THE IMPONDERABLE SPACE BETWEEN ME AND I AND FOR THE SAKE OF THE HYPERLINK


SARA PETRUCCI

January 2019. Longyearbyen, 78°13’N. Polar night.

At the end of a symposium, a speaker wonders publicly: “How to bring home a piece of this arctic darkness?” A voice rises: “– Disorientation…as an architect, I usually know where I am located in space, I always have the sense of the space. Here, I am lost –”.

Since then these words haunt me. Probably because of the blatant dissimilarity with my own perception. Some individuals mostly aware of their corporality in space do then to exist. I sound my relatives out; the question raises a sense of unease. I must therefore confess: as for me I don’t really know where I begin and where I end, I am often stretched in space, I do not inhabit anywhere, apart when my body hurts.[1]

I investigate further. Can we understand, cerebrally, the sensation of being outside oneself?

First series of hyperlinks. 

In the past few years, neuroscientists from the École Polytechnique Fédérale of Lausanne (EPFL) have been researching out-of-body experiences, the sensation of floating above one’s self. A feeling that comes from a temporary loss of contact with the sense of incorporation[2] and which looks like the perception of a phantom limb (an amputated limb from which the brain cannot disjoint), extended to the whole body. 

But to float, to enter in a liminal space, real or metaphorical, where the mind forgets the body and gets rid of itself, calls also on an ancient and compelling imagination found in the visual arts, fiction, esoteric literature and in records of rites of passage. In fact, gravity allows us to stand, gives the body its landmarks by rooting it to the ground. Thus, the desire to escape from it is galvanized by a burning curiosity, equalling the means invested in the technological avatars of Icarus, poor fellow. Isn’t it remarkable that in the meanwhile, books and techniques about full awareness are flourishing with advice on how to be “anchored”.

Second series of hyperlinks.

A particular device is emblematic of this twofold aspiration for the loss of contact with the ground and the self, which is supposed to lead toward a new state of consciousness. 

Isolation tanks, available in wellness centres want to materialize the promise to transcend. Invented by Dr. John C. Lilly in the fifties – initially created for his research on sensory stimulations of the brain – these floatation ma-chines have eventually served as an amplifier for his own psychotropic experiences[3]. Carsten Höller, artist and entomologist, brings the isolation tank into the museum with his installation Giant Psycho Tank (1999). There, the visitor is invited to levitate and to forget himself within the salty water. In Ken Russell’s film Altered States (1980), the device was at once the obsession and the transformation chamber of the brutal biological involution of its protagonist, a research psychologist. Jeremy Shaw recently revealed his fascination for that film, commenting on his video installation Liminals (2017) where he conceived parallel spaces between the real and the digital through the rituals enacted by a community of the future[4]. But the wish to suspend the body and to trigger a disorientation of the senses is also at the core of immersive VR installations. For example, Martina Menegon in Plug your Nose and Try to Hum (2017) comments on the alienation of the body in the digital age displaying swarms of weightless bodies on a black background.

The creation and the exhibition of imponderable, floating, bodies help negotiate the mental and physical geographies of the contemporary as well as the flowing perceptions of the screen-eye and of the renewed language by our digital extensions. Broadly speaking, the collusion between fluid identities and elastic space times sets up reinvented dialogues, produces new creatures, like the gothic Eve shaped by the writing and the sculptures of Clémence de La Tour du Pin (2017). At CAN, her intriguing drapes outline a parlour, perhaps a sort of confessional that would allow the visitor to transfigure through isolation.

Third series of hyperlinks. As I am writing, a notification distracts me.

It brings me back to that picture of a Chinese gymnast captured while jumping in a perfect state of suspension with her head hidden by her shoulders, the one that I have chosen as a profile picture…

Whilst fifty years ago our parents saw the first image of the earth from space, a picture that would have drastically changed the established physical scales and philosophical perspectives, I am going back and forth between my smart-phone and my 52 open Explorer windows and that, eventually, makes me feel dizzy.

This text was written for the exhibition “Cette Question Qui Vous Brûle Les Lèvres“, curated by Marie DuPasquier at CAN, Centre d’Art Neuchâtel in 2019.


[1] Michel Foucault, “The Utopian Body” (1966), in: Sensorium. Embodied experience, Technology and Contemporary Art, Cambridge MA/London: MIT Press, 2006, pp. 229-234: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSNkxv-GlUNY

[2] For the notion of embodiment: https://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/bodyembodiment.htm. See also the conference of Olaf Blanke, Director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience (EPFL) and Professor of Neurology (UniGE-HUG): “Out-of-body experiences”, 3rd Edition of Science & Cocktails, Byens Lys, 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daUn-Vir0qUE

[3] Mark Pilkington, “In the Province of the Mind”, in: Frieze, n°196, June-August, 2018: https://frieze.com/article/what-was-inspiration-pad-dy-chayefskys-hallucinatory-novel

[4] Digital, Life, Design (DLD), 23 January 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LC1TtfGHaVE. In this interview Jeremy Shaw reveals to Hans Ulrich Obrist his wish to shoot a remake of the film Altered States. We look forward to it.