When we enter the world presented by Ohira and Bonilha in their exhibition The Unknown – A Hypothesis About Immanence, we immediately face an intriguing mix of the technological and supernatural that extends to the paranormal. We encounter something unknown, something that calls for our curiosity and wondering. Electronic devices, stripped of their usual industrially designed appearance and their technological purposes, open for our interpellation. The Psychophone, a device for transcommunication with other dimensions, Raspberrypsy, a closed video loop using a visual variant of Schriber’s method displaying enigmatic images that are not expected there, and two Contemporary Divinities, simple radio receivers using a galenite crystal and a germanium photodiode that deliver sound out of thin air – all these make us question the way things work in the real world, outside laboratories and professional or academic discourse about technology. This drive of curiosity is what invites the spectator to make new interpretations about his or her relationship with technology. To interpret the unknown that technology can produce.
A broad fascination with electronic devices and electricity in general, reaching out of circles of professionals, seems to be a frequent phenomenon of the 20th century. Sparked by the first “entrapment” of a lightning bolt, ever feared by humans, into the so-called Leiden jar and carried on by Nikola Tesla, who devised a technological way to manipulate it on a large scale, the electrical revolution changed almost every aspect of human lives. The path for the emergence of radio apparatuses, first electrical devices to use electromagnetic waves travelling simply through air, was paved with the discovery of radio waves by Hertz by the end of 19th century and their successful manipulation for transmission by Tesla and Marconi. Photos of people firmly sitting or standing while listening to a contemporary radio broadcast keep an aura of mysticism. We cannot understand the strange arrangement of people in such photos if we don’t know that something invisible to the naked eye is going on – massive transcommunication.
The beginnings of manipulation with electricity urged the scientific community to articulate a theoretical framework for describing and explaining phenomena connected to it. Despite the vast usefulness of the theory of electromagnetism that resulted from this effort, its complex mathematics and the use of the somehow fuzzy and non-intuitive central concept of (electric and magnetic) field still leave some room for various articulations of popular representations connected to it. The use of the concept of field has spread also to other areas of human knowledge and practice, including the pre-existent classical physics, information theory and bio-energetic healing. On the other hand, electricity has been available in our homes for more than a century now and many people deal with various electric devices and make their own explorations. This is a fertile constellation for the blooming of alternative non-scientific explanations of phenomena. Understanding seems to be a basic intellectual human need.
Strange phenomena connected to electricity and labelled supernatural date back at least to antiquity, but of course the human fear of lightning bolts, which were ascribed to gods, had appeared even earlier. The aurora borealis, for example, was in the Middle Ages most often seen as a foretelling of a catastrophe. The Frankenstein story created by Mary Shelley was based on actually performed experiments with electric current flowing through cadavers and lifting them to sit straight up. Experiments involving electromagnetism often include levitating bodies. The famous photos of Tesla with lightning bolts flying above his head make a deep impression on any viewer, even nowadays; the fact that they were taken on his request makes him look like a mystificator. The ability to produce human-sized lightning bolts seems to be so intriguing that it has weaved its way into a subculture of Tesla enthusiasts, reproducing the so-called Tesla coil, originally meant for wireless distribution of electrical energy as a kind of electrical monument. Also, Tesla’s promise of delivering free energy through the air is still the goal of the whole subculture of technological enthusiasts that try to build an electrical perpetuum mobile and disprove the law of entropy that in theory forbids it; this is nowadays found under the internet umbrella term free energy. Some physicists that engaged in a theoretical description of their homemade free energy machines in order to expose the theoretical mistakes of their undermining by the law of entropy gradually became aware that this is a difficult and time-consuming task not really worth pursuing.
What I want to point out with these examples is that electrical phenomena, in spite of the fact that electricity has been ‘domesticated’ for more than a century, seem difficult enough to be theoretically described that one almost needs a technical formal education to feel comfortable with their explanations. And this is in the face of the fact that we live in the era of computers and information technology, which are nothing but devices for fine manipulations of electric impulses. Basically, we live amidst a lot of machines whose functioning we don’t really understand well. This leaves room for alternative explanations of some electrical phenomena, which may very well be intertwined with extraordinary personal, maybe even paranormal experience. In recent decades, technology conceived of as technological culture has also become an area of interest for various artists who mix art and science. In Slovenia, such authors include, for example, Dragan Živadinov and Marko Peljhan. That is all about the general socio-technological conditions into which we are by default immersed, and now let’s enter Ohira and Bonilha’s exhibition of some, let’s call them, technological unknowns.
The authors themselves, already with the choice of the exhibition title, offer their interpretation guidelines for the exhibited unknowns. Their intention is, apparently, to strip technological artefacts of their usual role, determined to serve human needs, and expose what is truly immanent to them, what is their genuine immanence. Not what something does, in terms of serving human needs, but what something is capable of doing. For example, what happens when you make a closed loop with a device originally meant to be a medium like a TV or a camera? You turn something that was meant to be a medium, an instrument, into the message itself. You expose its immanent features by closing its mediational channel to the outer world and peep through the loop, as a hidden viewer, to see what happens. What you find are, surprisingly, some kind of patterns, maybe proper images that were not supposed to be there. Technology is supposed to be predictable, this is why we rely on its use, however, this result seems to have been unpredictable. These images seem to be what the machine produces on its own, despite being turned off, or to put it more poetically, we could say, what the machine dreams.
When you reconfigure a radio receiver so that it is not tuned to any frequency, as it is its primary purpose, what happens? You remove a limitation of the device designed in a way to obediently and predictably serve massive human communication. You make way for the device to produce uncontrolled signals, its own immanent language, so to say. Again, we deal with some ‘dead’ tool, something material, which all of a sudden seems to become alive and acquire a will of its own. Or, to put it differently, it acquires the potential to become a vehicle for communication with other forms of life which find their communication seat somewhere within the machine, immanent to it.
The immanent substance of what we usually label ‘material’ is even more stressed with Contemporary Divinities #1 and #2, two radio receivers powered by a galenite crystal and a germanium diode, respectively. We are used to electric devices needing some electric source for their functioning, whereas the two Divinities work by themselves, apparently acquiring electric energy from the air and ground. They do not need human intervention in the form of plugging to acquire energy, they do it by themselves. In this sense, they are self-sustained, independent, and the galenite crystal and germanium diode are the immanent material hearts that deliver energy from ‘within’ the machine due to their special material features.
Immanence as a philosophical idea is a major feature of pantheistic philosophical systems such as Spinoza’s, Bruno’s or Schelling’s, for example. In a certain sense, it puts the focus on the conception that the world is self-contained, all life forms are part of it and all possible deities and higher beings are somewhere within it, maybe in some specific place, or maybe everywhere. Historically, this idea emerged in contrast to the well-affirmed concept of a transcendent God in the Christian world and was most sharply subsumed in Spinoza’s claim deussivenatura, God or nature. In the present context of technology, the implication of the immanence hypothesis is that technology, which is sometimes venerated beyond all limits, is part of the world, too, and therefore has no manipulative powers that transcend it or that are almost godlike. It is not something omnipotent, which one could be lead to think when watching an atomic bomb explosion, for example. This claim may seem as obvious as it can be but, being immersed in a deeply technological society, people sometimes tend to regard technology as a kind of saviour.
The thesis of immanence of technology amounts to dethroning the manipulative principle of technology, which permeates most of our everyday lives. In this respect, a similar position was taken by Heidegger in his work The Question Concerning Technology (1954), in which he identifies the essence of technology as creating standing reserves for exploitation. This backwardly defines us as exploiters – the more we live a technology-supported life, the more we figure as beings of exploitation. The hypothesis of immanence of technology in this regard implies also opening new potentials and perspectives of our own being in the world, not only as consumers and exploiters of technological devices but also as wondering, playful, poetic and communicative beings.
A crucial role in this opening of perspectives is played by explanations. The Psychophone phenomenon of contacting dead persons or spirits and Schriber’s method of feedback loop producing strange or unexpected audio and visual phenomena are in conflict with the ordinary scientific rationale because they lack explanation, more specifically, of the scientific kind. They point to the irritating fact that something technological remains unexplained. If it is often publicly heard that science has still a lot to discover, this often relates to cosmological research of the universe or to high energy particle physics – the so-called basic sciences. But technology is supposed to be already thoroughly explored because it is human-made, and when we make something, we are supposed to know all about it and have an explanation for all of its functioning. This standpoint was inscribed in scientific explanations and has been widely held by most participants of the scientific community for centuries. It constitutes the so-called foundationist understanding of explanations as determining what is possible and what is not. If something cannot be justified with an explanation, then it is not possible. This view largely appertained to the rationalist mind relying on Cartesian certainty and modern scientific objectification of nature, according to which everything that could be demonstrated rationally or, to put it in modern scientific terms, mathematically, counted as existing. This attitude culminated in scientific determinism that extended its influence well into the 20th century. Controversies over quantum physics, however, contributed a lot to its abandonment.
This rational and logical determination of scientific theories was embedded in scientific explanations and set the limits of what is possible. In this sense, such explanations had a justificatory and transcendent status with regard to actual events, similarly as gods in some religions. The term “natural law” echoes this transcendent status. Science as such was in this sense seen as superior to nature, as well as eschatological, propelling constant linear progress. Among historians and philosophers of science, the illusion of constant epistemological progress of science was disclosed by Thomas Kuhn in his epochal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). His main point was that progress in science cannot be conceived as linear but rather as a movement constituted of paradigmatic shifts called scientific revolutions, between which longer periods of the so-called normal science are established. Before him, Karl Popper had already made a major impact on philosophers of science with his view on scientific theories presented in his work The logic of scientific discovery (1934). He established the criterion of fallibility, which is the principle that a scientific theory can fundamentally never be confirmed, and is on the contrary always subject to verifications and merely the best theory at disposal, the one that has not been rejected. This mitigated a little the status of the Cartesian certainty that scientific theories had enjoyed up to that moment. A very sharp criticism of the epistemological basis of science, which triggered much discussion, was that of Paul Feyerabend in his Against Method (1975). His main idea is that there is no unique methodology in science, which was labelled as epistemological anarchism.
Generally speaking, philosophers of science have since then ‘softened’ their views on scientific explanations. They have broadened the concept of rationality in order to allow variations and changes in scientific methods, some even claiming that following the same strict rules would be irrational. In the 1970s, semantic theories of science started emerging, conceiving of science as the practice of making scientific models. The latter are basically of limited reach and cannot be generalized to the extent that they would describe ‘the whole world’ – the more particular and practical they are, the more limited their reach is. This view leaves room for models to have a descriptive, predictive and explanatory role but not necessarily an unlimited justificatory one, in the sense of exclusively determining what is possible and what is not. In fact, they still do so, but in the domain of their validity. Among practitioners of science, however, older views are still quite spread because not enough effort is put into presenting the relevance of these questions in an adequate manner during formal technical education.
By making the clash between the scientific and alternative explanations of the exhibited technological unknowns explicit, Ohira&Bonilha’s work points also to the limits imposed by science through scientific explanations. Their action is in trying to trigger new perspectives in the thinking viewer, in evoking the question about the real meaning of an explanation, whether it is scientific or not, about its place in our everyday life, and the way it contributes to the shaping of meaning. Not only about the reason these devices are such and such and why some human inventors made them that way, but also about the manner in which their being such and such influences our self-understanding.
An influential work that opened these questions was Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936). Criticizing a sort of emptiness of scientific theories, which is reflected in mathematical formalization, but not disregarding science and its achievements, he points out that modern science has difficulty in delivering meaning to non-scientists. Its crisis stems from the fact that a huge gap has formed between scientific and everyday thinking about world phenomena, and this is a crisis of meaning. He coins his central term lifeworld in order to account for the inextricable intertwining of thinking and lifestyle, theory and practice, subject and object. He points out that our knowledge and self-understanding are basically intersubjective and form within our lifeworld. In terms of science, this means stressing what is the mutual influence of laboratory measurement practices and theory articulation. This aspect is also one that Kuhn stresses, and he presents to us a certain epistemological hermeneutical loop. Even in science, as in other areas of life, what we create, in this case scientific theories, has a feedback influence on us, sometimes more, sometimes less directly. And, moreover, we, as beings, develop certain responses to our environment, we expand into our lifeworld. In the case of technology, this means that we develop a certain attitude towards devices, we build a meaning entangled with them. This includes triggering certain responses on our part, which form part of the interaction experience.
The question then is not how to correctly understand the working of the Psychophone, Contemporary Divinities and the video feedback loop using Schriber’s method. A more appropriate question is what other way is there to free these technological tokens from limiting scientific explanations in a way that does not make us “suspicious about all that is new but unexplained, which often eliminates the chance to change things for better”, as the authors say in an interview.
If we are technically more precise, these devices are not in reality energetically self-sustained nor totally closed within themselves, essentially isolated from the environment. The two Divinities with their semiconductor ‘hearts’ get their energy from sunrays, like photovoltaic solar cells, and are therefore dependent on energy from their environment. But for us, beings of technology, it is amazing that such a small piece of material with no additional elements can open a one-way communication channel with the world. Poetically put, a ray of light enables us to connect with social information and events. This reads pretty much like a description of a magic stone and it could very well be seen that way without causing harm to anybody.
The Psychophone, because it can catch a wide range of signal frequencies (it is not tuned like a radio), is susceptible to various kinds of electromagnetic signals. Our environment is full of electromagnetic signals coming from phones, radio antennas, electrical cables, amateur radio emitters, outer space etc. In a way, one expects to catch some kind of a signal if a receiver is transformed this way. On the other hand, again, we can wonder how is communication between such distant places made possible with nothing else than immanent qualities of materials used for antennas and receivers. Electromagnetic fields used for wireless telecommunication can truly be seen as a wonder that no one can really justify in a rational, logical way as something that is given, named and given an explanation to live along with this phenomenon. With the Psychophone, the listener can discern sometimes more, sometimes less distinct sound patterns, as well as voices, and maybe have a chance to establish real contact with some radio amateurs. Taking into account the projective nature of human mind, one could in principle even hear known people or those who are already dead. Most of us do hear their voices from time to time in our heads anyway and nobody bothers to ask where they come from. If we imagine a situation where such a Psychophone acquires the status of a device that triggers such experience in some person’s psyche, we can most definitely say that the Psychophone is a device for transcommunicaton.
The video camera closed loop using Schriber’s method is not a hermetically closed loop. Even if the system is turned off, one has to connect it to some electrical source in order to see the intriguing images, otherwise there would be none. This way, the machine still gets a minimum of energy that enables some electrons to leave the cathode, fly and hit the screen, which are finally recorded by the camera. Still, the fact remains that when the device is not in operation mode, strange patterns appear on the screen, displaying moderate regularity. A tentative technical explanation would be that this is probably the result of the frequency of movement of cathode rays on the screen, the sampling frequency of the camera and the feedback loop between the camera and the screen, the latter achieving a similar effect as the two opposing mirrors and repeating an image ad infinitum. But what we can find fascinating is the fact that even when the machine ‘sleeps’, it ‘dreams’ about patterns. That is something partially ordered, in which humans tend to see different meaningful things, e.g. asteroids, details of flies or something else. If our visual projection of meaning unfolds continuously, and the machine becomes the token that triggers this process, it can be rightfully named a (one way) transcommunication device.
What does having a scientific explanation mean for these phenomena? Does it preclude their ‘immanent magic’ from opening free interpretational questions of other types? The answer is affirmative only if we understand scientific explanations in the rationalistic sense of justification for the existence of phenomena. But if we understand scientific theories as symbolic models of reality used for practical manipulation and mediation in a large and still growing scientific community, then there should be no greater conflict in keeping our interpretational options open, in sparing transcommunication a place under the sun. Such a position enables us to keep our horizon of understanding open, to more freely interpret what happens when humans and human-made machines interact, how they have a backward influence on our self-understanding and so on. The technological unknowns of Ohira&Bonilha disclose us mainly as communicative beings, as beings in search for other possibilities for communication, not stopping only at the established ones. We never know if new interpretations may bring some solutions that could change our attitude towards technology, nature, death, love, beauty and other potentially important topics in our lives. If they help bring some ethical or aesthetical turn, of which our society seems so much in need.
What scientists often overlook is the role of explanation in human lives in general, and what is the function of scientific explanations. Claiming that scientific explanations are the Truth, as some do, is a perspective-closing position, which chokes creativity and even development that is praised so much by the same scientists. What amateurs of science sometimes forget is that they can fall prey to the imperative of a hidden final Truth, which is possibly being held hostage by scientists, giving birth to conspiracy theories in science. Ohira&Bonilha invite the witnesses of their work to “exercise freedom” by building their own understanding of technological unknowns without closing the horizon for only one type of explanation, one preselected Truth.