Phantasmagoria for an aesthetic machine
by Michelangelo Corsaro

lecture/presentation, duration 15-20 min., 4th Eternal Internet Brotherhood, Castello Malaspina, Fosdinovo, July, 2015


We chose to go crazy


One day the Bel-Shen’Toff came in to the King’s house, and he said: “My King, all the wheat in the fields has been blighted! All the grain that we harvested this year has been infected with a fungus that turns people crazy when they eat it.”
The King thought for a moment, then said, “Thats terrible. Truly terrible, but, If I’m going to be the King, and know how these people in my province are feeling… Shouldn’t I go crazy with them?”
His Seer looked confused, and spoke with fear, “But my King, we will go mad!!!”
The King but smiled, and spoke, “Yes, but you and I shall make a mark upon each other’s foreheads, so when we see each other later, we will know that we chose to go crazy, while everybody else, just is.”
(Ken Kesey, Twister, from Timothy Leary’s Last trip, 1997)

This little story, often told by Ken Kesey in his shows, refers to ergot, a fungus that infected wheat and drove people mad. For someone the mention of ergot might recall those outbreak of mass hysteria like the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518 or the Salem witch trial, which led to the executions of twenty people, most of them women. In Ken Kesey’s shows it rather referred to the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, as ergot was in fact the chemical precursor that lead Albert Hoffman to the synthesis of LSD.

The story of a king who relinquishes his power to follow the lead of untamed states of mind also pertains to a tradition of narratives of role reversal and transgression. In ancient roman times behavioural license was celebrated during a festival called Saturnalia, a forerunner of modern carnivals that introduced the suspension of slavery, of all forms of justice, of work and social distinctions. In George Bataille’s studies on the notion of eroticism, the death of the king gives the signal to initiate a temporary transgression of taboos: during the critical period of decomposition of the king’s flash, transgression is as important as obedience was before, when a man “feared no longer to perform publically and unrestrainedly acts which hitherto he had only performed in private”. In the work of Mikhail Bakhtin the suspension of rules entailed by the notion of carnivalesque is described as “a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings” (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 1965). In the 1980s and the 1990s, Leigh Bowery’s masquerades were a similar attempt to confront conventions, celebrating monstrosity in spite of the stigma attached to homosexuality and AIDS. When the king goes mad it means that the times are ripe to swap the world of the rulers with that of criminals, prostitutes and buffoons.


…the CIA was like an unwitting midwife in the birth of the acid generation… (Marty Lee)

In 1953 the CIA started an experimentation on mental control devices for military purposes, this program was called MKUltra. “Between 1955 and 1958 research was initiated by the Army Chemical Corps to evaluate the potential for LSD as a chemical warfare incapacitating agent. In the course of this research, LSD was administered […] to ascertain the effects of the drug on their ability to function as soldiers.” In 1963 also the British Army started experimenting with, administering trips to soldiers in order to measure their abilities under the effect of hallucinogenics.



The drug was administered in a glass of water given at the start of each day’s exercise. Twenty-five minutes later the first effects of the drug became apparent. The men begun to relax and to giggle. But this man was more seriously affected and had to be removed from the exercise. After thirty-five minutes, one of the radio operators had become incapable of using his set, and the efficiency of the rocket launcher team was also very impaired. Ten minutes later, the attacking section had lost all sense of urgency. Notice the bunching and indecision as they enter a wood occupied by the enemy. Almost immediately, the section commander tried to use a map to find the location of troop headquarters, and a prisoner’s escort had to have the way pointed out to him, although it was in plain sight 700 yards away over open country. Fifty minutes after taking the drug, radio communication had become difficult, if not impossible. But the men are still capable of sustained physical effort; however, constructive action was still attempted by those retaining a sense of responsibility despite their physical symptoms. But one hour and ten minutes after taking the drug, with one man climbing a tree to feed the birds, the troop commander gave up, admitting that he could no longer control himself or his men. He himself then relapsed into laughter.
(A trial of an Incapacitating drug, 1964, Imperial War Museum, cat. n° MGH 4464)

While the military potential of LSD-25 continued being researched, when the patent of the compound expired in 1962, LSD started to gain widespread popularity. “In fiscal 1968, the production capacity of the clandestine laboratories seized was reported to be more than 40,000,000 doses per year.” (The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972.http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/cu/CU50.html As of 1/7/2015) By the end of the 1960s, thanks also to advocates like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Ken Kesey, LSD and other psychedelics were regarded by many as substances that were able to expand human consciousness.

In his seminal book Expanded Cinema, published in 1970, Gene Youngblood argued that the art of the so-called ‘new media’ was taking a step towards the development of a new consciousness. “It is the belief of those who work in cybernetic art that the computer is the tool that someday will erase the division between what we feel and what we see.” (Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, 1970) Youngblood believed that the computer would evolve into an aesthetic machine or, in other words, a means to achieve a new consciousness for a new cybernetic environment. One of the sources of Expanded Cinema with regards to these ideas was the work of A. Michael Noll, a very early pioneer in digital computer art, 3D animation and tactile communication. In an article titled The digital computer as a creative medium, published in 1967, Noll conjectured the invention of a psychedelic computer interfaced with artists’ psyche: “Although this might seem somewhat exotic […], the artist’s emotional state might conceivably be determined by computer processing of physical and electrical signals from the artist (for example, pulse rate and electrical activity of the brain). Then, by changing the artist’s environment through such external stimuli as sound, color, and visual patterns, the computer would seek to optimize the aesthetic effect of all these stimuli”. Further down Noll continued: “One is strongly tempted to describe these ideas as a consciousness-expanding experience in association with a psychedelic computer!” (A. Michael Noll, The digital computer as a creative medium, 1967).


Colonising mental spaces



October, 1989
VPL Research laboratories, San Francisco Bay Area

A man in a room is testing a virtual reality system, consisting of a head-mounted display and a computer interfaced glove. His gaze, directed somewhere on the wall, is lost inside the hardware of the computer that sits next to him. What he sees is replicated on a screen, directions are duplicated, disoriented. Objects occupy multiple positions. One reality is swapped with another. His hands speak an occult language, making things happen with incomprehensible gestures, speaking to invisible entities, pointing at void patches of space in the room. The posture of the man betrays utter unawareness of physical space, his attitude is that of a tripster wandering around a rave party. For the first time the human body is an outcast, the mind being sucked away by non-spatial realities made of electronic circuits. October 1989 San Francisco Bay Area, one month before the fall of the Berlin wall, thousands kilometres away. What could be the language for the politics of an electronic out-of-body experience? Is it true that freedom of movement might soon have the extension of psychological introspection? Will freedom of expression be just a matter of mental dexterity?


The octopus

One of the possibilities offered by virtual reality systems is that of morphing, that is to say to change at will the shape of the body of an avatar. In other words, imagine you could be an octopus, you could move eight tentacles, imagine you could change colour and guise, you could speak and you could display images on your body at the speed of thought. Imagine that when you get bored of being an octopus you could just morph into the shape of a lobster or of a bucket, for that matters. To explain the potential of morphing, Jaron Lanier, a VR researcher and founder of VPL Research, often refers to cephalopods.

As a researcher who studies virtual reality, I can tell you exactly what emotion floods through me when I watch cephalopods morph: jealousy.
The problem is that in order to morph in virtual reality, humans must design morph-ready avatars in laborious detail in advance. Our software tools are not yet flexible enough to enable us, in virtual reality, to improvise ourselves into different forms.
when it comes to visual communication, and other modalities such as smell and spontaneously enacted sculptural shapes that could be felt, we are hamstrung.
We can learn to draw and paint, or use computer graphics design software, but we cannot generate images at the speed with which we can imagine them.
Suppose we had the ability to morph at will, as fast as we can think. What sort of language might that make possible? Would it be the same old conversation, or would we be able to “say” new things to one another?
(Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget, 2010)

Lanier’s interest in morphing is linked to the vision of a so called post symbolic communication. One of the envisioned possibilities offered by virtual reality would be to change the shape of our avatars, in order to communicate not anymore through symbols, words, and ideograms but by actually morphing our virtual alter-egos into what we want to communicate. These ideas about cephalopods were first formulated not by Lanier but by the psychedelic bard Terence McKenna, in an article published on the magazine Magical Blend after a visit to Lanier’s VPL Research labs.

I believe that the totemic image for the future is the octopus.This is because the cephalopods, the squids and octopi, have perfected a form of communication that is both psychedelic and telepathic, a model for the communications of the future. In the not-too-distant future, men and women may shed the monkey body to become virtual octopi swimming in a silicon sea. […] In the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand.
(Terence K. McKenna, Virtual reality and electronic highs, or: On becoming virtual octopi, in Magical Blend, 1990)

In a talk he delivered in 1992, Terence McKenna further elaborated on this concepts.

The importance of virtual reality, as I see it, is [that] it is a technology that will allow us to show each other our dreams. We will be able to build structures in the imagination that we cannot now share with each other. I imagine a world where children begin to build their virtual realities they are five, six, seven. By the time they are twenty these virtual realities might be, practically speaking, the size of Manhattan. Well, then what real intimacy will mean is saying to someone “Would you like to visit my world?” My world with my visions, my values, my dreams, my fears. In a sense, what virtual reality is, is a strategy to let us turn ourselves inside out. So that we see each other’s minds. You know octopi wear their minds on the outside of their bodies. Octopi communicate by changing colors and the smoothness of their bodies: they wear their meaning. We have an organ that we can do this with but it’s very limited: it’s called the face.

The research of a new consciousness, of both cybernauts and psychonauts, is the vision of unlimited understanding of reality, where inner and outer worlds blend together, where subjective perceptions and objective conditions are interchangeable notions. It exposes the will for an absolute capacity in the manipulation of symbols, a transgression of normative language which is at once the manipulation of a shared reality and of its multiple perceptions. It is a story of sentiments and visions of a world that is not just given to the human mind, but moulded by it. To the extent to which this story might speak of superior powers that aren’t available to us, it is a narrative of wizardry or, at least, of psychological alchemy.


Manipulating reality



The Wizard of Earthsea is a book written in 1968 by Ursula K. Le Guin, a radical science fiction and fantasy writer, quasi-anarchist, environmentalist, and taoist. It is one of the book that I most loved in my life. I read it over and over during my childhood, while listening countless times to Freddie Mercury’s songs, which in my mind I still associate with fairies, kings, queens, dragons, and magic. The Wizard of Earthsea is the story of a man called Ged, a dragonlord and Archmage, protagonist of many epic songs. The novel tells the story of his youth, in a world where magic is a form of natural speech: wizardry consists in the manipulation of language and sorcerers are those who know the true names of things and beings. In this world, the secret tongue of magic literally speaks the essence of objects, animals and humans. Magic is manipulating symbols, the juggling of the true names which shape and determine the innermost principles of reality. The psychedelic undertones of this language are exposed to the reader when Ged first encounters the Archmage Nemmerle and has with him a conversation through a non-symbolic psychological sensorium.

As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree. In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves: it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.
Then that moment passed, and he and the world were as before, or almost as before.
The Archmage looked at Ged and looked away, and began to speak in a tongue that Ged did not understand, mumbling as will an old old man whose wits go wandering among the years and islands. Yet in among his mumbling there were words of what the bird had sung and what the water had said falling. He was not laying a spell and yet there was a power in his voice that moved Ged’s mind so that the boy was bewildered, and for an instant seemed to behold himself standing in a strange vast desert place alone among shadows. Yet all along he was in the sunlit court, hearing the fountain fall.
(Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wizard of Earthsea, 1968)