By ROY ASCOTT
Reductionist alert! A health warning to our friends in the reductionist camp: artists will look anywhere, into any discipline, scientific or spiritual, any view of the world, however extreme or esoteric, any culture, immediate or distant in space or time, any technology, ancient or modern, in order to find ideas and processes which allow for untrammelled navigation of mind, and the open-ended exploration of consciousness. We recognise no meta-language or meta-system that places one discipline or world-view automatically above all others. This is why we look in all directions for inspiration and understanding: to the East as well as the West; the left hand path as well as the right; working with both reason and intuition, sense and nonsense, subtlety and sensibility. It is a transdisciplinary syncretism that best informs artistic research, just as it is cyberception that enables our focus on multiple realities, and technoetic instrumentality that supports our self-creation, and our telematic distribution of presence and re-configuration of identity. Fundamentalist Materialists may find some content of this text offensive.
Earlier societies approached unknown lands, the terra incognito of the unmapped planet, with fearful caution. Citizens in many states today view their own cities with similar fearfulness, as a terror incognito, in the face, not only of terrorist threats from unknown quarters but of the very provisions claimed to ensure their civic safety – intensive surveillance, where every public space is monitored by police cameras, arbitrary powers of arrest for reasons unstated and unknown, indefinite imprisonment without trial, state approved torture – signalling the emergence of a political environment that exerts inordinate social control, leading inexorably to the loss of our personal liberty. This cloud of unknowing shrouds us in anxiety and fear. This is the military/industrial complex running wild, using paranoia to control the financial and political will of elected governments. It is a paranoia challenged by the liberating telenoia of the Net, the joy of connectedness that is universally celebrated in cyberspace. None the less, who knows who will strike next, the terrorist or agents of the state? Here indeed is terror incognito.
But the real terra incognito, the final frontier of the unknown, lies not within society at large, and its culture of contingency, nor far out in the dark matter of remote galaxies, but much closer to home, within the ontological territory with which we are most intimately engaged, and of which we are most utterly ignorant, that is to say the domain of the mind. As a society, as much as we exercise our everyday awareness, we fear consciousness; we avoid exploring it, we deny its deepest dimensions, and we refute its universal connectivity and collectivity. We know nothing of where it is located, how it arises, of what it is constituted. There is a sense amongst some scientists that they do not even want to know, or dare not challenge the folk theory that mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain. Too much would be at stake if the Newtonian applecart were to be overturned. Think for example of the extreme denial amongst physicists in relation to the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics. Think also of the doctrinaire rigidity of those whose fundamentalist materialism credits the brain with the creation of consciousness, who dive meat first into the mind, rather than investigating the brain as an organ of access to the field of consciousness. Think also of those hundreds of thousand, millions perhaps, of first person reports in all cultures at all times of psychic perception in all its forms, that have been routinely rejected out of hand, while psycho analysis, whose theory Freud based on a handful of anecdotal reports, is privileged, if not as an exact science, at least with a place at the funding table.
It is actually an astrophysicist who most elegantly and succinctly provides a description of field theory, in relation to consciousness, namely Attila Grandpierre, of the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest. Grandpierre (1997) argues that “The organisation of an organism involves fields, which are the only means to make a simultaneous tuning of the different subsystems of the organism-as-a-whole. Nature uses the olfactory fields, the acoustic fields, the electromagnetic fields and quantum vacuum fields. Fields with their ability to comprehend the whole organism are the natural basis of a global interaction between organisms and of collective consciousness, such that electromagnetic potential fields mediate the collective field of consciousness”. He offers a quantum-physical model of a multi-layered consciousness, where the layering is expressed by the subsequent subtlety of the masses of the material carriers of information. Direct, immediate action at a distance actually exists in the electromagnetic field, which is the coupling, mediator field between waves and particles. The environmental, natural and cosmic fields are determinative sources of our consciousness. The Collective Field of Consciousness is a significant physical factor of the biosphere. The morphogenetic field has an electromagnetic (EM) nature. EM fields are vacuum fields. Different basic forms of vacuum fields exist, and all kinds of fields, including the particle-mediated fields as well, when overlapping each other, seem to be in a direct resonant coupling, and form a complex, merged bio field. The vacuum model of consciousness points to the inductive generation of consciousness, and to its self-initiating nature. Individual and collective methods, as well as the experimental possibilities of a global healing and improving the consciousness field of mankind are suggested. (Grandpierre, 1997).
In general, many field theories come relatively low in the estimation of state-approved science, are unlikely to receive serious research funding, and are pushed in many cases to the margins of scientific respectability. The new organicism of May Wan Ho (1997), the biophotonic research of Fritz-Albert Popp (2003), the holonomic brain theory of Karl Pribram (1991), the implicate order of David Bohm (1980), are kept largely at arm’s length by the scientific establishment. And Donna Haraway (1976), even amongst the cognoscenti of media art, is recognized more for her Cyborg Manifesto than for her much earlier Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in Twentieth-Century Developmental Biology.
Of considerable significance to the evolving ontology of new media art is the major shift in research focus of Tom Ray that moves from A-life to mind science. It is a research that plays a radical part in the emergence of what can be called moistmedia, that is to say the convergence of dry computational technologies and wet biological systems, since its concern is with the re-evaluation of psychedelics, and by extension, the pharmacology of plants, in the understanding of mind states, and of consciousness at large. Ray was initially famous amongst new media artists and computer scientists for the creation of Tierra (Ray 1991) “Synthetic organisms have been created based on a computer metaphor of organic life in which CPU time is the “energy” resource and memory is the “material” resource. Memory is organized into informational patterns that exploit CPU time for self-replication. Mutation generates new forms, and evolution proceeds by natural selection as different genotypes compete for CPU time and memory space”. This has been replaced by research leading to the discovery of…”Nineteen psychedelics [that] have each been screened against over one hundred receptors, transporters and ion channels, providing the first comprehensive view of how these compounds interact with the human receptome. Each individual psychedelic causes a unique spectrum of subjective effects. [. . .] We want to get to know the pharmacology of the attractors . . . .to begin to map the chemical organization of the human mind. (Tom Ray 2005)
In my view the digital moment in art has passed, it has been absorbed in practice, and assimilated by theory, A pharmacological moment is upon us, within cognitive science and beyond its borders. Only our extreme materialism, the cowardice of political expediency, and cultural mind control, prevents us from exploring new worlds and participating in new realities. In the evolving technoetic culture living in altered states of consciousness will become more frequently the norm, just as living in multiple states of body informs our living today – both in Second life scenarios and the syncretic reality of contemporary being.
We should understand that, unlike individual, creative scientists, institutional science has always regarded art as occupying an alien, hostile territory wherein intuition is privileged over rationality, and reality is constructed without license. It warns us to avoid the extreme conditions of consciousness, to regard altered states of consciousness as constituting a threat to the orthodoxies of being, and to the stability of social norms. Indeed, even within a laboratory setting, such exploration may be treated as deviant or criminal. If we look at the history of the psychoactive drug Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) for example, we see a complete failure to differentiate between its medicinal, recreational and spiritual uses. The ban applied by the US government on October 6, 1966 immediately halted research on the chemistry of the brain and proscribed for decades all investigations with psychoactive materials into the nature of consciousness, as well as their use in cultural, religious and spiritual practices whose provenance spanned centuries if not millennia. The case of ayahuasca is exemplary here, in so far as it informs a continuous living culture, originating timelessly in the forests of Brazil and Colombia, which has mutated into many urban environments. As a vehicle for the exploration of mind, as a tool for the navigation of consciousness, it constitutes an exact pharmacology, a vegetal technology as precise in its operation as any Western scientific protocol. Still an illegal substance, it is only recently that the US Supreme Court found in favour of its use in specific religious ritual.
The paradox addressed here is that we occupy the most dangerous territory of mind on a daily basis, thinking that its is benign and, indeed, normal. But this simple, habitual level of thought and behaviour puts us in a state of extreme danger; in so far as the creative exploration of consciousness is concerned. Habit is the enemy that leads to the sclerosis of the self, reinforcing the passive, uncritical repetition of normative behaviours, opinions, perceptions and values. Habit is particularly the enemy of art, impeding the search for new ways of being. In art today, our computer-mediated systems are mobile, interactive and transformative; they defy docile social stability and bring evolutionary innovation to the dynamic equilibrium of living, cultural systems. In telematic culture, the multiple identity syndrome (MIS) is not pathological but affirmatively creative. We make ourselves, remix, remodel and renew both our identity and the very core of our being. We are more than ever transient and indeterminate. Eventually, with technological development, Second Life scenarios will be able more fully to accommodate the syncretism of the self.
This has not prevented technology from attempting to parallel the phenomenology of psychic agency. The telematic effect has been to distribute mind, and to vitiate its isolated autonomy, while cyberspace affords the multiplication of identity, and the telepresence of the self. For the artist to break through the extreme environment of classical science, with the hostile intentionality of its authoritarian regime, into the quantum world of (psychic) potentiality and (spiritual) becoming, both courage and vision are called for. On the other side of the world, it is in the extreme and apparently hostile environment of the forest that a technoetic approach to human transformation is exercised. This involves the technology of plants, the application of nature to the navigation of mind, through rituals that conduct us to multiple worlds without barriers, to shared realities without boundaries, and to the redefinition of what it is to be human.
At the material level, technology could provide us with another skin, another layer of energy to the body, adding to the complexity of its field. Instead of populating Second Life with (virtual) objects we would be more syncretic if we considered it as a medium for the creation of (virtual) fields, or as an extension of the biofield itself. We can see Second Life (for example) as the field in which new possibilities for living systems are being rehearsed, just as we would do best to recognise VR and Mixed Reality technologies as providing the tools to rehearse what will become actual in the evolving nanoculture. This radical change in our interaction with and construction of the material world, the almost infinite flexibility of actuation, engineering what is impossible at present, gives world-designers a huge ethical as well as aesthetic responsibility.
The life of the mind in this radically transformed world – the extremity of which it is not possible fully to comprehend at this moment – and the very status of consciousness itself will become the primary issue on the research agenda in many fields.
Ours can be described as a contingent culture. It’s about chance and change, in the world, in the environment, in oneself. It is essentially syncretic. People re-invent themselves; create new relationships, new orders of time and space. Technoetics leads to serial selves, serial relationships, serial self-invention. Our culture is completely open-ended, evolving and transforming at a fast rate – just as we are, at this stage of our evolution, and just as we want it to be. Human nature, unconstrained, is essentially syncretic. Why syncretic? Just as cybernetics analogises differences between systems, so syncretism finds likeness between unlike things. If cybernetics underlies the technology of new media art, syncretism informs the psyche. Historically, syncretism has destabilised political and religious orthodoxies, reconciling and harmonising formerly discrete antagonists; its etymology derives from the coming together of opposed tribes to resist a common enemy. In contemporary culture, the enemy is habit – the uncritical repetition of behaviours, perceptions, categories, and values. Digital art is approaching the status of orthodoxy; the period of extreme speculation, invention and untrammelled creativity is in danger of giving way to academicism and commercialisation, whether in cyberspace, on the web or through the mobile. Art’s 20th century preoccupation with the body is giving way to the technoetic exploration of new territories of mind. This may involve revisiting the pathways to personal transformation and transcendence of older cultures, where the syncretism of knowledge and beliefs is explicit, as for example in Brazil. Art needs to adopt syncretic strategies to embrace emerging models of mind and matter, cyberception, living process and computational systems, moistmedia, quantum reality, the nanofield, and ecological, social and spiritual issues. This may lead to significant changes in the way we regard our own identity, our relationship to others, the nature of memory, the exploration of consciousness, and the phenomenology of time and space.
The real revolution in the new digital technology (which will be even more radical with the evolving nanotechnology) lies not so much that of global connectivity – person to person, mind to mind – that releases us from the constraints of time and place (great as that is), but its power to provide for the release of the self, release from the self, the fictive “unified self” that analysts and therapists relentlessly promote. The idea of making the self into one undivided whole, of finding the one true self buried deep in the unconscious can be seen as both a conjuring trick and an assault on our human nature. Ouspensky was right; we are multiple, made up of many selves, with access to many layers of consciousness. Rather than needing to go deep into ones self, we need to reach out to the many selves that our innate creativity craves. This is where the revolution in consciousness lies; in our ability to be many selves, to be telematically in many places at the same time, our digital and post-biological self-creation leading to many personas, many aspects of what we each can be. In short, the 21st century self is generative. This is of course the appeal of Second Life, as it is to the many narratives and games of generative identity, shape-shifting, and transformative personality that new media art has created.
Syncretic thinking breaches boundaries and subvert protocols. Hypermedia is its telematic correlate. Thinking out of the box, searching for the extremities of perception, testing the limits of language, expression and construction, puts the artist at the edge of social and cultural norms, which in our present heavily circumscribed society is a dangerous place to be. In religious or spiritual contexts, syncretism can mean combining from diverse sources epistemologies, rituals, psychic instruments, psychotropic plants and herbs, into new forms of sacred communion. In contemporary society, syncretism may involve combining technologies that are interactive and digital, reactive and mechanical, psychoactive and chemical, and new rituals of contemporary social networks that are mobile, locative, and online, together with a creative sensibility towards the practices of older cultures that have habitually been seen as alien, exotic and in many cases proscribed.
In technology, it was syncretic thought that led John Whiteside Parsons – one of the early pioneers of rocket science – to claim that we should no longer see ourselves as creatures chained to the earth but as beings capable of exploring the universe, while at the same time believing that unseen metaphysical worlds existed that could be explored with the right knowledge. He saw no contradiction between his scientific and magical pursuits: before each rocket test launch, Parsons would invoke the god Pan (Pendle, 2005). Frank Malina (whose life and work we are celebrating in this conference), Ed Forman and Parsons together formed the country’s first governmental rocket group. Malina’s syncretism was later expressed in his practice as a visionary techno- artist, scientist and cultural integrationist, whilst Parsons experimented extensively with the occult, becoming a key figure Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Contrary to those who saw magic and science as inherently contradictory, to Parsons they were complementary, two sides of the same coin. A close friend of Crowley, was the Portuguese poet Pessoa, a writer was deeply involved with altered states of consciousness, and reliant upon the world of the spirits,
Ricardo Reis, Alvaro dos Campos , Alberto Caeiro , and Bernardo Soares are writers whose place in Portuguese letters are assured. They are in fact heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa, with their own individual histories, appearances, emotional qualities, philosophies, and style of writing: they are not pseudonyms. Were Pessoato be active today, they would probably be wholly differentiated avatars, artistically and politically active in Second Life. As John Gray (2001) has pointed out “Fernando Pessoa invented at least 72 fictive identities. These jostling aliases express his belief that the individual subject — the core of European thought — is an illusion”. Therein lies Pessoa’s significance today. He well understood the notion of the distributed self, that we are each many selves. Pessoa left a trunk containing over 25,000 items: poems, letters, journals – writings on philosophy, sociology, history, literary criticism, plays, treatises on astrology, observations on the occult, esoterica of many kinds – written by dozens of heteronyms. Pessoa’s psychological and literary prescience, and the breadth and complexity of his interests, anticipated life in our hypertextual world of the Web, where the fluidity of associative links and genres, and the instability, variability and transformation of identities and personas is one of its greatest appeals and challenges. We can only imagine what his (dis)embodied syncretism might have brought to the telematic embrace. Through his exploration of consciousness, he developed occult skills and paranormal powers, including spiritualist mediumship, telepathy, and especially his development of ‘etheric vision.’ “There are moments when I have sudden flashes of ‘etheric vision’ and can see certain people’s ‘magnetic auras’ and especially my own, reflected in the mirror, and radiating from my hands in the dark. In one of my best moments of etheric vision… I saw someone’s ribs through his coat and skin… My ‘astral vision’ is still very basic, but sometimes, at night, I close my eyes and see a swift succession of small and sharply defined pictures… I see strange shapes, designs, symbolic signs, numbers… ” (Pessoa 2001)
The challenge to our syncretic model of thought and action in the context of creativity is to untie the Newtonian knot that binds our perception, and seek always to put subject before object, process before system, behaviour before form, intuition before reason, mind before matter
In order to meet the needs of the culture of contingency, and properly to accommodate and sustain the generative Self, our agenda should seek to amplify thought, share consciousness, seed structures, make metaphors, and construct identities. A truly technoetic and syncretic art will embrace concepts of biophysics: coherence, macroscopic quantum states, long-range interactions, non-linearity, self-organization and self-regulation, communication networks, field models, interconnectedness, non-locality, and the inclusion of consciousness.
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