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“The Central Nervous System is Nature’s Sistine Chapel…”

August 5, 2015

J.G. Ballard, William Hogarth, Disinformation & the Serpentine Line…

Oscilloscope and video versions of the Disinformation installation “The Analysis of Beauty” are currently showing at the Freud Museum in London, as part of the “Festival of the Unconscious” exhibition, curated by Ivan Ward (scroll down for more details). The specific reference for this installation is to “The Analysis of Beauty” book, which was self-published by the artist William Hogarth in 1753, and particularly to Hogarth’s ideas about the aesthetics and symbolism of the sinusoidal, s-shaped, waving, snake-like, and (as Hogarth put it) “Serpentine Line”. Serpentine Lines are produced in “The Analysis of Beauty” installation in the form of musical sine-waves, using audio frequency outputs from laboratory oscillators, and then displayed on the screen of a laboratory oscilloscope. These signals manifest as a slowly rotating rope-like pattern of phosphorescent green lines, (subjectively but strongly) reminiscent of DNA. After watching the pattern for a little while, it’s easy to persuade these lines to fuse into a what appears to be a solid object, and, in practical terms, the best challenge viewers can set themselves is to decide which direction that object appears to be rotating in? Sometimes the form appears to be flat, sometimes three-dimensional. Sometimes the object rotates to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes the direction changes spontaneously… however blinking, tilting your head, and even thinking about the object in a different way can induce changes in the direction of rotation. None of the changes that viewers experience take place on-screen. All of these changes take place inside your own mind.

“The Analysis of Beauty” installation provokes the mind into creating illusions of three-dimensional visual form, despite the absence of all the object-precedence, motion-parallax, stereoscopic-binocular and geometric and aerial perspective cues traditionally thought to enable perception of visual space. As such the installation also relates to themes explored in Hogarth’s “Satire on False Perspective” of 1754 (see links). The installation demonstrates the formation of the “perceptual hypotheses” proposed by the physiologist Hermann Helmholtz, which the “Rorschach Audio” book characterises as the intelligent guesswork used by the mind to make sense of ambiguous stimuli that we encounter in the natural world. The changes produced by watching “The Analysis of Beauty” exhibit are essentially identical to the “perceptual flipping” discussed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book “The Extended Phenotype”. Video of this installation is also used during “Rorschach Audio” lectures to demonstrate visual equivalents of the audio illusions which the talks postulate as explaining misheard sound recordings such as EVP. In addition however, the method used to create “The Analysis of Beauty” exhibit strongly resembles imagery described in “The Sound Sweep” by sci-fi author J.G. Ballard (the “cathode tube” referred to here by J.G. Ballard is an oscilloscope, and the “tone generator” is a laboratory oscillator)…

“He twirled the ultrasonic trumpet he was playing, a tangle of stops and valves from which half a dozen leads trailed off across the cushions to a cathode tube and tone generator at the other end of the sofa. Mangon sat down quietly and Merrill clamped the mouthpiece to his lips. Watching the ray tube intently, where he could check the shape of the ultrasonic notes, he launched into a brisk allegretto sequence, then quickened and flicked out a series of brilliant arpeggios, stripping off high P and Q notes that danced across the cathode screen like frantic eels, fantastic glissandos that raced up twenty octaves in as many seconds, each note distinct and symmetrically exact, tripping off the tone generator in turn so that escalators of electronic chords interweaved the original scale, a multichannel melodic stream that crowded the cathode screen with exquisite, flickering patterns. The whole thing was inaudible, but the air around Mangon felt vibrant and accelerated, charged with gaiety and sparkle, and he applauded generously when Merrill threw off a final dashing riff… In his four years there his output of original ultrasonic music consisted of little more than one nearly finished symphony aptly titled Opus Zero.” J.G. Ballard, 1960

As regards the mind’s ability to, as demonstrated by such illusions, project meaning out into the world that we perceive, in “The Kindness of Women” J.G. Ballard also described a metaphor which suggests perception itself as the grandest act of artistic creativity… “The central nervous system is nature’s Sistine Chapel, but we have to bear in mind that the world our senses present to us – this office, my lab, our awareness of time – is a ramshackle construct which our brains have devised to let us get on with the job of maintaining ourselves and reproducing our species. What we see is a highly conventionalised picture, a simple tourist guide to a very strange city. We need to dismantle this ramshackle construct in order to grasp what’s really going on.” J.G. Ballard, 1992

This article is based on a talk given at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, on 17 Nov 2014, while the J.G. Ballard quotes are also discussed in the “Rorschach Audio” book, pages 151 to 174. “The Analysis of Beauty” was most recently exhibited at Le Bon Accueil, Rennes, and at Talbot Rice.

Article copyright © Joe Banks 2014-2015

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