Sunday 23 March 2014

What Is Magic Today Shall Be Science Tomorrow

Below is an essay I wrote as part of my Masters Degree in Art, Society and Publics. 
It accompanies a cassette release of music created using the bamstick and was printed on a scroll using waterless lithography and screenprinting. It was a limited edition of 15 housed in recycled tin cans. I gave them all away.

 What is Magic Today Shall be Science Tomorrow

When T. C Lethbridge published Ghost and Divining Rod in 1963 the world was reverberating with the shockwaves of socio-seismic activity. John Kennedy murdered, the Cuban missile crisis narrowly averted, the appearance of The Beatles first album and most importantly for myself, the transition from amniotic cocoon to dislocated consciousness.
As these momentous global events unfolded Lethbridge was busy scrutinising the liminal world of energetic resonance at sites of pre historical significance taking measurements with his para-scientific apparatus to reveal the sources of invisible energy vortices, all findings being documented with typical precision and the application of a strict scientific methodology.

Lethbridge was a believer in resonance and the ability of the sensitive human subject to receive and channel energetic vibrations through the use of analogue amplification devices such as dowsing rods, pendulums, scrying machines and the recording of electronic voice phenomena (EVP). Forces or energies which have historically been associated with and attributed to esoteric factors such as ley lines, spirits of the deceased, communications from disembodied deities or even imprints left in the akashic records by tumultuous events taking place at focal nexi in the space time continuum. Lethbridge had a theory that these phenomena are all ultimately empirically quantifiable. We are after all, electro-mechanical beings who can unconsciously respond to the stimulations of electromagnetic fields (EMF) and other (sub-liminal) phenomenological disturbances.

Could the ‘electromagnetic field’ of the water be somehow to blame - that same ‘field’ that produces the response in the dowsing rod? Is it possible that such fields can receive the impress of an emotion, as the sling stone received the impress of anger, and transmit it later to someone who stands on the same spot? He invents the term ‘naiad field’ for the electromagnetic field of water, and advances the suggestion that mountains and open spaces (like deserts) may also have their own individual fields.1

Transposing this notion of divining rods and their usage as receptors for unseen energies into the present technological millennia we can consider the work of German sound artist Christina Kubisch whose audio investigations into the nature of EMF in the contemporary urban space clearly demonstrate the intense energetic presence of radiation beyond the audio-visual spectrum. Kubisch has noted through the duration of her famous electronic walks2 in various cities around the globe that the occurrence and intensity of EMF static has multiplied exponentially over the last 10 years. We are now being engulfed by an invisible deluge of radiations from mobile devices, routers and computer controlled machinery at every level of our day to day existence. Are they harmful to us?

The modern day sensitive who is attuned to these hyper-frequencies may find themselves tormented by the bombardment of voices and signals from the inaudible spectrum, indeed there are a growing number of cases of phobic or allergic subjects who find no alternative but to seek refuge in the hinterlands where such signals are weak, these individuals report symptoms such as nausea, headaches and stomach cramps when any type of mobile device is activated even several feet away from them. This syndrome is now recognized as ‘Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity’ (EHV). An online search will yield an ever growing number of articles reporting a disturbing trend towards this kind of debilitating condition. The case of Per Segerb├Ąck who is forced to live in the Scandinavian wilderness being just one notable example.3

Genius Loci (and the Muse).

Ancient Greeks and Romans (not to mention Victorian landscape architects) attributed the ambient conditions of specific areas or places to the presence of the Genius Loci or the spirit of place. The nature of this spirit entity being the determining factor in the numinous mood of specific regions or landscapes, each place having a uniquely identifiable character.
The 18th century poet and essayist Alexander Pope addressed the subject thus;

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise or fall;
Or helps the ambitious hill the heave’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale,
Calls in the country catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods and various shades from shades,
Now breaks or directs th’intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.4

It can be seen from this that any mortal interjection with the surroundings is subordinate to the will of the genius who channels the creative process through the human agent.

This is a digression.

The real thrust of this discourse is to present the reader with the fanciful proposition that the the attuned individual can resonate with the genius of a place and that the voice of the spirit may even become negated by the presence of artificial interferences, blocking out higher vibrations and leading to a supersaturated noise environment (albeit invisible) which in turn may ultimately lead to a detrimental disconnect between the human entity and his space, a cognitive dissonance, manifesting itself in dis-ease, mental deterioration and a malaise of spatial dislocation.

Music and Divination.

In assuming the mantle of clairvoyant or dowser, the musician is able to employ his/her inherent sensitivity for rhythmic and harmonic vibration by tapping into and channeling the electromagnetic flux into an aural manifestation, a process sometimes referred to as contacting the Muse. In an act of ritual meditation, the musician (hereafter referred to as the magusician being a concatenation of magus and musician) takes up his divining rod, and reveals through his meditations the underlying harmonic structure of a space, clocking into the metronome of the spheres which governs the tempo of all life on earth.

The single stringed diddley bow is a fine example of the musical divining rod being the apparatus of choice for the ancient shaman of the Mississippi Delta and also where the Genius Loci of Muscle Shoals exerted her beneficence upon generations of song makers. Where once the high priest of the blues, Robert Johnson, channelled the voices of the mystic. Legend has it that he performed a transaction with the evil one but I propose that he simply communed deeply with the Genius. In a mystical rite the electrified string of the bow and the barrel of the slide connect in the manner of a cosmic crystal radio set, the player becomes a meta-antenna tuning in to the spirit of the Muse, a conduit, a sound scryer entering into a musical psychomanteum, transmitting back messages from the collective unconsciousness.

The Necessity of Ritual in Music.

Walter Benjamin in his seminal paper The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction draws our attention to the loss of what he calls the aura, a metaphysical quality that is inherent in an object or work of art and manifests itself in a symbioses between the situation or physical context of said objects and the viewer. The creation and multiplication of the subsequent facsimile removes this aura from the work. The original placement and location of the artwork imbue the object with layers of signification and content which are now subordinated and ultimately lost through the process of repeated mechanical reproduction.

We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.5

We can apply this model to the present trend in digital music streaming. The currently eviscerated vessel of audio delivery has evolved from wax cylinder to vinyl record to magnetic tape to compact disc to mp3 and finally into an ephemeral stream of invisible data.
The sound of music (live performance notwithstanding) has in fact always been mechanically reproduced ever since Edison's first ethereal recordings but up until recently it still had a physical presence, being enshrined in a delivery medium which in turn imbued it with a fetishistic value, a sacred totem if you will. The record collection was and still is for some a reliquary of spiritual significance, a place where the acolyte can worship at the altar of the magusician, a place where he can ritualistically ‘connect’ with the soul of the artist and partake of the audio sacraments which are set before him.

This was music for a new religion, with the record player as domestic shrine. The private nocturnal consumption of these records assumed a devotional, even sacramental aspect. Psychedelia’s links with shamanism are well documented. The shaman invariably uses sounds and symbolic images to help him navigate his ecstatic flight through the otherworld. All religions have their symbols, altars, shrines, icons, and mandalas, combining still images with music to facilitate the devotee’s passage from the worldly light of the image to the unworldly light of divine vision. Featuring the same symbiotic conjunction of music and image, the record was a portable idol, the worship of which afforded illicit glimpses of otherworlds and forbidden gods. Prog-gnosis.6

Music must return to a ritualistic action which involves context and ‘reverence’ if it is to be saved from the meaninglessness and devaluation with which it is currently afflicted. This is what has been lost to the non-entity of the perpetual wi-fi stream. Aura and ritual have been subsumed into a morass of background noise. As a culture we no longer actively listen to music, we simply have it on in the middle distance.

In a gut reaction to the homogenisation of musical culture in the digital age, the underground artist has embraced a return to the older formats. Vinyl is king but equally demands kingly sums for its production. The cassette tape is also favoured not only for it’s meagre price, but sometimes also for its sonic properties (noise, black metal and ambient artists) even more crucially for its ability to rescue the aura, the very thing which Benjamin identified so many years ago. The old model of commercial success is now roundly rejected by the avant music producer in favour of a non commercial hand produced, limited edition, totemic product which serves to personally connect with a minuscule but appreciative public. It is no longer a question of finance or success, there are far greater stakes at risk here.7 It serves to re-establish the ritual of actively listening to music and the re-evaluation of why we listen and what we value about the experience. It asks the question; what is music really worth to us?
The democratisation of arts production in the digital age has inverted the old world meritocratic relationship between artist and fanbase. The well known Warholian axiom on the nature of individual celebrity status has been fundamentally and irrevocably subverted.

Nowadays, everyone can be famous for 15 people

                x - artist                                                                 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx - artists
               xx                                                                              xxxxxxxxxxxx
           xxxxxx                                                                              xxxxxxxxx
         xxxxxxxx                                                                               xxxxxx
      xxxxxxxxxxxx                                                                               xx
    xxxxxxxxxxxxxx - audience                                                             x - audience

  Old World Model                                                                  New World Model8

2 Kubisch, C, Electronic Walks:
4 Pope, A: An Epistle to Burlington, 1731.
5 Benjamin, W: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, section IV:
6 Shaw, N: Why Does The Devil Have All The Good Tunes?:
7 Momus: Pop Stars Nein Danke!, 1991 :
8 Figure 1: The relationship between audience and artist in the age of digital democratisation.

Ghost & Divining Rod available free on Bandcamp here: