The sensory deprivation tank was developed by Neurophysiologist John C. Lilly in 1954, as a way to study human consciousness in the absence of sensory stimuli. Sensory deprivation tanks are typically sound and light proof pods filled with a shallow pool of body-temperature water, saturated with enough epsom salts to keep a body floating equally in and out of the water. It is designed to create a maximal disconnection from the sensible world. This annihilation of sensory input leaves the brain scrambling for orientation, for sensory data to attach itself to – as it seeks but finds none, it must invent it.
The phenomena of sensory deprivation hallucination has been recorded in various settings previous to Lilly’s comprehensive method. Transcendental meditation traditions generally seek to limit or extract the senses from engaging with the world, to become remote, in order to access the otherworldliness of mystical states. Likewise, ’Prisoner’s Cinema’ is a psychic phenomena born of isolation in dark prison cells, with prisoners experiencing quasi-hallucination, or phosphenes (the eye ‘seeing’ light despite there being none), onward to more developed (typically terrifying) hallucinations. Floatation takes these phenomena and amplifies them – absent of all attendant theatrics that might be used respectively for punishment or transcendence. In its near totality of isolation, floatation puts the autonomic nature of consciousness in to plain view.
My first floatation session was a sort of stumbling into the abyss. I arrived late, rushing from the noise and fray of a South London afternoon, into the deliberate slowness of the floatation centre. This adjustment of velocity took most of my attention, so I did not initially document much of the alien features of the floatation room but for idle notes. I listened to my host’s instructions – cover ear canal with the neon orange gum plugs; put petroleum jelly on cuticles and any cuts; don’t get water in your eyes… Invariably, the cuts were unseen, in the soft UV light of the room, but they were immediately and electrically felt as soon as I stepped into the intensely salinated water. Matched to body-temperature, the water feels hardly there, and its buoyancy is disconcerting. Once in the water, floatation is automatic. Everything slows down, both the world and my body slipping away – but for the stinging pain amongst a constellation of tiny, secret cuts. After a few moments, even this stinging becomes entrancing, a tinnitus tone ringing out into the void. The lights fade, the lulling tones of ambient introduction music fades away, and one is lost in the dark.
I have done three floatations since, each one different in character, all of them quasi-hallucinatory. My visualisations in floatation would be invariably as boring to describe as dreams (as per my post on Conscious Dreaming), as they are full of clichés familiar to televisual and cinematic portrayals of the unconscious – whether via psychological horror or hypnogogic ecstasy: Smokey trails of thought; gridded planes of dis/orientation; phosphorescent glow-forms; blinding visions of the dead, and shimmering voices of the unborn. It isn’t always this way though – it is also mundane, it is a mirror for the creakiness of my body, my heart and breath impossibly loud and animal, my joints popping watery echoes to my ears like gunshots. It is a theatre of weird-humanness, a bespoke freak-show of the (counter-)self — and thus my own secret psychic material for the octochronoplasmic archive…
Whatever the ‘use’ of the quasi-hallucinatory content of these experiences, floatation has deeply focused my thinking in regards to my previous methods of psychic experimentation. Using a therapeutic site with the criticality of embodied research has shown shown a light on both limitations and strengths of my more hermetic approaches to researching hallucinatory subjectivities. The performative staging of The Floatworks’ infrastructure uses an amalgam of themes familiar to spa or yogic environments – droning ambient music, conscientious sterility, multiple iterations of green-tea convivials, etc. But the particularly alien technology of floatation makes this staging more than an elitist ‘escape’ from the real – it is a kind of liminal zone that frames a limited set of conditions – a framing of psychic experience. This framing dictates discrete planes of possibility.
In contrast, my work has been a jumbled process of anarchic assemblage and re-assemblage, using magic as a layered technology with which to break-my-brain. This process has been voluntarily haunted by Antonin Artaud’s embodied thesis for a Body without Organs (BwO), a concept that Deleuze and Guattari examine with forensic acuity – ‘You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit.’ This limit is brought into critical focus within the problematic context of a for-profit floatation therapy business structure, but also allows it so be more an object, as this experienced is purchased, and so contingent to the ‘rent’ paid for this otherworldly atmosphere.
D+G identify ‘the three-body problem’ of BwO – a body to escape from, a body of intensities to (impossibly) become, and between, a cancerous body which may intercede and take over as the BwO (via paranoia, addiction, disintegration, etc). My process has been without guard against this proposed interloping body whatsoever – no protective spells, no initiatory preparations, only a montage of moves that tumble into psychomantic bizarring. Nihilist-punk-o-mancy with what was at hand. But what could be possible using more ‘framed’ models, formal yet yielding to improvisation or variant durations? Delimiting floatation, cobbling bridges between methods, spiralling overpasses twisting into time-traveling psychic super-highways, herding psychic-traffic jams into terrific and terrifying voids?
Funding application pending…