Electronic Voice Phenomena       


“Peter Coffin: The Ecological Mystic (or how to appreciate the inherent stupidity of everything)”

Posted 15 January 2015 by | Comments Off


by Robert Jackson

Think of all the thousands and thousands of media studies students brought up on Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, ‘The Medium is the Message’. One might wonder how many of them privately believed that McLuhan was literally alluding to some clairvoyant delivering a spectral message? McLuhan said a lot of stuff to be fair. For all we know, he might of secretly meant just that, but framed it in such a concrete, acceptable secular way that none of the other McLuhanites picked up on it.

Now, try and take that counterfactual seriously if you can. Go on. What might we learn from such a thing? Is this intuition merely a flight of fancy away from McLuhan’s specific study of media towards undisciplined, fruitless flavours of occult thinking? Maybe. But in a counter reversal, doesn’t it reveal a certain truth about how mediums of all kinds communicate occurrences ever so strangely? That a medium should not only happen, but that it actually delivers some sort of message at all? Instead of envisaging some haggard, deluded idiot full of sad beliefs that claim mystical passages beyond the transcendent borderlands of the mighty dead, might one – in the most vulgar, unrefined way – begin with the question ecologically? How might a medium work? How does something mediate something else within a certain, concrete environment?

Maybe it’s just a common cultural heritage that facilitates Western understanding. We seem to understand what a ‘medium’ means. In its typical usage, mediums operate as the background technological means for communication, or for how two or more systems both communicate and express something as some token of agency. As most know, McLuhan added the limited qualifier that a medium extends or enhances the human body together with its senses [1] and along with his son, derived three further effects; retrieval, obsolescence, and reversal. [2] Even the medium of language and semantics transforms how we communicate the word ‘medium’ providing we address such utterances within the language-medium itself. In a loose, ordinary sense, ‘medium’, might be chiefly defined in the familiar phrase, ‘striking a happy medium’, alluding to a balanced effective communication between two antagonistic worlds.

That’s all well and good, however as we’re talking about the dead we might as well get speculative. What exactly then, might be the difference between a medium claiming to bridge the communicative gap between the living and the dead (of what we might term mediumship), and say, more immanent criteria; the medium/technology of paint and canvas, that bridges the communicative gap between – say – Rothko and viewer?

Evidence one assumes. Fine, but what about an ecological alternative? Might one renew an appreciation and acceptance of mystical practices, not for the truth they inscribe, but for the experimental form of life in which they take place? Is there any difference between the experiments that enquire how cassette tapes translate distant screams, and a body which mediates the communicative mutilations between white blood cells and foreign agents, or perhaps a freeway that mediates angry drivers clutching at straws screaming sexual insults at sweaty cyclists?

Of course there are differences. Dramatically associating one as mystic and delusional and the other as frequent and ordinary is probably the easiest distinction to make. Yet, McLuhan’s statement appears to stand in whatever setting applies. After all, the medium *is* the message, and the message is largely irrelevant, even if the ecology happens to involve mystics. What matters isn’t the message of the dead, than the medium which mediates it in an environment: a form of life.

You can’t reduce one in favour of the other. One must respect communication for what it is, no matter what it is, not the efficacy for how such communication ‘truthfully’ communicates (if at all). We must have respect for the ‘otherness’ of the medium, as a worthy other. If you wish to believe that a medium’s content has as much transcendent impact in communicating spiritual souls of forgotten language, (and good luck to you), might we offer up other immanent examples that bestow emerging visibility? How does one differentiate from extracting instrumental inscriptions and labelling them “science”, whilst other practices such as Mediumship, do the same thing and label it “nonsense”. No one is taking sides: instead we’re flattening them.

Looking at the practice of mediumship in this flattened sense, warrants something of an alternative media-ecological approach. McLuhan endorsed his own brand of media-ecological approach of course, but what might happen if we include mediumship in the broadest sense of a medium? Contact with the dead might arise in the mind of the beholder, yet it also takes place in an environment. For when you flatten what there is, when everything is as deceptively communicative as everything else, all ecologies contain bundles of disparate, entrenched mediums that echo hidden persuasive powers: glasses, money, societies, customs. All of these are supported by various others; animals, MacBooks, computer viruses, Paypal, smog-laden cities, luscious gardens, unwieldy blog platforms, dull planets, annoyed families and raised eyebrows. They all might be counted as mediums for bridging other mediums, for converting affects into change. Moreover, they operate as something which constructs a translation between two arenas of relation. If there is one difference perhaps, it’s that mediumship isn’t exactly one medium which recedes into the background of common understanding. Depending on one’s mood, relying on a medium that purportedly extends the living closer to the dead, isn’t the same as relying on a light bulb that extends the brain surgeon to his or her laser cutter (personally I’d love to witness how we might ‘retrieve’ or ‘reverse’ contacting the dead in this McLuhan-eqsue sense). Even if we’re not willing to extend ourselves the courtesy of a netherworld, what matters here is the ecological infrastructure for how things communicate and their interminable strangeness in such communicating.

The world of the ordinary and of medium is already strange, stupid and uncontrollable whether we factor in the occult or not. And in the non-modernist spirit (no pun intended) worthy of Bruno Latour’s matters of concern [3], we should relinquish from setting up some sort of iconoclasm imposing a disciplinary barrier deciding reason from myth, occult from science, explanation from fraudulence, truth from stories, deductions from persuasion, demonstrations from descriptions [4]. If you really want to, you can expose fraudulence in anything, should you wish to form a gang and gather a motley crew of ‘reasoned’ modern disciplinarians. Perhaps, we might push towards a state of affairs where the strangeness of frozen food, fan heaters, climate and cockroaches appears liberating and abstruse, just as it was for the sincere yet ‘irrational’ mystic.

What if mediums, in all cases, didn’t simply exist to extend the human body, but simultaneously extend the implicated strangeness of other mediums towards us? Furthermore, what if this becomes the case in the darkest corners of our semi-rational mind, where at the lowest point of knowledge, of stupidity, we give up and label that uncontrollable strangeness “the dead”? Suppose that assemblages constructed to impart contact with the dead, inadvertedly contact other hidden realms previously absent? Might we consider mediumships of sewage networks, forest fires or tacos, where each realm isn’t just a media-ecology but also an ecology of quasi-mediumship.


It seems fitting then that art and artists might play a recurrent role in this proposed ecology of quasi-mediumship. In part, this has taken place because our sense of politics and nature has been skewed in what some denote as the ‘Anthropocene’. For when the largest habitable medium which mediates human and non-human life is under threat, we have to pay attention to its hidden ways, unreasonable platforms and implicit movements. This, as Latour reminds us, is not a rational debate where reason should decide what is to be done. The cold light of materialism and “Reason” only gets us so far before contingency ruins its plans.

I don’t believe it to be any sort of coincidence that Friedrich Jürgenson, the pioneer of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) originally trained as a painter and film director. In his rudimentary attempts to record bird songs, Jürgenson convinced himself that these latent utterances were from his deceased parents and cajoling sounds of his late wife. That he was so persuaded, Jürgenson abandoned painting (only to take it up again in the 70s), recounting that:

“My love for the arts was still alive now as ever, and I heartsearchingly asked myself if it was the right thing for me to abandon the art of painting – a creative occupation that I had submitted my whole life to.”

and later:

“instead I was sitting here with an enormous jigsaw puzzle brooding in despair over the problem of whether one could assemble a more complete picture from all these fragments. And, likewise …I had never before been so touched and captured by any other urgencies than by these mystical connections, literally floating in the ether.” [5]

Stupid like a spiritual medium it seems. Jürgenson might also be guilty of being, following Duchamp, ‘stupid like a painter’ following dumb visual effects rather than conceptual processes. Like any medium, let alone a spiritual one, painters always accept that there is an inherent stupidity built into visual painting. They work with, or against, the assumption of stupidity that alludes, or cannot avoid, some notion that painting cannot be about anything except the formal game of its own medium. But what if we treated such stupidity as exemplary and inherent to all mediums; from tarot cards, to the humble blog platform?

For whatever reason – and usually there need not be one – the prevailing visual interest in mystical signs and mythology of mystical apparitions have not faded from the interests of artists, never mind conceptual artists. If such a topic is allowed and given room to experiment before critique and reason ruins the party, one must ask on the sort of work achieved here, as work? What is it about mysticism that continues to appeal and to cajole?

As it happens, the work of renowned artist Peter Coffin (b 1972) establishes such stupid practices which take up mythologies, mediums, religions and philosophies in a time of ecological awareness. For here is a contemporary artist, (albeit not one of the first, but the most renowned) who mocks the self-congratulatory foundations of scientism and rationality, just as he refuses to fully descend into transcendent mystic ritual. Coffin’s practice is speculative and confidently so. Moreover he actively fuses together these sensibilities, together with an approach that can only be understood (in the broadest possible sense) as ecological. For him, science is not a list of distant proven truths which have little to no connection with political passions, just as animal habitats provoke mysterious questions one could find in any great work of literature.

Unlike, say, Carsten Höller who revels subject experimentation and the relationality of laboratory arrangement, Coffin’s practice responds again and again to the mysterious withdrawal of the mythic ordinary, where the two foundations are diced and sliced. Or putting it differently, Coffin’s practice treds on spiritual mediums, New Age beliefs, the moods of plants, UFOs and mystic circles with as much curiosity as scientific laws of dimensions, postcards and photographic manipulation. Following on from Dorothea von Hantelmann comments on Höller’s Test Site (2006) (an accurate description of what Höller’s practice constitutes) we might agree that both Höller and Coffin share the informed goal of regarding art and science as two powers informing culture. But more accurately what separates the two is that unlike Höller, Coffin does not see one area (art) as relinquishing truth, whilst the other (science) supplements it through reason. Whilst Höller might consider science as a “nice” source of inspiration, a self-mocking aesthetisation of experiment (and that’s all it is), Coffin believes that the sciences *are* the humanities, that human and animal engineering *is* sculpture, that mystic symbols *have* the same status as equations. Both arenas do not claim any recourse to truth-claims but only avenues of concern. Coffin is just as likely to be inspired by Carl Jung’s unprovable theory that UFO sightings increase during social conflict, than he is Einstein’s space-time – even if he never claims to understand either.

Reportedly, (and I say reportedly, as it’s from Wikipedia) Coffin’s interest in aesthetics began when his uncle, the famous Robert Smithson, introduced him to the study of plant consciousness in the year of Smithson’s death (1973). If that’s true, then it would provide some understanding for Untitled (Greenhouse) beginning in 2002, where Coffin invited artists and musicians (or both in the case of Christian Marclay and Black Dice) to enact musical performances in a luscious greenhouse. This was done as an experiment into the beneficial effects of music on plant mood, which is as much a ruse on crafting an absurd ‘ecological’ performance that it was any authentic study of plant behaviour. The same analysis could be thrown towards Untitled (Singing Tree) 2006, where Coffin stuck pin electrodes into a number of trees and hooked them up to a horn speaker (a piece which for all the world, operates and functions as ecological propaganda).

But Coffin is scarcely interested in the validity of panpsychic plant consciousness, just as he’s scarcely interested whether a spiritual medium or EVP has any truth-claims in contacting the dead. Clearly these are impossible, stupid questions, but never uninteresting ones. Coffin is more interested in limits as liberating vehicles for aesthetic interest, and only invites the viewer’s exploration as the joint means in exploring the impossibility of grasping our ordinary world. He’s clearly a sceptic, but at least he’s an entertaining one.

For the 2006 NYC show “Strange Powers” for Creative Time (also featuring Jürgenson & von Hausswolff), Coffin exhibited a drawing of interlocking circles for the wall, so as to allude to some undefined ritual of otherworldly passage. Yet alongside the drawing Coffin provided a tub of chalk, which under strict instruction was given to the gallery attendants, who in the chance that any visitor might question the work, would draw a circle around them. This act, a clear myopic caricature of spiritual protection, is designed to prolong and extend the drawing’s inscription into the floor as the show progressed, yet it also draws in an unknown strangeness intending to infect and charge the viewer. The viewer, like Coffin, is invited to ponder something that they aren’t meant to reason on, and will never fully make explicit: but we ponder anyway, and do so hopelessly, stupidly – even indiscriminately.

Limits are particularly important to Coffin. The human creature’s inability to fathom reasons behind certain phenomena does not require solving through restrictive projects that demand debunking and self-enlightenment. Wittgenstein may have thrown in the logical towel by stating that ‘[w]hat we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”. [6] Ok. Good enough for logic, good enough for early Wittgenstein. Coffin seeks an altogether different type of logic: a far more enriching irrational logic that provokes liberating occurrences, such that the animate and inanimate agents of this world beg our (un)grasped attention. Experiences that give way to worldly speculation and the humble realisation that our own limits are largely unavoidable, contingent, manipulative and stupid.

We are (aren’t we?) pretty acclimatised to impossible questions that concern passageways beyond death or to detecting rambling patterns of speech in an EVP recording, because we admit something to their impossibility. This impossibility is as much a powerful product of our limits that exercise stupidity rather than staking a claim on some transcendent realm. Yet, Coffin asks other impossible questions that seem childishly mundane to the rationalist, logician or scholar, yet are unashamedly ecological, ordinary and familiar. For the 2012 piece Untitled (Bees Making Honey) Coffin built an apiary at the edge of the Storm King Art Center grounds in Mountainville, NY. Hiring a beekeeper, Coffin asked the tour participants to educate, engage and dwell on the ecological importances of sunlight and environment, with respect to the honeybees themselves. As well as receiving a gift of “Storm Kind honey” visitors were repeatedly led towards the impossible question of “what does sunshine sound and taste like?”: an abstract query whose impossibility doesn’t so much interest Coffin than it fosters experiences “that give new perspective[s] or catalyse some broader understanding.” [7] This is about pluralising the perspectives of ordinary rituals, colonies and things, even bees, and not hunting down false perspectives for the sake of truth.

In a way, the only thing Coffin might be guilty of is anthropomorphism. Yet even here anthropomorphism isn’t especially new in media theory, nor in ecology. No harm can result if the limits of human understanding probe the world by translating it in our own image – how else should we probe? Recall a (now) well-cited passage from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things;

“A touch of anthropomorphism, then, can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations. In revealing similarities across categorical divides and lighting up structural parallels between material forms in “nature” and those in “culture,” anthropomorphism can reveal isomorphisms.” [8]

You couldn’t imagine a more deliciously exemplary piece that predates Bennett’s ecological sensibility than Coffin’s 2006-07 series, Untitled (Tree Pants), commissioned for the Horticultural Society of New York. Juxtaposing (whilst majestically blending) natural and cultural objects together, Coffin commissioned Levi Strauss & Co to craft jeans specially made for trees in the Wanas Sculpture Park in Malmo, Sweden. The series documents the fashion and climate seasons of this strange event taking place in Summer, Fall and Winter.

Coffin took his satirical inspiration from William Allen’s ‘Shadow Repair for the Western Man’ (1970): a painting of a pair of empty jeans and shoes standing on top of a mountain as if its former owner had been raptured to the bright heavens. Both works are one-liners; kitsch, satirical, corny and completely against any high modernist sensibilities (and so they should it be), yet they shed light on the importance of an illogical impossibility.

In Coffin’s notes, he makes an explicit nod towards this stupidity and yet unavoidable anthropomorphic gesture;

“The tree in this work looks as though it’s ‘wearing’ pants. This is the obvious literal interpretation. The naked tree is anthropomorphized – the same way we project human personality and character on things in the world as a way to relate to them. In the example of this work, that tendency is exaggerated, highlighting the absurdity or nonsense of something that seems to make sense in an obvious way even if it’s not rational. It might remind us that our relationship to nature is unnatural to begin with and that this is reflected in our view of the world […] we like to anthropomorphize animals and even inanimate objects for example – what a strange tendency.” [9]

A strange tendency indeed, yet whilst Coffin highlights the salient, irrational stupidity of the human condition as it hopelessly anthropomorphises, Tree Pants does deliver some actual ontological work. The crux of the piece focuses on the unavoidable sensibility of “looks as though” and our relating to the world, which in turn reveals not just how we relate to the world, but how pieces of the world mediates us. The pants do nothing for the tree, yet they take place in an environment of unreasonable stupidity that must include us, because we’re already relating to a certain unreasonable, phenomenal message. A tree with a pair of pants on it. An unreasonable image that literally makes no sense, in as much as occult symbols and EVP messages offer the same thing.

Bennett’s structural parallels are taken on and given some worldly weight, and yet stupidly so, such that this stupidness springs forth in not paying attention to such parallels in the first place. The world of mediums and their aesthetic is not rational, but an absurd extra-obvious environment that we intrepidly exist in. Coffin continues:

“Tree Pants makes fun of the disconnected, stupid logic with which humans apply their sense to the world. A self-reflexive expression of stupidity might allow us to understand ourselves more objectively and exercising stupidity in this way is significant.” [10]

Yet ‘exercising stupidity’ must become unavoidable in a general sense, not just for the conceptual artist, but for the painter and the technician. Anthropomorphism isn’t just stupid, but expressively so. Just as Coffin might combine a fool’s wisdom as beneficial if we are to face certain ecological challenges, his art allows the human creature to approach their own limits. Coffin unabashedly promotes the ecological mystic to which we must all pledge our allegiance, to which we must reflect on our own stupidity.
[1] McLuhan, Marshall. Playboy interview. Essential McLuhan Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (eds), London, Routledge, 1995, p. 239.

[2] McLuhan, Marshall & McLuhan, Eric. Laws of Media: The New Science, University of Toronto Press, 1992.

[3] Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam ? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” In Critical Inquiry – Special issue on the Future of Critique. Vol 30 n° 2 pp. 225-248, Winter (2004). [Republished in Harper’s Magazine April 2004 pp. 15-20. Republication reprinted in Bill Brown (editor) Things, Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, pp. 151-74]

[4] For a detailed explanation of Demonstration and Description, as I have used them in this context (in both philosophy and art criticism) see Jackson, Robert, “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2: (Iso)Morphism, Anti-Literalism and Presentness”, Speculations V: Aesthetics in the 21st Century, Edited by Ridvan Askin, Paul J. Ennis, Andreas Hägler and Philipp Schweighauser, (2014) pp. 319-25, cf. 311-58.

[5] Taken from the Raymond Cass Foundation website biography on Jürgenson, <http://www.raymondcassfoundation.co.uk/juergenson.htm> The artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff has even used the large archive of EVP recordings Jürgenson left behind as inspiration and material for his own work.

[6] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974, [1921], p. 74.

[7] Meier, Allison: “15 Questions For Wry Conceptual Artist Peter Coffin”, BLOUIN ARTINFO News, BLOUIN ARTINFO Website, 22nd October 2012, <http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/830375/15-questions-for-wry-conceptual-artist-peter-coffin>

[8] Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p 99.

[9] Coffin, Peter. Notes on Tree Pants, taken from Saatchi Art News, August 9th, 2007, <http://magazine.saatchiart.com/culture/reports-from/liechtenstein/peter_coffin_at_the_horticultu_1>

[10] Ibid.






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