Slicing reality

Jan Winkelmann

Having fallen asleep on the beach, he wakes up and looks around in bewilderment. The sun is no longer shining, but flickers with merciless intensity. A deluge of flashes floods his retina. His optic nerve positively pulsates to the rhythm of the staccato of light. Squinting only slightly alleviates the optic pain. Snapping open his eyelids, he surrenders to the overpowering tempest of lights that trembles through his body like electric shocks in a measure of 7,8 hertz. In comparison to the almost shattering penetration of his retinas, the heat produced by the nearly 2000 synchronously flickering lights feels like an unpleasant, slightly overheated bath. His immediate surroundings appear almost colourless, like the faded colours of old colour photographs of his early childhood in the family album. A dazzling film of white light seems to have half-absorbed the colours around him, drawing him ever further into a spell, capitulating entirely to the vortex of rhythmically flashing lights, he enters a different tunnel of reality. He knew this physio-optic phenomenon from earlier days, when novel states of consciousness could be attained with the aid of glass lenses equipped with light diodes. It must have been around the late 80s and early 90s, that people would go to mind-machine shops to subject themselves to the comforting flashing of lights, leaving 15 minutes later, mentally stimulated, having gained peace of mind, with heightened concentration or whatever else had been switched on. Today, ‘oxygen bars’ and lounges equipped with ‘floating tanks’ seem to have taken over this function. For a short (paid) moment, they allow overworked and under-relaxed people to be blessed with another reality. The basic idea was really not that bad, although it was never fully scientifically proven: light impulses flashing in the same frequency as the human brain should/could/must conceivably be able to synchronize the latter, thus enabling us to influence and guide the function of the brain externally, i.e. artificially. Thus this was yet another phase in the course of technology’s triumph over human physiology, but basically nothing really different from a soluble relaxation bath tablet, to be administered as required: rosemary ginseng for refreshment, hops camomile for sedative purposes, eucalyptus pine for stimulation, and lavender for a general sense of harmony. But what would happen if one were to inject ketamine, enveloped in the scent of rosemary, sitting in a bath of salt water with a temperature of 38.5ºC, with a mind machine attached to one’s nose, and to subject oneself via a quadraphonic stereo system to an acoustically induced 4-Indolol, 3-[2-(Dimethylamino)Ethyl], Phosphate Ester, in other words, a psilocybin trip? Perhaps multiple-hyper-ecstatic realities, or perhaps not. He suddenly remembered his first, and up till now, only LSD trip more than a decade ago that resembled more of a horror trip than opening up hitherto unknown levels of perception and consciousness within his personality. Little, neon-coloured monsters, floating before his inner eye like an Alexander Calder mobile, caused him to vegetate on the verge of a nervous breakdown for almost three days on end. But when the little demons finally took their leave almost imperceptibly, he’d had enough of such experiments with perception, at least for the time being or indeed forever. Today, attempts at overcoming one’s body and the processes of (self-)perception related to them, have become a more or less widespread phenomenon. It appears to have become increasingly attractive to plunge oneself into externally induced states of perception often unfurling potential experiences of which actual reality fundamentally falls short. Of course this presupposes that one does not accept the horizons of one’s own perception as the ultima ratio, but rather that one is always after ‘more’, ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ sensation. Indeed, even without submitting to the incisive power and intensity of psychoactive substances, it is occasionally possible to access other planes of reality in a more or less controlled way. For instance, high-speed trains offer one such splendid experience. Nothing exceeds a civilized ride on a shin-kanzen, the Japanese version of a high-speed railway, on which the conductor politely bows at an exact angle of 24º, each time a passenger enters or leaves the open-plan carriage whether or not anyone is watching. A ritualised action as can be found all over tradition oriented Japan, a country in which the past, present and future peacefully coexist. Japan’s history is not characterised by ruptures such as those marking European (especially cultural) history; everything is fluid, things seem to push themselves into a natural order. Like on board the Concorde when reaching MACH 1, ‘300 km/h’ suddenly flashes up on the red LED display above the door in front of which the conductor was seen bowing down just a moment ago. The landscape outside shoots by the train window changing into a single, elongated, variegated stripe. On the horizon, Fuji-san appears out of the morning fog, its snow-covered peak resembling the diagonal nib of a golden Montblanc fountain pen. If one concentrates on the pattern of coloured streaks quivering past immediately outside the window rather than on the far distance, one sooner or later lapses into a trance-like, meditative state induced by colour alone. The train driver must have an even more riveting perspective, somewhat resembling that of an observation camera forcing its way at high speed along a subterranean sewerage canal. There is not much peripheral vision, only barely perceptible, funnel-like walls to either side; the camera shoots – as if sucked by a vacuum – ever further into the black hole of oblivion. The windscreen turns into a television screen; media reality and the outside world blend into a single entity much like the amalgam mentioned earlier of an entire civilization’s past, present and future. A similar experience is offered by the fitting rooms of an Italian luxury label’s flagship store that recently opened in New York. Like entering the lift on Starship Enterprise, two glass doors glide open, shutting as if by magic. Stepping on a large button on the floor immediately makes the transparent glass turn opaque. Bye bye outside world, welcome to yourself! The actual excitement does not begin when customers try on clothes, but rather with the interplay of one’s reflections in the surrounding mirrors. A camera concealed behind a Venetian, i.e. semi-transparent mirror at the back of the fitting room, films the customer’s reflection in the mirror opposite, transfers this to a plasma screen mounted to the mirror at the front and therefore visible next to the customer’s actual reflection. Hence, the viewer sees his/her face in the mirror as well as on the screen next to it. The real reflection and the reflection of a media reality are thus unsentimentally juxtaposed. Additionally, three buttons below the hidden screen allow the visitor to heighten this state of media-reality ecstasy by modifying the lighting from natural light over a warm, suffuse glow, to the cold bright glare of floodlights. This game with variously illuminated realities is further emphasized in that the action occurring is only transmitted in real time as long as the movements are slow enough; as soon as they speed up, the action is screened with a given time lag, i.e. in slow motion. Different levels of reality are thus juxtaposed, blend, and reciprocally interrelate; they become perceptible in relation to their intrinsic conditions, to ultimately generate a multifaceted, disjointed awareness of reality. This was one of my most exciting experiences of a state in which parallel levels of reality and perception seemed mutually interwoven; a hitherto unheard of drama of media-generated images transcending the continuum of space and time. However, upon closer consideration, this ultimately amounts to no less than the high-tech version of a particular visual sensation caused by extreme jetlag, like I recently had after a flight back from the United States. Due to exhaustion my visual faculty no longer seemed to be in its accustomed position. I felt as if images were being transmitted to my brain with a delay of a few split-seconds from a camera located approximately 15-20cm next to my actual eyes. Everything I saw looked as if it was occurring slightly delayed, although my body’s corresponding movements were happening in real time. This caused a sort of double perception as it were, perhaps best described to those not acquainted with over-exhaustion, as the multiplication and dislocation of what is seen by crossing one’s eyes: the doubling of reality, the reciprocal influence of imagination, illusion and reality. Recently, I heard of a similar event in a cinema. The lights dimmed in the auditorium until it was dark. Then, instead of the accustomed first flash of light from the projector beaming onto the screen, it remained totally dark – a darkness in which nothing was visible – even the emergency exit lights, usually the last hint of visual orientation, were switched off. Suddenly an ear-splittingly loud noise burst into the room. It seemed as if a helicopter was going to land on the roof, its rotor blades throttling through the air, ruthlessly slicing it up, the noise becoming almost unbearable. And not only could one hear the noise, one could also feel the wind it seemed to be generating. All the popcorn presently in the cinema was literally sucked up into the air and whirled around until it seemed to snow popcorn everywhere. Abruptly, a bright, circular cone of light lighted up the screen. Blinded and hypnotized, the audience stared at the round disk of light. It appeared to rotate in pulsating light waves, in sync with the helicopter’s churning rotors, a peculiar fascination emanating from it. Artificial fog flooded the cinema and the revolving beam of light instantly transformed into a turning cone. Resembling a divine apparition, the light at the tip of the cone drew the spectator into its spell. The cone’s outer shell seemed to undulate like cigarette smoke beneath a desk lamp. Overall it was a unique, albeit ephemeral – and thus all the more impressive – apparition consisting of light, for ultimately, the imaginary nature of its volume was created by light alone reflected by the fog. The viewers stood up and – mesmerized by the light – began to move towards the cone’s inner core. Some investigated the three-dimensionality of this hovering body, tearing holes into the cone’s circular shell by interrupting the shaft of light with their hands. Others stepped into it, walked towards the floodlight, stepped out of it again through its fragile, outer membrane, to examine more closely from without the nature of the curved ray of light. A hypnotic apparition and yet no more than a projected circle, which through reflection turned into a material-immaterial cone of light. Was it all just sensory illusion? By no means! Perhaps rather an unaccustomed visual experience confronting the viewer with the conditions of his/her perception. Besides the overt magic of the figure of light, this experience promoted the perception of one’s own perception, and consequently, the investigation of the very limits of human perception, i.e. the realisation of its fundamental inadequacy. We are accustomed to accepting that what we perceive as being true. Our perception of things seldom gives cause to doubt in its grounds; it is rarely questioned, i.e. it is naturally taken as ‘true’ or ‘right’. Yet it is often overlooked that perception is not only linked to one’s own faculties of perception, but is also both a part and a product of particular construction mechanisms, which in turn are equally dependent on other factors (individual physiological characteristics, habits of perception, visual experience etc.) as on the act of sensory perception itself. Only very rarely, when one experiences visual phenomena that are difficult or indeed impossible to explain, does one ideally begin to consider one’s own perception and its basic conditions. This happened to me just recently, on a flight from Frankfurt to Tokyo. Agonized by my neighbour and his olfactory peculiarities, and irritated by a host of passengers who were talking in their sleep, there was little left for me to do than to go for a stroll. The flight attendant invited me to visit the cockpit. After walking through the business class and up the stairwell to the first class cabin on the 747-400’s upper deck, I reached the aircraft’s inner sanctum. I was immediately taken aback by the exceptionally cramped conditions in the cockpit, there not being much more room than in a large average car; apart from the countless buttons and control sticks that were blinking or not blinking, the semicircular panoramic view of almost 160º out of the cockpit’s window was absolutely mind-boggling. We were just crossing the northern polar circle at an altitude of about 27,000 ft. Below us a closed blanket of cloud that seemed to break open towards the horizon. For some time already we were flying along with the dusk, and it looked as if we were going to dive into complete darkness at any moment. The captain suddenly pointed out the so-called ‘green rays’. I knew of this privileged instant more from stories than from personal experience, in which, just after the last ray of sun disappears from the horizon at sunset, a fluorescent green shimmer is bestowed on the sky for a short fleeting moment. And lo and behold, there it was, the green ray appeared… and it remained, as if someone had pressed the PAUSE button causing a still to be projected onto the semi-circular cockpit window. However, when I left the cockpit to slowly make my way back to the economy class and seek refuge amidst its softly mumbling somnambulists, I had already started doubting the essence of the natural spectacle I had just beheld. Had I really seen the green rays or had I perhaps surrendered to a figment of my imagination, had I ultimately seen only a projection of my own subconscious? Back at my seat, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of a young journalist, who, as one of his first commissions for a reputed Paris daily in the 1920s, had to compile a report on the execution of a murderer. It so happened that at a debauched party the night before at a hedonistic aristocrat’s, he came in contact with an assortment of various different mind-expanding stimulants of that time. The walls of the aristocratic lady’s flat were covered in wallpaper with a pattern of symmetrical blobs, designed by a Swiss psychiatrist to determine the character and intelligence of his patients. The guests reclined on couches like those employed in Vienna by the Father of Psychoanalysis to the ends of more profound and efficient analysis. All sorts of hallucinogenic substances were handed around, but he was most inspired by the strawberries pickled in fluid ether. Our hero, high and beside himself in ecstasy then suddenly fell asleep in his hotel room. He woke up when the announced ‘guillotining’ had already long been performed. Still in a state of ecstatic hallucination – yet also intent on concluding his first job to the best of his abilities – he worked himself up into a hysterical rage of inspiration, writing extensively on the function and meaning of capital punishment, imagining in minute, true-to-life detail, indeed, as if he had been there himself, the offender’s final minutes in the face of approaching death, and the moments of transition from life into a more peaceful existence. The looming execution appeared to him as images circling around him, projected onto the hotel room’s walls: many were blurred, some seemed almost abstract, others resembled lights that drew him into a giddying whirlpool of illumination. He then sent his opus magnum to the paper’s editor per courier, who immediately published the report – unread – as a special edition. Subsequently lapsing into a deep, death-like slumber, he only resurfaced on the delivery by a mounted messenger of the announcement of his dismissal: at the last instant the offender had been reprieved. He read through the letter with an air of ennui, crumpled it up, and surrendered again to the infinite expanses of his own consciousness, whose various doors he continued to unlock as if with a key through the effects of the most adventuresome psychoactive substances, exploring all these realms and letting the door slam shut behind him at an undefined moment to later wake up and remember it in retrospect – as if nothing had really been real – as a dream just barely visible on memory’s outermost reach – like the way one just about seizes the memory of a dream.

(Translated by Oliver Kossack)

Published in: SUBREEL, Cat. MAC Galeries Contemporaines des Musées de Marseille, 2002.

© 2002 Jan Winkelmann

Deutsche Version