Electronic Voice Phenomena       


Echoes of Individuation: The Black Stack, Bicameral Minds & EVP

Posted 2 April 2014 by | Comments Off


Nathan Jones described the ambition of Electronic Voice Phenomena as moving beyond the occult trappings of EVP towards a deeper consideration of what “hearing an electronic voice” means. Arguably a defamiliarisation of the electronic voice is needed. In an era of Siri and uncanny Mechanical Turk call centres it can help to recall how odd it is to hear and listen to an electronic voice: to reflect upon the nested technological complexity and opaque rationales that make such occurrences quotidian. If it be impossible to appreciate the weirdness perhaps we can turn to an occasion where voice hearing still holds an air of abnormality – hearing a voice without an obvious source of exterior emanation. Declarations and commands, issuing from within your own skull. This essay begins here and aims to unravel why such an experience is commensurate with alterity. Through this essay we will afford ‘voice hearing’ its due as an integral human quality. As we will see, it points to an under acknowledged alternative way of attuning to ones immediate environment. With that facet of our psyche acknowledged iwe are better placed to reflect upon the technological mediation of ‘voice hearing’ that the legacy of EVP suggests. Technology is deemed inseparable from being human, and accordingly considered in broad terms. Both strands of enquiry enable speculation on how the electronic mediation inherent to our daily lives might speak to us in new ways. Our waking hours are modulated by the edifices and infrastructures wrought through and by our technologies, and those same modulations set the parameters for what degrees of action (and change) are possible to us. To step outside those parameters, should they be unacceptable to us, or indeed should necessity demand it, entails finding new flows of thought – premonitions of alternate modes of being-in-world. Such a fundamental shift in disposition to ones technologically saturated world has been declared an imperative by scholars of the post humanities (most stirringly by Rosi Braidotti) – this essay seeks to link this imperative to historical precedent for such reconfigurations.

Hearing voices is a symptom of schizophrenic patients. It numbers as one of many forms of hallucination which the schizophrenic subject may experience[1]. Hallucinations are categorised within the ‘positive symptoms’ of schizophrenia. NIMH distinguishes ‘positive symptoms’ thusly: “positive symptoms are psychotic behaviors not seen in healthy people”. There is a sense of surplus here, that the experiences of hallucinations, delusions, and thought & movement disorders are excesses which non-pathological cognition never needs to buffer. Hallucinations are not limited to hearing voices, but they are the most prevalent register of hallucination diagnosed in schizophrenic patients. More importantly however has been recognition (accentuated in the last three decades) that voice hearing is not limited to patients experiencing schizophrenia. The Hearing Voices Network (HVN) developed following the research of two Dutch psychiatrists, Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, who had revealed that many more members of the population heard voices than had ever been previously estimated [Romme and Escher,Accepting Voices (MIND publications 1993)]. The HVN is an important initiative allowing those who hear voices to cope with their experiences by naming the voices they hear: identifying them through historical or emotional points of reference, and imbueing the communication with meaning. Perhaps most importantly, its a process which provides therapeutic benefits to the patient without entailing an attendant psycho-pharmaceutical regimen. Professor Lisa Blackman worked with the group during its formative years. For Blackman  voice hearing is a modality of knowing (that) cannot that be reduced to irrationality or disease”. Its a claim backed up by her research (‘Hearing Voices: Embodiment and Experience’ Free Association Books 2001) which illustrates that the taxonomy of voice hearing in conventional psychiatry cannot contain or explain the many occasions and circumstance wherein voice hearing is part of the human experience.

The non-pathological framing of auditory hallucination is a central part of Julian Jaynes maverick manuscript on the origins of consciousness: ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’. Jaynes thesis is transfixing: in his view, prior to approximately 1000BC humans were not conscious as you and I are conscious! Through conducting a cognitive archaeology of early western civilisations he arrives at a conclusion that consciousness was radically different prior to the advent of written cultures, phenomenologically akin to command and response utterances relayed between separate entities housed within the same skull! It’s a radical claim, one that evinced skepticism among his contemporaries, and it remains no less contentious today (William Burroughs and Richard Dawkins [in the God Delusion] have respectively attested to the influence and notoriety of the hypothesis). But this essay works best if you can suspend the desire to torpedo Jaynes thesis as untenable. Let’s instead adopt it as plausible, for the scope of speculation it affords on our contemporary relation to technology. Jaynes identifies the lack of what we could deem ‘the self’, or subjectivity in cultural artefacts from ancient civilisations. He melds this (elsewhere noted)[2] absence of contemporary self consciousness with the theories of schizophrenia available to him when he wrote the book in the 70s (it’s worth noting that many of Jaynes predictions – pertaining particularly to aural hallucinations – were confirmed by later brain imaging research[3]). From this he posits the bi-cameral mind – a metaphoric conception of mind based on a brain where the two hemispheres were partitioned and not an integrated communicating unit.


Bicameral humans instead operated by means of “automatic, nonconscious habit-schemas”. When habit was insufficient to “novel circumstances or stressors facing the human”,  the stress gripping the Bicameral subject caused neural activity in the dominant, habitual, hemisphere to be modulated by auditory hallucinations emanating from the silent hemisphere. <bq>In ‘do or die’ crunch moments Bicameral Humans would hallucinate the orders requisite to survival</bq>. Jaynes cites the attribution of volition to Gods in ancient iconography (and within the Homeric Iliad) as evidence for this experience, reasoning that persistently hallucinated voices would be collectively attributed to some consistent emanation. Two things about Jaynes thesis are relevant to this essays of inquisition. Jaynes elaborates that the hierarchical organisation of societies contemporary to this period (10000BC – 1000BC) were likewise determined by the tendency to hallucinate orders from a loci of subjectivity perceived as ‘other’ to ones internal habitual schema. This resulted not just in Gods, but also god-Kings and the rule of law ubiquitous to Mesopotamian (and other contemporaenous) civilisations. Secondly is Jaynes impetus for the morphing of Bicameral cognition into our contemporary consciousness. A lamentation of Black swans (environmental tumult and disruptive technology among them) caused Bicameral cognition to malfunction. Oracles, divination and other cultural mechanisms mushroomed to help societies of individuals accustomed to holding private dialogue with their gods cope with their internal voices falling silent. Writing was crucial in the breakdown of the Bicameral mind because it weakened what had been an exclusively auditory culture prior to its advent. This resonates with other scholars who have stressed writing as disruptive technology capable of rewiring it’s users.

Jaynes thesis, if taken as plausible, suggests that the reoccurrence of a mind reorganisation is possible again given the right circumstances. Which, if you’ve read Sherry Turkle’s earlier technologically-evangelic texts [The Second Self (1984) Life on the Screen (1995)] or are acquainted with counter cultural manifestos that treat psychadelics as ‘brain technology’ (aka entheogenics)  in their own right, is not such a radical claim. It’s the attunement to alterity, and the alignment of corporeally disruptive technology to societal upheaval and crisis in Jaynes account that suggest his framework as pertinent to contemporary circumstances. The contention from here on out is that we might just be approaching another cognitive reorganisation – and so clarity about what criteria constitutes comparable circumstance is important. The Bicameral subject faded because the human subject interacted with a changed exterior world, prompting signals within the brain to be more integrated. Integrated is the key concept here – it echoes neuroscientist Christof Koch’s determining criteria of the point at which a system becomes conscious[4]. For Koch the intensity of integration of a given system correlates to the sophistication of consciousness it can attain. Koch is inferring parallels between the sophistication of our neural circuitry and a world where every object, flora and fauna is networked to the Cloud. I however would like to consider the ‘system’ of interest as consisting of brain-body-world – the human system.

To conceive of the mind as a system of brain-body-world is consistent with the embodied cognition perspective of cognitive science. The idea has gained purchase with some neuroscientists and AI researchers, precisely because it lets you conceive of an organisms existence in its immediate environment in ways different from the “brain in the vat” conception that the cartesian mind-body split (and its conceptual descendants) entails. Gilbert Simondon’s theory of inviduation offers conceptual purchase on the “-world” portion of the brain-body-world system. Individuation is the process by which subjects become distinguished(as in distinct, rather than reknowned) from their environment. In Simondonian terms, what the subject individuates from is termed the pre-individual: a set of extra-bodily forces – a milieux – including societal norms, technology, and interactions with human and non human others. Simondon considers technology as a fundamentally inseparable part of being human. His ‘general phenomenology of machines’ emphasises the agency of technology and resists accounts which treat technology as mere utility. Technology is inherent to how ‘we are’ in the world around us. Simondon’s ‘pre-individual’ goes a step beyond a comparable concept: Jakob von Uexküll’s umwelt. The umwelt was nicely described by Dawkins in his ‘middle world rumination’, which I’ll quote at length.

“What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished world but a model of the world, regulated and adjusted by sense data, but constructed so it’s useful for dealing with the real world. Middle World — the range of sizes and speeds which we have evolved to feel intuitively comfortable with –is a bit like the narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum that we see as light of various colours. We’re blind to all frequencies outside that, unless we use instruments to help us. Middle World is the narrow range of reality which we judge to be normal, as opposed to the queerness of the very small, the very large and the very fast.”

Both the Umwelt and Simondon’s individuation are expansive in terms of what they encompass – the human subject is but one of many entities individuating in the world. For the purposes of this essay I’m conflating ones self with ones individuation, and should you deep dive into that theory you will see that some nuance is elided in such a conflation. Simondon’s inclusion of technology within his milieux of exterior forces (that co-constitute our interior sense of self – our individuation) allows us to comprehend beyond the phenomenological limitations which Dawkins intimates in the above passage. As the breadth and complexity of our instrumentation sophisticates the topography of ‘middle world’ is transfigured. We should expect this to impact our sense of self, given the feedback occurring between the world exterior to our perception and our construction of our own ‘middle worlds’.  From a Simondonian perspective, you could consider writing as a new technological factor in the preindividual fields which the Bicameral Subject was accustomed to individuating from. The slow development of writing into a ubiquitous technology reordered pedagogy, politics, societal organisation and many other domains which were likewise part of the collective pre-individual. Each brain-body-world system could integrate the sum total of incoming information in different means (Daniel Dennet likens the reorganisation to the epiphany one can experience shifting from procedural programming to coding in LISP). The Bicameral subject began to atrophy as it was supplanted by a different register of consciousness. Jaynes was working archaeologically and there are limits to how far you can believe educated and rigorous guesswork – for guesswork it shall always remain. But maybe we could sketch how a comparable crisis of utility confronts our contemporary subjectivity – the rational sense-of-self? Our criteria for evaluating any such shift can borrow from both Simondon and Jaynes together by considering what is transfigured in the technological portion of the pre-individual and attending to upheaval which attends on any such transfigurations.

This is not a discussion of how the internet massages and tweaks your neural plasticity, but more an overview of how the sum effects of ‘our technological condition’ might resemble the conditions which accompanied the millennia long breakdown of the Bicameral mind. The ‘year 0′ is accordingly further back than the advent of computing and the internet. Simondon’s analysis suggests the state of industrialised labour at the turn of the 20th century as a point of origin. This period roughly approximates to western society in the aftermath of decades of industrial revolution – a period where an assemblage of technologies had become embedded into everyday life and practice. Within this period of technological rupture, and corresponding afterglow, Simondon contends that an embodied relationship to technology had been lost. Simondon deems that ‘corporeal schemas’ were requisite to a knowing, rather than utilitarian (or reactionary), relationship to technology. Said schemas were lost in the shuffle, following industrial revolution. A marker was laid down in terms of how technology operated within the pre-individual milieux.

John Tilly’s Air Loom – a schizophrenic influencing machine which Tilly considered to be controlling his mind – an oppressive sense of automatism

The turn of the 20th century was also a period of intense interest as far as historians of the psychological sciences are concerned. It was in this period that empirical interest in mediumship, seance and mesmerism (spiritualist pursuits, as indeed EVP was when Friedrich Jürgenson first brought it to popular awareness) was to irrevocably alter the trajectory of the psychological sciences. Lisa Blackman’s research of this period take us a step beyond Jaynes [as detailed in "Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation", (Sage 2012)]. Jaynes efforts established voice hearing as a vestige of a since supplanted mode of consciousness. To Jaynes, fringe and parapsychological aspects of cognition were remnants left over from that period. Blackman’s scholarship focuses on how topics which we today consider the preserve of parapsychology – telepathy, hypnotic suggestion, communicating with the dead (voice hearing if you will) – were serious topics of research. The rationale which saw those experiences dismissed as marginal was explicitly tied to understanding the normalised subject – the baseline or ratified individuation if you will.  She notes that “new technological forms and practices demanded a subject who could ‘pay attention’ in ways which were integral to new labour and educational practices”. A subject that could impose their will on reality was closest to ideal in that regard, and all else that didn’t fit as snugly found itself pathologised, a trajectory intensified in the latter half of the last century. Where Jaynes endeavoured to depathologise voice hearing, Blackman’s work (and that of Luciana Vieira Caliman) unearths the reason why voice hearing was pathologised, unpicking the gendered and colonial assumptions of a subject capable of imposing their will on reality. It helps account for some of the more effusive and occluded forces operating within the pre-individual field from which a subject can emerge. Moreover it highlights an explicit link with technology that was becoming ubiquitous in peoples lives and which was significantly reordering labour practice, their daily infrastructure and surrounding environment.


Mohr’s Influencing Machine – radio waves control the subjects thoughts

Let’s consider that the ubiquity & indispensability of disembodying (in Simondons meaning) technology to everyday existence first experienced during the post-Industrial period has intensified since the invention of computers and subsequent digital media. Let’s say that this period is comparable in trajectory and intensity to the period which saw the breakdown of the Bicameral mind in terms of a powerful change to the preindividual milieux (if not yet comparable in duration). The driving imperative in removing the pathology of voice hearing lets us accept that there are faculties and functions of mind proclivities which escape the bounds of ‘what once made sense’. Such acceptance may be crucial to better adapting to our digitally mediated existence. Carl Jung figured individuation as how the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious. If the ‘individual self’ (one of many potential individuations) is on the wane, in terms of the purchase it affords us on our new technological milieux, then it follows we need new frameworks, new metaconcepts – in short alternative individuations. A crucial step to formulating such individuations involves acknowledging the psychic continuum between our minds and our digital technologies. If we’re taking Simondon’s work as our model for psyche, there’s no need to invoked the singularity and panpsychism (though it would no doubt be intriguing to do so).

Nathan Jones ambition to ask “what does it mean to hear an electronic voice” is a provocation towards what new individuations might be produced (or indeed, what prior individuations may resurge in utility) and how we might attune to their emergence. Considered through a phenomenological archaeological rubric the voices we hear or don’t hear are linked to the process of individuation from the pre-individual, and all that said domain encompasses. This brings us to the tendency for EVP practice to dabble in the area of technology induced apophenia. Over the course of his tome “Rorschach Audio – Art & Illusion for Sound”(Disinformation 2012). Joe Banks presents the case for EVP ‘voice hearing’ being commensurate to experiences induced by psychoacoustics (the example cited is Diana Deutsch’s work in this field). Faced with a random stream of noise the human brain imposes pattern and order on what it hears, discerning voices and artefacts that are not present on the media (a process described as auditory pareidolia and apophenia).   Banks ambitious contention is that all perception is founded on fundamental pattern recognition mechanisms comparable to apophenia.  This makes all perception illusory in his estimation: “the capacity to form such illusions is shared by all people as an important part of normal perception.” Take for instance, vision: large sections within your field of vision are actually blind. The mind offsets this by copying information from areas surrounding those blindspots, then pasting that information over the blindspots, like a perceptual clone brush. If the brain is considered as an information computing unit then these faculties emerged in order to help us make sense of a complex and noisy world. The contrast with hearing voices in technological media, so the case against the veracity of EVP states, is that this innate illusory perception is permitted to stray beyond it’s boundary conditions.

Apophenia is superficial access to one facet of the schizophrenic form of individuation. EVP enthusiasts are gorging on apophenia, albeit in circumstance delimited form. Boundary conditions, as described in Adrian MacKenzie’s typology of loops (sketched above, and in detail here[5]), can frame such delimiting factors. In an effort to understand the agency of digital loops (a means of algorithmic computation and thus production) MacKenzie posits that understanding the boundary conditions by which loops are delimited grants useful purchase on digital processes which might otherwise evade perception – whether by dint of their speed or their execution nested within stacks of software.  Let’s entertain that there is a homology between neurological loops that produce perception, computational loops that produce outputs from delimited inputs and individuating loops that produce subjectivity in tandem with our exterior socio technological milieux. Seeking boundary conditions in the latter category requires the greatest effort given that we’re dealing with fuzzy categories like societal norms, optimal patterns of labour fomented by technological affordances & market imperatives, and cultural zeitgeists creolised into accepted wisdom. But I believe we might find it productive to seek the boundary conditions which a given individuated subject cleaves to. It could account for why a commonality of sense-of-self exists. It could go someway towards answering the question which Lisa Blackman pursues in much of her recent research  – “how do we live singularity in the face of multiplicity”? For each loop, there are boundary conditions which determine its termination. For instance, pre-individual boundary conditions are identifiable in the registers of cognition and perceptual experience bracketed as pathological or paranormal, including possession, schizophrenia, mesmerism and voice hearing.

Entertaining the homology between differently instantiated loops and their respective boundary conditions is important to reconciling ourselves to the unacknowledged faculties and functions of mind mentioned previously. The pattern recognition loops at the root of our perception evade conscious apprehension – we are never aware of the fact that some of what our eyes see is partly imaginary. We can posit that there exists loops of pattern detection which likewise evade our conscious apprehension at many levels – neurological, technological, societal. This patchwork of nested loops are stitched together by our bounded self and make ever present sense to us because we possess a standardised individuation. Here again entertaining a notion of psychic continuum is useful: there may be no material link between these digital loops and our neural wetware, but the former constitute that from which our individuated self emerges. And it’s at this juncture where EVP is poised to contribute. A recent Aeon article addressed another schizophrenic symptom: delusions. In a discussion on schizophrenic influencing machines, Mike Jay notes that the psychosis of a century ago appears remarkable prescient relative to our contemporary coexistence with technology.

our world is now mediated in part by technologies that fabricate it and partly by our own minds, whose pattern recognition routines work ceaselessly to stitch digital illusions into the private cinema of our consciousness”.


This sounds quite similar to Brian Rotman’s examination of “subjectivies operating in electronically patterned infrastructure”. Rotman is another author who considered how technology could change our conscious selves. Over the course of ‘Becoming Beside Ourselves’ (2008) Rotman drills into what codifying speech, a contiguous analog experience, into discreet symbols entailed. He extrapolates out these ramifications to contemporary digital media and its capabilities of making many forms of experience discrete. His research drive is in the same ballpark as Jaynes and Simondon. He is intriguing to our purposes because he articulates what a future individuation might resemble. For Rotman, it is a parallel self – a hypothetical future subjectivity emerging alongside parallel computing: something that he believes will radically reorient our internal selfs relation to the pre-individual field exterior to it. Rotman considers body-brain humans  as kinaesthetic, corporeal, entities. As such this future orientation is engaging bodily capacities which already inhere within us all – said capacities have been merely awaiting the appropriate ensconcing affordances in order to be made manifest. We don’t yet possess that individuation, but Rotman deems we can discern it in what he calls ‘”ghost effects”‘: media effects, technologically induced agencies, emergent epiphenomena of mind plus pre-individual technologies.

It’s these “ghost effects” that EVP practice may now set their sights upon, if it indeed seeks pastures beyond vocal occultism. And where to look? EVP should seek areas where ‘ghost effect’ hauntings may transpire, sites of contestation which perhaps foreshadow the breakdown of the post Bicameral mind.  I believe such sites can be gleaned via the work conducted on ‘Stacks’ and “Stacktivism’. In said discourse, “‘The Stack’ designates “the chain of interconnected activities and technologies of current and historical significance that spread far beyond the individual”@jaymo. It affords the necessary agency to technology, and retains a concern for the subjects entanglement with increasingly ubiquitous technologies. In the stack, subjects become Users. This is an area where the writings of Benjamin Bratton are essential reading. Bratton likewise deploys the language of individuation, and his latest piece on the Black Stack makes a case, to this authors wide eyes, for several contemporary circumstances which one might identify as correlative to the Bicameral Breakdown milennia ago. Bratton’s account of the Black Stack, a conceptual edifice yet-to-come (“not the platform we have, but the platform that might be), treats the User as one of 7 infrastructural layers. In so doing Bratton teases out the nature of existing within vertical stacks and traditional nation states (whose horizontally delimited territories operate perpendicular to the Stack). Furthermore, Bratton identifies the geopolitical complexities of stack existence as entailing crisis for those who inhabit the position of the User:

the Stack (and the Black Stack) stage the death of the User in one sense: they do so because they  bring the multiplication and proliferation of other kinds of nonhuman Users (including sensors, financial algorithms, and robots from nanometric to landscape scale), any combination of which one might enter into a relationship with as part of a composite User.” – Bratton

These composite users, constituting a disposition perhaps better suited to thriving in the contemporary techno-social landscape, echo technological affordances pulling forth the bodies latent proclivity towards parallelism, just as Rotman speculated might happen.

The position of the User then maps only very incompletely onto any one individual body. From the perspective of the platform, what looks like one is really many, and what looks like many may only be one” – Bratton

In framing it thusly Bratton re-articulates the problematic how does the subject cope with ‘living singularity in the face of multiplicity’. The ‘linear self’ individuation made perfect sense against a backdrop of a passing epoch of technology (writing). This triumph was remarkable in how it suppressed capacities within the human brain-body-mind system that were amenable to non-sequential modes of parsing reality. The question of how do we maintain singularity in the face of multiplicity is inverted, begging instead the quandry of ‘why persist in ‘sequential-self’ individuation’?

Bratton considers that “the neoliberal subject position makes absurd demands on people as Users… (and) elaborate schizophrenias already take hold in our early negotiation of these composite User positions.” Speaking of schizophrenias in this way is at once indebted to Deleuzean philosophy (and its consideration of late capitalist drives) and redolent of the outliers of individuation which prompted this essays investigation. The sum of the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, surplus processes which the existing common individuation never need buffer, present themselves as cookie-cutter individuations which suddenly seem more appropriate to our current context – as indeed the Aeon essay on influencing machines noted. Moving in parallel with Bratton’s rigourous analysis spins out the stakes of seeking alternate individuations into the shifting, crisis riven, geopolitical stakes of our contemporary times – tumult that may usher forth new individuations. Many of the issues at stake in Bratton’s discourse are topics taken up and engaged by critical internet|digital artists, including the keen minds in the orbit of Stacktivism. EVP as praxis, process or methodology, can segue into this field of interventions through its powerful phenomenological link to historical alternate individuations – voice hearing and the posited prior register of consciousness that it once instilled.

In “Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation” Lisa Blackman infers the processual coping evident within the Hearing Voices Network as  “an experience of the self as more divided and distributed, of the ‘other’ as part of me, and of living with automaticity as part of the spectrum of experience”. Automatism (perhaps best evinced in the studies of automatic writing) is another concept that Blackman excavates, and it intimates another alternative/shadow individuation relevant to future subjectivities.


a sense of automatism… experiences where a subject might feel that they are being directed or governed by an imperceptible force or agency, or even by a secondary personality.”


That speaks to the sense of being weighed upon by our data doubles, a ghost effect well surfaced by critical data artists (for instance, Networked Optimisation provides a poignant intersection of the receding and advancing technological paradigms discussed in this essay). Such data personhoods are described by Bratton as “an aggregate profile that both is and is not specific to any one entity”. Within the pre-individual field of digitally patterned subjectivities there are likely many automatisms which we don’t acknowledge. Such automatisms are perhaps “ghost effects” which evade perception because their boundary conditions haven’t been explicitly named, perhaps cannot be named, either because their delimiting factors are proprietary statistical profiles, or precisely because their boundary conditions care not for delimitation of a body to which we are accustomed (say for instance, our membrane of skin). The act of listening to alterity, which is at the heart of EVP practice, suggests itself as an alternative process for attuning to those ghost affects – staging seances with the roiling forces of the preindividual, exploiting the malfunctions of the engines inducing nascent individuations.

[1]    Symptoms derived from NIMH

[2]    Daniel Heller-Roazen’s The Inner Touch

[3]    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1407719/

[4]    Again Jaynes was prescient in this regard – Christian Koch posits the measure of consciousness as correlated to the level of integration inherent to a system – http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/11/christof-koch-panpsychism-consciousness/

[5]    http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0208/data.php


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