Art+Science
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Joe Banks: Rorschach Audio. EVP, Psychoacoustics and Auditory Illusions

The so-called Rorschach ink-blot test is a psychodiagnostic method for the analysis of personality named after its inventor: Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922). During the test, the patient is asked to interpret a series of ten cards with symmetrical colored blots. According to advocates of this diagnostic method, different subjective responses to these ambiguous images – if appropriately registered and analyzed – would reveal the personality profile of the examined subject, as well as any psychiatric diseases or though disorder.

It’s from this complex and debated methodology that the title Rorschach Audio. Art & Illusion for Sound takes its cue. Rorschach Audio is the latest book by Joe Banks, perhaps better known for his artistic projects, signed, since 1995, with the name Disinformation. The result of more than a decade of research, the book starts from a trenchant critique of artistic uses and scientific claims of EVP – Electronic Voice Phenomena, but expands its scope to address the wider issues of auditory illusions, psychoacoustic ambiguities, and misperceptions of sound stimuli. The central thesis of the book is that it is the mind to project illusory, familiar, and subjective meanings into ambiguous, undefined and unknown sounds, similarly to what happens in the visual field with the Rorschach ink-blots.

Electronic Voice Phenomena, since the invention of the phonograph, have drew attention and curiosity of artists, scientists and scholars, starting from Thomas Alva Edison and culminating with Friedrich Jürgensonand his famous treatise Sprechfunk Mit Verstorbenen, 1967 [1] – and with psychologist Konstantin Raudive – author of several publications including Breakthrough, his 1971 book featuring hundreds of recordings [2]. Sometimes interpreted as paranormal phenomena of spiritualist matrix that would allow contact with the afterlife, EVP are ambiguous and unknown voices appearing in sound recordings on magnetic tape, radio reception or amplification through electronic instrumentation.

It is precisely this ambiguity and the fascination connected to the slippages between science and occultism that are at the origins of the widespread use of these voices in contemporary music practice, starting at least in 2002, when Sub Rosa released The Voices of the Dead: a selection of tracks from Raudive’s archive including remixes by artists such as Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Lee Ronaldo, Scanner and David Toop. Even in contemporary art, many artists have been inspired by EVP research, abandoning any para-scientific commitment to embrace, instead, its evocative and enigmatic potential or playing on the oscillation between scientific methodologies and irrational thought, as in the fascinating Magic Lantern by Susan Hiller (1987) [3].

Rorschach Audio is made up of thematic chapters, developed from initially separated essays and lectures: the result is a circular structure in which the internal references proliferate and argumentative paths often intersect. The first chapter focuses on EVP and leads them back to perceptual processes and subjective acoustic projections, fully drawing on a number of interdisciplinary references: from neurological and psychological studies (the so-called “McGurk Effect”, the “Cocktail Party Effect”, the “Picket Fence Effect”, and so on), to the theory of perception; from studies of radio communications during the Second World War up to Ernst HJ Gombrich‘s Art and Illusion (and his participation to the BBC Monitoring Service during that conflict). The second chapter, entitled Burning an Illusion, aims at retracing what the author calls “the social history of EVP”[4] by tracking them down through literary and historical references and by investigating the cultural reception of pseudo-scientific interpretations of this phenomenon from Edison, through Spiritism and devoting wide space to Jurgenson, Raudive and William Burroughs. The third chapter looks at the relationships between artistic research and EVP, between literature and mishearings, with quotes from, among others, Raymond Roussel, Isidore Isou and Jean Genet. The final chapter, instead, focuses on the correspondences between auditory and visual illusions and, more generally, on the theme of “mis-perception” and its aesthetic potential.

Those who are looking for a scientific and academic treatise on psychoacoustics, as well as those who are looking for a thorough investigation on the use of EVP and acoustic illusions in contemporary art and music from an art-historical perspective, will not find it in this book. Rorschach Audio offers, instead, a plethora of literary, scientific and cultural anecdotes, experiments and associations that revolve around the fascinating relationships between sound technologies, acoustics and psychology of perception.

Joe Banks presented Rorschach Audio at the panel Acoustic Ambiguities, held at the ICA-Institute of Contemporary Arts on September 15, and at The Voice Symposium at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London on November 16, among other venues. Starting from these occasions, I addressed some of the central issues of his research with him.

Elena Biserna: The book seems strictly linked to your artistic practice, starting from your first projects using radio noise in the mid-1990s. Where does your interest in radio transmissions, EVP and acoustic illusions stem from?

Joe Banks: To answer your question, I started an electronic music and sound art project called Disinformation, doing the initial research and experimenting with test recordings in 1995, and publishing the first Disinformation LPs and CDs through the record company Ash International, the sister label of Touch Records, in 1996. At that time the core idea was essentially to market radio science recordings – recordings of electromagnetic interference produced by lightning, electric storms, the solar wind and live mains electricity etc – as though they were electronic equivalents of wild-life recordings. The project sought to adapt an aesthetic that – in relation to the temporal and compositional aspects of wild-life recording – drew from the conventions associated with that field, but using what was, especially at that time, such unconventional subject matter to – philosophically speaking – uncover some of the more sentimental and anthropomorphic ideas typically associated with the consumption and with the aesthetics of nature recordings. In practice, many of the early tracks, on the Ghost Shells EP, the Stargate LP and R&D CDs etc., were unadulterated field recordings, while products like the Antiphony and Al-Jabr remix CDs used radio noise as raw material for musical manipulations. Soon after Disinformation crossed-over into the field of installation art, exhibiting the first National Grid sound installation in London in 1997.

One problem encountered making recordings of, for instance, naturally occurring electromagnetic noise, is the amount of communications chatter – human voices – that intrude onto the antennas used to record electric storms etc. on the so-called VLF (Very Low Frequency) radio band. VLF radio is dominated by interference from lightning and mains electricity, so isn’t much used for communications and broadcast radio. VLF receivers that are however deliberately designed to pick-up naturally-occurring radio phenomena operate at the same, albeit electromagnetic rather than acoustic, frequencies as human hearing, and signals from Long, Medium and Short-Wave bands can also demodulate onto VLF antennas, producing stray voices. In context of the EVP movement, the recording equipment used by EVP researchers picks up these stray voices, when for instance microphone cables act as antennas, channelling VLF signals into the amplifying circuits of the recording devices, which, in this way, function as primitive radios. What’s extraordinary about the EVP movement is that voices that emerge as by-products of a relatively straightforward engineering problem have been interpreted as being evidence of ghosts.

In the earliest days of Disinformation – put bluntly – my interest in the EVP movement was almost zero. However, in 1998 I was asked to speak alongside the recording artist Robin Rimbaud at an event The Wire magazine were planning at The Lux Centre in London. The Wire suggested Robin wanted to speak about EVP, so I suggested tackling EVP in light of a scientific American article which described a recording of ambiguous voice sounds made by psychoacoustics expert Diana Deutsch. Her recording consists of jumbled syllables which are repeated in such a way that the sounds are initially perceived as meaningless, before listeners start to project sometimes quite vivid illusions of recognisable words onto the sounds. It seemed obvious that the mechanism which enabled EVP enthusiasts to project perceptions of alleged ghostly activity onto distorted speech sounds was the same mechanism demonstrated by Diana Deutsch’s recording – with an obvious analogy being to how people perceive images of angels, bats, demons, faces etc. in psychoanalysts’ famous Rorschach ink-blot tests. The Wire talks went ahead that December, but Robin dropped the idea of talking about EVP. However, in 1999 Ash International co-produced a CD of EVP recordings called The Ghost Orchid, so I developed this idea as the first Rorschach Audio article, which appeared in the sleeve-notes for that CD.

It should be stressed, however, that while the Rorschach Audio book is, as described, linked to an artistic practice, it’s not about that practice. Although the two projects do overlap, Disinformation is primarily an art project, Rorschach Audio is primarily a research project, and the scope of that research is very broad.

Elena Biserna: Let’s talk about this scope. Although EVP has been at the centre of pseudo-scientific researches and artistic projects, it can be thought as a niche subject. In your book you argue, instead, that an in depth analysis and critique of EVP and, most of all, EVP supernatural “beliefs” may have a wider scope and attract a more general interest. Can you explain why?

Joe Banks: The starting point of Rorschach Audio is the project’s attempts to show that EVP research is a form of Spiritualism, and not, in any real sense, a form of scientific research, and to show that the meanings some listeners project onto EVP voices stem from illusions of sound. So, in that respect at least – although the book goes into a lot more detail than most critiques of EVP – the book is not absolutely unique. Though I say so myself, where the book is much more innovative and much more relevant, is in challenging the tendency to think of both Spiritualist beliefs and of illusions generally as being or as resulting from anomalous psychology. While that description is obviously fair to an extent, what became apparent as a result of working through this project was the degree to which the perceptual mistakes which can lead us to mis-perceive sounds as audio illusions are not anomalous, but are instead produced by the same mechanisms of perception that enable to us perceive reality.

As you say, EVP itself is a niche subject, but the actual mechanisms that produce EVP, and which indeed produce almost all other auditory and visual illusions, are, firstly, shared by everyone and are, secondly, aspects of normal perception. It’s because of that paradox that the book is most relevant, as the ramifications of those facts are genuinely quite profound.

At the risk of introducing a bit of a plot-spoiler: the book argues that EVP researchers are in essence conducting psychology experiments, which they themselves have misunderstood, and shows that the comparison between psychology experiments and EVP proves valid not just in the case of the Diana Deutsch recording, but also in the case of other psychology experiments and other aspects of EVP. The book argues that the ability to misinterpret EVP as ghost voices stems from the mind’s reliance on projective, imaginative and interpolative faculties, from the mind’s ability to actively make stuff up and to fill-in and smooth-over perceptual interruptions and gaps, and that those faculties emerged as the result of a natural evolutionary process, in order to help us make sense of a complex and noisy world. The book tries to show that the mental processes which generate what we perceive as illusions are the same processes that generate what we experience as reality. So, while it can be shown that much of what we perceive as reality is therefore partly illusory, the paradox is that the illusions the mind generates to help describe our world are, for most everyday practical purposes, reliable and accurate respresentations of reality.

It might sound a bit far-fetched to reach those kind of conclusions from studying something as eccentric as EVP. However, where the argument really becomes convincing is when the basic hunch about perceptual guesswork is confirmed by comparing projective audio illusions with other illusions – particularly a visual illusion known as the Kinetic Depth Effect – and with blind-spot phenomena. As you may know, a surprisingly large section within the visual field is actually blind, and the mind compensates for that by copying information from areas surrounding those blind-spots, then pasting that information over the blind-spots to fill-in the gaps. The mind creates the illusion of a complete visual field so quickly and smoothly that we’re almost never aware of the fact that some of what our eyes see is partly imaginary. There are strong analogies between that process and certain audio illusions. What those interpolative faculties show is that illusions aren’t just perceptual anomalies, audio-visual gimmicks, or the kind of experiences that only take place in psychology labs or in conjuring tricks. What they show is that these faculties are necessary and important parts of normal perception, which the mind needs to be able to make sense of and to help us navigate through the real world safely and quickly.

So, having established that the misperception of EVP as ghost voices stems from illusions of sound, the book then develops a much broader over-view of what illusions tell us about perception generally. What’s really unique about EVP specifically, however, is that public misunderstanding of these processes has first been actively promoted, and second that, through that promotion, those misunderstandings have been turned into what amounts to an organised belief system.

Elena Biserna: In regards to artistic uses of EVP, I would say that, actually, I am less interested in the “reality” or “supernatural nature” of these voices and sounds, than in the ways they are used by artists and in their evocative potential. But, more in general, what are, in your opinion, the aesthetic possibilities of acoustic illusions and mis-hearings?

Joe Banks: The reason the book carries the subtitle Art & Illusion for Sound is because an important discussion of the role that projective processes play in hearing was documented in an internal memorandum circulated within the BBC Monitoring Service during World War II. Primo Levi talked about “the radiophonic Babel of war” and the Monitoring Service was the BBC department tasked with recording political and military intelligence from overseas broadcasts, preparing reports for Winston Churchill and for MI6. My grandfather worked for the BBC Monitoring Service, and the author of the memo in question was my grandad’s colleague, the post-war art historian E.H. Gombrich, who later wrote the book Art & Illusion. Rorschach Audio emphasises a historiographic anomaly that was previously overlooked by visual arts and sound art theorists, which is the influence that wartime intelligence with sound had on one of the most important works of visual arts theory ever published, namely Art & Illusion. In a nutshell, what E.H. Gombrich and, for instance, the psychologist Richard Gregory concluded is that perception itself is an active and inherently creative process, and that perceptual creativity and artistic creativity are expressions of the same underlying mental faculty. This has important ramifications for debate about inclusivity and the democratisation of art, about concepts of high art versus popular culture and about the liberation of creativity etc.

To answer your question more directly, the book describes an absolute battery of examples in which acoustic illusions and mishearings have been put to artistic use. There are wonderful examples from popular culture, some fascinating uses in Japanese and Indian literature. However the most systematic artistic use of audio illusions I’ve come across was by the French science-fiction author Raymond Roussel, whose work, quite apart from being excellent in its own right, had an enormous impact on visual art, on early Surrealism in particular. The aesthetic possibilities are almost certainly… endless.

Elena Biserna: While reading the book, I was struck by a statement on the relationship between art and science: you argue that “while art is not necessarily science, science is always art” and, later on, that, ideally, artists should not only learn from scientific research, but also contribute to science. Could you talk about this, also in relation to your artistic work?

Joe Banks: The original quote comes from a booklet I wrote for an exhibition at The Royal British Society of Sculptors in 2001. To put the quote in context, the idea that perception itself is an active and creative process can be traced back at least as far as the notion of “perceptual hypotheses”, which Richard Gregory derived from the work of the physiologist Hermann Helmholtz. What the term “perceptual hypotheses” refers to is the mind making use of, and relying on, what in plain language can simply be called intelligent guesswork. Where there’s a comparison to be made between the creativity involved in perception and the creativity involved in art, there’s also a comparison to be made between the formation of perceptual hypotheses and the formation of hypotheses in science. In fact the ideas E.H. Gombrich developed in Art & Illusion weren’t just influenced by his knowledge of illusion and of perception, they were also influenced by his knowledge of information theory and by his friendship with the scientific philosopher Karl Popper.

So, anyway, perception is a process in which the mind, with incredible speed, makes informed guesses about the world, and then tests and either accepts, rejects or modifies those guesses as they’re proven or disproven by further interactions with the world. Likewise, science is also a process, albeit a much slower process, in which the mind makes informed guesses about the world, and then tests and accepts, rejects or modifies those hypotheses in response to further interactions with the environment. In that sense, perception is not only a process that can be considered to be artistic, perception can also be thought of as being a form of measurement, as being scientific, as being a form of research.

In that sense, and also just intuitively, personally it always seemed obvious that the level of creativity and of philosophical insight involved in scientific and technological research and development often exceeds that involved in contemporary art. Also, it seemed clear that much technical R&D work is as, if not more, aesthetically rewarding than a lot of contemporary art. As a case in point, works like Diana Deutsch’s voice recordings are examples that easily beat most contemporary artists at their own game. Other examples include the awesome UK coastal air-defence Sound Mirrors celebrated in the Antiphony video installation and CD cover photography that Barry Hale and Julian Hills produced for Disinformation in 1997. As I said, Rorschach Audio is mostly a research project, however Rorschach Audio sound-works have been exhibited at Goldsmiths College and Usurp Art Gallery, and commissioned by MUU Helsinki and by Palais de Tokyo. However in terms of written research, particularly the later chapters of the book move on from simply trying to promote public understanding of scientific psychology and scientific methodology etc., to actively trying to prove the link between perceptual illusions and evolutionary biology.

The Disinformation artworks that most successfully interrogate the ideas explored by the book, however, are probably the video and oscilloscope works that create visual illusions, and then use those visual illusions to try to illustrate and to illuminate certain narratives. Spellbound is a video portrait of nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, that very slowly articulates St Jerome’s axiom that “eyes, without speaking, confess the secrets of the heart”. In terms of direct contributions to science, The Analysis of Beauty is another installation, that uses patterns on the screen of a laboratory oscilloscope to articulate an idea of the 18th century artist William Hogarth in light of modern observations about the structure of DNA.

This exhibit works pretty well as a technical demonstration of Kinetic Depth Effects: in The Analysis of Beauty perceptual hypotheses can be seen, literally forming, contradicting each other, disappearing and re-forming. While it’s axiomatic from the field of stage-magic that all performances and artworks take place inside the minds of the people experiencing them, The Analysis of Beauty proves this point by constantly changing inside the minds of people experiencing it.

 

Notes:

[1] Friedrich Jürgenson, Sprechfunk Mit Verstorbenen(Freiburg: Hermann Bauer KG 1967).

[2] Konstantin Raudive, Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead (Colin Smythe, 1971).

[3] Given the nature of this short article, we should refer to other texts for a broader analysis of the relationship between contemporary art and EVP. A recent article by Jelena Miskin is a good introduction and addresses, in particular, the long research by CM von Hausswolff (that led also to the Friedrich Jürgenson Foundation and to the conservation of the Jürgenson’s archive at ZKM – Zentrum Für Kunst und Media in Karlsruhe: Jelena Miskin, “Electronic Voice Phenomena”, Diorama, 3 (2012), available online on UnDo.net: http://www.undo.net/it/magazines/1351152569.

[4] Joe Banks, Rorschach Audio. Art & Illusion for Sound (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2012), vi.

 


 

http://rorschachaudio.wordpress.com/

strangeattractor.co.uk/shoppe/rorschach-audio

http://thevoxlab.org/symposium/

http://www.ica.org.uk/?lid=33812

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