“… the world’s only art work viewed with eyes closed.” -Byron Gysin
For over half a century the installation piece has been used as a creative tool by artists like: William S. Burroughs, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Kurt Cobain, Keith Haring, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, Kenneth Anger, Beck…** The flicker corresponds to Alpha Waves which are normally present in the human brain while being both alert and relaxed where mental imagery is more easily created and visualization techniques are more effective. Aldous Huxley remarked: “The Dreamachine is an aid to visionary experience.”***
The Dreamachine (or dream machine) is a stroboscopic flicker device that produces visual stimuli. Artist Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’s “systems adviser” Ian Sommerville created the dreamachine after reading William Grey Walter’s book, The Living Brain.*
My exposure to the Dreamachine was made available when a good friend and amazing curator, James Elphick of Gorrilla Zoo, brought it to the UK for the first time ever at his show in London. Upon entering the space you would first hear the multiple Dreamachines eerily humming away, combined with the stroboscopic light shapes together made it feel like “we are all here, we are all experiencing this right now, yet it feels like a dream”. The observers were either with the eyes closed, meditative and entranced by the device or eyes wide open, super alert after the effect of this original natural high. Sitting in front of the flickering device, it took me about five minutes of pleasant synesthesia, or the crossing of senses, to get to a deeper threshold. At this stage most people would report multi-layered geometric and organic shapes and symbols, swirling in a rhythmic pulse of holographic imagery, giving a feeling of being surrounded by colors.
What started as the typical back-of-the-eyelid hallucinations of dazzling patterns and stroboscopic dimensions soon turned to the 'alice in wonderland syndrome'. The perceptive lack of time and space lead to a distorted sense of velocity. With no efforts to control this there sprung a sudden moment where reality shifted to the upper right hand corner and what remained was a crystalline garden of infinite geometric detail. The sound of digital birds and full immersion in an alternate reality with its own atmospheric density and laws of physics. I still had a grasp of my ego and it reminded me that this is not where my body was just seconds ago and with the slight hesitation of being apart from it made me return effortlessly by opening of my eyes. I was back in the room with my first taste of the Dreamachine. High on the possibilities of consciousness. It made me wonder where humanity could go if everyone was able to explore their minds safely with such a tool.
2001 A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick. 1968
A month later I had the privilege to attend a TEDx Talk in Whitechapel, London. Graham Hancock and his lecture “The War on Consciousness” linked closely with the subject of altered states and where they could take us. He points out that society/law does not allow us to have true freedom and that exploring our consciousness may very well be a crucial step in changes we must make on the planet if we are to find a way to survive as a species.
"…And it’s not that society/law is opposed to altered states of consciousness," Hancock points out, "billions are being made by the Pharma/psychiatrists in over-perscribing drugs to control so called syndromes like depression and attention deficit disorder to early teens and even children. We have a love affair in our society with alcohol, we glorify this most boring of drugs despite the terrible consequences that it often has. And of course we love our stimulants, our tea, coffee, energy drinks, our sugar. Huge industries are built around these substances because of the way they alter consciousness. But what all these ‘approved’ alter states of consciousness have in common, is that none of them interfere or contradict with the basic state of consciousness valued most by our society which is the alert, problem solving mindset. It is useful for the mundane aspects of science, for the prosecution of warfare, good for the commerce, and for politics, but I don’t think everybody realizes that the promise of a society over monopolisticly based on this state of mind has proven hallow, and that this model is no longer working. Urgently we need to find something to replace it.
"The vast problems of pollution that have resulted from the single minded pursuit of profit, the horrors of nuclear proliferation, the specter of hunger that millions go to bed starving every night -and we can’t solve even this problem, despite our alert, problem solving state of consciousness. And look what’s happening in the Amazon, the lungs of our planet, this precious home of biodiversity, the ancient rainforest being cut down and replaced with soya beans to feed cattle so you can all eat hamburgers. Only a truly insane global state of consciousness could allow such an abomination to occur. With a simple calculation you can take just six month’s expenditure on the Iraq war and we could solve the problem of the Amazon forever. It would be sufficient to compensate the people of the region so that no single tree would have to be cut down again, to garden and take care of this crucial resource but we can’t make the decision as a global community. We can spend billions on war, on hate, on fear and suspicion, on division, but we can’t get the collective effort to save the forests of our planet.
Kate McDowell’s Daphne, 53”x17”x40”, hand built porcelain, 12/2007.
" This is probably why when Shamans from the Amazon are asked about the sickness of the west they say it’s quite simple: you have severed your connection with Spirit. Unless you reconnect with Spirit, and do so soon, you will bring down the whole house of cards down on your heads and ours. And rightly or wrongly they believe Ayahuasca, an ancient plant brew as a tool for alteration of consciousness, is the remedy to humanity’s sick state.
"There is war on consciousness and if we as adults are not allowed to make sovereign decisions about what to experience with our own consciousness, while doing no harm to others, including the responsible use of ancient and sacred visionary plants, than we can not claim to be free in any way. It’s useless for society to go around the world imposing our form of democracy on others while we nourish this rot at the heart of society. Not allowing individual freedom over consciousness may even be denying ourselves the next vital step in our own evolution by allowing these state of affairs to continue."
In future posts I will be exploring further how Art can be a medium for consciousness evolution.
To hear more about Graham Hancock’s views and the power of natural psychedelics check out his lecture.
Ironically, it has been banned from TED.
With the use of his engaging lithographic prints and drawings, the German botanist, naturalist, philosopher and artist, Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919), was a radical exponent* in helping prove Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Above are two examples of his work, from the collection Art Forms in Nature**, a visually stunning fragment of his scientific contribution to widening mankind’s perspective on nature, aesthetics, science, and religion.
Since Haeckel’s discovery, comparative anatomy has long served as evidence for evolution, it indicates that various organisms share a common ancestor. Being a professor in comparative embryology, Haeckel was the first to render a visual demonstration of evolution with his illustrations. One of his most influential is the juxtaposition of embryos in early development stages of different species. This drawing showed the similarities of general features of varying animals (fish, salamander, turtle, chick, pig, cow, rabbit and human), supporting the ideas that they had common ancestors.
Haeckel was also the first scientist to classify organisms based on similar characteristics of their anatomical structure by mapping the first genealogical tree relating all life forms (above). Further contributions to science included discovering, describing and naming thousands of new species, and coined many terms in biology including anthropogeny, ecology, phylum, phylogeny, stem cell, and the kingdom Protista.*
His work and legacy not only influenced the German Romantic movement, but more importantly created the initial scientific critique of the Church, a precursor of free speech on the subject. Haeckel was strongly atheist in a time that admitting so was dangerous and tried disproving the Bible scientifically by incorporating newly founded ideas like natural selection and Lamarckism into his art. As a philosopher he wrote Freedom in Science and Teaching*** to support teaching evolution.
I admire his work for its adventurous artistic merit. Inspired by truth and nature, Haeckel’s scientific art hint at a belief that the natural world we are part of has its own perception of beauty, of which we have only begun to understand.
Haeckel’s aim was a reformed morphology with evolution as the organizing principle of a cosmic synthesis unifying science, religion, and art.*
** Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur (“Art forms of Nature”), 1904, (from series published 1899–1904): over 100 detailed, multi-color illustrations of animals and sea creatures.
*** Freedom in Science and Teaching. German 1877, English 1879, .
Isabella Rossellini, famous for acting (in films such as Blue Velvet and Death Becomes Her) and modeling (fourteen years at Lancôme), now ventures into creating a short television and online series, Green Porno. Critically acclaimed and provocative, the series is directed and written by Rossellini as she also acts out the reproductive habits of insects and marine animals, both scientifically accurate yet extremely entertaining.
“The secret to Green Porno is that they allow of us to laugh but they also communicate true scientific information, because of what I learned in doing research for this series I felt strongly that there needed to be an added environmental element to really inform people how delicate the futures of these creatures are.”
She uses her sexuality in a sophisticated and entertaining manner to attract attention to the delicate (and often very strange) lives of animals. In her second series, dealing in particular with marine creatures which are massivly consumed as food such as the anchovy, shrimp and squid. In between the quirky acting out of their sexual roles, Rossellini includes snippets of marine biologists speaking about the particular animal’s future.
As the observer is captured by the entertaining aspect of the short films, they are also forced to think about such feats. Awareness helps us decide in our decision making. I find it important to understand that the massive exploitation of animals for human use is interconnected with and endangers other spheres of human life such as climate, health, politics, etc. and of course the ethics of not harming helpless sentient beings.
Watch the newest season SEDUCE ME: The Spawn of Green Porno
The British duo Tim Maslen & Jennifer Mehra communicate about the natural world’s place in today’s ‘human world.’ Their Native Series (2007) use the mirrored sculptures of animal contours to express their concern for the particular species threatened by extinction.
They are placed in the urban environment as sculptural installations. The particular species chosen for these temporary interventions were natives of - but are no longer present in - the areas in which their simulacra are placed. Some of these phantoms remind us of the American Buffalo extinct to NYC, Roe Deer banished from London, and the European Brown Bear driven out of Berlin.
Maslen & Mehra’s animal shapes, rather than being ‘filled-in’ representations, reflect the urban environment around them - displacing their identity outwards. They are creatures which share our space, but only as cut-outs, windows, absences. These mirrored forms call out to the very thing that has displaced them - confronting us with the the phenomenon of habitat loss, species driven to extinction, and our own alienation from the animal kingdom and the natural world.
I am moved by the idea of seeing yourself in the reflection of the wild creature. Playfully you can try to recreate the pose of the animal and maybe identify yourself with the eagle, wolf, or bear. But the human mirrored image eventually will evoke the fact that we are the ones who drove these beautiful creatures to their demise.
Give that reflected ego a break and learn about which animal needs your attention in your region by looking at the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species . Once you’ve found a species of interest contact your local wildlife conservation group. Volunteer, donate. If you have a talent that you can show, organize a benefit. Learn about which politicians are the greenest (that are against hunting, for example) and support them by voting. You can also go veggie - or better yet - vegan. “Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty”. It has been proven in history, be it in art or not, that every individual has the power to change or influence the world they live in and it begins with that awareness…
Angela Palmer places the stumps of 10 rainforest trees, complete with their roots, as an installation around Trafalgar Square in central London to highlight the issue of deforestation. Laser beams marked the height the trees would have reached in the wild in comparison to Nelson’s Column.
Their presence worked to highlight deforestation in countries like their native Ghana which has lost 90% of its rainforest in the past 50 years. Questioning the future of these precious resources is vital. As vital as the air we breath and the water we drink -because rainforests are responsible for the filtration of these.
“Above all art distills for us our common humanity; it questions and puzzles and challenges. There is a shamanic aspect to this and artists are, like shamans, movers between worlds, between the visible world and the invisible one, able to heal individuals and society. Art can work above ground, in the heightened, precise super-realism of social portraiture, but also below-ground, working different and deeper spells of restitution on the invisible realm of symbolism. Re-balancing the relationship between human communities and the natural world is a feature of shamanism, and artists play that same role, a role which needs and deserves public support through policy priorities, through funding and through recognition that this re-balancing role at the core of deep art is now urgent in response to the unbalanced chaos of climate.”
Organic forms, a reconciliation of humans with nature, and a strong individualism - these are all themes in the work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) one of the best-known contemporary Austrian artists. Although his work as an architect can be compared to Antoni Gaudí in its use of biomorphic forms and tile mosaic works, Hundertwasser remains sui generis, as he was the first to incorporate natural features of the landscape into housing projects. But most importantly, his ideas, which were rather controversial and strongly parallel to what I am trying to prove: That artists should have a moral responsibility to the world around them. Hundertwasser addressed the idea of planting trees in an urban environment was to become obligatory: “If man walks in nature’s midst, then he is nature’s guest and must learn to behave as a well-brought-up guest.” His structures implemented the use of live foliage on rooftops, trees growing through the inside of buildings, etc. All of which showed his respect for nature and the fact that it was here before us. Although Hundertwasser rejected rationalism, the straight line and functional architecture**. His green roofs can be seen implemented in housing today; It works as insulation -lowering the use of air conditioning. It also reduces storm water run-off, provides a home for wildlife, and contributes to a clean atmosphere…
* 1 Julie’s Bicycle. “Climate Change Long Horizons” British Council, 2009
** Wieland Schmied (ed.), Hundertwasser 1928-2000, Catalogue Raisonné, Cologne: Taschen, 2000/2002, Vol. II, pp. 1167-1172.