The Synthetic Supernatural
(From the book The Synthetic Supernatural)
Summarising a life project when you are in the middle of it is impossible. My intention with this text is to open a window on some of the different trains of thought, which, from their own directions, tear and pull at my interest, and, over a long time, have been interwoven with my art. I am propelled by a sense of incompleteness, by the fact that large quantities of existential energy (in me and others) have been locked up and need to be released and channelled. It seems as if we human beings have a restricted and often repressive conception of the nature of our species, which we continuously must evolve, for it to harmonise better with whoever we actually are. My process rests on several legs and has several heads. It has various parallel driving forces and goals, as well as many inputs and outputs. These parallel autonomies are interconnected into a self organising system, but there does not seem to be an absolute centre to it.
That which in cognitive neuroscience is called cross modal binding refers to how our perception, at an early stage, filters out and puts together signals from different sensory channels into multi modal entities. Multi channel (multi modal) impressions dominate over single channel (uni modal) ones in the struggle for our attention. In everyday life, this is a way of identifying causal entities as “objects” and “events” in the massive flow of sensory data. We thus bundle together selected details from various sensory channels into coherent entities whose delimitation is determined by their explanatory power in our everyday understanding of cause and effect. But, as with all technologies, biological or artificial, a space of unexpected possibilities opens up around the original function. We human beings have, in our culture, for a long time engaged in a kind of hacking of our own experience systems.
For example, when we hear a well timed cymbal at the same time as we see an acrobat performing a somersault during a circus act, we experience what I would like to call a “synthetic event”. When we get carried away by the performance and applaud it, what we actually applaud is the artificial entity that is created by the sound, the visual impression and our identification with the acrobat’s body. The potentially powerful response to artificial compositions prepares the ground for a synthesising of experiences that does not correspond to coherent exterior events, but to our way of abstracting and organising event information. Efficiently compounded, they are more accentuated than ordinary events and make us temporarily lose track of the exterior reality. To the quick, reactive thought process, they are as real as anything else, while the slower, assessing thought process can easily ascertain that they are compounded and “unnatural”. However, they do create continuities in our interior; thus they are real as artefacts in our experience machinery. They say something about ourselves, and indirectly about our experience of all other objects. One could call them perceptively supernatural.
“Synesthetes” are people who experience powerful, constant connections between widely differing sensory impressions, for example that words have different colours or tastes. The specific connections may vary in detail among synesthetes, but there seems to be a common basis. For example, synesthetes usually connect vowels such as “i” or “e” with pale colours, and “o” and “u” with deep ones. In language there are a number of concepts that can be interpreted in such a way that we all, to some extent, experience the world synesthetically: cold and warm colours, light and dark tones are perhaps some of the most obvious examples. Many people have sometimes pondered the fact that music seems to induce inner images, so called photisms. In his 1982 article “Cross Modal Translations of Sensory Dimensions”, Lawrence E. Marks maps out the connection between the visual parameters of photisms and the auditive parameters of the sound they induce. There are no lack of historical examples of the desire to exploit such correlations. The first known colour organ was devised by Louis Bertrand Castel in 1730. One of the more famous colour organs was constructed by the composer (and synesthete) Alexander Scriabin for the premiere of his work “Prometheus” in 1915. My impression is that the colour music created on these organs was largely disappointing. The medium of music exploits peculiarities in our hearing; its phenomenology in relation to time and space is crucially different compared to that of sight. When I create kinetic, spatial, light and sound installations (e.g. Intelligence, 2009), I try to work actively with these differences. It is never a matter of “translation” or an “accompaniment”; rather, I attempt to create coherent events that appear to flow or float across the borders of modality.
The historical colour organ experiments may be regarded as precursors in the genre known as “visual music”, which is mainly associated with the medium of film, where it was refined in the 1930s and 1940s by the visionary animator Oskar Fischinger, and in the 1950s and 1960s by digital pioneers such as John and James Whitney.
There is no reason to yen for modal apartheid in line with high modernism’s ideals of purity. All encompassing total experiences have always been created by bringing together different art forms, and in the 1900s electronic and digital technologies opened up for entirely new possibilities to experiment with this. However, the almost paralysing visual diversity that has been unbound in two dimensions has no correspondence in the physical space, where our tools remain relatively primitive. Spatiality and tactility are neglected qualities in our digital life environment.
One has to constantly remind oneself of this: experience is not the transparent room we spontaneously assume it to be, in which the world is neutrally enacted. It has been laboriously and splutteringly brought forth in an age old life and death struggle, in a rough dialogue with the peculiarities of the actual game plan. Our brain provides us with an anthropocentric world view, wrapped up and caricatured according to our basic needs. Within milliseconds we gather a large quantity of information from a human face (even in a strictly stylised form!); we discern identities and moods in human voices, even though they in fact are a vanishingly homogenous family in the throng of audible vibrations. Quite simply, human beings are one of the things to which we are perceptively over sensitive. Understandably, this is also noticeable in the brain’s architecture. Most likely, this is part of the explanation for our feeling of uncanniness when faced with the artificially humanoid, the now famous Uncanny Valley effect, which the Japanese robotics researcher Masahiro Mori formulated at the beginning of the 1970s. The brain’s inbuilt anthropocentrism is probably also a key to the animism of old nature religions, the impulse to explain nature as composed of spiritual beings with anthropoid motivations.
As a continuation of this, I have reflected on our propensity for reading in psychology into movements, how the behaviour of different materials and shapes under gravity and other influences gladly lend themselves to being described in terms of emotional conditions. The more complex such patterns of movement become, the more inclined we are to attribute to them intentionality and autonomy. The four legged transportation robot Big Dog was developed by the US Army to be able to run in difficult terrain carrying heavy supplies. Its leg movements and its ability to keep its balance appear incredibly organic. Watch a YouTube clip of Big Dog sliding around like Bambi on slippery ice and your heart will surely break. We know that this robot has no feelings but we cannot help ourselves taking an active interest in the poor animal’s desperate struggle to keep its balance. Robotics and kinetic sculpture activate our profoundly anthropocentric movement scanner, in the same way as film animations have long been able to do in the two dimensional format.
To synthesise the supernatural requires that the artist has a kind of material feeling for experienced characteristics and relationships between expressions. To be able to see, hear and feel contours, textures and gravitation is a matter of being sensitive to abstract coherences in the experience. The “gestalt laws”, which the German gestalt psychologists (Köhler, Wertheimer, Kottke et al) described at the beginning of the 20th century, feel like a vital tool applied across the multi modal spectrum.
The reduced human gestalts one encounters in my works, the extreme colour ranges, the topological doodles, the reduced movements, the flat and empty surfaces, the patterns – they are a kind of subtext or bass register in which the defining details are missing. Their identities are toned down and their qualities are abstracted into “material”. Smoke, light, balls, feathers or confetti function as carriers of empty actions. Through their textures, they talk of space, time and gravitation; they put agents and objects in relation to one another, as the verbs in a sentence structure. The perception registers, extra carefully, relationships that connect objects or contain an object in another, and so on, because it has something to do with basic causal mechanics. The mathematical field that describe these kinds of relationships among shapes are called topology. The “super pretzels” that I have been working on in the last few years look strange and are “hard watched” because they are topological freaks whose causal logic gets tangled up in itself, just as with their relatives, the Möbius strips and the Klein bottles. An ordinary tree may be described as an extrovert fractal, the limbs pointing outwards from the trunk, the branches pointing outwards from the limbs. The tree’s topology radiates an innocent lack of self consciousness to an anthropocentric eye. The super pretzel, on the other hand, seems to have self reference as its primary function. With its extremities flowing in and out through one another, it presents itself, self consciously and somewhat pompously, as a premature solution to a still unknown existential conundrum.
In this essay, I have touched upon some details in order to provide an idea of how I think about the human experience instrument on which the art experience is enacted. Our knowledge of this instrument is, in its way, very little, and I have tried to convey my impression of it, as something asymmetrical, many headed, patched up and entangled, rather than as something that allows itself to be described by a simple and pure principle (for example “unlimited plasticity”). Evolution does not know perfection; every little function that appears does not stop at an individual purpose, but further expands the outer space of unforeseen functions. Properly understood, a deeper interest in the experience instrument may expand art’s space of possibility not conserve it as a putative “natural” ideal.
The deeper meaning that motivates us to exist cannot announce itself in a more tangible way than as a convincing feeling. I believe that artistic methods can synthesise important experiences that are of the same intensity as those that religious believers call “mystical”, but without having to be driven by a religious placebo. It would be inexcusable to allow history’s spiritual charlatans to lay claim on these experience levels. These experiences do not point to a spiritual dimension; they allow us to glimpse the possibilities (and the limitations) of our own experiencing organs. They turn our attention to the space of loose relationships that open up the outer reality to us, and make the complex and delicate in it manifest. A sense of the frailty of the experience of reality may, of course, be perceived as threatening and apocalyptic, but if one relaxes one can enjoy it as an awakening into one’s own super reality.
Matti Kallionen 2011
Translation: Hans Olsson