241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

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.

It is quite a recent thought that there is an objective distinction between the visible and the invisible. Whether one were to assert either that invisible things do not exist or that there is more between heaven and earth than can be perceived with the senses, in both cases it is presupposed that the visible has a certain objective limit behind which there either is or isn't something. Like in so many other areas, when it comes to the boundaries of sense perception most people seem content to hold several contrary beliefs. The general conviction that the world "behind our senses" consists of electromagnetic waves and the smallest of particles (ask around to convince yourself of this) does not prevent them from claiming with emphasis that we should only believe in "that which we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands."

It is relatively simple to ascertain that all our knowledge of the world, including the most advanced natural scientific knowledge, is a product of both our perceptions and actions. The enormous conceptual step that we take in the cradle when we realise that some of the things floating in sight are our own hands, is retaken every time we understand something for the first time- albeit at a much smaller and less awe-inspiring scale. Our belief that the existence of our hands is an objective fact is the product of a very precise fine-tuning between several perceptions and the combining force of the mind. For those who then consider their hands as the ultimate instrument to verify the world's reality (to the extent that it is tangible), it might well be advisable to realise that there has been a moment when their minds composed their own hands from a confusing multitude of impressions.

When my daughter Julia was four years old she found a small compass in a desk drawer; she attached a string to it, wore it like a necklace and looked at it all the time. My father came to visit and complimented her on the beautiful compass. With a dignified air she said: "No grandfather, that is my alarm clock. How silly, this afternoon the shopkeeper also thought it was a compass." I realised that for a four-year-old, for whom hours and cardinal directions are hardly well known quantities, the difference between a compass and an alarm clock is not relevant. They are both round objects with a little clocklike face behind glass. The adult who corrects such a 'mistake' without being willing to explain the concepts of time, the four directions of the wind, magnetism, elasticity etc., has been led astray from the path of pedagogy. (In fact, it is not a correction but instead an innocent compliment.)

For a child, concepts and words are set apart by immeasurably vast blanks in the universe of impressions. On the best television show I know, Achterwerk in de Kast (Buttocks in the Closet), once a boy appeared who explained gloomily: "I find that life becomes increasingly complex: I used to think that the wind just blows, but now it turns out that the wind always blows from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area." This boy is one among many individuals whose personal and adventurous relation to knowledge ends in school. The tragedy consists in the teacher's inability to convey the immensity of he high-pressure to the student, probably because he doesn't sense it either. The term 'high-pressure area' is not introduced at this point to open the door to an endless amount of new observations, but to erect a wall that effectively renders inaccessible the mysterious cause of the wind, of which every child naturally feels the global might.

Air pressure is a phenomenon for which we can educate and refine our observations. Semiconsciously, we perceive the way in which air pressure (and its connectedness to the temperature and humidity of the air) affects our bodily sensations and our general mood. If at school we would be taught, using a combination of theory and practice, how there is a direct correlation between these subtle air pressure differences on the one hand, and the pressure in the higher atmosphere causing wind to gather there amounting to hurricane force, on the other- well, this knowledge would not make us glum or disillusioned.

Our concepts form a network that, in proportion to the intricacy of its meshwork, is able to capture impressions in our consciousness; the rest slips through. But just as much as it is impossible to maintain an impression in the conscious mind without a certain degree of understanding, it is likewise impossible for a word or concept to be remembered if it does not become perceptible in one way or another. If this simple axiom of knowledge is overlooked, it leads to the erratic and depressing notion that our capacity for sense perception, or our thought, or both, are bound by an external limit. Our conceptual network has a horizon, just like our sense perceptions, and the two are interconnected. New impressions can only cling on to the fringe of our already-understood experiences; new concepts can only start off where existing ones had left off. To assert that behind these horizons, there is nothing, is about as short-sighted as the claim that what exists beyond them is the only true reality.

There is a vital connection between the fineness of our conceptual mesh and the precision of our observations. A good car mechanic can tell by the sound of a running engine what the matter is. That is not because he has better ears that the rest of us, but because his profession has provided him with a most distinguished insight in the parts, materials, movements, frictions and potential defects of a car engine. A chef is able to taste which ingredients are used in a certain dish, his "educated taste" consists of the amount of terms that during his career, he has learnt to employ to distinguish between all the nuances picked up by his nose and taste buds. Concepts cut up experience, which had at first instance seemed like a unity. Concepts bring to the surface what had been hidden in the depths of perception. Coarse concepts keep perception imprisoned in dark, dough-like creases, whereas real knowledge unfolds perception to form a great, illuminated plane.

Art can make the experimental treatment of knowledge as practised by children urgent once more. When it comes to art, the aim is not to make something that is 'true' but rather something that looks convincing, which means that we play a cunning game with the regularities of the perceptible that has a twofold effect on the viewer: on the one hand he must be taken in by what he sees; on the other, he must remain continuously aware of the artificiality of the situation. The tension between the surrender to the senses and the feeling of complicity in the game is the liberating and consoling power of art.

In the human consciousness, a rift emerges between the world and ourselves. In our thought, we then mend this split in an ongoing process in which new observations and new names are woven together more and more closely. The liveliness of thought is of importance. Perception and thought, or the process of truth, provide independence and liberty.

There came a day when someone decided that an end should come to the many unanswered questions in the world. This person opened an office with visitation hours, just like a city hall or the post office. You’d draw a number, and once it was your turn, you’d walk up to the counter and ask the employee your most pertinent question. With an answer in hand, you’d walk out the door feeling satisfied.

I wish it existed. Only I wouldn’t know which question I’d ask first, because I have so many: where does the light go when I turn off the switch? What came before the big bang? Where is the end of the universe? Is there a God? What is infinity? Do invisible things exist? And if that wasn’t enough, the answers to these questions would most likely prompt even more questions.

I’m in Berlin, standing in front of the doors to the institute for “unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems”. The building is on a corner and covered in white sandstone and tall mirrored windows in metal frames. “Denkerei” is written in pink letters above the front door. At first glance, the building is more reminiscent of a bank office or a fancy, but dated, hotel. To the left and the right of the door, the windows are covered in sentences such as:

-Thinker at your service

-Institute for theoretical art, universal poetry and outlook

-General secretariat for accuracy and for the soul

Everyone is welcome to enter the Denkerei and to present his or her question to its staff. I imagine that this employee then pulls a thick tome out of a heavy safe, leafs through and recites the answer, with a finger all the while pointing at the sentence at hand. But no, that’s not how it works. The Denkerei is no oracle, no storehouse of answers. This is where scientists, artists, politicians and writers come to think, reason, and discuss.

I try to open the front door. At first, it refuses to budge. It’s only when I lean against it with my entire weight that it opens. I step inside. The door swings shut. Street noises are far behind me. Is there a connection between the heaviness of a door and the weight of a place?

I find myself in a grand space, standing on a gleaming wooden floor that stretches over the entire surface of the building. Smooth white walls, a thin table occupied by a gigantic floral arrangement, chairs lined up on an empty stage, but also a sitting corner, and a bar above which lamps bearing the Denkerei logo emit a soft red light. Artworks are hung on the walls: painted panels that portray an intriguing play on perspective. This space is a cross between a waiting room, a gallery, and a hotel lobby.

At the table, a man sits behind a stack of newspapers. I recognise his face from the presentations I’ve seen on Youtube. It’s Bazon Brock: artist, dramatist, professor of aesthetics, and founder of the Denkerei. Through Wikipedia I found that he presents lectures while standing on his head and that he temporarily lived inside of a glass display case, but luckily now he’s simply sitting on a chair at a table.

“Anyone can walk in and ask a question”, Brock explains. If the question is interesting enough, the Denkerei will hold a symposium for it. Thinkers from different disciplines such as biology, geology, philosophy and medicine, but also from literature and the arts come together in order to explore the question and to utilise knowledge from these many different areas. All the while, thinking itself is sharpened. “Poets teach scientists how to think, and scientists teach poets how to ask questions”, Brock tells me. This doesn’t lead to ready-made answers: questions stay unanswered, even after a whole symposium is dedicated to it.

The Denkerei does not intend to find an answer, a quick fix nor a solution. The act of thinking is the main goal, which is not as simple as it may seem. “Learning to ask the right questions is essential” says Brock. You need to know which questions you’re asking and how to formulate them. We don’t learn this at school. Instead, we learn how to produce answers, which means that we often forget the nature of the questions that precede them.

In other words, the Denkerei does not supply answers nor does it bandage brooding brains. There is no intention to placate, like a visit to the doctor might: even though you might still feel ill or be in pain, you’ll feel better knowing you’re carrying an illegible prescription in your bag. A formulaic salvation that will rid you of your illness or pain, an answer to your question so that you’ll need not think further.

The Denkerei is far removed from anything of the sort. After twenty minutes of questioning Bazon Brock, I’ll leave this place with at least as many new questions.

“If you can formulate a good question, you’ll understand that an answer is also a question. An answer is a question in a different form.” After Brock has spoken this last sentence, he leads me to the door. Through the window I can see that despite the falling rain, the sun is shining.

Maybe questions exist precisely because there are answers.

Dorien de Wit's visit to the Denkerei in Berlin is part of her research into bringing art, science, and society closer to one another. This research was made possible through funding by the Amsterdam Foundation for the Arts (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst).

The Japanese shoe umbrella

The Japanese shoe umbrella

Driven by the pleasure derived from useless erudition, I’ve been collecting research studies that, due to their complete and utter idiosyncratic nature, have never been linked to any tradition whatsoever. Grouped together, these unsung theories comprise a new field of epistemology: morosophy. Morosophy literally means foolish wisdom or wise foolishness. The morosopher’s wisdom is delusional, creating obviously absurd theories on existence. Unlike mediocre theories constructed by New Age gurus, ufologists, creationists, etcetera; morophist studies are so unusual that they’re ricocheted into the realm of the literary, granting them the title Fous Littéraires in France.

Morosophists deliver outrageous answers to burning questions. Is the earth flat? Was Dutch spoken in paradise? Are atoms spaceships? Is the world entering the Lilac phase?

The Morosophist is always someone whose world has fallen to pieces by a shocking event. With his theory, he manages to rebuild a new universe out of the ruins through which he can, once again, find control over his surroundings. His theories are not fuelled by a search for a higher truth, but by the desire to cope with existence. They are not patients, but are instead held sane by the belief in their delusion. Nor do they live in a world of dreams, but lead a normal life thanks to their fantastical belief in the idiotic.

At this point do we arrive at the most important characteristic of the morosophist: his ability to lead a normal life while being absolutely committed to an absurd theory. The originality of the morosopher stems from a life lived in two worlds, each with its own system of thought. With surprising ease, they alternate between the world of magic and the world of the every day.

A.E. Ing. Panamerenko

AE. Ing. Panamarenko

The Belgian theoriest and artist Panamarenko designs enormous flying machines with magical names such as General Spinaxis, U-Kontrol III, and Meganeudon.

General Spinaxis

Steel, 1978

Like Leonardo da Vinci, he can be categorized in the tradition of those who unsuccessfully attempt flying. Da Vinci’s projects retain their poetic value up until today, despite their total lack of scientific value.

Sketches of Da Vincis helicopter
While Leonardo was searching for something that did not yet exist, namely, the technique of flying, Panamarenko desperately attempts to lift off the ground in the age of space travel. He disregards history and sides with Leonardo as if time has stood still.

The catalogues paint Panamarenko’s primitivism as a poetic protest against the “coldness” of modern technology and the inability for the everyman to grasp it. Or that he’s motivated by the nostalgia for a mythical era in which science was still a personal adventure.

But all this is nonsense, as is evidenced by the thousands of pages scrawled full of Panamerenko’s quasi-scientific calculations.

The morosophist explores areas that are uncharted by the delineations of science. Their work grants us a glimpse of a universe that runs parallel to the official, recognised truths. Morosophy releases us from the acceptance of a world vision that we often see as the only correct and possible one.

Sound Pattern 03

Sound and harmony made visible. Lissajous patterns made with 2 audio oscillators, a loud amplifier, plastic wrap, a bowl, and a laser pointer.

Easily mistaken for the infinity sign, a circle or any number of more complex pretzels and knots, the Lissajous Figure is a picture of compound harmonic motion named for French physicist and mathematician Jules Antoine Lissajous (1822-1880). The shape is drawn by plotting a two-variable parametric equation as it iterates itself over time – the resulting figure is the picture of two systems falling into and out of phase.

In 1855 Lissajous constructed his "beautiful machine," devised to draw a picture of two systems superimposed and constructed in his Paris workshop of a pair of tuning forks placed facing at right angles, each with a mirror attached. The light source is focused through a lens, bouncing off the first onto the second and projecting to a large screen a few feet away. As the tuning forks are struck and tones are produced, simple vibrations begin to move the mirrors in a regular oscillating pattern. The projected image begins to form the strange and beautiful curves of a Lissajous Figure.

For his machine Lissajous was awarded the Lacaze Prize in 1873 and was exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in1867. He did not otherwise distinguish himself as a scientist or mathematician. In fact, almost fifty years earlier American Nathaniel Bowditch had already produced similar figures with his harmonograph.

The simple harmonic motion which Lissajous was measuring is easily described by the motion of a clock's swinging pendulum. As the pendulum swings its speed isn't constant, but rather it accelerates and decelerates following a precisely predictable curve. If plotted over time, as the clock ticks the motion of its pendulum draws a sine wave – the so-called "pure wave" or zero-picture of a simple moving system. Ocean waves, sound waves, light waves, even average daily temperatures all produce this same oscillating sine wave pattern.

Compound harmonic motion, then, is simply the superimposition of two sine waves as they register, interfere and produce a series of overlapping waves. When juxtaposed at right angles, two sine waves recording simple harmonic motion produce the surprisingly complex figures that Lissajous identified.

Sound Pattern 03

Sound and harmony made visible. Lissajous patterns made with 2 audio oscillators, a loud amplifier, plastic wrap, a bowl, and a laser pointer.

Lissajous Figures can be easily found today in computer graphics, in science museums, in laser light shows and, perhaps most precisely, burned into the green phosphor screen of a cathode-ray oscilloscope. A standard piece of electronic test equipment, the oscilloscope allows signal voltages to be viewed as a two-dimensional graph of potential differences, plotted as a function of time. When testing an electronic system, the phase differences between two signals form opposing sine waves on the screen of the oscilloscope connected together, constantly drawing and redrawing themselves in a precise and regular pattern.

These two varying signals produce a perpetual infinity (figuratively and literally as it will actually construct itself in the shape of the infinity sign given the right initial values). The Lissajous Figure becomes a picture of timing and sequence, registration and resonance, sound and music.

Specific shapes are produced corresponding to the resonating harmonic intervals familiar from western music (major fifth, minor third, major sixth, etc.) Any figure may be transformed into any figure and an infinite number of in-betweens as the oscillating sine waves pass in and out of harmonic resonance.

Jules Antoine Lissajous created a way to see sound (using mirrors, light and vibrating tuning forks.) But the most radical possibility of his mathematics might be in the commitment it asks of its audience. The image that Lissajous produces forms slowly right in front of your eyes — imperceptibly changing, forming, adjusting and re-aligning over time.