From late April to June of 2020, Flatland conducted ESP tests with individuals through an open call on our (facebook owned) Instagram on the (Amazon owned) virtual conferencing platform Zoom. Since the start of COVID-19, Zoom, over its less amenable brethren Google Meet, Slack, etc., has been a go-to source of both professional pursuits and social. Given the sudden ubiquity of this platform as a (god-willing) temporary replacement for all strata of life in the United States, we at Flatland began to wonder its communicative efficacy as a sudden stand-in for all stripes of interaction. Just what is it that makes today’s modern Zoom rooms so different, so appealing?
These thoughts on Zoom occurred roughly at the same time the Chris half of Flatland was reading Charles Tart’s edited collection of 1960s parapsychological texts, Altered States of Consciousness. In the introduction to section one of the 1969 edition, Tart writes:
“An altered state of consciousness for a given individual is one in which [they] clearly feel a qualitative shift in [their] pattern of mental functioning, that is, [they] feel not just a qualitative shift (more or less alert, more or less visual imagery, sharper or duller, etc.), but also that some quality or qualities of their mental processes are different. Mental functions operate that do not operate at all ordinarily, perceptual qualities appear that have no normal counterparts, and so forth. There are numerous borderline cases in which the individual cannot clearly distinguish just how [their] state of consciousness is different from normal, where quantitative changes in mental functioning are very marked, etc., but the existence of borderline states and difficult-to-describe effects does not negate the existence of feelings of clear, qualitative changes in mental functioning that are the criterion of ASCs.”
The book goes on to discuss parapsychological testing stalwarts: sensory deprivation, hallucinatory values of psychedelic drugs, lucid dreaming, hypnosis, among more (today) acceptable social conscious raising practices such as meditation. Reading through this book, largely scientific in style and content (save for a conversation with writer Aldous Huxley) it is largely about ensuing results, i.e. what happens to the brain while we dream; how does one behave while on LSD; what kinds of drawings does someone make while under hypnosis?
The book, understandably, doesn’t presuppose that altered states of consciousness might occur on account of a global pandemic; that qualitative shifts in mental functioning, so “different” than “normal,” were only 50 years away under entirely less specious and semi-scientifically- unethical conditions (it should be noted that much parapsychological work was done at the behest of Cold War frothing military command).
It occurred to Chris, that altered states of consciousness seemed to be occurring daily without the need for the chains of swinging stopwatches or a mouthful of psychotropic drugs; all it took really for people to not be able to “distinguish how their state of consciousness is different from normal” was to examine how they suddenly were living in the midst of a world (mostly) on complete and total lockdown. There was also Zoom, one of the myriad ways in which we leaned on the internet to fill the fresh physical void in our lives; what might be the qualitative shift in our consciousness in our being given permission to largely only communicate to digital avatars or chat bubbles?
The answer, really, is a huge qualitative shift. Not just altered states but an altered State. For all of the 1960s cybernetic espousing and techno utopic clamoring for better communication (e.g. Weiner, McLuhan, Bateson, Beer, Ascott, Fuller) and later, the early aughts “post-internet” boom of living one’s best (or obstinately worst) life on the internet, it appeared, at least provincially from many vantage points, that people didn’t want to just communicate on/with the internet. Zoom is a good surrogate but it’s lack of true awkward pauses, escape plans, bad smells, much movement, and even the Brady Bunch style tiling, are just constant reminders of a physical social that is largely forbidden, or for the most part, indefinitely on pause (and forever altered if we consider the U.S’s current predilection for idiocy over expertise re: public health). All of the texts, diagrams, books, songs, Quentin Fiores striking designs, .gif internet shows, Kenneth Goldsmith internet apologizing, anti-human, sci-fi, surf-club, futurism that pointed at the communicative boon of the “world wide web” never (for the most part) considered what it might feel like as mandated. Who the hell wants to “waste time on the internet” once we are allowed in the world again?
Of course, the internet, and all of its ad sponsored and data-mining platforms that moonlight as essential accoutrements i.e. Zoom (and all social media) is ostensibly “the world” as well. Like tying a shoelace, we observe behavior online, bring it to a less virtual space, and then, based on what happens, we bring it back online to see what happens, and so on and so on (maybe a better metaphor is a perpetually tied and untied shoe). The turn against COVID-19 mask-wearing is an example of this: for how else can we account (outside of various psychological manias brought on by intense physical changes) for the increasingly performative displays by anti-maskers (who turn to do-your-own-researchism over actual-existing-researchism). Thus, for better or worse, or for lack of more strained metaphors, we largely exist in this dance between avatar and physical space, internet hypothesis meeting resultant consequences.
Returning then, to this somewhat experimental art exhibition about ESP: this is less a novelty parapsychological dip in the pool (although it is very cute) but more of a mini treatise on our contemporary mode of communication among this constant alteration of our commons. In each Zoom ESP test, Chris attempted to send an image, or scene, or action to each participant in the vague hope that they might receive it, that a telepathic connection could be achieved. This, of course, was a pretense to establish a connection via using Zoom in a way it was not intended to be used, to create an occasion for an experience in a moment where such experiences are wholly regulated or controlled. Only one participant (Michelle Marie) got remotely close to the beamed-in image; another was the only one to hear anything (Veronica Salinas); every single one of them envisioned a scene of nature (perhaps a reaction to this very experience of thinking outside while being stuck inside). The fruits of these sessions elicited new works, unguarded prompts, sensory goofs, and online awkwardness that both espoused the futility of marrying minds but also the spirit of just doing it anyway.
We now live in the Altered States of America, and with this ASA comes an ESP of a new sort, one predicated on the knowledge that normal states/States were a long running myth, that we had been under the test the entire time. There has been some speculation that the overwhelming response to George Floyd’s murder – and the systemic militarization of police against BLPOC generally – was a product of percolating under COVID-19 lockdown, of unease with idleness. While this can be read as a cynical take, it can also be understood as a condition that helped to lead to a moment of clarity. This wasn’t jouissance per se, as while joy can be radical, there was little ecstasy in the conditions that lead to and catalyzed this uprising. However, we might say that, like the uncanny feeling of connecting with someone telepathically – which is to say, linking up one’s mental capabilities – such a waking life moment could be ecstatic in what it promises next: real change through actual connection and recognition. This is a lot to put on an ESP Zoom exhibition with artists through a small exhibition space in Chicago, and the charge of overinflating its conceptual value wouldn’t be met with too much defense. Yet, our aim was true, to work with others – remotely – to conceive a record of the “now time” that wasn’t just “more art” or “kill art” or “here’s another thing to watch online.” In this way, I hope this exhibition, small and playful as it might be, does more than its modest premise lets on, is a little piece of figuring out the inside with the outside, attempted collaboration, and finding excuses for figuring out what to do with everything that collapses and rebuilds around us.
July, 14th, 2020