State Of The Art: Is Art Neo-Liberalism In It’s Purest Form?


In the Live Art performance Cakehole, artist Tom Estes expresses his acute preoccupation with the social and economic changes taking place in this new age of unemployment and of automation. The performance sets out to transform these observations and anxieties into comedy. Wearing a robotic mask as a symbolic juxtaposition of human with machine, Estes presents an updated commentary on labour in the economic and social upheavals of 21st century society.

Michael J. Lewis’s essay on the the demise of art-as-culture, was published this July in Commentary magazine Titled “How Art Became Irrelevant: A chronological survey of the demise of art,” the essay’s central claim is that “while the fine arts can survive a hostile or ignorant public, or even a fanatically prudish one, they cannot long survive an indifferent one. And that is the nature of the present Western response to art, visual and otherwise: indifference.

In the 1960s and ’70s, politicization meant taking a position, establishing and following a political program, taking up armed struggle, putting one’s skills (including art) at the service of the revolution, fighting in the name of the horizon of state socialism, and acting in solidarity with anti-imperialist and decolonization struggles. Artists and militant networks were drawn together by political affinities, and Palestine, Vietnam, and Chile were symbols of anti-imperialism. This form of politicization translated into an aesthetic practice of international vanguardism, contestation, criticality, counterhegemony, and postcolonial memorialization and assertion, within the framework of a politics of representation. Since that time, however, this kind of politics has come to be perceived as a form of violent nationalism that led to authoritarian states and propagandist aesthetics. Politics has become inseparable from the neoliberalized political economy, as well as from culture. This is in part, of course, due to the whitewashing of Capitalist violence through military intervention and underplaying of the role of economic disparity as a form of violence.  Neoliberalism, ideology celebrates itself as the epiteme of ‘freedom’ through free market competition while a mainstream corporate controlled media works around the clock to secure vested interests with a barrage of rhetoric ignoring any of the drawbacks and silences any criticism.

In her 1968 essay “The Crisis in Culture,” Hannah Arendt argued that true art had no purpose and is useless and therefore not a part of political action. According to Arendt, art and politics are two separate spheres, since political action or “speaking out” necessarily implies means or ends, while art is autonomous and needs no justification. When art has political aims, it becomes propaganda (for example, socialist realism under Stalin’s regime). For Arendt, what art and politics have in common is that both are “carried out”—to use a term posterior to Arendt—in the public sphere. With the advent of industrialized culture, however, once mass society became interested in cultural values and began to monopolize culture for its own ends, transforming cultural values into exchangeable values, a fusion between art and politics occurred in the greater cultural sphere. From this moment on, modernism’s political project of transforming the world by means of criticism, subversion, transgression, transformation, and negativity took its place within postmodernism at the very center of society.

Artists’ voices are thought to be important in giving shape to society, and art is considered to be useful.  But could it be that contemporary art is neo-liberalism in its purest form?

When considering the relationship between contemporary art and politics, it is simply assumed that art, in one way or another, can serve as a catalyst for political action or participation, as it can reveal capitalism’s “hidden” contradictions. It is clear that the state of contemporary art today is quite different from what gave rise to institutional critique in the 1970s, which was focused on examining the subjection of art to ideological interests. What you have now then is the marketing of racialized identities as tools for consumption. And certain racialized bodies and images are associated with hipness, coolness, edginess. So all kinds of youth all over the world are appropriating that style as a way of, sort of, countering authority, stating their rebelliousness, and wanting to be seen as significant.

The production of contemporary art, as Brian Kuan Wood and Anton Vidokle pointed out, has been foreclosed by a network of protocols dictating the forms and means of production of art circulating in exhibitions, galleries, biennials, and fairs. And while artists may address exhibition politics  as a theme in their work, they are limited in terms of producing something outside of the consensual barriers placed on exhibition politics. This is due to the existence of a systemic enclosure which extends well beyond the consensus of the art world: art is fused with political sensibilities that exploit art’s diplomatic potential, as these political sensibilities consider culture to be a form of social capital, a resource. Thus, a lot of money is put into play.

Within representation’s ruin, what used to be “outside” of capitalism—like marginality, queerness, or race—has been symbolically incorporated and deprived of its capacity to disrupt and contest. Figures of otherness have disappeared and been subsumed into “lifestyle” options. The underclass is a blurry horizon disconnected from the flows of global capitalism; far from being a political figure, the underclass is sometimes subject to site-specific intervention, pacification, betterment, development, and community-building projects. Its emancipatory horizon lies in entrepreneurship. Moreover, in the twenty-first century politics is no longer representative, but what some theorists call “post-politics.” Following Jodi Dean, this means that politics now aspires to a superficial democracy that neutralizes antagonism and denies democracy’s limits and mechanisms of exclusion. “Post-politics” thus implies the disavowal of the fundamental division conditioning politics, as equality has come to mean inclusion, respect, and entitlement. “Post-politics” means consensual politics, the end of ideology, the neoliberal withering away of the state in some areas and its strengthening in other strategic ones, and the financialization of the economy. Under these conditions, is there any room left for politically committed art?

Unlike forty years ago, institutions today are more opaque, more exclusive, and they share objectives intrinsically linked to corporate, neoliberal agendas (to the point that those agendas have become invisible). Cultural institutions are the administrative organs of the dominant order, and cultural producers actively contribute to the transmission of free market ideology across all aspects of our lives.


In Estes’ work Cake Hole, the simple but repetitive act of cutting holes in donuts is based on a slang term in activist circles meaning ‘to do something that has little or no real impact’. The title of the work is also from a slang term that refers to the mouth. Generally expressed as ‘shut your cakehole’ which means ‘shut up and keep your opinions to yourself’.

Aas Michael J. Lewis states: “In terms of quantifiable data—prices spent on paintings and photographs and sculptures, visitors accommodated and funds raised and square footage created at museums—the picture could hardly be rosier… Equally robust is the art market, to judge by a Christie’s auction on May 11 that set several records, including the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art: $179.4 million, paid by an anonymous bidder, for Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O). One can expect more such record-breaking in the next few years as the art market is increasingly roiled by Hong Kong dollars, Swiss francs, and Qatari riyals. (The buyer of the Picasso was subsequently revealed to be the former prime minister of Qatar.)”

Being “contemporary,” art exists in the same temporal space as culture and has therefore been integrated into it. Culture is the social process through which we communicate meaning in order to understand the world, build identities, and define our values and beliefs. In the late 1990s, theorist Fredric Jameson argued that the social space was completely saturated with the image of culture.This is because in our professional and daily activities, as well as in the various forms of entertainment we enjoy, society consumes cultural products all the time. This characterizes the postmodern “cultural turn” diagnosed by Jameson, which was further elaborated by George Yúdice upon observing (in 2003) that the uses of culture had undergone an unprecedented expansion not just in the marketplace but also along social, political, and economic lines. According to Yúdice, since the states and corporations already utilize culture as a tool as they search for economic and sociopolitical betterment—for instance,in peacefully resolving violence and crime, reconstructing the social fabric, transforming society, creating jobs, increasing civic participation, and so forth—culture has become a resource.

Moreover, the state, the private sector and society attribute to art a decisive political role as on the one hand, they invest in culture with the purpose generating political and economic surplus value. On the other hand, art and cultural practices are now part of the same network of strategies and questions as social movements are (this space is known as the “Infosphere”). In a context in which the creative, political, and mediatic fields are intrinsically linked, contemporary cultural practices point toward a new social order in which art has merged with life, privileging lived experience, collective communication and performative politics.


Estes’ performance work is reminiscent of the futuristic German expressionist film Metropolis of 1927, in which wealthy industrialists rule over a vast city from high-rise tower complexes, while a lower class of underground-dwelling workers toil constantly to operate the machines that provide its power. Poverty, unemployment, strikes and strike breakers, political intolerance, economic inequalities and the tyranny of the machine, were in the past something experienced mainly by a menial working class in the industrial age of the mass production. Estes’ choice of a mask of a protocol droid (C3PO from Star Wars) suggests the white middle class taking on a different role with the slow disappearance of white-collar professions. The positioning of the performance within an art gallery context stands as a commentary on the hierarchy within the artword itself and the danger of the dehumanizing influence of an age of unbridled mechanization within a society based on obscene wealth disparity. But the work also addresses the hardships of all the underprivileged and of human survival in a world only just emerging from the industrialization of the 20th century. In this new world of neo-liberalism productivity and consumption define human value but deny any real representation or meaningful voice .

In turn, the commodification of culture and its use as a resource—as well as the fusion of art, politics, and media—have had a significant impact in the way in which capitalist economies operate. A  consequence has been the predominance of immaterial or cognitive labor over industrial production. Not  to say that industrial production has ceased to exist, on the contrary, it has increased more than ever and for the most part it has been transferred to third-world countries. The prevalence of cognitive or immaterial work in contemporary capitalism implies that the main source of surplus value is the production and dissemination of signs. In other words,“creative’ work” has been injected to all areas of economic life. Immaterial labor also means the production of social life as lifestyles,  and forms of life—a new form of the common at the center of which culture is located.

“Silence is expansive, filling up a whole room in seconds, like a balloon filled with awkwardness. It’s amazing how saying nothing can be so different from having nothing to say.”  Jarod Kintz

The relationship between the cultural and political spheres (that is, the instrumentalization of culture in the name of politics) is nothing new. Yet according to Yúdice, UNESCO’s cultural projects, globalized civil society, governments, NGOs, the market, cultural managers, and those who work in cultural and creative industries have brought about an unprecedented transformation in our understanding of culture and what we do on its behalf.12 This transformation brings up a well-worn contradiction between the trivialization of cultural products to serve the mass consumer market, which is seen as something negative, and the process of cultural democratization, which is seen as something positive. In transcending this contradiction, explicating why art (subsumed to the demands of the cultural and creative industries, subsidized by the state, market, and corporations) is considered a privileged field of politicization and even an integral part of political action and voice when it comes to anti-hegemonic practices. What are the implications of this for committed, autonomous art?

To reflect upon the presence of the political against the backdrop of contingent aesthetic, social, and economic factors there is a need for a new, completely different political design that asks, “What has to be done?” Rather than a call for a telos or a proclamation seeking to promote a more empirical relationship to the presence of the political—one embedded in the genealogies of ongoing social struggles and postidentitarian subjectivity—perhaps we need to ask instead, “What has been done already? And how do we go on?”

The Society of the Spectacle (French: La Société du spectacle) is a 1967 work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory by Guy Debord. In this important text for the Situationist movement, Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”This condition, according to Debord, is the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.”

The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord writes, “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there’s also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought. Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never-ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history, one that can be overturned through revolution.


People who witness the performance first hand are asked to interact by taking pictures on what Estes call a “communal camera”. So rather than being some kind of privileged, passive  audience, those who witness the event in real time and space become actively involved. The pictures are then posted on social networking sites for another, wider on-line audience.

Estes refers to this as “Harvesting The Hive” in which the underclass is sometimes subject to site-specific intervention, pacification, betterment, development, and community-building projects. The underclass is a blurry horizon disconnected from the flows of global capitalism and far from being a political figure, its emancipatory horizon lies in entrepreneurship. 

While Lewis does get some fair shots in about vapid works of spectacle, the essay ignores both the artists who have been historically marginalized from such spaces and the artists who are taking their practices outside of them- or critiquing them from within. Therefore, a genuinely radical approach within the field of art means going beyond politically correct art—art that’s satisfied with the system of galleries, grants, and markets, and with serving as a Neo-liberal government’s official showcase. Recent exhibitions and biennials have addressed questions that are perceived to be “political,” for example: labor, poverty, exploitation, violence, globalization, war, and exclusion. “Any image of society depends on the perspective one takes, and the perspective one takes influences what one sees,” summarizes Antke Engel in her revision of the writings of J. K. Gibson-Graham. While the present is dark and opaque, art is given the task of teaching us how to see or perceive things in a different way—it is considered to be training, an act of observation or exegesis. But could politicized art, as Hito Steyerl argues, focuses not on what it shows but on what art does and how it does it? In today’s art world art does not need to be political to promote neo-liberalism The entire system itself fulfills neo-liberal aims and objectives. To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, it’s not a question of making political art or film; it’s about making art or film politically.

Standing in the shade brought together a selection of works discussing aura and affect. It dealt with ephemeral encounters in a contemporary climate dominated by reproduced images. Interrogating the lived experience of the artwork – a shade blown from beneath the trees – this exhibition invites us to re-consider our positions as viewers of art today.

Standing in the shade opened with a private view from 6-9pm on Thursday, 14th January and remained open 15th-24th January 2016, Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm at Mile End Art Pavilion, Mile End Park, Clinton Rd, London E3 4











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Stranger Than Fiction: Dreaming Your Way Out Of Disaster


Annunciation by artist Tom Estes. The title of the work ‘Annunciation’ is a Biblical term which means the announcing of ‘the incarnation’ or a materialization of the unrealized in a concrete form. The work therefore relates to multiple worlds; possible, fictional or desired worlds which though different from the one we live in, directly influences our own.

English poet, painter, and printmaker. William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) claimed “Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction.” Likewise The Society of the Spectacle (French: La Société du spectacle) is a 1967 work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory by Guy Debord. In this important text for the Situationist movement, Debord traced the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” Debord argued that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”

For artist Tom Estes “fantasy and illusion are not a contradiction of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives”. And apparently there is scientific research which suggests a firm grounding to this as the very basis of our society. A new study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science suggests young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction.

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic –- in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional. The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.“ In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children,” the study concluded.

Refuting previous hypotheses claiming that children are “born believers,” the authors suggest that “religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.” According to 2013-2014 Gallup data, roughly 83 percent of Americans report a religious affiliation, and an even larger group — 86 percent — believe in God. More than a quarter of Americans, 28 percent, also believe the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, while another 47 percent say the Bible is the inspired word of God.

Artist Tom Estes grew up in an Irish Catholic family with a strong religious set of beliefs. in the second half of the 20th century. So he has a first hand experience of the effects of religion. However, this utopia of the Cold War period was darkened by anxiety and competition. Estes, like most people in the 20th century was gaining a knowledge of an incredibly complex, changing world. The conviction was that it had lost control over its own creatures. Technology became far too complicated to be comprehensible for the average user and thus the suspicion of these machines having their own soul and will was born; and media was gathering, selecting, mixing, warping or amplifying information so that “reality” became inapproachable.

Estes was often inspired by scientific achievements and technological development, be it about cities for future societies, the info communication revolution, or the arms and space race. Quite antithetical future possibilities, such as discovering an intelligence ultimately superior to that of human race (like in 2001: Space Odyssey) or facing a society totally devoid of culture and human sense (such as in Fahrenheit 451); conquering the universe and vacationing on the Moon or perishing in a nuclear attack by the evil “Other” all seemed to be at arm’s length and approaching.


Live Art Performance EMOTICON by Tom Estes for Communication Futures at The Old Royal Naval College during DRHA 2014. In his performance Estes stages an ‘action’ and then ask members of the audience to take pictures on a communal camera. In this way, the audience becomes part of the performance, and the pictures are then posted on on-line social networking sites and web sites for another, wider on-line audience.

In his practice, artist Tom Estes creates photographic ‘installations’ that introduce a  kind of artwork that functions more as art proposal for a partially realized exhibition; a document of visual and spatial modes of presentation that theorizes a different approach. But in his practice Estes also has acute observations on Science Fiction. Thus, exact scientific facts and precise, inanimate machines, social tensions and political ideologies or phobias, filter through his fantasy, and artistic creativity, turning into peculiar, in some cases optimistic, in others threatening or even apocalyptic visions of late modernity. This science-fiction universe is at the same time the summit and the collapse of the modern utopia; it shreds and pulps fact and fiction so that the unknown and the foreign comes near and the familiar turns uncanny; irrational becomes the principle and logic gets nonsensical; and the unthinkable somehow enters our consciousness.

Some SF themes, like nuclear threat and havoc, are still with us, as the political situation they articulate has not changed as much as leading ideologies maintain; however, if SF as language and method has entered visual art in the past as well as today, the reason might be that it proved suitable for articulating the uneasy relationship of past and future, known and alien, threatening and fascinating, scientific and phantasmagorical – not as opposites, but as intertwined entities.

Inspired by Pop Art’s interest in popular culture such as sci-fi, and searching for magic and wonder, Estes states:

“My work, like science fiction, is a sort of thought experiment. SF has long served as a useful vehicle for “safely” discussing controversial topical issues and often providing thoughtful social commentary on potential unforeseen future issues. Science Fiction in its purest form takes a scientific principle, poses a question or hypothesis about that principle and then explores the effects of that principle on society and culture. But in recent years science and technology have begun to catch up with science fiction. So many of the fantasies and illusions of the past are no longer a contradiction of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives. As well as referencing SF in my work, I use new or existing technologies. For example, within our new world of digital inter-connectivity, more and more representation and therefore our understanding of the world takes place on-line. Much of my Live Art performance and Installation work anticipates the on-line reduction of life to a single image. Through my work I explore how the digital image can be considered an event that spills out from its initial structure into an expanded field of activity.”

Speculative Fiction is an increasingly vocal critic of Neo-liberalism, amid gaping economic inequality and environmental crisis. The prevalence of these themes is no accident. If inequality is a common motif, its source (capitalism) and its cure (collective action from below) are often muted or completely ignored. There are voids left by an increasingly fractured social framework whose coherence is faltering thanks to rampant privatization, economic deregulation, ubiquitous social risk and day-to-day precariousness.

Capitalism can give us a false sense of the world outside our own. In the 1988 film The Truman Show starring Jim Carry, the character Christof has invented a means to prevent Truman from discovering his false reality by dissuading his sense of exploration. Yet despite Christof’s control, Trueman manages to behave in unexpected waysEstes’ work inserts itself into these de-territoralized spaces, not with the aim of niche marketing or product loyalty, but rather at gaining surreptitious entry into media visibility itself. Yet despite any of their shortcomings, these new works exhibit a refreshing willingness to question dominant elements of our economy and social life.

As Ray Bradbury put it, “Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.”

Tom Estes will be exhibiting  a new work  in London for One plus One, Curated by Iavor Lubomirov for LUBOMIROV / ANGUS-HUGHES 

Private View: Friday 13 November, 6-9 pm
Exhibition Continues: 14 November to 6 December
Friday to Sunday 12-6pm, or by appointment 

For more information go to

Tom Estes will also be exhibiting photographic pieces in the north of England at an exhibition to open the new Bulb Contemporary on November 28th 2015.



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Augmenting The Mind To New Intellectual And Artistic Heights


A new study, published in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease [pdf]found evidence that LSD, when administered in a medically-based therapeutic environment, lowers the anxiety experienced by individuals facing life-threatening illnesses.

The idea of a psychedelic renaissance — as captured in the title of Ben Sessa’s bookThe Psychedelic Renaissance — is growing amongst health professions, and as a Feb. 9, 2015, article in The New Yorker phrased it, current clinical research is “part of a renaissance of psychedelic research,” so we see the phrase is catching on in general culture too. To me, Psychedelic Renaissance is more than a guide for psychotherapeutic practices, more than the inauguration of an era of experience-based religion, more than an enrichment of academic and artistic fields; it can be an embarkation port to a realistic and expanded view of what our minds are and what they can become. Health dominates current policy discussions, but as psychedelics’ other domains become widely accepted, what new uses will emerge, and what policy discussions can we anticipate for future years?

A Four-Stage Model

When I think about the Psychedelic Renaissance, I find it handy to think about it as a four-stage process, in short: medical, religious, intellectual, mind. This is not a sequential theory, not one in which a new stage replaces it predecessor; each stage builds quite naturally into the next. While we are now at the medical stage, some precursors of its subsequent stages are appearing, but I am using “stage” to signify the time when the general culture adopts psychedelics’ various other uses — will feel at home with them — not when their first inklings appear.

When we ask, “What policies will have to be developed for each stage?” it’s important to recognize that “policy” has two arms, regulation by laws and regulation by social conventions. Because these arms constantly interact, any successful attempt to change one must include the other. By taking us beyond today’s discussion of regulatory changes of the medical-neuroscience stage, the 4-stage model alerts us to pay attention to broad policy areas elsewhere in society and to keep an eye out for ideas in one stage that will lead us to a following stage.

The Medical-Neuroscientific Stage

Currently, this two-part field is leading the way, and it probably should because our culture places a high priority on curing diseases. Also, scientific findings and medical results can be observed, measured, and/or shown to be cost-effective: like it or not, these results are all highly valued by our society at large, thus leading to social acceptance.

In addition to testing treatments, psychotherapy and clinical researchers are discovering the benefits of unitive consciousness (mystical experiences); they naturally raise religious-spiritual questions. Topics and experiences produced experimentally include spiritual significance, ego-loss, meaningfulness, sense of sacredness and values such as altruism, and open-mindedness. These are overturning psychiatry’s historical hostility toward mystical experiences. Because they are successful when they produce unitive consciousness; current research in death anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and other problems are inadvertently raising spiritual and religious topics.

In addition to standard discoveries in the neurosciences, the neuroscientific half of the stage 2 has contributed to neurotheology, as it’s being called. As a result, the historical, post-Enlightenment chasm between medicine and science on one hand and religion on the other is being bridged, and in the next stage may even lead to experiential theology.

Policy problems at this stage are largely those of meeting the established standards of the medical and scientific communities, reformulating Federal and state laws to fit the emerging clinical and scientific facts, determining professional standards and protocols, and encouraging still skittish private and governmental funders to do their civic duties.

Spiritual significance, ego-loss, meaningfulness, and sense of sacredness from clinical research combining with experimental neurotheology logically leads us to experimental religious studies and naturally leads us to the spiritual-religious stage of the Psychedelic Renaissance.

The Spiritual-Religious Stage

In their religious and spiritual uses, psychedelics are called “entheogens.” That is, they produce an experience that feels spiritual or is interpreted that way. There is a huge and complex discussion about this topic, and I expect that it will never be settled — like many other religious topics.

While the medical-neuroscientific stage is gaining public recognition, the spiritual-religious stage is generally below public view. From the way things look now, the spiritual-religious stage is starting: (1) more churches legally use psychedelics entheogenically, (2) psychedelic psychotherapy is carrying the idea of unitive consciousness into society, and (3) publications about psychedelics’ entheogenic uses are spreading in from society’s fringes toward its center. All three of these are increasing this century. We are far from a full flowering, but entheogenic seeds are being sown and are sprouting.

While the policy issues in the medical-neuroscientific stage are far from straightforward, spiritual-religious policies are relatively more complex; they are tangled with religious liberty, personal conscience, and establishment-of-religion problems. How does the standard of “least restrictive means” in The Religious Freedom Restoration Act apply to entheogens? On what grounds can the courts decide what is and what isn’t a religious use?

Does a religion have to include an organized group, clergy, and/or theology?  If members, how many? Abraham and Sarah were enough to start Judaism, and 13 guys did it for Christianity. Do drug laws written and enforced for medical and scientific research apply to organized religion and to personal conscience?  Can courts determine when a person’s use is truly religious/spiritual and not just a shield to do illegal drugs? Who knows enough to make informed decisions?

Does the increasingly common perspective, “I’m not religious. I’m spiritual” fit in? Among the people I know, psychedelics contribute to the reason some people take this position. When the entheogenic uses of psychedelics are offhandedly dismissed as “recreational,” people who take their entheogenic religion seriously rightly feel insulted. When a religious order, seminary, or other recognized religious organization wants to try entheogenic experiments, is governmental permission needed? Who gets to say “yes” to one group and “no” to another? Would this be de facto establishment? I like to imagine what might happen if university courses that study emerging new religions, religious studies, and related topics had experimental lab experiences with entheogens. Whose domain is this?

Although it isn’t their purpose, current psychedelic laws in effect regulate religious practices and theological research; they restrict the emergence of new religions. There’s enough in stage two to keep several generations of policy experts and ethicists busy.

The ideas being raised for theology, religious philosophy, the psychology of religion, and other forms of religious studies hint at their congruent parallels in other academic fields. As the specific topics of the spiritual-religious stage generalize to wider intellectual realms, they uncover a continent of ideas and we move quite naturally into the intellectual-artistic stage.

The Intellectual-Artistic Stage

First, the artistic and intellectual communities already are using their fields to describe and understand psychedelic experiences. In the arts world, this takes the form of works that describe the artists’ own experiences in their media, attempts to stimulate similar experiences in their audiences, intensified sensations, and perceptual discoveries. In academic fields, scholars are accumulating information about how their disciplines have, or haven’t, addressed psychedelics by asking questions such as “How does (name of discipline) contribute to our understanding of psychedelics?” These fit within traditional academic activities.

Second, new ideas from psychedelic experiences can enrich current disciplines. For example, Grof’s model of the human mind provides a theory of psychocriticism.

Third, the least developed line of exploration is using psychedelics as a research method to generate new insights and ideas. As ways to think out-of-the-box, they generate ideas, theories, algorithms, and paradigms. In this use, I like to think of them as ideagens. That makes them a conceptual research methodology. I hope someday the growth in academic policy at universities and research institutes will make laboratory courses in psychedelic research methods part of their advanced professional education. Below, we’ll see this third use as a transition to the mind design stage.

Just as the spiritual-religious stage has policy issues of religious freedom, the intellectual-artistic stage has policy issues of academic freedom; although, academic freedom is supported by social convention not law. Although it isn’t their purpose, current drug laws restrict academic and artistic freedom. If anyone would dare to do the research, for many, perhaps even most, of the 30+million Americans who have taken psychedelics, I predict the researchers would find that these experiences are commonly rated not only as among the most spiritually significant, but also as among the most educationally stimulating, intellectually enriching, artistically creative, scientifically puzzling, philosophically meaningful, ethically altruistic, powerfully transformative, and psychologically healthful events of their lives.

I certainly have experienced them that way for several decades, but academics who follow this intellectual curiosity face mandatory minimum sentences. Others who follow their scientific interests, aesthetic development, and ethical judgments face similar fates, so society as a whole is impoverished. Policy makers, can you write policies that encourage these beneficial effects and at the same time reduce undesirable ones?

Psychedelic experiences provide evidence for and against various ideas. Neglecting them wounds the open marketplace of ideas. In courts of law, prohibiting them undermines justice.

In addition to their insightful intellectual uses, artists of all kinds find them inspirational, mothers of ideas, sensory enhancers, and perspective shifters; art schools, conservatories and similar institutions may do so too. If insights and the arts count for something, should using psychedelics to generate them be prohibited?

Beyond topics to study, a major intellectual evolution occurs when thinkers transfer from thinking about psychedelics to thinking with them — as a conceptual research method. Thus, the topics of the intellectual-artistic stage move us quite naturally to the fourth stage — the mind design stage.

The Mind Design Stage

So far we have predominately been looking at how to enhance our default mind-body state (a.k.a. state of consciousness). But the Psychedelic Renaissance is capable of taking us much further afield into inventing new mind-body states as the Psychedelic Renaissance becomes subsumed into a larger Multistate Renaissance. A useful analogy: just as we can write and install a practically unlimited number of apps for our electronic devices, we can write and install many apps for our minds. I feel the wordmindapp works nicely here. Psychedelics are one family of mindapps. Others include the wide variety of other psychoactive drugs and plants, meditation, contemplative prayer, yoga, breathing techniques, chanting, martial arts and exercise routines, hypnosis, imagery, suggestion, sleep deprivation, dreamwork, sensory overload and restriction, transcranial magnetic stimulation, electrical brain stimulation, and others.

It seems to me that some psychedelic intellectuals and artists are catching on: they realize that the psychedelic mind state and its apps are just one of many states and mindapps. In stage four, one goes beyond enriching our ordinary, default mind state and its abilities to seeing psychedelics as one of many current mindapps. Beyond that, the mind-design stage challenges people to invent new mindapps, to install them, to explore and develop previously unknown states and their new, previously unknown resident abilities.

New mindapps are being invented and imported regularly, but they are usually used one-at-a-time. When we sequence them in new ways and combine them into new recipes, we will open the future of mind design.

Who, if anyone, will control this stage? Medical schools? Organized religions? Intellectual and scholarly organizations? Governments?  Will there be a place for the iconic “young inventors in a garage”? At each stage, the policy issues get wider and more complex, and we have fewer precedents to call on. One issue is that current laws are written by people whose minds are in our default state and are about our default state; we have no idea what laws might be written in other mindstates and for other mindstates. Even for psychedelic states, current laws prohibit us finding out.  This policy jungle remains to be explored.

Augmenting The Human Mind

I have little doubt that this is the springtime in the Psychedelic Renaissance. The Medical-Neurosciences Stage is leafing out. The Spiritual-Religious Stage is sprouting. The Intellectual-Artistic Sage is germinating.  But what about the Mind Design Stage? It is hard to know what its seeds are, and even more difficult to say which ones will be fruitful and which will be weeds. For stage one, the criteria for medical healing and scientific discovery are relatively straightforward. The goals of stages two, three, and four, however, are, as Bob Jesse says, “the betterment of well people.” Jesse’s goal absorbs Douglas Engelbart’s narrower view from Augmenting Human Intellect, “a new and systematic approach to improving the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being.”

Who gets to judge betterment? Governments? Churches? Academic Organizations? Art critics? Individuals? What criteria should they use? Social acceptability? Ethical actions? Economic growth? To make matters even more complex, we think about these things in our ordinary, default waking state (and even this single-state situation produces its fair share of disagreements).  But when we add a perspective that includes our human ability to produce and use a plethora of mind-body states, we’ll complicate these questions. When we actually install those mind states in our minds and use their respective multistate cognitive processes and values, we’ll find ourselves in an even murkier quagmire. We are there now.

This piece first appeared on AlterNet.

Thomas B. Roberts is an emeritus professor at Northern Illinois University, where he teaches Foundations of Psychedelic Studies as an Honors Program Seminar. Started in 1981, it is the world’s first university-cataloged psychedelic course.


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Magnetic North


Many artists believe that all they have to do to get known is to head south to show their art in  a major art center such as London and somehow, collectors will discover and appreciate it immediately. Continuing with this magical thinking, they fantasize that the exposure will result in instant recognition Image: Typical aircraft-mounted magnetic compass

For many aspiring artists heading to one of the big art centers, such as London is an important step in their career. As an artist it is great to be in the epicenter of a city where there is cross fertilization. But alas, this is becoming prohibitively expensive. And the art world is a uniquely unregulated environment that it can leave people completely high and dry. Incredibly talented artists can be without gallery representation surviving on the breadline while other people hit that golden mean and are catapulted into worldwide markets. It’s very important to keep a level head within all of this. Not to become beholden to the art market.

So where can young or emerging artists can go if they have the sudden unrelenting urge to leave the country? Paris is tired. Berlin is reaching saturation point. New York is obsessed with success and London is just extortionate. Art is, or at least can be, many things at many different points in time and space. Throughout its history—which is either long or short, depending on the definition agreed upon—it has assumed many different roles and been called upon to defend an equal number of different causes. Or, alternately—and this has turned out to be a much more appealing and rewarding tactic for most of the past century—it has been called upon to attack, question, and criticize any number of states of affairs.

The impetus that resulted in the creation of the micro-artfair, Magnetic North,  to be held in Dean Clough, Halifax, can be assumed to be be part of a wider movement to make the most of this rootless insecure age and a turn away from the traditional art meccas. From Athens to Warsaw, alternative art cities that are on the rise offering a cutting edge scene and the space to experiment.

Project managed by Alison Cunningham-Dunn who has been running galleries, pop up exhibitions not to mention a national art prize, this years Magnetic North is the launch of what is to become an annual event in the arts calendar.

Magnetic North will take place on the 5th and 6th September 2015 and will showcase some of the finest artistic talent the north has to offer. Based on logistics alone, galleries tend to prefer showing local artists for a variety of reasons. They have an easier time getting to know them, communicating with them, following their work, making studio visits, meeting with them in person, introducing them to potential buyers, and moving their art from location to location. Art by artists from the immediate area is also easier for galleries to sell mainly because potential buyers are often much more familiar with the local art scene than they are with artists from elsewhere who they’ve likely never heard of. In other words, there’s a lot less explaining and convincing to do.


Magnetic North opened with a Live Art Performance by London based artist Tom Estes. Estes went through a process of de-materialization of his practice. In his performance ‘Virtual Drawing Machine’ developed at a residency during the prestigious Venice Biennale, he acts out the part of a hologram.

The more astute property developers have long had an adage: “Follow the art”. It is a truth widely acknowledged that where artists gather, so developers will follow, and the renaissance of certain inner-city neighbourhoods – particularly of SoHo in New York or Hoxton in London – has been pioneered by the artistic avant-garde. Across the country – and especially in superheated London, where stratospheric land values beget accordingly bloated developments – authorities are allowing planning policies to be continually flouted, affordable housing quotas to be waived, height limits breached, the interests of residents endlessly trampled.

In London’s property world the connection with art and artists is part of a process known as “cultural place-making”, engineered by developers over the past decade or so; wooing artistic partners to form more permanent unions, redolent of an earlier era of arts patronage. With last year’s World Cities Culture Report, commissioned by the Mayor of London, identifying culture as the defining essence of a city, it would seem to be in step with contemporary concerns. However, spaces are becoming ever meaner and more divided, as public assets are relentlessly sold off, entire council estates flattened to make room for silos of luxury safe-deposit boxes in the sky.  Homes and communities are replaced with investment units, to be sold overseas and never inhabited, substituting community for vacancy. The more we build, the more our cities are emptied, producing dead swathes of zombie town where the lights might never even be switched on.

In the messianic sense of a “calling” or κλησις—a call to either change or preserve, for those are the only real options open to the messianic—we might locate both the roots of art’s historical contribution to the hallowed tradition of critique and the practice of critical thought, as well as its share in the business of shaping the future—preferably (and presumably) a different future from the one that we knowingly envision from the vantage point of “today.”


Magnetic North will be held in the magnificant Dean Clough in Halifax, Calderdale, West Yorkshire, England. Dean Clough, a group of large factory buildings built in the 1840s–60s, is now seen as a leading example of successful urban regeneration 

Right now we exist at hyper speed. Creatives battle for attention across a myriad of platforms and new names emerge faster and harder. In London it’s very difficult to imagine where everyone will go now it’s getting so expensive. Artists need cheap space and in each contemporary art hub, they’re being driven to the fringes of the city. Living at the edge of the action, on the edge of poverty does not offer the freedom to be creative. It’s impossible to sustain a practice in these big cities that don’t support their local talent. East London was suddenly blocked by this alien invader called the Olympics that settled down to stop the spread of affordable studios. So maybe artists who go to London will have to commute just like businessmen but they’ll take the opposite commute –out to a studio in Basildon.


Artists who appeared at Magnetic North:
Tom Estes

Paul Slater
John Ross
Mr Welbeck Kane
Ross Moore
Tom Marine & Christine Relton
Paul Railton
Michael Barritt
Pedar Dillon
Louis Benoit
Nikki Smart
Heidi Farrar
Trevor Ferguson
Susan Wright
Valerie Wartelle

Magnetic North

Dean Clough, Halifax,

West Yorkshire HX3 5AX


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Terra Firma: On Magic and the Reconstruction of Reality Beyond Nihilism –

The Gnostic Nihilist

Terra Firma: On Magic and the Reconstruction of Reality Beyond Nihilism

– A talk by Federico Campagna, Sunday, 23rd August 2-4 pm

Crises of imagination and of action are often traced back to all sorts of economic, political and cultural reasons. However, it is often the case that the roots of such crises stretch much deeper than that, down to a crisis of our understanding and perception of reality itself – and of our presence within it. A crisis of reality occurs when ‘everything becomes everything’ – as the anthropologist Ernesto de Martino puts it – and ‘nothingness emerges’.

When such radical nihilism emerges – paralysing all possible action and imagination, while relegating any attempt at struggling for emancipation to the realm of psychopathological phantasies – a reconstruction of reality itself becomes necessary before anything else returns to be possible. As de Martino claims, this is the work and the aim of magic. In this talk, I will claim that this is also the aim and work of philosophy, and the first step for the reconstruction of emancipatory politics in the present age.

Federico Campagna is a Sicilian philosopher based in London. His current work revolves mainly around the ontological and ethical challenges posed by contemporary nihilism, and the possibility of a fundamental philosophical architecture of emancipation. His latest book ‘The Last Night: antiwork, atheism, adventure’, was published by Zero Books in 2013. He has discussed his work at institutions such as Serpentine Gallery (London), Documenta 13 (Kassel), MACBA (Barcelona), Fabbrica del Vapore (Milan), and on publications such as The White Review, E.R.O.S. Journal, Anarchist Studies Journal, Adbusters, The New Humanist, The Guardian, Corriere della Sera, Alfabeta2. He currently works at Verso Books and is a PhD candidate in Design Interactions at the RCA, London.
George Moustakas is an artist and has also worked extensively as a theatre and production designer. Recent credits include ‘Recent work by Artists’ at Auto Italia South East, ‘Burmese Days’ at 59E59 Theatre in New York, ‘Auto Italia LIVE: Double Dip Concession’ at the ICA and the ‘The Southall Story’ part of the Alchemy Festival at the  Royal Festival Hall.  He is also managing with Nick Hartwright a non profit guardian company for artists called Art Guard.

Art Guard is a not-for-profit property guardianship scheme that directly supports Londoners working in the arts and is more beneficial to both the property itself and the local community than many of the existing schemes out there in London today. For more information check our website:

We are currently in Haringey, right opposite Wood Green Station at 12-27 Station Road, N22 6UX.
Art/ Work Association (A/WA) is an association of artists and creative workers and a self-generated programme of talks, screenings, seminars, reading groups, workshops and critical feedback sessions, conceived as a forum for peer exchange. A/WA offers a support network for associates and enables self-organised learning, professional development and critical dialogue.

Terra Firma, an upcoming A/WA talk and discussion with Federico Campagna on Sunday, 23rd of August 2-4pm. The event will be introduced by George Moustakas.

Terra Firma will take place in Haringey (right opposite Wood Green Station at 12-27 Station Road, N22 6UX), in an Art Guard building, more info below.

Places are limited and allocated on a first come first serve basis, drop me a line if you’d like to attend and / or bring any friends!


Auto Italia 


Marleen Boschen


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Visual Echo: A Study of Objects & Bodies In Motion


Image: Gif from Choros, Directed by Michael Langan and Terah Maher
with music by Steve Reich. Choros pursues the proposition − beyond filming the dance − of filming the music itself, through the transformation of the body, object or gesture into sound, into instrument.

Photography is an art and science which was invented and developed beginning in the 1830s. Initially, it was used as a documentation device – for portraiture, historical moments, battles in war, and so on. With how rapidly the technological and artistic world began to develop, new uses and ideas for the camera also began to develop. With the invention of the camera, art no longer necessarily had to capture life. The camera became the dominant source of accurate depiction of life. As the technology became more sophisticated, so did the activities for which people needed cameras.


An example of chronophotography. Woman Walking Down Stairs, late 19th century. Photographed by Eadweard Muybridge

As early as the 1860s, a few photographers were making “moving pictures” by taking photographs of a subject in a series of poses simulating phases of motion, then using various devices to display them one after the other in rapid succession. This stop-motion photography technique was necessary because the photographic materials available at that time were not sensitive enough to permit the very short exposures needed to photograph subjects that were actually moving. Improvements in the sensitivity of photographic emulsions eventually made true real-time chronophotography possible.

In the late nineteenth century, a photographic technique called chronophotography began to develop, whereby multiple photographs would be taken in rapid succession to study the movement of a given subject. Eadweard Muybridge famously filmed a horse in motion in 1878, providing the world with its first taste of motion pictures when the images were displayed on a spinning zoetrope. In 1872, Leland Stanford, former governor of California and horse enthusiast, hired Eadweard Muybridge to provide photographic proof that at some instants a galloping horse has all four hooves off the ground. Muybridge lined part of a racecourse with a row of cameras that had shutters connected to a series of tripwires, then photographed a horse against a white background as it galloped past. One of the resulting silhouette photographs provided the desired proof. Later in the decade, with the benefit of more sensitive photographic plates, he obtained greatly improved results. Muybridge also arranged such sequences of photographs in order around the inner surface of a zoetrope; when the drum-like device was set spinning, an observer looking through its slots saw an animated image. The images of the horse caused astonishment to the public, as no one had seen such precise documentation of the movement of the animal. Muybridge was subsequently commissioned to photograph a variety of other moving subjects.

  1. ChronophotographyStevePippin

Steven Pippin‘s  photographs from his series Laundromat-Locomotion. Tate Gallery, Turner Prize finalists in 1999, Pippin converted a row of 12 washing machines in a launderette into a camera, taking photos through the glass door in the front, and using the assorted wash mechanisms to develop them.

Several years later, the French physicist Etienne-Jules Marey developed a stunning variation of this technique when he captured multiple poses of a subject over time onto a single frame of film, rendering a kind of visual echo. The nature of this process limited the subject matter to that which could be photographed in a black studio using stark lighting, to prevent overexposure of the background when multiple images are layered over one another.

In 1968, just six years before Steve Reich began composing “Music for 18 Musicians,” Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren adapted Marey’s layering technique to actual motion pictures, in a groundbreaking film entitled “Pas de Deux.” The additive nature of multiple exposures in chemically processed photography, however, likewise limited McLaren to the confines of a black box studio with high-contrast side lighting.

“Choros” is an experimental film steeped in tradition, modernizing “chronophotography” a visual echo technique developed for scientific study in the 1880s. Spellbinding and uplifting, Choros is a reminder that dance, music, and indeed, cinema can sometimes transcend words altogether.

The film”Choros” revisits these technical innovations and attempts to contribute original innovations of its own. Directed by Michael Langan and Terah Maher with music by Steve Reich, a chorus of women are borne from the movements of a single dancer in this dreamlike “pas de trente-deux.””Choros” premiered at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in 2012 and has gone on to play dozens of festivals worldwide. The film is currently broadcast in Europe by Canal+

Using recent advancements in digital compositing, the technique developed for “Choros” introduces color, frees the film from the confines of a black studio, and allows the dancer to linger in one position without risk of overexposure, resulting in a variation of this historical technique that allows a degree of subtlety heretofore prohibited by technical limitations.

Chronophotography’s original purpose was to help scientists study objects in motion, primarily humans and animals. It was also used for practical purposes, such as judging timed events and recording historical ones (horse and dog races, performances) and studying the movement of projectiles for war. With Anschutz’s development of non-scientific, entertaining chronophotographs, chronophotography became the basis for the invention and development of cinematography.


From chronophotographic developments, cinematography and silent film of moving images were invented. In the work Blitz, contemporary digital artist Tom Estes reverses this process turning film back into photographyBlitz, depicts an individual being thrown through the air by a lightning bolt. Even the medium itself, a series of photographs, suggests speed, as a recording of ‘live’ split second action’. Estes’ slapstick comedy is a deliberate mitigation of surrealist shock but with the mad attention urges of a Play Station gamer.

Due to the development of projection devices, (the zoetrope, Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, Anschutz’selectrotachyscope, and ultimately, Albert Londe’s high-speed multi-exposure camera which ran film through a projector in a new way), the display of chronophotographs as entertainment became more sophisticated and useful than ever before. Before long, cinematic devices spawned from original chronophotographic predecessors, with which audiences could watch continuous loops of entertaining activities (for example, the “peep show” devices built using Thomas Edison’s backlighting technology which showed mildly smutty films). From these developments in history, cinematography and silent film of moving images were invented.


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Jorge Luis Borges’s infinite ‘Library of Babel’ has been digitized


Annunciation by contemporary artist Tom Estes

In this day and age you can order anything online and receive it in two days or less.  You can start a new book with a simple click. Libraries have always had a special place in the hearts of bibliophiles –  from comfy chairs to shelves and stacks of Shakespeare, Hemingway and Tolstoy. In the scramble to gain market share in cyberspace, something is getting lost: the public interest in Libraries. Buckling under economic pressure, information they diffuse is being diverted away from the physical sphere, where it can do most good. But there are some things you can’t take away from the old days of reading. You can’t replicate those old and new book smells that penetrate the air of a physical book store or library.  Remember when you could browse for your next book without an algorithm doing it for you?

Imagine a labyrinthian library containing all possible written works—even the configurations of letters, words and sentences that don’t make any sense. First described by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges in his iconic 1941 short story The Library of Babel, that fantasy of an infinite space for language has inspired everything from Umberto Eco’s debut novel to an interactive Burning Man installation.

Today, the Library of Babel is also a web project. In theory, at least, the digital Library of Babel recreates Borges’ vision, perfectly embodying the tension of both a limited infinity, and an orderly realm of nonsense. Since the project’s inception, responses have ranged from general delight—one forum comment likens stumbling upon the library to going out for milk and seeing a dinosaur—to deep mathematical investigations on this Reddit thread to comprehend the monumental scale of the library.

The theory of language implicit in Borges’s “The Library of Babel” describes a universal library containing, in 410-page volumes every possible permutation of twenty-two letters, spaces, commas, and periods—every book that’s ever been written and every book that ever could be, drowned out by endless pages of gibberish. Its librarians are addicted to the search for certain master texts, the complete catalog of the library, or the future history of one’s own life, but their quest inevitably ends in failure, despair, even suicide.


Overlords by artist Tom Estes

Though the story’s librarian-narrator believes in the possible triumph of reason, the principle force underlying the library is irrationality. Any expression, even the most elegant or undeniably true, is nonetheless possible without sincerity, or even any intention towards signification. The library makes this hidden power explicit: anything that can be referenced in language or accessible to experience must be separable from itself—a thought, a perception, a word can be made of it. This may undermine our sense of the simple presence of things, but it allows for everything interesting in the world: fantasy, lies, illusions, imagination, and fiction. If it weren’t possible for us to say “Here is a human” when nothing of the sort is present, fiction would be impossible, and we would never have embarked on the strange pursuit that, for some time now, we have called literature. Borges’s story isn’t simply one among others, but the story of all fiction, and with it all reality.

Though its underlying theory of language is powerful and undeniable, there are strange inaccuracies elsewhere in the library. The librarians in the story, for instance, encounter far more rational text than would ever be possible in a truly random universal library. Merely in the hexagons under his administration, our narrator recounts volumes with the titles Combed Thunder and The Plaster Cramp. Even some of the incoherent texts in the story, such as one where the letters “MCV” repeat “perversely” for 410 pages, are statistically impossible for mere mortals to encounter.

The most important of the librarians’ discoveries is another imposibility, a work with two pages in a “Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guaraní with inflections from classical Arabic” containing the rudiments of combinatory analysis. Borges notes, with his usual strange humor, that it’s “illustrated with examples of endlessly repeating variations.” One could understand every volume in the library as such an illustration—an appendix to this manual on permutation and combination. The entire library fits inside a single one of its books, like the master catalog the librarians seek or the algorithm that produces the online version of the library, a few lines of code that can also be found inside its volumes.

TemptationImage: The Temptation of Christ by Tom Estes

The librarians’ entire universe-as-library theory grows from this discovery. The library contains all possible text, and thus offers the promise of revelation that motivates their search through its volumes. I doubt Borges was being naive when he placed these impossibly rare texts in his story. Rather, he played the role of a trickster god, seeding his creation with just enough meaningful and poetic text to entice both his story’s librarians and its readers. That its only possible result is disappointment and despair is part of his dark humor, and a fate he laments along with us.

His narrator, on the other hand, seduced by Borges’s trickery, has no sense of the true scale of the library, a barrier I continually encountered when trying to re-create it. Whether the library contains all possible permutations of letters, contains not a single repetition, or cycles through every possibility before repeating are unknowable. No one will ever encounter any duplicate books in a universal library. The entirety of human endeavor is insufficient to make it statistically possible.

Jonathan Basile the fiction writer and computer programmere created the online universal library and universal image archive states in an article for Paris Review:

“Many visitors to the Web site share this desire to reduce its volume to a human scale. Borges’s narrator tells of the Purifiers, librarians who burned texts without identifiable words out of a ‘holy zeal’ to reach books “omnipotent, illustrated, and magical. When’s visitors suggest marking or eliminating ‘uninteresting’ or ‘meaningless’ texts, I remind them of the narrator’s two responses:

One, that the Library is so huge that any reduction by human hands must be infinitesimal. And two, that each book is unique and irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand [31,488,000, actually] imperfect facsimiles—books that differ by no more than a single letter, or a comma.

There is another improbable text the librarian-narrator has come across in his travels, one written by Borges himself, from an essay titled “The Total Library.” It was Borges’s first reflection on the theme of the universal library, published two years before his short story. The excerpt, well known to the librarians, claims that confusion and irrationality overwhelm the possibility of rationality in the library. Our narrator condemns these words as impious, tasteless, and ignorant. His counterargument is quite beautiful, and equally relevant when considering the “ascetic rage” of the Purifiers:

There is no combination of characters one can make—dhcmrlchtdj, for example—that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god.

There is no such thing as meaninglessness, in other words, and not a single volume or even a single line of text worthy of condemnation in the near-infinite library. According to the theory of language with which we began, a speaker’s intentions can never secure a univocal meaning for his utterance: the possibility for those same signs to appear in new contexts, animated by different intentions or none at all, is as limitless as the library itself. The result is not that language loses all meaning but that it constantly gains more, as even the unprecedented combinations of its atoms, the letters, wait patiently for the discovery or invention of the language in which they will be the names of new gods.

“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges in his classic of philosophical fiction, “The Library of Babel.” One of the most revered stories-as-thought-experiments ever committed to print, Borges’ fiction posits the Universe as a library (“composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries”) that contains every possible text. This intellectual vision, at once playful and poised, has stirred authors (like Umberto Eco and Terry Pratchett) and philosophers (W.V.O. Quine and Daniel Dennett) alike for more than 75 years

“The Library of Babel is a place for scholars to do research, for artists and writers to seek inspiration, for anyone with curiosity or a sense of humor to reflect on the weirdness of existence,” writes creator and DC-based coder Jonathan Basile on the website’s About page. “In short, it’s just like any other library.”

Except it isn’t. Drawing from its namesake, the site contains every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including the lowercase letters, space, comma, and period. In other words, everything that could ever be written, including every masterpiece, joke, and chat conversation.

How does it work? The digital library has 29 possible characters (26 letters, space period, and comma) that are each randomly assigned to the 3,200 spaces on a page. The site uses a pseudorandom generator whose algorithm allows you to browse randomly-generated books and pages by creating them on the spot as you click-navigate through different floors and shelves. Or, you can enter a string of text—be it a song lyric or Bible verse—and the library will find it for you, mixed in with apparent gibberish.

“If you tried to read through all the books, the sun would expand into its red giant phase and engulf the earth before you finished,” claims Basile. “This is expected to happen in about five-and-a-half billion years, long before you could ever read through all the books.”

But with Babel comes babble. The problem of the virtual library is the same as the library of Borges’ imagination: There’s simply so many permutations of text that the probability of finding rational letters by simply browsing is exceedingly rare. “It’s just a statistical impossibility,” says Basile. “You’d actually have a better chance of quantum-tunnelling(or disappearing and reappearing) through a wall.”

These different modes of discovery highlight a key element of both Borges’ story and the websites, which is the paradox of desiring both the familiar and the novel. If you opt to use the library’s search function, note that you can only find an image you already have seen and know to look for, whether it’s a photo of the world’s oldest woman or a selfie from your last vacation. It may be easy to read the randomly generated images as visual white noise, but the project highlights the fact that even these have potential for meaning—in the past or the future.

“There’s really no such thing as meaninglessness,” says Basile. ”Any random-seeming group of letters or pixels could signify a powerful god in some language we don’t know or some language that hasn’t been created yet.”

Enter the Library of Babel and the Babel Image Archives to begin browsing.

Follow Joyce on Instagram at @joyceslee. We welcome your comments


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