The Haunted Room: Atomanotes
By Richard Marshall.
Atomanotes by Liliane Lijn, orchestrated by the mighty Tony White.
Good design of good data compression includes keeping the message short. But the physicist knows that we might want to keep in some mistakes as long as they don’t spoil too much. JPEG is an example of this where a continuous message is broken down into discrete pieces, pixels, but compromises are made on colour accuracy. Redundancy is often deliberately left in a transmitted message if accuracy is vital and the channel noisy. Economics can build in margins for error in messages, to accommodate maximum empirical input. Even so, physics tends to emphasise compression and accuracy.
The Piece of Paper Press of the mighty Tony White has produced an astonishing miniature entrance point to the mysterious works of the remarkable Lilianne Lijn. Atomanotes asks questions of science. She continues with puzzles begun in the sixties, investigations into how to understand humans, creating art out of this, asking scientists fundamental questions and then staying with them to get their answers. She remains hungry for answers after forty-two years, requiring answers from various scientists such as Janet Luhmann, Andreas Keling, Tom Immel, Bill Abbett, David Brain, John Vallerga, Jose Huchin and many many others. Lijn has moved from Paris to California to London, knows many things, has met many people, is an investigator of the physical poetics of magnetic fields, never falling for the merely symbolic nor denying the place that finds deliria between drab realism and its opposite, so is neither Dreiser nor Whitman.
Her story works up force fields of cultural and scientific resonance, her ideas are themselves systems of adaptive optics. This was something she used in collaboration with John Vallerga to allow someone standing on the Golden Gate Bridge see a luminous solar point reflected from the Space Sciences Laboratory above the Berkeley campus. But she’s also a master of transformation, of disembodied energy entities. She wrote about this in 1983 with the seminal Crossing Maps. She writes about the light in the sky and, the relationship between atomic particles and human beings, the language of unseen worlds. She is a pioneer, one of the first working on these connections between art and science.
She lived for a time in Paris studying Archeology and the History of Art forming friendships around the Deux Magots with surrealist painter Jean Jacques Lebel, magnetic sculptor Takis down on the Boulevard Montparnasse, Sinclair Beiles in the rue Gît le Coeur, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Gregory Corso in the Beat Hotel, and for 40-odd years she has tirelessly continued her investigations into invisible worlds and the human universe. In 1964 she wrote, ‘I want to walk through the transparent world of photon light, work with the source of light, capture electron images. My echo-lights are silent spherical reflections, photon planets echoing themselves’ (Electron Notes).
Her essay “The Language of Invisible Worlds”, which, like Atomonotes is also published by Tony White’s Piece of Paper Press, gives the details of all this and more. Tony White is, like Lijn, another writer working furiously in the cleavage between the academies and their shadows, a co-worker in the project of putting science and art back together again, an adjunct to Roger Malina’s Leonardo Network in Paris, for example, which in the sixties was started for that very reason and continues through to today, an adjunct to a now expanding field of workers trying to fix the rift. So one thing that these two are doing is finding a whole core of live references that starts elsewhere, resists the currents of pure lit, dodges all that crankiness and shines out illumination. Someways their focus reproves melancholia.
On Tuesday last, White orchestrated a weird dream séance, lending his press as if he were Sam Silver starting life up in the Leuschner Observatory in California way back in 1960 on a wave of rocket and satellite excitement, disguising it as a book launch of Lijn’s single folded piece of paper, discretely gifted in a brown envelope near the end of the evening. The Leuschner observatory mutated into the Space Sciences Laboratory, initiated in 1958 by Otto Struve’s committee which was later chaired by Hungarian born physicist Edward ‘Strangeglove’ Teller who testified against Oppenheimer and pushed for fusion-based weapons as well as the atomic bombs of the Manhattan project. Teller dreamt of excavations in Alaska using thermonuclear explosives and was a deep-fried friend of Ronald Reagan. Jane Fonda caused him to have a heart attack in 1979. Isidor I Rabi said that ‘It would have been a better world without Teller.’ It would have been a better world if artists and scientists hadn’t drifted away from each other. It would have been better if artists, scientists and religious freaks hadn’t. It would have been better if people created something every freak day. Teller’s little darkness was the unspeakable goblin that Lijn and White — and the rest of the groovy crowd, including legends Richard Strange and Steve Beard — knew hovered at the edge of a science that fails when it fails to blink human.
Lijn links us to Paris and so to Roger Malina who thinks that 96% of what makes up our bodies is dark matter about which we know nothing. So the universe is more or less unknown. In the cognitive sciences Jerry Fodor thinks that computerized representational theories of cognition are the best model we have to theorise cognition, but it can account for only a small part of how we think. So how we think is mostly mysterious. Ignorance is our default state.
Artists need to appropriate scientific fields and vice versa. Think ‘Synapse’ in Australia. In Spain think ‘St Sebastian’. Think Jill Scott’s ‘Urban Lab’ in Switzerland. Think Chile and cybernetics. Visionary approaches. Think of the Bauhaus. Think Kathleen Dean Moore (Editor/Author; Professor, Oregon State University: Why It’s Wrong to Wreck the World), think Gail Wight (Artist; Professor, Stanford University: Landscape Disrupted: Brief History of Artists and the Environment), think Gerard Kuperus (Environmental Ethics through Aesthetics), think Peter Roopnarine (Curator/Researcher, California Academy of Sciences: Embracing Uncertainty and Marine Food Webs and the Environment), think Karen Holl (Researcher/Professor, UCSC: Conserving Tropical Forests to Reduce Global Warming), think Marisa Jahn (Artist/Author/Activist: Wormholes as Solutions: Art and Social Change), think Tiffany Holmes (Artist; Associate Professor, School of the Art Institute of Chicago: Beyond Eco-Art: 21st-Century Eco-Visualization), think Andrea Polli and Tim Dye (Artist and Senior Vice President and Division Manager for Meteorological Programs and Public Outreach at Sonoma Technology, Inc.: Particle Falls), think Robin Lasser and Marguerite Perret (Artists: Floating World), think Jade Chang (Writer: From Gas Bills to a New Game Theory: Can Having Fun = Doing Good?), think Buster Simpson (Artist: Poetic Utility) and the Climate Clock Initiative artist groups: Freya Bardell, Brian Howe and Brent Bucknum; think Usaman Haque and Robert Davis; think Chico Macmurtrie, Geo Homsy, Bill Washabaugh and Gideon Shapiro, but now think dark matter, the strange frontiers, the vast wonders of ignorance where, for example, Ken Hollis advertises next week’s event as being the sexual history of machines, and there, there we know these are gardens of delight.
The event was in a former stables at the back of Maggs Brothers, Antiquarian Bookseller at 50 Berkeley Square which has been there since 1938 and was formerly the home of British Prime minister George Canning in 1827, a four-storey brick town house built in 1740. Between 1859 and 1880 the house was unoccupied and George Lyttelton, the 4th baron, wrote in 1872 that “It is quite true that there is a house in Berkeley Square (No. 50), said to be haunted, and long unoccupied on that account. There are strange stories about it, into which this deponent cannot enter.” Walking to the back of the exhibition space it was possible to look at the Maggs building and its brightly dark top storey, and you knew that the spooks were edging in through the wild rain. There are rumours of plague pits into which the foundations of the building had been sunk. The spirit Ah Pook in the exhibition space was a black and white photograph of William Burroughs taken in 1959 low down on one of the shelves. Burroughs is in front of a construction hoarding that reads ‘Danger’ and the picture was taken near to the Beat Hotel where he was staying. It screams ‘Danger’.
So this photograph was taken by Brion Gysin or Barry Miles just before the time when Ljin was beginning her investigations in Paris and her friendship with Burroughs and his crew started. This, then, was a photograph that linked Tony White’s event for Lillian Ljin to an exhibition curated there earlier by the same Barry Miles, the Beat historian, who may have snapped the picture. Miles had organised an exhibition of a series of photographs Burroughs took at a later time between 1972 and 1974 when he was living in London in Duke Street, St James. This single remaining one was near to where some heavy documents from Trocchi had only hours before been taken to another place. So the event was freighted with wired ghosts.
Burroughs took photographs of the first ever espresso bar in London. This was the Moka Bar at 29 Frith steet which was opened by Gina Lollibrigida in 1952 when it was owned by Pino Riservato an Italian dental technician travelling salesman. The Moka bar marked the beginning of post-war cool, blending café culture with a nascent TV industry and skiffle craze that started to free up a new counter culture. Music, fashion, photography, sex, advertising and crime came alive in London at this time. And following quickly, in 1957, the café Trieste opened in North Beach San Fransisco when the espresso craze hit the USA. Beats such as Ginsberg and Kaufman hung out there. The Lijn book covered the ground from Paris to California to London all on a single sheet, through the dark spirit of Burroughs’s gaze, out to the dark unknown matter, but not directly, more by a strategy of invisibility taken straight out of Burroughs’s.
When London’s Soho was the centre of beatnik culture in London in the 50s revolving round these espresso café bars, Liverpool Beat poets Pete Brown, Johnny Byrne and Spike Hawkins hung out in the ‘Goings On’ in Archer Street and Skiffle genius Chas McDevitt owned the Freight Train in Soho. It was the 2i’s coffee bar that had the first rock music scene, and it opened in 1956 at 59 Old Compton Street, way before the first mod club, The Scene in Ham yard, which opened in 1962 and the jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, which opened in 1959 at 39 Gerrard Street before moving to 47 Frith Street in 1965. The Marquee opened in 1958, and the Rolling Stones peformed there in 1962.
The 2i’s was bought in 1955 by an Australian masked wrestler called Paul Lincoln who performed under the name ‘Dr Death’ – though only once as Death a day, the mask letting him have two goes, once with and once without, to double his earnings — and it was this coffee bar that brought to prominence do-it-yourself working class cartoon musicians such as Tommy Steele, Reg Smith aka Marty Wilde, father of Kim Wilde, Clive Powell aka Georgie Fame, Ronald Wycherley aka Billy Fury and Joe Brown who I once saw perform on the now wrecked out West Pier in Brighton in the very early seventies. These were the sorts that Jimmy Edwards, who was in the first skinhead band The Neat Change in the sixties, started getting to and then getting away from when he was about 8 onwards in Kensal Rise, listening to a bloke dressed as a cowboy at Saturday morning flicks, according to his grooving interview with Stewart Home. All but Joe Brown wore names as masks, like Paul Lincoln the bar owner, all of them doubled themselves up, and in the Burroughs picture this was something in Burroughs’s eyes, ‘Dr Death’ as just a mask, and the word ‘Danger’ just a shape behind him, on a wall.
Then the black and white photograph of Burroughs of 1972 mysteriously surveyed the evening, folded the Liliane Ljin event with a dark presence from a Soho Beat scene fuelled by the espresso machine invented in 1945 Milan by Achille Gaggia. This very room had been where the strange story, recounted by Barry Miles in his catalogue at the earlier Burroughs photo event, had been revealed. Burroughs had complained of the Moka Bar’s ‘outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake’ and then attacked it over a period of some weeks. He haunted the premises, taking photographs and making tape recordings. Burroughs began the attack on 3rd August 1972. On 30th October 1972, the Moka Bar closed and reopened as The Queen Bar.
This linked the coffee bar demise with the demise of the Scientology premises at 37 Fitzroy Street in Bloomsbury, which Burroughs had attacked earlier using similar tactics. Burroughs was using some powers, some kind of spectral forces, minding his own crazies, and then there he was, like in a time machine, in the picture tuning himself with messages from outer and inner spaces. It wouldn’t be for another three years that punk would bring about the same do-it-yourself mayhem that the coffee bars of the fifties had brought about, and it would last for so little time. Burroughs was but clearing away some debris. He was using specters and other psychic paraphernalia. One power he was able to draw on was recorded by Helen Macfarlane working in the same locations as he was a century or so before, though with Mr Burroughs and then the punks it was often disguised. She translated Marx’s Communist Manifesto for the first time for The Red Republican in 1850 and so séanced that particular force.
‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
Where is the opposition party that has not been decried as Communist by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition party that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries? The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, have stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’
Helen Macfarlane was herself a phantom because of her wimmin gender. Burroughs was known in Algeria as the invisible man, but Macfarlane was so invisible that after a while she even disappeared. She was last visible with George Julian Harney, the founder of The Red Republican on New Year’s Eve 1850. She fell out with him that night and then was never to be seen in public again. She was a shape-shifter, as were others in her trade at the time. Mary Anne Evans who wrote masterpieces such as Silas Marner and Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda and Mill on the Floss used a name, George Eliot, and then married and used another, Mary Anne Cross. And then the haunting words of Lijn coil out: ‘Just as in the atomic world, if we get too close, we can destroy ourselves and become something new: a new element, new energy. It is stabilizing to have some distance or, more commonly, we have space and therefore exist in a stable situation.’ So the stories of Burroughs, of Soho and its most diabolical, famous spectral haunting, and the distancing masks used for stabilizing and dazzling us, they all ran back into Lijn’s tiny book.
Whilst these demons were stirring a storm broke over London. Lilianne Lijn read a little from Atomanotes and briefly talked with possessed modesty about her immense work. ‘I was working on puzzles. I would buy a jigsaw puzzle, take it apart, paint each piece separately to erase all clues as to how to connect them, and then try to put the puzzle together again.’ She didn’t actually say these words on the night but that’s part of what she does. Burroughs clearing psychic spaces, using writing to make something happen, working at some probable limits of human exploration, all this plus the stark black rainfall over the haunted rooms of the stewed visible 50 Berkeley Square gave the whole event a dynamic reverb, was just one context for what was happening.
Class warfare was bubbling out of the London sewers and gutters, voices of the struggle against reactionaries, because these are now Tory nights. The subterranean plague pit was used in recountings of the ghost story over Maggs to account for the grey enveloping shapelessness of the thing, for victims of the plague were wrapped in grey shrouds to prevent the disease from transmission. But histories of the plague make clear that the best thing to do when plague came to your town was to run away. The rich did. The poor couldn’t. The disappearance of the plague after 1665 is a great mystery. The Great Fire is supposed to have helped, but the fire didn’t burn in the right places to eradicate it. Some think it wasn’t plague but a worse, undead disease. Others think mutation of the original bacteria, improved diet and health, better housing may all have contributed to its disappearance. London merchants had invested too much in the place to let it fall apart. At some point in the explanation it was what people thought about it that helped. Rain broke through the ceiling of the room where Lijn read threatening a flood. What was happening caught the cosmic mood of the event, the upbeat pulse to keep everything real by reminding us of the cosmos and natural powers.
Which reminded me that Lijn’s great hero is the computer scientist, composer, visual artist and retired film director Jaron Lanier, the inventor of the phrase ‘virtual reality’, someone who resists ideas that humans can be modeled on computers — and who has a cat called Loof because he isn’t aloof. Lanier’s One-Half of a Manifesto (Wired 2000) opposes ‘cybernetic totalitarianism’ which is “a cataclysm brought on when computers become ultra-intelligent masters of matter and life.” In You Are Not A Gadget he attacks the ‘hive mind’ and thinks open source and open content expropriation of intellectual production as a form of Digital Maoism. Wikepedia and Linux are for him examples of mob rule. In 2006 he wrote: ‘What’s to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It’s amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It’s time to think about that power on a moral basis.’ Anything that ‘removes the smell of people’ is evil. This night, these things were fizzling through the atmosphere. Lijn and White had set this up to show it all.
And Lanier wants socialism and this is the base of his thought which means that the translation of Helen MacFarlane is linked to understanding the universe and understanding how to live. Lanier is impressed by an idea of Ted Nelson’s. He had an idea before the web, that of the Link, where everyone would have constant access to everything but there would be also constant small digital payments flowing around so you could make a living from your ideas. The Link would be able to tell that your idea was being used elsewhere and each time it was, you’d get paid. Universal micropayment would make the online digital universe a new place to thrive. It wouldn’t be free but it would be affordable and no one would have to find dumbed-down meatworld jobs like making T-shirts to supplement imaginative labour. Which is what the ‘free’ internet is like now. For a moment it sounds great and then mixes with Burroughs’s damned demons, mixing up everything and maybe going mad.
Lanier plays 1000 musical instruments. He was born in Mesilla in Dona Ana County, New Mexico of a boho poor family. Way back in 1881 the Santa Fe Railway was going to build through the Gadsden Purchase region, but Mesilla was too greedy, asked for too much and a landowner in nearby Las Cruces stepped in offering free land. Las Cruces is now huge. Mesilla is poor. Las Cruces has fossil footprints and trackways of Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus. But Mesilla has the genius Lanier. So Lijn plugs us in to these gate-openers, people who are exploring the boundaries, and this in turn opens up the social background of everything too and the political at last, and so, quoting Lijn, ‘Humans interact over wide spatial distances using thoughts…’ and find new nodes to connect with everything.
And now the evening takes on its small experimental mode, becomes a probe machine invented by Lijn and White, adding on and jacking into reflecting spheres of attractors in 3D, playfully comparing infinities (impossibly) without cloister, with panache, aspiring to an achieved high stylishness even. What happens with this sort of event and Lijn’s script is that they ask what we want from both our scientists and our creative citizens, and where the answers coming from the margins are, and where those margins are now. What they do is touch on possibilities of these new discovered margins and the answers and questions too, so they encourage thoughts about science and technology, of course, but also the projects these might encourage or help with, and the social and creative possibilities being triggered, and the books and dreams and communities that might form.
So for instance what Lijn was doing was making the thought that writing creatively was not limited by mere writers. It wasn’t limited by what we’d done before nor was there the drag of predictability. So she was giving an angle to creative writing that wasn’t camping down in familiar theories, familiar voices, even though there was William Burroughs’s picture on the wall, but was instead inviting us to not worry too much about whether it fits, whether it even feels like or looks like creative writing that we’ve had before or thought in the past we’d be doing in the future. Instead, she’s saying that what we’re doing when we’re being creative is not being controlled by Moore’s Law so no one can understand what is really going on and perfect it. This is why hardware engineering is so great and microchips keep getting better and better. But the problem facing software engineers is we don’t have a clue how to develop incremental improvements because software is too mysterious, too ghosty to carry the information feedback loops that the process requires. Lijn’s investigations with science refuses the Matrix idea that science and its technology will come to life and take us over. She rather restores interest in the uniqueness of human systems which connect threads of our perceptions to the deep mysteriousness of reality. She knows because she talks to the scientists who know that there’s much we know we don’t know.
I began by talking about the relationship between data compression and accuracy. The ratio of noise to signal is decided by relevance. The definition of acceptable and other margins is decided by purpose. Creativity might be all noise or no noise. Some days you want signal, other times noise; most times it is in between and probably conflicted, because purpose is awash with conflicted wishes, needs, purpose, relevance etc. What was great about the night, what is great about the work of Lijn, was that White and Lijn together had forged a communication machine that refueled the idea of the personal, the human, the humane, the diverse and all the magical, occult strangeness that I personally loved to hear, directly bringing in the extraordinariness of science and technology to the writer/reader-haunted interzone.
Lijn calls it ‘…tiny bursts constantly happening in our brains.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 21st, 2010.