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Electronic voice phenomena

Tech whispers from beyond: are radio airwaves the ouija boards of the 21st century?

In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Chucky creator Don Mancini. Check our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back. 

“Otto Koenig makes wireless with the dead...”

In 1982, to the amazement of a studio audience and radio listeners, those words were heard against a backdrop of crackling white noise. The aforementioned Hans Otto Koenig had just demonstrated, live on air, what he believed was material proof of life after death. To make his haunted mixtape, Koenig and collaborator Hans Bender recorded their invocations onto a blank tape, tuned their recorder to silent AM frequencies, and waited. Upon playing back their recordings, spirits from the other side has answered their questions. 

This was the high watermark of electronic voice phenomena (EVP): a parapsychological practice that eavesdrops on voices communicating from beyond the grave. Like a wandering spirit, EVP has drifted from pseudo-science  and towards provocative artistic practice, encompassing psychology, music, paranormality and film in its sixty years of research.

Though achieving a mainstream breakthrough in the 50s, the ancestry of EVP stretches back to the birth of the communication technologies almost a century earlier. From the very outset of their prolific phase of invention, Thomas Edison and his assistant Alfred Vail laboured to create a “spirit telephone” in parallel to their more successful invention. Thanks to exhaustive recordings conducted by Friedrich Juergenson, an engineer, and Konstantin Raudive, a student of Karl Jung, the post-WW2 period saw a huge boom of interest in EVP across Europe. It revitalised the dormant (and marginalised) field of séance spiritualism, as a world traumatised by global war found itself willing to believe anew in spectral voices chattering in the ether.

Manfred Bohen struck up dialogue with an otherworldly entity he considered to be a deceased friend communicating to him through computers

Between then and now EVP technologies have become the preserve of ghost-hunters, and a niche scene of hardware tinkerers who hack, mod and engineer 'ghost boxes' capable of speaking across the void of death. George Meek’s Spiricomm (listen here for a recording) was the preferred poltergeist recorder of many, but it wasn’t long until ghost hunters deemed everything from fax machine to early computer mainframes as potential conduits to the afterlife.Forerunners of the subdiscipline of “instrumental transcommunication” (ITC) included Adolf Homes, the first ghost hunter to capture images of apparitions on color television. Playback of his recordings show TV static congealing into spookily human faces, including the visage of Albert Einstein!

Startling as those images must have been to these tech savvy spook stalkers they are a little unremarkable to contemporary eyes accustomed to Much of televisual ITC wavers on credulity, reminiscent as it is of the fraudulent spirit photography rampant a century earlier. And in spite of Juergonson and Raudive’s empirical rigor, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that they were somehow capturing orphan snippets of the many radio frequencies humming through the airwaves.

But early instances of a spectral bleed into software are genuinely less explicable: Manfred Bohen struck up dialogue with an otherworldly entity he considered to be his recently deceased friend communicating to him through mainframe computers.

Another edge case of EVP and ITC includes the puzzling instance of “the technician”. In 1986, Maggy and Jules Harsh captured a spirit who spoke back to them in synthetic tones not unlike the warbling electronic voice that had propelled Laurie Anderson’s "O Superman" to chart success a year earlier. Their recordings attracted the attention of scientist Ernst Senkowski, who concluded the synthetic tones uttered by ‘the technician’ were too sophisticated for amateurs to spoof.

Now that séances and Ouija boards are comfortably labelled as loony novelties, EVP has persisted as the most (relatively) credible domain of parapsychological studies. The history of the field is littered with scientists like Ernst Senkowski who were sufficiently moved by what they witnessed that they pivoted dramatically from their field of expertise into this most ephemeral discipline.

Even today, scientists cannot leave EVP alone: Michael Persinger, a notable fringe neuroscientist, couldn't resist positing that the electromagnetic spectrum might act as an archive for our brainwaves when we shuffle off this mortal coil: “Your brain generates 2 gigaseconds of energy in your lifetime. Multiply that by the amount of people that have ever lived on this planet, which right now is close to 10 billion people. The amount of energy that’s been generated by every (human) brain that’s ever existed – yep, that’s the amount of energy that’s currently stored in the Earth’s electromagnetic field.”

Just as we love to see faces in clouds, our hearing tends to interpret random sounds as comprehensible voices

Whatever speculation exists about what could exist, Joe Bank's all-encompassing EVP treatise Rorschach Audio takes a countervailing view on the ghosts in the noise. The title hints at the stance Banks adopts towards explaining EVP – spoiler! – he believes all EVP, where not accounted for as stray fragments of radio transmissions, is explicable through the field of psychoacoustics.

Psychoacoustics, particularly in relation to this study on the perceptual effects of EVP, is certainly the area where science and EVP can be most easily reconciled. Just as we love to see faces in clouds, our hearing tends to interpret random sounds as comprehensible voices – a phenomenon known as pareidolia. The downside of this, of course, is that it disavows the explanations of anything more unearthly. 

Elsewhere, the increasingly popular field of resuscitation science advances our knowledge of death and near death experiences, with hard research into what happens when we die and how we can incrementally prolong the moment of death. Each advance augurs poorly for the idea that our consciousness is anything more than wedded to the wetware of our brains: at curtain call, what we get might be total blackness rather than a comforting white noise cocoon for the soul. 

Banks' considered skepticism is entirely in tune with our collective disposition towards technology. Today, anomalistic occurrences within TV, radio or computers are understood less as “the ghost in the machine” and more “the machine throwing its toys out the pram”. For whatever reason, digital media isn't capable of provoking us into considering questions of paranormal communications – it lacks the requisite evocative bandwidth of radio and analogue TV. The ubiquity of glitch aesthetics means we have a different cultural lens through which to make sense of the happy accidents, malfunctions and otherwise inexplicable media events of our machines. The vision of an afterlife that continues to echo around the earth's electromagnetic spectrum is far more romantic than the more likely ways in which vestiges of our consciousness will live on after we die: as spooky as after-death Twitter accounts and lingering Amazon metadata are, it's hardly paranormal.

Dislocated and seemingly endlessly refracted snatches of our cultural past intersect with the here and now

As our lives become more digitally mediated, analog media's ability to get inside our heads stands in ever starker relief. I'm sure anyone transfixed by the beauty of William Basinski’s "Disintegration Loops" can relate to the unnerving power of disintegrating noise and its attendant ghostly melancholy. EVP's afterlife, if we can get away with terming it thus, is as artistic practice. Mark Fischer, whose novel Ghosts of my Life is forthcoming on Zer0 Book, unites the music of Belbury Poly, Ghost Box Records artists and Burial into a spectral zeitgeist under the banner of "hauntology". 

Now encompassing more than its audio beginnings (see, for instance, the films of Susan Hillier), hauntology reflects a state of disjointed and ubiquitous cultural overcoding. Dislocated and seemingly endlessly refracted snatches of our cultural past intersect with the here and now, with all the subtlety of the digital signal interruptions chronicled on Glitch News. Gone is the liminal road trip between warring radio stations: here, instead is a filter for your smartphone. It's the future. 

Beyond its unavoidable resonances with hauntology, the haunting aspect of “other voices” remains one of the most potent touchstones of electronic voice phenomena. This was the aspect which the recently-concluded Electronic Voice Phenomena, an interdisciplinary literature and new media project. Billed as a “part séance part glitch-cabaret”, the touring exhibition invited artists to explore the potential for EVP to move beyond paranormal questions and experiment with what sorts of bodies are capable of articulating an 'electronic voice'.

But as co-curator Nathan Jones noted, there was no sidestepping the issue of death and mortality: “the simple act of playing with recording and playback involves an almost implicit meditation on death”. Maybe what we get out of calling across the divide, to listening to the dead through machines we build, is that we take a deep look at our own psyches and hear echoes of the awaiting existential trauma. So whatever the instruments of science insist, the desire to believe is easily the most human thing about stray spectres whispering to us through our appliances.