needleman, wizard and paganist Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and sociologist Fred Turner.

In March 2014 I met Rupert Sheldrake at his home in Hampstead, London. I had been trying to meet him for about a year and had written him a number of long and increasingly pressing emails. He finally granted me a 20 minute interview, more to get rid of me than anything else I was presuming. That morning, in his pleasantly eclectic study, he summarised his basic position on the role of science, consciousness, religion in relation to his own personal belief system. The overarching view which permeates his work is a particular variation of the idea of panpsychism. This is by no means a new idea, but it seems to have once more gained relevance as the once ‘simple’ problem of consciousness has proved deceptively difficult to explain within mechanistic science. In his book A New Science of Life (1981) Rupert Sheldrake proposes the theory of morphic resonance in which he explores the idea of a universal, extra-human sentience that is present in all living things. His theory states that "memory is inherent in nature" and that "natural systems, such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, or galaxies, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind.”

My interview with Sheldrake was a part of a work called The Experts for which I interviewed a number of contemporary researchers and thinkers about the possibility of a non-anthropocentric relationship with the natural world. The video above includes a number of fragments from these interviews including the one with Rupert Sheldrake. The other ‘experts’ interviewed for the project were the Pit River shaman Floyd Buckskin, audio ecologist Bernie Krause, anthropologist Ida Nicolaisen, philosopher Jacob Needleman, wizard and paganist Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and sociologist Fred Turner some of whom also feature in the video fragment. The interviews were part of my project, The Damagomi Project, an ongoing archive that documents the history of the Damagomi Group; a group of spiritualists and academics that was active in Northern California in the 20th century. Through the project I am trying to create a new path which can be followed to address the idea of panpsychism. In this sense the archive represents a series of thought-experiments in physical form that try to approach the seemingly impossible task of stepping out of our own human perspective. More about the project here.

Floyd Buckskin is the last remaining shaman of the Pit River tribe of north-eastern California. I interviewed him in his bedroom that doubled as his music studio on the Pit River reservation to the east of Mount Shasta, California. In the interview he told me the word damagomi comes from the Achumawi language, a language still spoken by a small population of Pit River tribe. It translates roughly as ‘spirit guide which provides a channel of communication with the natural world’. The damagomi usually takes on the form of a particular animal and this animal will accompany an individual as long as their bond is honoured. When I asked him why the Pit River people searched for their damagomi Buckskin answered ‘We are trapped between spirit and animal. We aren’t one or the other, but both and because of this we need help.’

Towards the end of my interview with Rupert Sheldrake he mentions the idea that scientists (and I would add artists) are our modern answer to shamans; ‘members of the human community who are dealing with the natural world.’ In this sense they are instrumental in trying to bridge the gap between spirit and animal that shaman Floyd Buckskin describes. However the very language with which we have tried to describe nature with has come to define our view of it to such an extent that we are unable to see it at its most vital. When we look at the natural world through the lens of our scientific tradition we can only do so by breaking it into ever smaller pieces. The whole, as in the whole organism or being or galaxy, is often only considered through the sum of its parts. This is the metaphor of the machine which is essentially static and dead. In The Science Delusion, Sheldrake attacks this simplistic perception of the universe:

‘Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system; it has been successful because it has been open to new discoveries. By contrast, many people have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a byproduct of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.’

According to mythologist Joseph Campbell the shaman should have the dualistic approach of understanding the world around her/him through mechanistic and empirical as well as the spiritual and holistic methods. I think the contemporary artist is perhaps somewhat better positioned to consider systems from the perspective of the living whole than the contemporary scientist. This is mainly due to the holistic nature of the creative process. The creative process requires a dialogue or push back from an other, alien influence. This can be through a concept, material or human collaborator(s). Without this push back the process remains static and you are not able to create anything new. In this sense the process must be ‘alive’ for anything of interest to happen. It must ride the line between defining the context of the artist and being defined by it.

I can imagine a kind of damagomi facilitating this exchange, providing the bandwidth that allows us to access the anima mundi. What are the repercussions of following this line of questioning and assuming an existing anima mundi contains our entire consciousness along with that of all living things? Or to follow Sheldrake’s way of putting it; is the act of making art merely the fusing of the morphic resonance of various beings and materials within the temporary morphogenetic field that is an art practice?

I think it might be time for a damagomi finding quest.

Most of us would reach for the dictionary to find a description for “nothing”, so here goes nothing:

1

Nothing is: nothing (pronoun) is not anything, not a thing: nothing. But is there more to it? The term nothing makes its appearance in the works of many great thinkers and philosophers. Like Socrates, for example who said, “I only know one thing: I know nothing.” In this context, nothing refers to knowledge, in other words, that which is not tangible. But isn’t nothing the intangible immaterial?

2

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Nothing has no centre and it borders on the nothing”. He situates the “nothing” as an endless given. What would I do with absolutely nothing? Before “something” exists there must first be “nothing”. Could you describe this as a cause and effect reaction? In today’s society, one must be sure to do “something” to stand out. But doesn’t this great collective desire for “something” not simply heighten our desire for the “nothing”? “Although one can profit from something, we can only find that which is useful in nothing”, according to Lao-Tse3.

Tom Friedman, Erased Playboy Centrefold

Let’s get this straight. At this point, I’m convinced that “nothing” indeed, is intangible. But I do think that “nothing” becomes tangible when it is the starting point for an idea. The absence of “something”, or in other words, “nothing”, acts as a foundation, and creates the urgency to fill the space of that which is lacking substance. Does “nothing” really exist?

When I look around me, I see many concrete things, but I don’t see a sign of “nothing”. Is “nothing” not just a term that humans have devised? Maybe we created the “nothing” so that we have a word for the incomprehensible and the unfathomable, an idea translated into vocabulary. Is “nothing” simply a made-up thing that we’ve grown accustomed to?

The Nothing

The villain from the film The NeverEnding Story: a dark cloud that engulfs all.

4

Artistotles said that everything that exists within the mind has first existed within the senses. Haven’t we just talked each other into the concept of “nothing”?

For example, when I look at the sky, I ask myself if this is “nothing”. No. The air is made of particles, molecules, and these are made of atoms. Has science, then, spoiled our mystical idea of “nothing”?

The thought of a complete vacuum is exciting. But science has rationalised this concept and to told us that this is impossible.

Martin Creed, Work No. 227 The lights going on and off

So if an external “nothing” is impossible, what does this say about an internal nothing? Is it possible to not think or feel anything? These are questions that I still struggle with.

But I can share my own experience. I can’t think of “nothing”. There is always something going on in my head. If I tell myself to sit quietly and think of “nothing”, I’ll only think of the word “nothing”. Feeling “nothing” seems like even less of a possibility. “Nothing” must then also be impossible internally. But what, then, remains of “nothing”?

“Nothing” is intangible. “Nothing” can be the start of “something”. “Nothing” can become “something”. “Nothing” could be just a man made word. “Nothing” can be a thought or a feeling. “Nothing” does not really exist: simultaneously the meaning of the word itself. In the end, this text is much ado about nothing.

As a curious teenager I read about Thought photography for the first time, in the popular science magazine KIJK. It centred on a ‘paranormally gifted’ American by the name of Ted Serious who was allegedly capable of fixing his mental images on light sensitive film. The article was illustrated with pictures of buildings and street scenes, blurry, hazy and tilted, exactly like one would picture a ‘thought photograph’. There was also a picture attached of the thought photographer in action: a contorted face, head aimed at the camera. Exactly like one would expect a thought photograph to come into being.

Ted Serious in action

I found it fascinating, and wholly convincing. These were, I have to add, the seventies, the times in which Uri Geller had a TV public of millions believe that he could bend teaspoons with his willpower, the times in which parapsychology could be taken seriously as a professional discipline, as far as within scientific circles. The New Age had started, with its unbridled embrace of mystique, astrology, crystals, flying saucers and whatever else is unverifiable. Previously ‘occult’ matters such as spiritism, auras, telepathy, and telekinesis seemed to have become phenomena that could be seriously studied and would even soon be explained and proved.

Big Bang thoughtograph

Telekinesis – the ability to move objects using sheer mental force, without touching. If one could assume that this phenomenon really existed, the conferral of a mental image onto light sensitive material should be one of its most easily realised forms. The defiance of gravity would not even enter into it; a subtle molecular change of some tiny sensitive layer would suffice. If the influence of even the smallest amount of light would be able to effectuate this change in the emulsion of photographic film, a concentrated thought, given extra focus by sheer power of will, then, should certainly be able to do the same.

Alas, paranormal abilities such as telekinesis and thought transfer remain unproven, and Ted Serios was exposed as a fraud even before Uri Geller (although some, of course, still challenge this). Although the New Age has really not quite ended, the idea of telekinesis seems to have almost disappeared from collective memory. As for thought photography, one doesn’t even come across the idea of it at all anymore.

Parthenon-thoughtograph

That might be quite a shame, since the ability to photograph one’s thoughts is extraordinarily appealing to the artist. To take a picture not of the outside world, but of one’s inner world. Not of what something looks like, but how one experiences it. In fact, it is precisely what artists have always been looking for in photography (and all other disciplines).

For what makes photography such a difficult medium for an artist? What is the cause of the debate that is held ever since its invention, namely whether photography can be classified under the arts?

Thoughtograph

The fundamental problem, I believe, is that a photograph depicts the visible world by means of a lens and light sensitive material, enabling it to present an astonishingly accurate image of what something looks like- but not much more than that. For a real estate agent who wants to sell a house, that’s perfect, but an artist searches for something else. He does not want to register the outer manifestation, but the inner experience. An artist tries to express the invisible by means of the visible.

Thoughtograph- Ted Serious

One could say: what the artist really and truly wants is to photograph his thoughts.

In my time in art academy, during my first skirmishes with photography, I renewed my interest in thought photography for this very reason. I did not regard it as a real phenomenon, but like a symbol, a symbol for the artist’s quest for the impossible. The ability to photograph one’s thoughts – it seemed to me a kind of Holy Grail, comparable to the secret procedure for transforming lead into gold, the potion that keeps the drinker young forever and ‘the book that renders all other books redundant.’

mental photography

Thus understood, only a metaphor remains of Ted Serios’ ‘thoughtography’ – albeit a beautiful one. A metaphor of the hardly realisable desire of the artist to capture the invisible in an image.

The idea has stayed with me ever since, and I think in a certain way all my work can be regarded as attempts to break through the impossibility of ‘thought photography’.

I believe that I can even say I was successful at some moments. But that’s another story.

Paul Bogaers

English text will soon follow.

1 Lars Fischer on situated knowledge

James, Jennifer en Georgina, the book

photo Joris Landman

James, Jennifer en Georgina, the book

photo Joris Landman

James, Jennifer en Georgina, the book

photo Joris Landman

James, Jennifer en Georgina, the book

photo Joris Landman

The mother takes father on a trip. Their daughter Georgina stays behind with the nannies that are going to take care of her. The mother sends her daughter a postcard every day.

'It's proof of her love and her absence. 'And every day we were apart wrote to her.' (The mother)
'I have come back to the family.' (The father.)
'The drinking stopped and so did the postcards.' (The daughter.)

210 of the 1136 post cards were selected and printed in a thick book, the front and backsides matching and the written messages on the cards printed in block letters so that they're easier to read. A bright yellow, sun yellow book, thicker than a phone book, so thick the spine needs three folds to properly open. The book tells their story. The Beginning. This time over, James and Jennifer wanted to stay together.

Even when Georgina was born and the father kept on drinking heavily. The doctor warned him that he wouldn't have much more than two years left if he stuck to his drinking habits. Rehab didn't help. Jennifer discovered James hardly drank when they were travelling and decided to take as many trips together as possible, in an attempt 'to dry him out'.

The first trip begins October 25, 1989 and the card reads: 'Qui (we) love you more than Paris.' Georgina is 79 days old by then. On August 8, 1990, a day after Georgina's birthday, Jennifer writes: 'Over the Atlantic Ocean en route to Boston. My darling 1 year 1 day. The dots at the side the stamp are the spots of color used. I do wonder if you will like stamps. Mentioning dots reminds me of kites which are dots in the sky; a tug-of-war with the wind. Love Mumm.'

November 16 marks the last post card of that year, which means the family will spend Christmas and New Year's together. Thank God!

August 7, 1991: ‘We’re here and you’re there which is a terrible situation on the occasion. We have spent the day with Jill and that was jolly good. We laughed because we were with you on the 21st! These fellows threw the British out in 1775 just before the Boston Teaparty. Not like your birthday, a bit rougher. Love Dad and Mumm.’ The card has a picture of the statue of The Minute Man, lead gray against a bright blue sky.

How strange it feels to read the father's vile words towards the mother during this anti-alcohol journey: 'Mumm has swallowed so many pills that she rattles when she walks.' Other than that there are messages about the different kinds of champagnes, descriptions of celebrating Left Hand Day in the US, delays and bad behaviour, and on March 17 there is a little drawing of a hunting daddy: 'We are very sad that you have measles and a high fever - all these awful childhood diseases one has to muddle through in growing up. The good news is that the tiles were laid today in your bedroom and the bath is in situ in your bathroom.'

Later: Daddy has been brilliant. His French is so good the natives want to claim him.' And later this lamentation: 'To be queen and live with such paintings.'

Except for a few, the cards aren't made for children, there is a lot of art, monuments, cities and landscapes. A sneak peek at the world. 'Hair. My hair - masses of it - is an expensive, time consuming nightmare. Cauchemar. Every three weeks colour. Every months straitening. Every week ironing.’

Some of the cards are made by hand and every stamp is picked with care, just like every written word has been carefully chosen. But it's not just the post cards that tell the story; just like every movie on DVD, it comes with extras.

The family turns itself inside out, like turning a piece of clothing and exposing all the seams, stitching and lining. What's this family doing to themselves? Each of three main characters shares stories throughout the book, there is a small photo album and there are the 'Conversations':

21 conversations they had, printed without any censorship. I imagine a shockingly honest AA-meeting and this time I get to participate from the sideline, I get to read whatever happens.

‘I don’t remember you and Dad at all before seven. Zilch (nothing). If we have 1200 postcards and some days there were three in one day, that’s a lot of years. And that’s being kind,’ the daughter says.

During ten years, 1136 cards were written. The daughter was left alone for about a third of the time. Jennifer kept all of the post cards: 205 flights, 268.162 miles in the car, two bull fights, one speeding ticket, 53 unpaid parking tickets, 13 cancelled flights, one bomb alert, 205 church visits, wars, inflating prices, births, funerals, holidays and so on.

Georgina remains mild and laconic about her childhood. At first the reader is confronted with a stinging kind of truth and the uncomfortable feeling that comes with it, but there's a sense of admiration at the same time. Georgina: ‘It’s been a much more honest family environment because you have never been dishonest with me. Dad doesn’t really say much so there’s no dishonesty there. [An ironic laugh] Yeah, I think a lot of families tried to hide things for so long – suddenly the truth comes out and all hell breaks loose. Our truth would come out and it would create very unpleasant moments, but it would only last a day or two days instead of three years because everything was hidden for so long. Life has been brutally honest from when I was young. That could have been good or bad but I think it’s turned out to be very good.’
 And there are those truths every parents tells their children now and then, knowing the child will forgot about them is as soon as he or she turns around the corner. Parents try to calm themselves.

Daughter Georgina says in 'Conversations': On the other side was the lesson of the day: don’t ever be dependant financially. Rely on yourself first. Don’t marry a man with crummy shoes. A woman must never seem in a hurry.’

Jennifer made the book for Georgina's 21st birthday, but also for herself, as a kind of reassurance and oath at the same time. The book is dedicated to the eight children that came from their earlier marriages. Every decision regarding the book is based on the number 3, the price is 999 € and it's printed in an edition of 999 copies.

The immaculate design is done by Irma Boom. And no matter what you may think as an outsider, Georgina speaks very lovingly when it comes to her parents. ‘Even though my mother was absent, she immortalized every day she was gone. She endowed me with her ability to observe, give detail and discover a good story, and gave me a love for history and perhaps unconsciously, for Russia.’
‘The book is yellow because it’s full of light and success!’ Jennifer says in an interview.

http://jamesjennifergeorgina.com