On Electromagnetism and Touching the Void

I remember the first time I saw a video of Italian artist Sonia Cillari's Se Mi Sei Vicino [If You Are Close To Me] from 2007 Ars Electronica. I thought it was quite perfect.
It began as an exploration into measuring human encounters by Cillari, who is an architect and media artist. An 'actor' is set in the middle of a plate that records and translates changes in the electromagnetic field into an undulating digital web that is projected onto the walls in real-time. The electromagnetic field that surrounds us is changed just by nearing another person and our conception of ourselves as bound by our skin is quite erroneous. We shift particles and 'touch' others before we ourselves feel it. As a high-functioning mass of molecules, I would love to just once see the world as the vibrating mass of strings that we believe it is.

This idea of where we stop and the rest of the world begins has fascinated me for a while. I will try to give a few little examples of my research in as succinct a way as possible for someone who gets so excited by the very idea of a stringy world that I have to sit, mouth agape, in my own private rapture for a while.
So here it is.

V.S. Ramachandran is possibly my favourite neuroscientist. He is funny, innovative and endlessly interesting. He has written extensively about a new discovery in the brain, mirror neurons. In the 80s and 90s, five Italian neurophysiologists were working on neuronal substrates for hand movements in macaque monkeys when they noticed a strange occurrence. When one of the researchers went to pick up a piece of food, some of the same neurons would respond as when the monkey itself picked up food. The continuation of this is awesome and wondrous. When we see someone reaching for something, there are neurons that fire exactly as if we ourselves were reaching for something. Why doesn't our brain get confused and think that we are performing the action? Because the sensory nerves on our skin send signals to the brain telling it that it is not. Ramachandran set out to stop that signal and completely numbed the arms of test subjects. Then he had them watch someone else's arm being touched. The subjects 'felt' the touch on their own arms in exactly the same 'place' {actually the corresponding area of the brain map for that part of the arm}. Ramachandran affectionately calls these mirror neurons 'Ghandi neurons' or empathy neurons and believes that they could be responsible for imitation and emulation. This is particularly interesting in light of human development; we acquired a great many new skills around a similar historic period, including language and refined tool use. It could be that the mirror neuron system allowed for that development.

Yinka Shonibare's mirrored dancers

History and academia aside, this is simply a wonderful concept. We are neither detached from the world or confined to our skin. We 'experience' the actions of others. Which leads me to my next point. Speech, rhythm and music.

To be continued.

we, the subscribers to string and super-string theories

{Reference - Sonia Cillari http://www.soniacillari.net/

image - video still from Yinka Shonibare's Odile and Odette}

Papillon Geometry, Religion and Raves

These beautiful triakis tetrahedrons, octahedrons, hexagonal pyramids and other wonderfully pure shapes are covered in collected butterfly wings. The artist is Paris/Berlin based Gaëlle Boucand and the works are on display in the Dynasty exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo.

The collection is called Merkaba and is a reference to ancient Jewish mysticism that has been taken up in new age movements. The stellar tetrahedron (below) is a common representation of Mer (light) Ka (spirit) Ba (body) as the spirit/body surrounded by counter-rotating fields of light.

The series is related to Boucand's Partis pour Croatan, a series of nine videos exploring raver culture, literally, Going to Croatia. Accompanying the video series is a quote:

« This seems to be at issue for our contemporary tribes. They don’t care about the goal to reach, about the economical, political or social project to achieve. They prefer « entering » the pleasure of being together, « entering » the intensity of the present, « entering » the pleasure of this world as it is.»

Michel Maffesoli in « The time of the tribes: the decline of individualism in mass society », La Table Ronde, 2000.

Merkaba offers new age practises a similar idea of spiritual transportation. The Hebrew word, meaning chariot, stems from the verb to ride. It is a promise of new realities and modes of experience. The rave is an interesting social phenomenon designed to bubble pure physical release but whose sentiments are similarly religious. I wonder about our attention to physicality as a culture and whether the spiritual seekers, now imbued with a respect for science rather than religion, find a more pure experience in a seratonin high than in spiritual ecstasy. And if so, dare we damn this culture, the product of hundreds of years of enlightened worshipping of science and mind? In saying this, I think of the fits of tongues and tremors in evangelical churches, more so poignant when the chariot is a 10 year old child at one of the famed Jesus Camps. It seems more earth-bound and less false to take a tablet whose chemical makeup will change your own, though religious ecstasy will change similar chemical structures in your brain. The difference is belief and perhaps I am more comfortable with knowing scientifically what I am 'knowing' spiritually and physically.

video still from Jesus Camp

Recently, Australian artist Angelica Mesiti won the 58th Blake Prize for Spiritual and Religious Art with her work Rapture, depicting close-up, slowed-down ravers from under a festival stage. The work is silent and incredibly beautiful and more so, fascinating because the rapture in these ravers is very, very real. I love Gaëlle Boucand's geometric butterflies, whose flying lives are a fleeting 48 hours and whose wings are preserved forever as spiritual chariots. New age crystals, digitally preserved ecstasy, and religious raptures of the chemical and evangelical kind, have never seemed so perfect.

video still from Rapture

{References/Links -

Jesus Camp (2006) [documentary]
Rapture (Silent Anthem) (2009) [video] Angelica Mesiti

The Greeks Did Not Have Blue

One thing that I discovered recently whilst reading on the philosophy of light, was that Homer and his contemporaries lacked the word for blue. Goethe, in 1810, first pointed out this curious fact and it has caused no shortage of questions since.
The word kyanos (related to cyan), which Theophrastus used to describe the precious blue mineral that we call lapis lazuli, was used in Homeric Greek, but it did not mean blue.

"a cloud of dust rose where Hektor was dragged, his kyanos hair was falling about him"

Rather than blue, kyanos meant dark, but there was no other word to describe the colour we take for granted and so kyanos was used to describe, among other things, hair, clouds and earth.

The word used by later Greek colour theorists to describe green, chloros, has a similar qualitative rather than definitive function in Homeric Greek. Describing tears, blood, dew and honey, chloros, it can be seen, means not green but fresh and alive.

It is strange to try and imagine your world in an Homeric way, imbuing objects and people with qualities rather than colours. Most would probably still understand the sea on a dark night as 'blue', even though our eyes see it as black (or absent of light) and technically water has no colour at all. Could we ever conceive of how our world would look? Is it possible to look at blood and not see red, to even read the word 'blood' or hear it and not see its colour?
Or for the sea to change quality as the day progressed, like Monet's haystacks; we know the sea is 'blue' and the hay is 'golden' but what about when the sea is pink at sunrise and when the hay is blue in winter dusk?

{Reference - Catching the Light - Arthur Zajonc
gif - Howl's Moving Castle}

it is a place where it is felt that large things

must be said and then,


equally undone.

dust and grime will be gathered there and,

with one quick, wet finger,

rubbed away.

the cry of the neighbourhood cat,

the scratch of tree and windowpane,

and rumbling machinations

of dawn's garbage trucks;

all the lonely sounds will,

for some unknowable time,

twist and curl with new life.

Hairy Palms

As I was researching I came across a rich little morsel: Charles II wore a wig made from his favourite mistress' pubic hair, which I think is grand and somewhat sensual, perhaps because it is so far removed from our own sanitised version of desire, so obsessed with fresh and clean. Worn and warm may again have its day, who can know?

In other hair history, Tsar Peter I imposed a beard tax on Russia of 100 rubles (less for serfs) in an attempt to modernise the country. Beards, once a sign of humorous vigour, were soon cast as primitive and uncivilised, tangential to a new colonial world view. The four humours - sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic or blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm - the substances of the body, were held in a fine balance. An excess or deficit of any of these humours, the body would become unbalanced and malady would arise. As erroneous beliefs about race became more prolific, bearded men were compared to the 'negro' in such unfavourable light that the 18th century became one of the only times when there was a marked turn away from chinly [sic] hair.

All this because I am writing an article on the history of the phrase "hairy palms", referring to the consequences for Onanists (a biblically inspired name for masturbators). As well as young men, vampires and werewolves were famously hairy-palmed, a distinctly non-human trait that could be used to identify the "evil" within.

Wonderfully strange, it happens that there are two known cases of the extremely rare congenital pilary dysembryoplasia of the palms, that is, hairy palms, in both a French and a Franco-Canadian family.

The hairy palms myth, which, nowadays, is more commonly used as a benign trick to get young boys to look to the palms of their hands, (thereby implicating their still somewhat taboo habits), was once part of a very serious idea of the dangers of Onanism.
The myth is a relic of a period of massive intellectual and social transformation that saw medicine playing a quasi-religious role. Confronted by new disease, changing social codes and a breadth of knowledge that could not be mastered, these new hippocratic 'priests' turned to sin as a convenient scapegoat for all unidentified physical ills. And self-abuse, self-pollution, onanism or masturbation, was the gravest of all sins.
Causing insanity, apathy, depression and physical deterioration eventually leading to death, masturbation was the most feared and vilified act of the early modern age.

The article will be, hopefully, full of salacious stats and rarely explored cultural legacies.
Expect vampires, mares (as in night~), nocturnal emissions, semen as blood, werewolf symbology in menstruation and a few depraved preventions and remedies.

[picture credit: Strange Fantasy - 1953]