Rorschach Realities
Paul Woodrow & Alan Dunning's Ghosts in the Machine

Ted Hiebert

I checked the recording after the tape ran for about five minutes. What I heard was very strange. I was hearing a roaring or hissing static sound, like a shower, in which you could identify the chirping of the finch, but as if was coming from a distance. [...]

I listened with continued surprise as suddenly a male voice began to speak in Norwegian. Though it was very quiet, I could clearly understand the words. The man was talking about "bird songs at night", and I heard a number of chattering, whistling and splashing sounds, and among them what seemed to be the chirping of a sparrow.

Suddenly the bird choir fell silent and with that so did the hissing-sound. In the next instant the twittering of a finch was audible and in the distance you could hear a titmouse -- the tape recorder was working perfectly again.

-- Friedrich Jürgenson, Voice Transmissions With The Deceased.1

[Paul Woodrow & Alan Dunning, Ghosts in the Machine]

The Island of Morel

On the Island of Morel, there is a reality machine -- a machine that has archived seven days worth of living and now plays them back, in full and intricate definition. More than this, however, Morel's invention in fact plays back this archive right overtop of the reality that would otherwise be there; a time-displacement device and a layering of material existence. And, every seven days, the archive loops -- really repeating reality as it was both then and now and always...2

The characters in this narrative are, of course, ghosts -- ghosts in the machine, characters on technological life support, archived for who they are and will forever continue to be. But the beauty of the story is that not all of these ghosts are trapped. In fact, this is also the story of a man trying to get into the machine, to be ghosted so as to live with the others who repeat -- to be mapped onto the same reality-surface of which the island itself is made.

The story gets complicated when we begin to take it seriously however -- for this story is also that of Jorge Luis Borge's map, so detailed and precise that it covers exactly the territory it describes.3 A map, in other words, that describes multiple realities at once -- both Morel's original and its subsequent repetitions, a biography of looped moments and the interference patterns they set in motion. And this map goes further still, as it must, describing the absence of territory too, mapping the disappearance of the real into the machine, archived realities and karaoke moments that get immediately absorbed by the archive: a perpetual reality-soundtrack for the next fateful day.

What manifests from this confusion of realities and archives -- ghosts and machines -- is a vertigo of appearances, emerging within the dimensional multiplicity of perspectival play. Reality gets hyper and suddenly we find the maps themselves emerging into the world, walking among us, speaking with voices of their own. The machine cannot contain the ghosts, and they escape into the realities around them... and around us too.

Ghosts in the Machine

The story of Morel, of course, is a story of archive living, a desire for immortality given shape in technological apparatus. But it is something else too, namely a story that reminds us that archives, whether filled with ghosts or not, exist to be revisited and reanimated -- or else they are mere tombstones to histories that have otherwise been forgotten. But history, it seems, has a sense of humour, and sometimes faces and voices from the past spontaneously re-emerge -- moments that might be fleeting if they were not re-written back into the archive in one form or another.

[Paul Woodrow & Alan Dunning, Ghosts in the Machine]

And it is a form of this sort -- a re-writing of presences (real or imagined) that is so effectively enabled by Paul Woodrow and Alan Dunning's installation: Ghosts in the Machine. Knowing that ghosts rarely appear to the direct gaze, Woodrow and Dunning have provided an appropriately ambiguous architecture -- allowing not only for vectors of phantom emergence but also suspending judgment on the truth or falsity of the situation, preferring the aesthetics of speculative engagement to the politics of declarative authority. In either case however, the ghosts in this machine are at least partially imaginary -- as all sensory apparitions are required to be.

Formally, the installation is simple. A CCD camera is contained within a sealed, light-tight box -- a technological eye that is (physiologically) enabled but (environmentally) deprived. Within the darkness of this box that is also a coffin of sorts -- portal from which the ghosts are expected to re-emerge -- no visuals appear. What is required, then, is to value-add machinic processing powers to the equation; eyes that see with much more flexibility that their human counterparts, data gazes that scan whatever information presents itself, machinic upgrades that become what the French thinker Paul Virilio calls "sightless vision."4 These eyes that are not eyes are consequently also not limited by the darkness, imaging and imagining visual static that resides just below the illuminated thresholds of its human equivalent.

[Paul Woodrow & Alan Dunning, Ghosts in the Machine]

In this sense, darkness is what enables the perception of invisibility -- the blind spot of the machine is filled in by the technological imaginary and subjected to patterned recognition of symmetry, form and intensities of sound. And what emerges are qualia coherencies, drawn from the audio-visual noise of sensory deprivation -- faces and voices formed from the data gazing of the machines themselves. Human eyes too imagine away the gaps in the visual processing field, filling in the darkness of our own blind spots, interpolated cognitive fantasies that maintain the seamlessness of the world.5 Except that the blind spots in the machine work both ways, a conversant, reversible portal through which the projected imaginary is also able to escape back out into the world at large -- free to roam and drift and wander until a machine presents itself for an instant of possessed manifestation.

This is Instrumental TransCommunication (ITC) -- the spontaneous, technologically-facilitated rendering of unexplained presences, typically manifest as faces or voices.6 One need only lower the perceptual threshold -- as only a machine can do -- target the spectrum of sight and sound not bound to sensible rendition of object presence. And, through so doing, a tolerance threshold is established, a behind-the-scenes vision of darkness, accompanied by the paradoxical sounds of silence itself. Against the mandate for random patterns in noise; against the intolerance of trivial and nonsensical audio-visual confusion; here these ghosts write themselves back into existence -- faces that emerge as interference patterns, even if only tenuously, even if only in the presence of aesthetic installation.

For, despite the truth or falsity of the situation, it is ultimately we who imagine these ghosts back into presence. This is perhaps not a question of whether these apparitions are a function of interference patterns in the machines themselves (imagined by the machines) or subconscious psychological inferences in the minds of the viewer (imagined by the audience). Instead, this is a manifest instance of what Joe Banks calls a Rorschach real -- faces and voices whose appearances are, at least, an instance of "perceptual creativity" if not perhaps also a haunting return.7

Between reality and pareidolia is where ghosts play -- a digital dérive in which phantoms call us out, asking us to believe even if we don't and in so doing conflating the arenas of speculative engagement and real-world encounter with that which was previously thought impossible. In the darkness, we perceive not with our eyes, but with our imaginations... ghosts that live in the sounds of silence and in visions of darkness; machines that speak in unintelligible tongues because they really just want to be mapped back into the static recesses of the invisible real.


1 Friedrich Jürgenson, Voice Transmissions With The Deceased, Thomas Wingert and George Wynna, trans., Stockholm: Firework Edition, 2004. pp. 9-10.

2 Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, Ruth Simms, trans., New York: NYRB Classics, 2003.

3 Jorge Luis Borges, "On Exactitude in Science," in Collected Fictions, Andrew Hurley, trans., New York: Penguin Books, 1998. p. 35.

4 Virilio's thesis is that when technology can see in more detail than the human eye, we are faced with a form of vision not reliant on sight. Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine, Julie Rose, trans., Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994. p. 72.

5 V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, New York: William Morrow 1998. p. 90.

6 For more on Instrumental TransCommunication see The American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena website:

7 Joe Banks, "Rorschach Audio: Ghost Voices and Perceptual Creativity," Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 11 (2001), p. 80.

Hiebert, T. (2008) "Rorschach Realities: Paul Woodrow & Alan Dunning's Ghosts in the Machine." Catalogue essay for The Einstein's Brain Project: Ghosts in the Machine an exhibition by Paul Woodrow and Alan Dunning. Gíjon (Spain): LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre.