Scanning the Frequencies: The Ironic Occult in the Work of Paul DeMarinis
Modernism, Occultism, and Evolutionism: a day-long panel of 8 scholars, convened by Linda Henderson and Fae Brauer. Association of Art Historians Conference, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. 9-11 April, 2015.
My paper will discuss the work of the contemporary, American artist and electronic music composer, Paul DeMarinis, whose sculptures and installations use computer programming, bespoke electronics, sound, and communication devices. Profoundly mining the 19th and early 20th century histories of scientific and technological concepts and inventions, his works are media archaeologies of great wit, irony, philosophical and political critique. Currently a professor of art at Stanford University, DeMarinis’s work has developed from two quite different cultural traditions; first, from the popular tradition, almost a folk tradition, of what in the US is called the ‘boy mechanic,’ based on a DIY manual of that name that began publishing at the turn of the 20th century, and the magazine, Popular Mechanics still in circulation today.
The second is that of experimental film and electronic music traditions of the American avant-garde of the 1960’s and 70’s; DeMarinis, unusually, studied in the late 60s and early 70s with important members of both east and west coast avant-gardes, at east coast Antioch University with filmmaker Paul Sharits and composer John Ronsheim; and Robert Ashely and Terry Riley at the well known Center for Experimental Music at Mills College in Oakland, California. While there, he also worked with David Tudor on the development of the watershed work, Rainforest. Another significant influence on DaMarinis was participation in the artist-in-residence program, which paired artists with physicists, engineers, computer sciences, biologists and the like at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a science museum devoted specifically to the sciences of perception, founded by theoretical physicist Frank Oppenheimer, [brother of Robert], in 1972. Paul was an early resident of that program, where he learned a great deal of the science and technological knowledge that has been foundational to all his subsequent work. He also found there a political kinship with the Exploratorium’s socialist spirit of engaging the general public in hands-on pedagogical experiences with science and technology.
DeMarinis’s complexly exquisite ‘works,’ therefore are the result of the contradictions between those three lineages – the boy mechanic, high art avant-gardism, and popularism. They are best understood not in terms of aesthetics form, but as ‘thought experiments,’ or rather, as an increasingly refined, though nonlinear, series of ‘critical investigations’ into one central problem – the techno-evolutionary displacements of, and substitutions for, the pre-industrial human body and its biologically historical sensory ‘meanings,’ and lack/loss there of. The results of his investigations, his specific ‘works,’ are uncategorizable. They have an uneasy home, if any home at all, in any traditional narratives of early or late, modern, or postmodern, art histories. Even his most influential teachers – Cage, Tudor, Riley, Ashley – might not comprehend him as part of their lineage because they were modernists who were driven by uncritically riding the wave, and each new subsequent wave, of techno-possibility. As suggested in Mechanization Takes Command, a performance based on Siegfried’s Gideon’s book of the same title, DeMarinis aims to bring critical attention to what Jean-Luc Nancy has called in his book, Corpus, the ecotechnical, the fundamental condition of modernity, an operational or functional world comprised of technical apparatuses that link our bodies to their networked ecologies. Erik Davis expands on what Nancy refers to as our vain search for the spirit; Davis, in more psychological than spiritualist terms suggests this vain search is driven by a “secret history of mystical impulses that continues to spark and sustain the Western world’s obsession with technology.” Taken together, Nancy and Davis define the territory that runs through all of DeMarinis’s work.
My talk today will negotiate three themes that drive DeMarinis. 1. He took the Cage/Tudor tradition of the music of technical re-invention of sound to their still unrecognized ends. 2. To achieve that, he immersed himself in the pragmatics of technicity – electronics, physics, chemistry, computer programming, music, and language – with the very sophisticated ability of the ‘amateur’ popular applied mechanic, engineer and scientist, emblemized by the figure of the boy mechanic. 3. He is both a social historian and political philosopher of science and technology, in the German art historical tradition of Bildwissenschaft that derives from the work on symbolism and iconology of Aby Warburg.
Though for the rich and various German term Bild – image, illustration, picture, photo, scene, metaphor – we must substitute the term, Ton – sound, tone, note, intonation – and speak instead of a Tonwissenschaft. But because that term is too restrictive for DeMarinis’s musicological avant-gardism, we need to supplement Ton with, Geräusch – noise – understood both in its common, vernacular sense, but also in its information science sense – random, incomprehensible electronic fluctuation. Thus, we must imagine a Geräuschwissenschaft. This way of framing his work is critical to understanding the role that the occult, ironically, plays in it – noise in its informational sense IS occult because it is scientifically and mathematically, while perhaps containable, essentially incomprehensible and impossible to completely eliminate. It is a transmission of ‘something’ beyond reason, and therefore irrational.
Warburg specifically cites Benjamin Franklyn and the Wright Brothers as early modern Prometheans, as ‘destroyers of the sense of distance, who threaten to lead the planet back into chaos’; while linking them directly to the telegraph and telephone, which in his view, sever ‘the spiritual bonds between humanity and the surrounding world,’ by means of the ‘instantaneous electric connection.’ DeMarinis’s view is more nuanced than Warburgs, as we can see in his early work, The Pygmy Gamelan, designed to play the 5-tone scale of Indonesian gamelan music, but also so that it’s circuitry, it’s instantaneous electronic connections, are susceptible to, sensitive to, fluctuating, ambient electrical fields generated by everything from human motion to radio transmissions, to the birth of galaxies, which continuously and randomly alter the melodies programmed into The Pygmy Gamelan’s circuits. The work at least diminishes the distance Warburg so apocalyptically describes. But it also clearly illustrates that we must approach DeMarinis’s work as a tension between Tonwissenschaft and Geräuschwissenschaf, between sound-science and noise-science. Additionally, it condenses the three themes I mentioned above: made of inexpensive components used in consumer products, it adheres to the tradition of the boy mechanic, it’s minimalist electronic music style to the avant-garde, while philosophically commenting of Warburg’s worry over the instantaneous electric connection by physically and sonically relinking humanity to the cosmos, literally enabling us to hear the music of the spheres. Though DeMarinis was not aware of Warburg’s comments on Edison,
comparing electrical wires to Pueblo snake-lightning, the recognition of the important juxtaposition between pre-modern cultures and modernity’s ecotechnical condition is common to both.
Before turning to the main works I’ll discuss in detail, I want first, by briefly showing two more early works, to reinforce the articulation in them between the occult, modernity, and technology, and my three themes. Here,
we see that the Kim-1 Computer, as popular with hobbyists, is a digital extension of the analog period of the Boy Mechanic ethos, while the avant-garde aesthetic is found in the ‘slowly shifting composition made of filtered white noise, and historically and philosophically, light in terms of Newton’s spectrum, is the analogy for the spectrum of sonic frequencies derived from the ‘interstation noise of a police-band radio.’ Newton’s term derives from the spectral, the ghosts of the spirit world which he certainly believed in, not unlike his conceptions of gravity, an action-at-a-distance, as an occult force because he lacked a mechanism by which to explain it. Demarinis transfers this form of the occult in Sounds and Shadows of Sounds to its 36 bandpass resonate filters of radio transmissions conceived as acoustic channels able to pick up communications from another world.
Similarly, Voice Creatures uses voice recognition software to ‘translate’ museum visitors’ voices into the those of the spirits, Ted, Bud, and Ramon who, respectively, inhabit two radios and a kitchen sink, all of whom speak in parapsychological codes.
In an essay on his friend and comrade-in-arms, artist Jim Pomery, DeMarinis comments on the cultural political significance of the Boy Mechanic not only in American culture, but for the technocultural aspects of modernity, generally.
The Boy Mechanic has his origins in stock characters of American historical folklore: Benjamin Franklin (printer’s devil, researcher, tinkerer, lover, patriot, statesman); Thomas Alva Edison (telegrapher’s assistant, inventor, entrepreneur, industrialist, icon of genius); and David Packard (boy mechanic, engineer, inventor, industrialist, secretary of defense). The contemporary exemplar might be Bill Gates, whose progress from nerd to corporate magnate is crowned by a consuming desire to own the electronic rights to every major work of Western art. The evolvement of the mythical Boy Mechanic is clearly laid out here: curious child, boy mechanic, inventor, entrepreneur, industrialist, potentate of the ruling taste. In the end, the Boy Mechanic becomes iconic, a trademark himself. Pomeroy used the various stages and images that constitute these personae as points of departure in his performances, subverting them into a set of social and aesthetic criticisms.
“The Boy Mechanic – Mechanical Personae in the works of Jim Pomeroy,” 1993, Paul DeMarinis
What DeMarinis says of Pomeroy, is equally attributable to him. As we will see, he too uses the various stages, images, and particularly, sound and noise as departure points for his own subversive social and aesthetic criticisms. Elsewhere is the same essay, he elaborates this point relative to technology: “The Boy Mechanics,” he comments, “were artist-tinkerers who bypassed or defied the intended uses of technology, who disrupted the hierarchy of the messaging apparatus.” Nowhere is the artist-tinkerer disruption made more clearly than the series of works the make up The Edison Effect, to which I now turn to analyze what DeMarinis means by the messaging apparatus. At this point, rather than continuing to read, I’ll rely on a series of slides to explicate them in terms of my third theme: his Tonwissenschaft and Geräuschwissenschaft. or, sound-science and noise-science.
In his, ‘Essay in Lieu of a Sonata,’ 1993, DeMarinis describes three specific ways in which we should understand the Edison Effect, but what he says about that work can be said about all his work.
First, he tells us,
it refers to the profound and irreversible effect the invention of sound recording has had upon music, the soundscape, upon the time and place of our memory and sense of belonging.
It should call to mind Thomas Alva Edison’s illicit claim to the invention of the light bulb, and his general propensity for copying and appropriation as an emblem of the inherently uncertain authorship of all recorded works.
it invokes a metaphorical allusion to the physical phenomenon known as the ‘Edison Effect,’ wherein atoms from a glowing filament are deposited on the inner surface of light bulbs causing them to darken… [and that] made possible the invention of the ‘audion’ or vacuum tube… to sound amplification as well as radio, television and the earliest digital computers.
Each of these three effects specifies a type of ecotechnical disembodiment. All of his work critically addresses aspects of telecommunications, by taking the occult as a reference point with which to invert the consequences, on modernity, of these effects.
One genealogical origin of DeMarinis’s work is obviously traced to the 19th century concept that “the invention of the telegraph in 1844 led spiritualists to claim that an unseen “spiritual telegraph” to the dead also existed…” A second genealogical line is figured by the 19th century automatist cited by Roger Luckhurst – “When [British journalist] William Stead described the body of the automatist as a ‘two-legged telephone’, he was borrowing from an established conjuncture of electricity, technology, and the occult.”, the very same conjuncture we’ve seen operating in DeMarinis’s works. The automatist so vividly described is the paradigm for the telepathist. But if, as Lockhurst has demonstrated, “Telepathy was coined as a strategy to protect a terrain of scientific legitimacy.”, (because it framed it as an object of scientific study), then DeMarinis subverts that legitimacy by demonstrating that the scientific, in the form of the ecotechnical, delegitimizes the human body and its sensory organs, by occulting them. And therein lies his ironic use of the occult, about which more in a moment. DeMarinis in effect combines the figures of the telepathist and the telegraph, the ‘subject’ and the ‘device’, the messenger and the messaging apparatus, but by inverting the significance of their roles in the hierarchy of communication processes and systems. The three Edison Effects have resulted in the occultation of the human sensory organs, leading to the general condition of modernity, disembodiment.
DeMarinis makes this aspect of his work explicit in his description of Gray Matter, a work I don’t have time to discuss. He comments:
Our electronic media may be regarded, in large part, as the outgrowths of nineteenth century laboratory apparatuses designed to isolate & investigate the functioning of human sensory organs. Viewed thus, they fracture the wholeness of sensation in an effort to preserve, replay or transmit over distance the specters of our sensory experiences…
The ‘irony’ of the occult is that its anti-rationalist use in DADA and Surrealism, for example, has become completely rationalized with digital productive and reproductive technologies. Whereas Breton’s 1933 essay, ‘The Automatic Message,’ defined a fundamental surrealist tactic, DeMarinis’s The Messenger, understood as a follow on of the Edison Effects, establishes that recording technologies make the occult an empirical, ecotechnical fact. But more than that, DeMarinis radically refigures the occult as pure automaton; his ‘messenger’ eradicates not only the surrealist unconscious, but subjectivity altogether. In effect, the messenger transmits only noise to non-human receivers. Only the network of technical linkages, mediated by the internet, are capable of sending or receiving messages, and humans become irrelevant to the automaton’s ecology. This is a tragic view of technology. The ironic occult has a another meaning; relative to the systems of ecotechnicity, it is humanity itself that has become occult. Humanity has been relegated to the shadows, to a lived existence that paradoxically is simultaneously an afterlife. We are literally ghosts in the machine.
In his “Theses against Occultism,” Adorno notes: ‘The hypnotic power exerted by things occult resembles totalitarian terror.’ [Minima Moralis, 240]. Adorno was of course thinking of early modern occultism and not Nancy’s world completely subjugated by ecotechnicity. My interpretation of DeMarinis’s messaging apparatuses as having completely succumbed to automatism suggests that humanity is now in the grip of technicity’s totalitarian, hypnotic power, that the ironic occult offers only a tragic world view.
This seems born about by his 2004 work, Firebirds, in with “‘oracular flames’ kept captive in birdcages, enchanted prison cells in the afterlife of voices that wielded enormous political power during their lifetimes,” those of Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt, and Mussolini.
But DeMarinis does not ascribe, completely, to the pessimism of my interpretation; he continues to resist such an extreme dualism, as is apparent in the comedy found throughout his work. Even the danse macabre of his jumping telegraphic skeletons makes us laugh. Isolation does not entirely preclude solidarity; equality is not entirely eradicated by totalitarian oppressive forces; life is uncertain and precarious, but it remains rich.
IF the ironic occult does not hold sway absolutely, it’s because for DeMarinis, we can escape the closure of the automaton’s codes through adding noise to the iron-clad dictates of their circuits, codes, and algorithms. He completely concurs with Avital Ronell when she comments in the introduction to The Telephone Book:
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn how to read with your ears. In addition to listening for the telephone, you are being asked to tune your ears to noise frequencies, to anticoding, to the inflated reserves of random indeterminateness—in a word, you are expected to stay open to the static and interference that will occupy these lines. We have attempted to install a switchboard which, vibrating a continuous current of electricity, also replicates the effects of scrambling. Ronell, “A User’s Manual” in The Telephone Book, pg.xv.
The ironic occult, then, has a third potentially liberating sense: it’s the static in the lines, the clicks of the Geiger counter, the indeterminate transmissions of email to three different receivers, the effect of birthing galaxies on the tones of The Pygmy Gamelan, the effects of scrambling fundamentally part of every DeMarinis work, that offers us a strategy for countering the complete closure of ecotechnicity’s automaton. As long as the Messenger operates with the principles, with the dice, of Geräuschwissenschaft, then no message can be completely determined. And as receivers and decoders of noise, we might escape the Edison Effects of the occult forces of the messaging apparatus, of the telepathist/telegraph and become something other than a two-legged telephone.