Temporal divergence

Douglas Edric Stanley


After some complications actually getting into the country, I am now finally in Brazil for the 8° Encontro Internacional de Arte e Tecnologia in the capital city of Brasília. Last night was the opening of the exhibition on « computational instinct » where I’m currently showing a new piece, « Bohlen’s Experiment No.1 ». And tomorrow Joseph Nechvatal and I will be each be giving lectures as part of four days of conferences organized by the Laboratório de Pesquisa em Arte e Realidade Virtual.

The installation as well as tomorrow’s lecture are my attempt at a response to Suzete’s invitation to present something around the subject of « computational instinct ». The subject is vast, and this piece is by no means to be considered my definitive response. But it has allowed me to work out a certain framework for thinking the subject of instinct, and from which I’ve come up with this proposition « no.1 » in what could easily be extended into a series.

While I suppose there are a lot of directions one could take the concept of « instinct », I actually decided to avoid the whole innate vs. aquired debate, and focus instead on the environmental conditions of behavior, in other words looking at existence not from the perspective of a subject (transcendental or otherwise) in conflict with its biological predispositions, but instead from the perspective of a being historically embedded in an environment; i.e. a question of « Umwelt » as a formative ingredient to embodiness. From this perspective, instinct is not some contrary force acting against us, but rather the residue of our environmental context that exposes itself through our behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, instinct could then be considered a context within which behavior takes place; it is the behavorial framework that reveals something about the nature of our consciousness and how this consciousness is shaped by our negotiations and inscription within the world.

Which leads me back to this first experiment which like all experiments is about exploring the limits of a concept. While the concept of Umwelt is highly cybernetic in its conception of stimulus and effectuation, I found it more interesting to approach the concept of Umwelt from a purely temporal perspective. So I asked the question: what is our temporal behavior? and its corrollary can we experience other temporal existences? And if indeed the answer to the latter is yes, is our experience of temporally divergent worlds limited to communication or can we also simulate such environments, through immersion or other means?

In « Bohlen’s Experiment No.1 », I have recreated a machine described only on paper in Philip K. Dick’s 1964 science fiction novel « Martian Time-Slip ». In the novel, Dick suggests that communication could be made with autistic children via temporal variation devices:

« There’s a new theory about autism, from Bergholzlei, in Switzerland […] It assumes a derangement in the sense of time in the autistic individual so that the environment around him is so accelerated that he cannot cope with it. In fact, he is unable to perceive it properly, precisely as we would be if we faced a speeded-up television program, so that objects whizzed by so fast so as to be invisible, and sound was a gobbledygook, you know? Just extremely high-pitched mishmash. Now this new theory would place the autistic child in a closed chamber where he faced a screen on which filmed sequences were projected slowed down. Both sound and video slowed, at last so slowed that you and I would not be able to perceive motion or comprehend the human sounds as speech… » - Philip K. Dick, Martian Time-Slip
The novel goes on to discuss an attempt to build such a device, but which ultimately fails for various reasons concerning the intrigue.

Obviously, a similar device has already been made for the image: it’s called « 24-hour Psycho » and « Five-Year Drive-by (The Searchers) », by Douglas Gordon. And stretching the image this way is fairly easy, at least from a technical point of view: just slow it down. But I got to thinking about the sound, which is continuous medium and not discontinuous like the film frame: how could we stretch the sound in a more consistent way while avoiding the chipmunk effect?

In my first attempt at creating Bohlen’s device (Bohlen being the character hired to actually build such a thing in Dick’s novel), I decided to create a purely audio communications device wherein one could communicate in real-time and yet to two divergent scales of real-time. You speak into a microphone, and out the other end your speech is stretched from anywhere to 1x to 100000x. You can adjust the speed with a dial.

Therefore, you co-exist in two temporal scales, and yet both, while temporally divergent, can still be considered real-time in the cybernetic sense; it is merely the biological rythm or scale of that real-time that has shifted. Indeed, as my colleague Jean Cristofol has argued within our various theoretical working groups (cf. « lenteur »), real-time is a temporal form, and not a measure of speed. s Speed and feedback are in fact two very different temporal forms.

On the technical side of things, this piece is little more than a real-time adaptation of Nasca Octavian Paul’s Paul Stretch algorithm. Basically, it uses FFT to analyze the frequencies of the sound at any single point within the wafeform, and then scrubs through those frequencies indepedently of the temporal constraints of the incoming audio. The result is fully comprehensible speech, no chipmunk effect, and yet stretching on a scale which can go from seconds, to days, and even (if desired) years. As anyone who has heard 9 Beet Stretch knows, the result can be quite beautiful.

While there are some other questions I’m asking as well in this piece, notably the question of consciousness in relation to the speed of computation, I’ll discuss all that tomorrow. This talk will also be reproduced in a publication some time next year. I’ll also try to add some photos to this post once I’ve had a moment to return to the exhibition space with a camera.