I've been listening to fake guru voices, watching videos of charismatic new age leaders, and making cosmic GIFs for two months, nonstop, as a way to make amends for the emotional damage I inflicted on office drones a few months ago. This—Introspections.me—is the result. I feel like it's warped my mind.
Let me back up and explain.
A few months ago I made an HTML project called ConferenceCall.biz. It's a website that randomly cycles through dozens of homemade images and soundclips to simulate an endless phone meeting. It may have hit a little too close to the mark. Despair was a common emotional response. Twitter comments typically sounded like "Amusing, then uncomfortable as its realistic dissonance sets in"; "I want to kill myself"; and, my personal favorite, straight from the id: "we rot we melt we go in endless circles..much adu for nothing..like creeping maggots we swarm http://conferencecall.biz/."
Having forced people to confront the telephonic abyss, I decided I needed to help them relax. Creating a serenity machine loosely based on New Age content seemed appropriate. I knew I could channel my inner Enya to create the soothing musical accompaniment, but gathering the source material for imagery and spoken aphorisms required some research. I found some strange and fascinating stuff, a portion of which I'll share here (the rest I'll lock up in an unfindable place in my psyche).
There are multitudes of believers in enlightened extraterrestrials who want to help humans. (By what is surely pure coincidence, the idea seemed to gain peak currency at around the same time that the use of psychedelics became culturally prominent.) Erich von Däniken's books about ancient astronauts who influenced early human civilization sold millions of copies. Angie Bowie suspected that her husband David was an avatar of a group of advanced aliens that sometimes took the form of humans at critical junctures in earth's history.
The movement is still kicking. If you're not familiar, a Google image search for "Ashtar," "Ascended Masters," or "Pleiadians," followed by a visit to greatdreams.com, should bring you up to speed. Or, if you want to skip straight to the truth, check out this Aquarian Radio interview with "Cobra," who "may or may not be part of the Resistance Movement." You might assume that since the aliens love Earth they'd reach out to contact us. Wrong. Like most New Agers, the ancient-astronaut crowd believes that the answer is within. Establishing contact is a simple matter of attuning your mind to the correct frequency.
Exploring this fringe of the New Age movement, one quickly uncovers issues with race. The Pleiadians are also known as the Nordic Aliens, and they are almost always tall, blue-eyed, white, and handsome. (According to some, Jesus was a Pleiadian.) The name Great White Brotherhood is often used synonymously with the Ascended Masters, but believers are at pains to explain that the "white" refers to the aura that they emit. This caveat is almost always contained within the first paragraph of GWB fansites. However, not all who believe in the Great White Brotherhood appear to have received the memo.
The ex-Lord of the Universe, a.k.a. Maharaji, a.k.a. Prem Rawat
Prem Rawat is a promulgator of the technique of Knowledge. As an eight-year-old he
claimed control of his family's Divine Light Mission in a power play worthy of Game of Thrones. As a teenager he traveled to the United States, attempted to levitate the Astrodome, attained several million disciples, and became fabulously wealthy from his followers' donations. He soon inspired the creation of an organization of ex-disciples dedicated to warning people to stay the hell away from him. Currently he regularly engages in unintentional performance art.
During his lengthy talks, he uses the time-honored tactic of offering the first half of a vapid aphorism, dramatically pausing for three to five seconds while staring intensely at someone in the audience, slowly transforming his mouth into a maniacal smile, and then completing the sentence. In his videos you can witness the sublime awkward silence that sometimes occurs after he has said something particularly meaningless, finally punctuated by an isolated laugh from an audience member. Prem Rawat's manner of speaking was a big influence on the cosmic guru slogans in Introspections.me, and his lust for money and power is occasionally present as well.
Exploitation of vulnerable people and extraterrestrial absurdity are fairly common to New Age movements. But the common thread that links them all is unrelenting ambiguity:
Everything is part of everything else. Everything we perceive is part of the universal spirit. Within our minds are other realities, and those other realities are also part of the universal consciousness. There is no time; or rather, there is time, but the universal spirit exists in all times, past, present, and future, and since we're part of the universal spirit we also exist in all times. We are everywhere and nowhere all at once. Everything is nothing. A dramatic spiritual shift is coming, or has already come. It's all in the mind. Love is all you need. We are all cooperating toward the same goal, whether we know it or not.
After a while in the land of New Age, the syncretic embrace becomes the norm. If too many details are provided, it's not New Age.
There's money to be gained from uncertainty, and the best—the richest—groups excel at dangling the carrot of transcendence just out of reach of the spiritual traveler. Eckankar (or ECK) is a fine example of the delicate balance.
The very structure of the organization's website facilitates the uncertain spiritual journey that allows them to make money. Despite a prominent page that is titled "What is Eckankar?", the true meaning of ECK proves elusive and prompts aimless clicking and skimming. You may find yourself staring at the list of ECK Masters, particularly Shamus-i-Tabriz, a dashing 13th-century man in a cowboy hat. Click onward and you could stumble upon the disturbing Youth in ECK section, "a website by and for ECK youth," with a header image that remains one of the internet's premier combinations of tackiness and creepiness.
But even this dark zone is balanced by the reasonable-enough message "If you are new to Eckankar and under 18 years of age, let your parents know of your interest in Eckankar. Parents are responsible for the spiritual upbringing of their youth. Thanks!"
On and on this goes. Can you really get closer to God by singing "HU" (pronounced "hue")? Would a conduit to the true nature of God manifest itself in a man named Harold Klemp, who lives in Minnesota and records videos in front of fake plants while nervously swinging back and forth in an office chair? Fifty thousand Eckankar fans can't be wrong, and ECK has many more followers than that. The Upcoming Seminars and Online Bookstore links beckon.
The Pleiadians, Prem Raway, ECK—these were the groups and places I spent two months investigating and exploring, and the sources from which I drew the inspiration for Introspections.me.
The website's audio accompaniment is a never-ending piece of indeterminate music. Each of the 48 audio clips features a different sequence of piano notes, and the clips play in random order. Sounds of a harp, meditation bell, distorted intake of breath, seagulls, counting, a gong, crickets, porch chimes, and a creek each have a one-third chance of occurring with each new clip.
The GIFs, which I made myself, fade in, loop, and fade out every 28 seconds or so, in tandem with the audio clips. They remind me of short, sudden memories, vivid and prominent, and suddenly forgotten as a new ones displace them. GIFs occupy a strange temporal space, infinitely looping the same few seconds: always changing, never evolving.
The ephemeral nature of the GIFs balances the spiritual search for the infinite that is expressed in the images and guru aphorisms. The brains of animals are trained to search for patterns. Randomness produces feelings of unease. Some research has suggested that the presence of randomness can lead to "significantly stronger beliefs in the existence of supernatural sources of control." (That might be another example of the problem with using American college students as research subjects.) Maybe it's the chaos of the modern world, perceived as a patternless assortment of irritating stimuli that drives people to the ambiguous comfort of New Age spirituality.
Given its refusal to adopt a pattern or regular sequence, I'm not sure Introspections.me will be the soothing comfort engine I originally sought to build. But I think it might help show the office drones that the search for spirituality sometimes isn't that different from an endless looping phone conference over a patchy connection.
Zach Scott is a multimedia artist who lives in Washington, DC. He is preoccupied by loops, lists, and randomness.