Nervous States & Thunderbolt Pagodas

Nervous States – Jonathan McCabe

Mitchell’s Teemingvoid alerts us to the work of Canberran artist Jonathan McCabe with a very interesting post – McCabe’s recent show, ‘Nervous States’ sees some liquid-meniscus visualisations of the output state of small neural networks. Specifically each pixel coordinate represents the network’s behavior as indicated by colour allowing for the generation of a convoluted surface map of the system.

The watery surfaces of Nervous States reminded me heavily of Ira Cohen’s work with Mylar (flexible) Mirrors in the late 60’s. A recent article in The Wire (Issue 271 September 2006) provides us with this snippet of how Cohen’s alchemical images and films using the mirror came about:

‘I put up these big sheets of Mylar and started to take some photographs, hamming it up by making faces or wearing costumes. I found that if there was a little ripple in it, you would suddenly get an image where all kinds of distortions happened and if the distortion was powerful enough then that was the key. I was always looking for something harmonious, where a beautiful face could be made somehow more beautiful by the distorted changes in the dimensions of the reflected Mylar.

Later when Cohen was given access to a Bolex movie camera, the photographic stills came to life and the shooting of ‘Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda’ began under his direction.

Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968), is to be highly recommended if this kind of thing is to your taste and has been recently released on DVD containing lots of previously unseen footage and images, not to mention some new soundtracks aside from Angus Maclise’s delirious original – A short except of the film can be found here.

“It was in 1968, the year before Woodstock, between the giant bottle of liquid mercury Tony Conrad found in a doorway on 42nd St. and the Mylar chamber, we experienced a shared voyage conceived in three parts: The Opium Dream, Shaman and Heavenly Blue Mylar Pavilions, an alchemical journey born of out common consciousness — culminating in the akashic bindu drop swirling in the sky’s reflected azure. No minimalism here, but a maximalist adventure . . .” Ira Cohen continues.

It’s not just an aesthetic common ground these two sets of works share; process-based image creation is also at the centre of both methodologies. Further, McCabe’s dreamy visualisations are a formal product of computational analysis of neural activity. Arriving at similar destination, Cohen makes poetic use of the process of bending mirrors to bring to us alchemical dreams from the neuron itself!

2 Responses to “Nervous States & Thunderbolt Pagodas”

  1. Kuja writes:

    Astounding post!

  2. mitchell writes:

    Thanks for the link Paul – the visual connection is striking, but also raises more questions: Cohen’s mirrors work because they distort familiar images (ie we see distortion); but in McCabe’s work there’s no image or surface – we’re looking at an abstract state map! For more generative psychdelia see Steven Rooke’s work, for eg his genetic fractal Hyperspace Embryo.

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