by Rob Myers
Click on image to see (hear) work
Voices From The Paradise Network is a 2007 commission of New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc., for Networked_Music_Review by John Hudak with Flash programming by erational.org. It is a Flash-based presentation of Hudak's attempt to record Electronic Voice Phenomena while trying to contact his then recently deceased mother-in-law.
Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) are the sounds of voices found on recordings of empty radio frequencies or on microphone recordings of graveyards late at night. These are not natural voices. They are too fast or too slow, they are slurred or whispery and they have no apparent natural cause. Whether you believe them to be the dead speaking or random noise created by recording devices and made meaningful by the ear's error correction, good EVP recordings are aesthetically and experientially striking.
The sound of a barely perceptible but urgent something that is trying to communicate can make an irresistible demand on your attention. The tapes of Kennedy's discussions with advisers during the Cuban Missile crisis consist of tense lengths of white noise broken by halting, distorted voices and sudden background noise 1. That is the aesthetic of EVP. Whether taken as tantalizing fact or evocative artistry, EVP are the sound of something dramatic and otherwise secret. They are an unsettling experience of otherness.
The theory of EVP sits uncomfortably with both science and the supernatural. The human mind exists as electromagnetic signals in the brain. The earth and features of the land have electromagnetic fields. It is possible that the mind might be captured by those fields after death and continue to exist there, even if only as a kind of echo. And the technology of sound recording is electromagnetic. So lingering post-mortem human existence might affect recording devices in an attempt to communicate with the living. Or perhaps spirits or otherworldly beings might use the same mechanism to leave messages. EVP claims to be those messages.
EVP has historically been an analogue phenomenon. For much of the history of EVP digital recording had not been invented, but this is not the only reason. The noise and imperfection of analogue media creates the perceptual environment in which voices can be heard. Listen to an analogue radio between channels and you may hear something unexpected. A digital radio cannot even be tuned to a point between channels. Watch an analogue television tuned to an empty channel and you will see flowing shapes of static mixing with points of light from cosmic rays. Digital television on an empty channel shows only a perfect blue, changing the meaning of the opening words of William Gibson's Neuromancer as well as eradicating any possibility of accidentally seeing the unshown.
Digital copies are perfect copies. No new information can be introduced when copying, so the noise of the supernatural cannot sneak in. Some tests for Extra-Sensory Perception or other supernatural phenomena check such deterministic software algorithms for unexpected variation. But even if digital copies are perfect the sources of those copies may be imperfect. Lossy compression creates visual or audible artefacts, although these are the products of algorithms rather than any imaginable external source. Microphones produce the hiss of white noise. The charged couple devices used as cameras in mobile phones, webcams and modern video cameras introduce statistical noise from the quantum level.
This noise can be used to create true random numbers for computers, rather than the pseudo-random numbers that software generates. The interface between the microscopic quantum world and the everyday human-scale world is still poorly understood. Through this gap in scientific knowledge everything from Roger Penrose's component of consciousness unreproducible by computers 2 to the fading consciousness of the dead can sneak.
EVP may not be producible by digital reproduction, but it can be produced by the noise from the inputs that digital recordings are crated from. Such as by using traditional analogue microphones.
Voices From The Paradise Network uses analogue microphones, placing it directly in the history of EVP starting with the audio-tape-based work of Dr. Konstantin Raudive 3. The wet-plates and daguerreotypes of Victorian spirit photography with their cheesecloth and double exposures are unconvincing to contemporary eyes and dated beyond nostalgia or irony 4. EVP is recent enough historically and technologically that, like the scratched records of trip-hop and the programming errors of glitch art 5, it is a vivid cultural resource that is available to artists.
You don't need to believe in the supernatural to be affected by it. This is demonstrated by the post-Blair Witch Project TV genre of low-light "supernatural investigations" 6, by comic book writer and magician Alan Moore's argument that "...thought is real, and the domain of thought is the one place where gods inarguably exist, wielding tremendous power" 7 and by the experiments of the Toronto Society for Psychical Research with volunteers who knew that the entities they were summoning were purely imaginary but nonetheless levitated tables 8.
This effectiveness in the absence of belief is something that contemporary art shares. Art is not real, and it has been declared dead many times. Yet it affects people, sometimes profoundly. And like the supernatural it can resolve symbolically that which is not or cannot be resolved temporally, for example through effigies of the dead or the cosmology and iconography of the Sistine Chapel.
Hudak's artistic EVP bring together the resolving roles of the supernatural and of art in an attempt to contact his then recently deceased mother-in-law using internet radio 9. Starting with broadcasts of a silent signal, Hudak moved on to the white noise of traditional EVP (and other parapsychological experiments such as the Ganzfeld 10) as the backdrop for recordings of a seance-like session of questions and answers.
This recorded signal was processed to bring out any EVP features of the recording and then presented using a Flash user interface on a web page. This interface is clean and minimal but at the same time strangely retro. It consists of a black background with a scattering of blinking white pixels that evoke the starry backgrounds of old world wide web homepages. A column of numbered squares down either side of the page serve as buttons. Clicking on them starts a sample of the recording playing, brings up information about the project, or toggles the playing of questions. The samples play automatically and continuously once started.
The looping background noise of the recordings sounds like the insects of a tropical night or the audio effects of mid-20th-century science fiction films and television. Hypnotic, insistent, mysterious. Over this, Hudak whispers questions that only the dead could answer. "Does everyone go to the same place?", "does consciousness end?", "what do you do to pass the time?", "should we fear death?". His one mistake, paranormally speaking, is to ask "does anyone want to speak?". You don't know who you'll get if you ask that.
Listening to the samples repeating leaves these questions hanging in the air, keeping the possibility of hearing an answer open. You may not hear an answer the first time, but who knows what you will hear as you adjust to the properties of the recordings over repeated listenings? You have to keep listening, you have to listen harder.
On an emotional level Voices From The Paradise Network is a touching and affecting exercise, given space to be so by its phrasing as an art project. As a paranormal investigation it is competent and technically innovative. And on an artistic level the looping samples create a possibly endless experience that becomes more immersive over time, drawing the listener in.
Recording EVP as art perfectly illustrates the status of art, the idea of what art is, in the early twenty-first century. There is a suspension of value judgements not about art but within art, regarding what art depicts or refers to. Within contemporary art, as with much pre-modernist art, the real and the unreal collapse to a single category. Useful work can be done there.
Close the browser window and you destroy this space in which questions to the dead and their possible answers echo. If you have not yet heard an answer when you do so then you close off the possibility of doing so. It is surprisingly difficult to close that window.
1 : www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/audio.htm.
2 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Penrose.
3 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstantin_Raudive.
4 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_photography.
5 : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glitch_Art.
6 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_Haunted.
7 : en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Alan_Moore#What_Is_Reality.3F.
8 : www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/p/philip.html.
9 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganzfeld_experiment.
10 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_radio.