Nina Hartmann: FOGBANK
On ViewGern en Regalia
January 25 – February 23, 2020
A square printout taped to the table that displays the exhibition literature reads, "BUT… Would information obtained by psychic means be accurate enough to suit the Intel community's needs? Would the Intel community accept information which had been obtained through psychic means?" A black and white illustration of a stoplight accompanies these questions, as if meant to signal a moment of pause. The very bottom of the page reads "Approved for release 2000/08/08: CIA-RDP96-00789R002100240001-2." Nina Hartmann's solo show titled FOGBANK, in my opinion, begins here with this moment of pause. A moment to acknowledge the nearly 12 million documents and articles declassified by the CIA 25 years ago, detailing project "Stargate," which aimed to create psychic spies.1 The CIA attempted to use "areas of emerging, nontraditional psychology" like "accelerated learning, inferential focus, previsualization, psychokinetics and biokinetics, remote viewing, biophysical stress prevention, etc." that would allow "theta agents" to spy on their targets undetected, act at a distance, and even direct weather patterns.2 All experiments conducted were inconclusive or botched but left in their wake a strange and engrossing tale about real-life US government meddling with the paranormal. Since 2012 all 12 million documents have been made easily accessible online.
Hartmann has taken it upon herself to mine this enormous digital archive for raw artistic material, and the result has been an ongoing psychic experiment of her own. The documents drawn from the archive are primarily photographs of sites that were psychically surveilled. These xeroxed photographs resemble black and white prints, in high contrast, and the scenes are often difficult to identify at first glance. Each is accompanied by a mysterious description from the psychic regarding the "target" in question as seen through the mind's eye. For example: "Sub Experiment Number 1: 500 feet of water. 16 July 1977 Target was a giant oak on hilltop in Portola Valley, California. Subject's first words were ‘a very tall looming object.’ […] ‘A very, very, huge tall tree and a lot of space behind them. There almost feels like there is a drop–off or a palisade behind them.’" Or: "Fig. 14. Subject Hammid (S4) described ‘some kind of congealing tar, of maybe an area of condensed lava…that has oozed out to fill up some kind of boundaries.’" These are taped around the gallery, printed on canvas, and cast in colorful, translucent, bilaterally symmetrical resin molds. While the canvases and alluring resin casts are the artworks proper, the various free-floating bits of paper add more context and intrigue to the gestalt.
Landscape for Weather Modification and Untitled Capsule III (all works 2019) stand out as mysterious crestlike diagrams, almost mapping relationships between the difficult to make out xeroxes inside of them. Untitled (pulling the cosmic trigger) and Untitled Capsule, both distinctly butterfly shaped, remind me of the ancient Greek belief that spirits of the dead left their bodies as butterflies. I get the impression that the resin works are like spirit maps that gather together images of various psychic targets. Each target would have geographic relationships to others and to the psychic, places where the psychic's spirit would have traveled. In Fountain of Endless Endorphins, the almost abstract quality of the xeroxes is pushed to its limits as the "targets" are collaged over one another, creating an array of patterns. Untitled and Suffering psychopomp are two of the most striking panels in the gallery. Untitled depicts a figure holding a dark object over their face, without identity, time, or place. It is as if they can see the psychic watching them and decide to hide. In such pieces, the photographs don't read as photographs, really, but mind pictures. The shadow material of the photograph becomes a technical standin for the psychic vision: the target.
I am tempted to describe Hartmann's project as a kind of hermeneutics of surveillance technology. Questions about whether information obtained by psychic means would be accurate or useful for the intel community stand at the border between science and spirituality, technology and biology. On this border Hartmann also stands, arranging and rearranging fragments of a large and unwieldy study as artist, truth seeker, and amateur spy. But one purpose that the CIA would never anticipate for these psychic experiments is spiritual and seen through hermetic lenses the information gathered takes on a wholly occult appearance. Hartmann's arrangement of these materials exposes this occult impulse disguised as psychological research, in a way contributing her own work to the experiment as an exciting addendum after the fact. The project will likely be unending, as the documents will take a very long time to investigate in their entirety.
- Andrew Griffin, "Project Star Gate: CIA Makes Details of its Psychic Control Plans Public," The Independent, January 18, 2017. "https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/project-star-gate-cia-central-intelligence-agency-a7534191.html".
- Sally Squires, "The Pentagon's Twilight Zone," The Washington Post, April 17, 1988. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1988/04/17/the-pentagons-twilight-zone/7677a8f2-366b-49a9-a20f-e167cf6f7dde/.