A series of apparently impossible events

Exploring Smoke and Mirrors at Wellcome Collection for New Scientist, 1 May 2019

ACCORDING to John Nevil Maskelyne, “a bad conjurer will make a good medium any day”. He meant that, as a stage magician in 19th-century London, he had to produce successful effects night after night, while rivals who claimed their illusions were powered by the spirit world could simply blame a bad set on “unhelpful spirits”, or even on the audience’s own scepticism.

A gaffe-ridden performance in the UK by one set of spiritualists, the US Davenport Brothers, drove Maskelyne to invent his own act. With his friend, the cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he created an “anti-spiritualist” entertainment, at once replicating and debunking the spiritualist movement’s stock-in-trade effects.

Matthew Tompkins teases out the historical implications of Maskelyne’s story in The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal and the complicity of the mind (Thames & Hudson). It is a lavishly illustrated history to accompany Smoke and Mirrors, a new and intriguing exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Historical accident was partly responsible. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi sent long-wave radio signals over a distance of a couple of kilometres, and, for decades after, hardly a year passed in which some researcher didn’t announce a new type of invisible ray. The world turned out to have aspects hidden from unaided human perception. Was it so unreasonable of people to speculate about what, or who, might lurk in those hidden corners of reality? Were they so gullible, reeling as they were from the mass killings of the first world war, to populate these invisible realms with their dead?

In 1924, the magazine Scientific American offered $2500 to any medium who could demonstrate their powers under scientific controls. The medium Mina “Margery” Crandon decided to try her hand, but she reckoned without the efforts of one Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, who eventually exposed her as a fraud.

Yet spiritualism persisted, shading off into parapsychology, quantum speculation and any number of cults. Understanding why is more the purview of a psychologist such as Gustav Kuhn, who, as well as being a major contributor to the show, offers insight into magic and magical belief in his own new book, Experiencing the Impossible (MIT Press).

Kuhn, a member of the Magic Circle, finds Maskelyne’s “anti-spiritualist” form of stage magic alive in the hands of illusionist Derren Brown. He suggests that Brown is more of a traditional magician than he lets on, dismissing the occult while he endorses mysterious psychological phenomena, mostly to do with “subconscious priming”, that, at root, are non-scientific.

Kuhn defines magic as “the experience of wonder that results from perceiving an apparently impossible event”. Definitions of what is impossible differ, and different illusions work for different people. You can even design it for animals, as a torrent of YouTube videos, based largely on Finnish magician Jose Ahonen’s “Magic for Dogs”, attest.

Tricking dogs is one thing, but why do our minds fall for magic? It was the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, who argued that there is no metaphysical glue binding events, and that we only ever infer causal relationships, be they real or illusory.

Twinned with our susceptibility to wrongly infer relationships between events in the world is our ability to fool ourselves at an even deeper level. Numerous studies, including one by researcher and former magician Jay Olson and clinician Amir Raz which sits at the exit to the Wellcome show, conclude that our feeling of free will may be an essential trick of the mind.

Inferring connections makes us confident in ourselves and our abilities, and it is this confidence, this necessary delusion about the brilliance of our cognitive abilities, that lets us function… and be tricked. Even after reading both books, I defy you to see through the illusions and wonders in store at the exhibition.

Pierre Huyghe: Digital canvases and mind-reading machines

Visiting UUmwelt, Pierre Huyghe’s show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, for the Financial Times, 4 October 2018

On paper, Pierre Huyghe’s new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London is a rather Spartan effort. Gone are the fictional characters, the films, the drawings; the collaborative manga flim-flam of No Ghost Just a Shell; the nested, we’re not-in-Kansas-any-more fictions, meta-fictions and crypto-documentaries of Streamside Day Follies. In place of Huyghe’s usual stage blarney come five large LED screens. Each displays a picture that, as we watch, shivers through countless mutations, teetering between snapshot clarity and monumental abstraction. One display is meaty; another, vaguely nautical. A third occupies a discomforting interzone between elephant and milk bottle.

Huyghe has not abandoned all his old habits. There are smells (suggesting animal and machine worlds), sounds (derived from brain-scan data, but which sound oddly domestic: was that not a knife-drawer being tidied?) and a great many flies. Their random movements cause the five monumental screens to pause and stutter, and this is a canny move, because without that  arbitrary grammar, Huyghe’s barrage of visual transformations would overwhelm us, rather than excite us. There is, in short, more going on here than meets the eye. But that, of course, is true of everywhere: the show’s title nods to the notion of “Umwelt” coined by the zoologist Jacob von Uexküll in 1909, when he proposed that the significant world of an animal was the sum of  things to which it responds, the rest going by virtually unnoticed. Huyghe’s speculations about machine intelligence are bringing this story up to date.

That UUmwelt turns out to be a show of great beauty as well; that the gallery-goer emerges from this most abstruse of high-tech shows with a re-invigorated appetite for the arch-traditional business of putting paint on canvas: that the gallery-goer does all the work, yet leaves feeling exhilarated, not exploited — all this is going to require some explanation.

To begin at the beginning, then: Yukiyasu Kamitani , who works at Kyoto University in Japan, made headlines in 2012 when he fed the data from fMRI brain scans of sleeping subjects into neural networks. These computer systems eventually succeeded in capturing shadowy images of his volunteers’ dreams. Since then his lab has been teaching computers to see inside people’s heads. It’s not there yet, but there are interesting blossoms to be plucked along the way.

UUmwelt is one of these blossoms. A recursive neural net has been shown about a million pictures, alongside accompanying fMRI data gathered from a human observer. Next, the neural net has been handed some raw fMRI data, and told to recreate the picture the volunteer was looking at.

Huyghe has turned the ensuing, abstruse struggles of the Kamitani Lab’s unthinking neural net into an exhibition quite as dramatic as anything he has ever made. Only, this time, the theatrics are taking place almost entirely in our own heads. What are we looking at here? A bottle. No, an elephant, no, a Francis Bacon screaming pig, goose, skyscraper, mixer tap, steam train mole dog bat’s wing…

The closer we look, the more engaged we become, the less we are able to describe what we are seeing. (This is literally true, in fact, since visual recognition works just that little bit faster than linguistic processing.) So, as we watch these digital canvases, we are drawn into dreamlike, timeless lucidity: a state of concentration without conscious effort that sports psychologists like to call “flow”. (How the Serpentine will ever clear the gallery at the end of the day I have no idea: I for one was transfixed.)

UUmwelt, far from being a show about how machines will make artists redundant, turns out to be a machine for teaching the rest of us how to read and truly appreciate the things artists make. It exercises and strengthens that bit of us that looks beyond the normative content of images and tries to make sense of them through the study of volume, colour, light, line, and texture. Students of Mondrian, Duffy and Bacon, in particular, will lap up this show.

Remember those science-fictional devices and medicines that provide hits of concentrated education? Quantum physics in one injection! Civics in a pill! I think Huyghe may have come closer than anyone to making this silly dream a solid and compelling reality. His machines are teaching us how to read pictures, and they’re doing a good job of it, too.

 A History of Silence reviewed: Unlocking the world of infinitely small noises

Reading Alain Corbin’s A History of Silence (Polity Press) for The Telegraph, 3 September 2018

The Orientalist painter Eugene Fromentin adored the silence of the Sahara. “Far from oppressing you,” he wrote to a friend, “it inclines you to light thoughts.” People assume that silence, being an absence of noise, is the auditory equivalent of darkness. Fromentin was having none of it: “If I may compare aural sensations to those of sight, then silence that reigns over vast spaces is more a sort of aerial transparency, which gives greater clarity to the perceptions, unlocks the world of infinitely small noises, and reveals a range of inexpressible delights.” (26-27)

Silence invites clarity. Norwegian explorer and publisher Erling Kagge seized on this nostrum for his international bestseller Silence in the Age of Noise, published in Norway in 2016, the same year Alain Corbin’s A History of Silence was published in France.

People forget this, but Kagge’s short, smart airport read was more tough-minded than the fad it fed. In fact, Kagge’s crowd-pleasing Silence and Corbin’s erudite History make surprisingly good travelling companions.

For instance: while Corbin was combing through Fromentin’s Un été dans le Sahara of 1856, Kagge was talking to his friend the artist Marina Abramovic, whose experience of desert silence was anything but positive: “Despite the fact that everything end completely quiet around her, her head was flooded with disconnected thoughts… It seemed like an empty emptiness, while the goal is to experience a full emptiness, she says.” (115)

Abramovic’s trouble, Kagge tells us, was that she couldn’t stop thinking. She wanted a moment of Fromentinesque clarity, but her past and her future proved insuperable obstacles: the moment she tore are mind away from one, she found herself ruminating over the other.

It’s a common complaint, according to Kagge: “The present hurts, and our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves.” (37)

Why should this be? The answer is explored in Corbin’s book, which is one of those cultural histories which comes very close to becoming a virtually egoless compendium of quotations. Books of this sort can be a terrible mess but Corbin’s architecture, on the contrary, is as stable as it is artfully concealed. This is a temple: not a pile.

The present, properly attended to, alone and in silence, reveals time’s awful scale. When we think about the past or the future, what we’re actually doing is telling ourselves stories. It’s in the present moment, if we dare attend to it, that we glimpse the Void.

Jules Michelet, in his book La Montaigne (1872), recognised that the great forces shaping human destiny are so vast as to be silent. The process of erosion, for example, “is the more successfully accomplished in silence, to reveal, one morning, a desert of hideous nakedness, where nothing shall ever again revive.” The equivalent creative forces are hardly less awful: the “silent toil of the innumerably polyps” of a coral reef, for example, creating “the future Earth; on whose surface, perhaps, Man shall hereafter reside”.

No wonder so many of us believe in God, when sitting alone in a quiet room for ten minutes confronts us with eternity. The Spanish Basque theologian Ignatius Loyola used to spend seven solid hours a day in silent prayer and came to the only possible conclusion: silence “cancels all rational and discursive activity, thereby enabling direct perception of the divine word.”

“God bestows, God trains, God accomplishes his work, and this can only be done in the silence that is established between the Creator and the creature.” (42-43)

Obvious as this conclusion may be, though, it could still be wrong. Even the prophet Isaiah complained: “Verily thou art a God that hides thyself”.

What if God’s not there? What if sound and fury were our only bulwark against the sucking vacuum of our own meaninglessness? It’s not only the empty vessels that make the most noise: “Men with subtle minds who are quick to see every side of a question find it hard to refrain from expressing what they think,” said Eugene Delacroix. Anyway, “how is it possible to resist giving a favourable idea of one’s mind to a man who seems surprised and pleased to hear what one is saying?”

There’s a vibrancy in tumult, a civic value in conversation, and silence is by no means always golden — a subject Corbin explores ably and at length, carrying us satisfyingly far from our 2016-vintage hygge-filled comfort zone.

Silence suggests self-control, but self-control can itself be a response to oppression. Advice to courtiers to remain silent, or at least ensure that their words are more valuable than their silence, may at worst suggest a society where there is no danger in keeping quiet, but plenty of danger in speaking.

This has certainly been the case historically among peasants, immersed as they are in a style of life that has elements of real madness about it: an undercurrent of constant hate and bitterness expressed in feuding, bullying, bickering and family quarrels, the petty mentality, the self-deprecation, the superstition, the obsessive control of daily life by a strict authoritarianism. If you don’t believe me, read Zola. His peasant silences are “first and foremost a tactic” in a milieu where plans, ambitious or tragic, “were slow to come to fruition, which meant that it was essential not to show your hand.” (93)

Corbin’s history manages to anatomise silence without fetishising it. He leaves you with mixed feelings: a neat trick to pull, in a society that’s convinced it’s drowning in noise.

It’s not true. In Paris, Corbin reminds us, forges once operated on the ground floors of buildings throughout the city. Bells of churches, convents, schools and colleges only added to the cacophony. Carriages made the level of street noise even more deafening. (61) I was reminded, reading this, of how the Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage died, at the age of 79, at his home in Marylebone. Never mind the urinary tract infection: his last hours were spent being driven to distraction by itinerant hurdy-gurdy players pan-handling outside his window.

If anything, contemporary society suffers from too much control of its auditory environment. Passengers travelling in trains and trams observe each other in silence; a behaviour that was once considered damn rude. Pedestrians no longer like to be greeted. Among the many silences we may welcome, comes one that we surely must deplore: the silence that accompanies the diminution of our civic life.

“I have nothing to say as an artist”

An interview with the sculptor Anish Kapoor for New Scientist.

I have said this over and over again: you make what you make, and you put it in front of yourself first of all. Inevitably, a certain concept arises, and exploring that concept is the real work. If I started off with some big message for the world, it would keep getting in the way.

There is an emotional world and an objective world, and the two mesh. Thirty years ago I began working with the idea that for every material thing, there’s a non-material thing alongside it – sometimes poetic, sometimes phenomenological. For example, I once made a stone chamber and painted it a very dark blue. Thanks to the psychological implications of the colour, if you look inside the chamber it’s as though this stone thing had a non-thing inside it. The cavity becomes an object. You get an effect like that when you look at a polished concave surface. The eye wants to fill the hollow with a sort of convex ghost.

I’ve been interested in what I call “void works” for many years: applying deep, dark colour to mostly concave forms so the space and object are confused. This lead me to Vantablack, a superblack made from carbon nanotubes. It’s extraordinary – the light gets in and is not able to get out. (Indeed, Vantablack absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light.) The discovery of a new material like this opens up the most incredible possibilities. I love the idea that one could walk into a room that isn’t dark and at the same time isn’t there. You could have lights on, but the room wouldn’t be there. There’s something magical about that. It’s that wonderful, liminal moment between wonder and fear – that’s what I aim for.

I don’t mind too much when people call me an illusionist. I’m pretty sure that everything we consider to be real is illusory, or has an illusory element. From a psychological point of view, there’s more deep truth in the unreal than there is in the real. After all, objectively speaking, colour doesn’t even exist. So that’s the game. Keep your balance. Whenever subjectivity and objectivity are put into opposition, never come down on either side.

I’ve always been deeply fascinated by raw pigment, which is at once a colour – a pure, psychological idea – and a real substance. It has this otherness you can’t quite point at. My latest works at Lisson Gallery are made with silicone, all very red and very visceral. I work with red a lot, because of its darkness. The psychology of the red generates a much darker dark than black or blue.

And I’ve always been deeply interested in geometry, and I’ve put some of my pieces into motion to get at forms I can’t produce by any other method. Descension is a whirlpool that produces a natural parabola. It took me 20 years to get it to work, because it needs to be built at a certain scale, and be spinning at a certain rate. What surprised me, once I’d achieved those wonderful parabolic curves, was what happened at the bottom of the pool. A void opened up, a form I never expected to find there, for all the world as though this thing was boring its way the centre of the Earth!

Art and science do sit naturally quite close to each other. But making a statement of that sort in a piece of art is just going to get in the way. Science is apparently rational and art, perhaps, more confused. But they both start out as experimental processes, and both are contained by rules. A poetic purpose is every bit as real as an apparently scientific one. There’s objectivity in art, just as much as there’s subjectivity in science.

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks

I reviewed this for the Sunday Telegraph:

There is something very New York about the cultivated, yet horripilating glimpse Sacks gives of his own mortality. Years ago the actor Spalding Gray took a more brutal approach, screaming ‘DEATH!’ in the middle of an otherwise genial monologue.

Media_httpitelegraphc_roxlb

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks

I reviewed this for the Sunday Telegraph:

There is something very New York about the cultivated, yet horripilating glimpse Sacks gives of his own mortality. Years ago the actor Spalding Gray took a more brutal approach, screaming ‘DEATH!’ in the middle of an otherwise genial monologue.

Media_httpitelegraphc_roxlb

William Hudson’s elephant

Elephants

In 1962, the anthropologist William Hudson offered a group of adults and children living in the Zambian bush two drawings of an elephant. In one, the elephant was seen from above; in the other, the same elephant was squashed, as if by a steam-roller, so that its legs and trunk were splayed out to the sides of the body. The children preferred the ‘squashed’ drawing, because it contained more of the elephant.

When Westerners are shown the same drawings, they prefer the unsquashed one. Although there is less elephant in it, they consider the picture more realistic, since it captures what it would be like to see an elephant from a particular angle.

The choice, in both instances, is a sophisticated one. It is an aesthetic choice. The pictorial art of the veldt typically conveys ideas of value and meaning. The art of the post-Renaissance West typically simulates the rules of optics. People prefer some representations over others. Representations are plastic. They are modified over time. They change.

Read more in Deregowski, J.B. (1972) ‘Pictorial perception and culture.’ Scientific American 227, pp82-88.

William Hudson’s elephant

Elephants

In 1962, the anthropologist William Hudson offered a group of adults and children living in the Zambian bush two drawings of an elephant. In one, the elephant was seen from above; in the other, the same elephant was squashed, as if by a steam-roller, so that its legs and trunk were splayed out to the sides of the body. The children preferred the ‘squashed’ drawing, because it contained more of the elephant.

When Westerners are shown the same drawings, they prefer the unsquashed one. Although there is less elephant in it, they consider the picture more realistic, since it captures what it would be like to see an elephant from a particular angle.

The choice, in both instances, is a sophisticated one. It is an aesthetic choice. The pictorial art of the veldt typically conveys ideas of value and meaning. The art of the post-Renaissance West typically simulates the rules of optics. People prefer some representations over others. Representations are plastic. They are modified over time. They change.

Read more in Deregowski, J.B. (1972) ‘Pictorial perception and culture.’ Scientific American 227, pp82-88.