Can technology connect us to the metaphysical world? Many have thought so, and the concept itself is as old as the discovery of electricity, deemed by Benjamin Franklin “a proof of God’s existence”. According to anecdote (later proven untrue), Thomas Edison intended to work on a “telephone to the dead”, yet Edison actually said in an interview that if spirits exist, they would be capable of communicating via advanced technologies. Since the 19th century, technology and media have been perceived as facilitators of linking to ‘the other side’, and equally as tools for rationalism and the discrediting of myth. The contemporary quest for the uncanny in recorded sound and image can therefore be understood as a legacy of the Spiritualist movement, with its photographs of ghosts and Kirlian auras, as well as a counterbalance to the reality of Weberian “disenchantment’ –the world free of metaphysics, ruled by reason.
Since 1995, under the guise of Disinformation, Joe Banks –artist and researcher equally active in the audio and visual domains –has undertaken studies on marginal and overlooked areas of sound, such as electromagnetic interference and electrical noise. In Rorschach Audio, a project instigated in 1999 which encompasses research, audio-visual artworks and a 2012 book, he conducts a detailed inquiry into the history of aural illusions and misperceptions, and gathers possible explanations.
Much of Banks’ attention – in the book and beyond – is given over to EVP (electronic voice phenomena), which consists of words allegedly heard via electrical devices tuned to particular frequencies. Konstantin Raudive, a Latvian psychologist who made an impressive number of EVP recordings, claimed that the voices on tape not only belonged to the deceased, but could be identified as specific individuals. Since the 1960s, when Raudive began his work, the number of believers in EVP, who nowadays use television and computers alongside radio and magnetic tape, has risen exponentially; such tests have also been the object of creative pursuit, e.g. by Polish experimental sound artist Zenial, who attempted to elicit EVP from a séance of personal cassette players.
Whilst Raudive was convinced that he could hear genuine human voices through a wall of electrical noise, cognitive psychology offers a different explanation, and a disenchanting one. According to theory, aural misperceptions, in particular the tendency to hear incidental words, are a function of a human brain which, challenged with disorderly matter, inadvertently begins to impose non-existent patterns. This phenomenon, apophenia, is said to especially concern faces and voices, examples of which would be the famous ‘man on the moon’, along with many alleged religious epiphanies.
But when we delve into Banks’ multi-faceted book, we discover that ‘Rorschach Audio’ is not only a trip into the esoteric. One of its unexpected heroes is E.H. Gombrich, influential art historian, whose experience in the BBC Monitoring Service during World War II eventually led him to discovering the importance of illusion in human perception. These misapprehensions could be understood as a handicap –duplicitous pattern recognition (as in the apophenia theory) –but also as a liberating force. William S. Burroughs, a devoted follower of various ‘savage technologies’ and unorthodox beliefs (including Wilhelm Reich‘s Orgone theory and Scientology), perceived such misconceptions as a means to free oneself from the tyranny of the word. Alongside cut-ups, and ‘words from the machine’ created by tape recorder experimentation, such slips in reality were, in his view, cracks in the barriers constructed by the oppressive ‘cosmic virus’ of language.
The book also makes reference to Banks’ own work in order to illustrate its points. In one of Disinformation’s installations, ‘The Analysis of Beauty’ (named after William Hogarth’s book, in which the artist examined the grace hidden in a serpentine line), we follow a kinetic depth effect phenomenon –a swirl of three flat patterns produced by a sine-wave oscilloscope. On an optical level, the lines form an illusion of depth, a DNA-like coil; the vision is accompanied by a regular, subdued drone, which continues for a few minutes. Here, there are multiple choices open to the viewer: one can suspend their belief and let themselves be seduced by the hypnotic, mantric quality; question the nature of what they see; or try and consciously direct their perception.
If the ‘Rorschach Audio’ project suggests that manifold impressions, often false, result from tricks played on the senses, Banks still maintains a humanist attitude towards those who seek to impose explanation on the unknowable, particularly in relation to an afterlife in which, they attest, their loved ones continue to exist. This attitude preserves the balance between two worldviews – the legacy of the Enlightenment, and the irrational reaction to it; an entirely explicable universe, as opposed to the belief in reality touched by the magical or metaphysical. In the quest for validation, the amount of hope invested in trying to prove supernatural influence is striking. Banks’ thought-provoking, empathetic insights into unexplained aural phenomena document a fascinating struggle to determine a world more magical than it probably is, ideally via scientific means; one which has preoccupied both the devotee and the debunker for two centuries now.