Invisible World - a performance installation

The Einstein’s Brain Project


Alan Dunning

Alberta College of Art & Design, Calgary, Alberta, Canada


Paul Woodrow

University of Calgary, Calgary,  Alberta, Canada



This paper briefly describes the  performance installation Invisible World from the series Body Degree Zero. This is a work using the principles of Electronic Voice Phenomenon and the sound and vision generated within the system itself to construct  a generative environment that intimates a world beyond the visible and audible. The work suggests that the world is constructed through mental processes and raises the possibility of a spiritual world largely constructed by random firings in the brain. This paper describes the content and form of the work and suggests some ways in which it may be approached.




A highly sensitive microphone and a camera are placed in an acoustically and visually quiet box. Such data as is present in the system is sent to a computer where audio is processed to reveal minute, otherwise inaudible sound, and video is processed to reveal minute changes in light levels and examined for changes in contrast, density and motion.  The results are projected onto a screen and  synchronized with sounds broadcast into the space. The work is presented as a 30 minute performance by a machine and an attending audience. The machine establishes a situation in which a perceiving body generates the content of the work through imagined, apophenic and gestalt processes.


The performance installation


Seemingly random texts flash across a projected screen showing static.  Almost incomprehensible sibilant speech fills the room. An observer slowly begins to see pattern . Emerging from the static are incomplete and degraded images recognized at the very moment they disappear. Computer generated voices repeat and clarify the indistinct sounds. Slowly out of the apparently random sounds and static there is the indication of a haunted and occupied space..


Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP)[1] is the recording of errant noises or voices that have no explainable or physical source of origin. These recordings are made when the recorder is unattended or inadvertently recording, or under circumstances designed to record these voices: for example  recording in a sound proof box or with no microphone attached.  It has been argued that the voices are simply subjective interpretations - that we tend to hear voices in random patterns of sound, in the way we recognize forms in random visual patterns. Others believe the voices are from another world, opening up the possibility of communication with the afterlife.. This installation uses the ideas inherent in EVP to examine ways in which we construct the world through apophenia (the seeing of connections where there are perhaps none)  and gestalt effect (the recognition of  pattern and form). Using techniques of EVP the installation sets up an environment in which participants can attend to noises and images generated from apparently silent and empty spaces.


The work draws on two ideas taken from parapsychology: EVP and the Stone Tape Theory. In Nigel Kneale’s play,The Stone Tape. a team of scientists examine a ghostly event in an old building. A programmer builds an application to analyze the nature of observed reality and they discover the possibility of the stones themselves being a kind of recording medium for traumatic images and events that transmits its message directly to the brain.


Stone Tape theory is a popular possibility for parapsychologists to explain ghostly events. At the heart of the stone tape theory is that notion that the experience of ghostly phenomena does not rely on the perception of a visible external ghost, rather everything is perceived in the mind. Kneale's work plays to our ongoing sense that there is an invisible world that surrounds us.


"It holds an image - and when people go in there they pick it up. What you hear or what you see is inside your own brain! …: Don't you get it yet? It must work like ... a recording. Fixed in the floor and the walls, right in the substance of them. A trace ... of what happened in there. And we pick it up. We act as detectors - decoders - amplifiers." [2]


Extending these ideas, Invisible World suggests that what we consider the perceived world is a kind of psychic video generated by the processes in the brain. Just as we perceive images and patterns in random flickering and noise, so he woks suggests that the construction of our day to day world is just one more imagined world derived from raw data. Taken together these things suggest endless numbers of realities mapped on top of an endless number of worlds, each to one degree or another imagined, and each more or less visible. The constructed world is not entirely what it appears to be and that the visible world is as much a phantom as the spirits we invoke. We are suddenly reminded of Ramachandran's caution:


Your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has temporarily constructed purely for convenience.[3]


The Einstein's Brain Project


The Einstein's Brain Project is a collaborative group of artists and scientists who have been working together for the past nine years. The aim of the group is the visualization of the biological state of the body through the fabrication of environments, simulations and installations. The Project has developed numerous systems and installations using analog to digital interfaces to direct the output of the human body to virtual environments that are constantly being altered through feedback from a participant's biological body. The core of the Einstein's Brain Project is a discursive space that engages with ideas about the constructed body in the world and its digital cybernetic and post-human forms.


The Project’s virtual environments and installations contextualize, visualize and examine physical, spatial and mental human activity by measuring the electrical output of active bodies in dynamic environments. Biodata is fed into real time immersive worlds where it is displayed as aural and visual forms that represent the activity of the human body. The project has designed a variety of methods to acquire data using contact and non-contact sensors, and developed strategies to reveal features, patterns and attributes in the captured data in order to visualize its characteristics, and to represent the data as coherent and retrievable information.


The works establish a recursive loop in which the invisible actions of the body are manifest and an inhabitant is required to monitor both the changing environment and the body that manifests it. This is achieved through the use of a relational vocabulary of representation, in which identities are lost and gained, subsumed by a non-identifiable collection of other identities. One interesting consequence of this is that body-degree-zero comes to represent an alternative, functional alternative, to the Cartesian or Lacanian constructions of self: no longer minds fed back onto the self-reflection of psychology or philosophy, rather "bodies" fed back upon themselves -- experiencing the data derived from a physical presence that both is and is not theirs. Heartbeats that form not only the internal rhythm of living, but an external soundscape; brainwaves that, stripped of the illusion of privacy, begin to gyrate on electronic screens; and McLuhan's prophecy fulfilled as the data-skeleton of autonomic bodily processes becomes clothing worn, subject to all the same rules of designer fashion and aesthetic self-fashioning.


Invisible Worlds work uses the imagining body as one important interface between the body and its world and makes this visible. By focusing our attention on the mind/body as engaged in the construction of meaning rather than in perception,  the mind/body itself is seen as an image and sound generator. The work sets up a feed back loop that re-imagines the already imagined, through the cycles of interpretation and reinterpretation attached to existing and developing emotional, intellectual and cultural body states.


In comprehending a world in which individuals are merely phantoms imagining themselves and their reality, the viewer is transfigured, changed in form and condition, a semiotic ghost. While these particular characteristics of matter are yet to be determined, the transformation suggests that the virtual, the illusory is also substantial. Lost, the participant is metamorphosed by the realization that external worlds are constructions of the internal.

The Einstein’s Brain Project seeks to establish a space where the participatory subject is submerged in the object. This is not the casual glance at a world passing by a train car window. On the threshold of the imaginary the viewer becomes both the object of the gaze and the subject which gazes. As the viewer moves into the imagined world it transforms itself into a series of forking paths, projections of bifurcation, suggesting continuous and continual choices. The paths act as transitory, flickering representations of connectivity between discrete sections or locations in the brain. In this world there are invisible, incomprehensible connections, as if a fading trail is positioned somewhere between two fading pathways, locating itself in nothingness, lodged within the infinite space between polarities, between worlds.




Given the complex relationship between the construction of the self and the construction of space a body in an imagined world has moved towards a hybrid state, composed of biological organism and machine in which it is not always precisely clear who makes and who is made. The boundary between organism and non-organism, actor and non-actor, self and non-self has been abandoned and our postmodern bodies are artificial constructions of technologies and technological discourses that are in continual decay and renewal. The body is so inextricably enmeshed with its surroundings and the technologies that support it, that representations of the body become indistinguishable from the mechanisms of its representation and erasure.


This complex interplay of phenomena and energies is Body Degree Zero. Body Degree Zero, the non-body, the body without skin, without ego boundary, is the evolutionary consequence of the super-distribution of identity over increasingly broad and responsive real-time networks. The body enfolds the world and the world enfolds the body - the notion of the skin as the boundary to the body falls apart. The body, as here not there, and its defining sense of the other is a mental construction  - every perception of the other is a creation and every invocation a re-creation.  This is the:


... visceral extension of the material body with the aim of turning all autonomic functions into observable (excremental) data -- or the inverse -- a data-constipation in which the virtual lodges itself unyieldingly into the material body?  or perhaps again a relation -- now, not between bodies and world, but between perception and information with body-degree-zero as the unwritten script that might perhaps only be defined in terms of the variables allowed to inform the shapes it takes? it seems that perhaps what is crucial to the formulation of zero- degree content is precisely the same zero-degree that finds its way into Barthes' zero-degree writing [4] -- not in the sense of a reliance on interpretive presence for the formation of content, but rather in the immanent state of information without audience -- the metamorphosis into the absence of an unidentifiable body that nevertheless seems, for all intents and purposes, to still exist despite its unidentifiability.


In the work of the Einstein’s Brain Project the imaginary is seen as a recursive, social loop used for self and contextual awareness. The imaginary and its accompanying sense of disorientation or deception is used to generate new meanings and new understandings freed, as it were, not just from the burden of communication, but also from the oppositions of pattern and randomness, and presence and absence. As objects, bodies and worlds recombine freely through movements that imply no fixed form and no fixed substance the possibility emerges of degree zero bodies and states pregnant with all past and future specifications. [5]




[1]Electronic voice phenomena (EVP) were first discovered by the Swedish artist Friedrich Jürgenson in 1959. Jürgenson was recording birdsong using a reel-to-reel tape recorder. When he replayed the tapes, he heard faint but intelligible voices in the background, even though there was no-one else in the vicinity when the recordings were made. By repeating the procedure, Jürgenson found that the voice recordings could be reliably replicated.

[2]  Kneale, N. December 25, 1972. The Stone Tape, Produced on BBC Television,

[3] Ramachandran V.S., Blakeslee Sandra Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, William Morrow and Co. Quill, 1998

[4] Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology. Trans. Lavers A, and Smith C. Jonathan Cape, London, 1984

[5] Hiebert, Ted. Unpublished. In conversation with Alan Dunning and Paul Woodrow, Vancouver, 2003

[6] Barthes, Roland, Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology . Trans. Lavers A, and Smith C. Jonathan Cape, London 1984