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Remote Viewing: Resurrecting the CIA’s Art of Psychic Travel

At Brooklyn’s Triangle Arts Association, Tyler Coburn and Ian Hatcher revive the techniques of a Cold War-era covert intelligence programme

Triangle Arts Association, Brooklyn, New York.
Saturday 10 November 2018.
17:07 hours. Report filed by Remote Viewer ‘Dan.’

I am one of 13 individuals assembled around a rectangular table in a long, curtained-off room at the Triangle non-profit arts institution. There are seven women and six men, their ages ranging between 25 and 80. The room is warm and dark, lit only by two desk lamps positioned at the side of the room on a table holding pencils, paper, clay and a laptop. The laptop is connected to a video projector, which provides the only other source of light in the room. Eleven of us present are volunteers for a workshop in ‘remote viewing’, run by the remaining two individuals, artist Tyler Coburn and poet Ian Hatcher.

One volunteer is missing. The workshop is running behind schedule. I have concerns that my cold may inhibit my psionic capacities during this session.

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Tyler Coburn, ‘Remote Viewer’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Tyler Coburn, ‘Remote Viewer’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

17:10

After the volunteers are settled and briefed on housekeeping protocols (silencing phones, estimated duration of the workshop, etc.), Coburn and Hatcher explain that remote viewing is the technique whereby an individual in one location psychically travels to another physical site and records what they can ‘see’, first in writing and drawing, then in clay.

Along with a number of other experiments in extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, remote viewing was developed in the 1970s as part of the US’s Cold War-era covert intelligence programme, eventually known by the 1990s as the ‘Star Gate Project.’ Applications included spying on military facilities behind enemy lines and the location of missing aircraft, personnel, fugitives and hostages. It was defunded in 1995, and remote viewers involved in the government programme today give workshops for civilian purposes such as industrial espionage. (It has been alleged that active intelligence personnel secretly consulted military-trained psychics for information following the 9/11 attacks.)

Coburn and Hatcher developed a mutual interest in remote viewing through their individual research projects, notably Coburn’s interest in evolutionary biology and telepathy, and Hatcher’s Drone Pilot work about the desublimation of the individual within the government war machine. Together they have been attending training classes with an ‘exceptional student’ of a military psychic who hosts monthly remote viewing sessions in New York’s Garment District. 

A volunteer asks Coburn to describe these workshops. ‘[Jon] gives us a target to remote view at home. He is of the school where a target needs to be indicated by a string of random letters and numbers. At the start of the session, we compare our viewings, then Jon reveals the target. That’s usually followed by a guided meditation, then two different viewing sessions. Jon usually provides some preface about the target: it’s an object in his bag, or it’s something he’s misplaced in his house. Sometimes it’s a location. I love the banality of the things we often view: little toys, perforated balls for tea leaves, etc.’ 

‘After each viewing, people share what they saw. That’s what I always find the most interesting: the incidental theatre of each person emerging from their psychic page work and attempting to verbally communicate what they saw. It’s a space of unintentional poems and monologues.’

One participant, an older man (hereafter ‘Old Hippie Guy’) – estimated late 70s, long white hair, dressed in a manner that suggests a legacy of involvement in/sympathy toward the US counter-culture/political underground circa 1960s–‘70s – is grimacing and fidgeting noticeably.

17:21

Coburn and Hatcher show us images of remote viewing data capture, particularly drawings and lists of words found in the archive of noted remote viewer Douglas ‘Ingo’ Swann. Swann was a ‘visionary’ artist and psychic based in New York who, following public humiliation at the hands of the media in the 1970s for his claims to exceptional extrasensory gifts, became deeply involved with psychic research at the Stanford Research Institute, then subsequently the government’s classified programmes. We are shown images of drawings made by remote viewers that bear considerable similarity to photographs of actual locations, although we are told the ‘hit rate’ is demonstrably low.

17:28

Coburn and Hatcher distribute pencils and sheets of paper and prepare us for our first remote viewing. We are instructed that we can record our results using words and pictures, however Coburn emphasizes the importance of ‘uncreative, affectless, emotionless receipt of sensory data’ and that we must try not to allow our imagination to interfere with the viewing. (I am reminded of the origin of the word ‘geography’ which simply means writing about or describing the surface of the Earth.) Hatcher asks the group to close our eyes and begins a guided meditation using breathing exercises and adapted ‘mindfulness’ techniques, following which we begin to record our first viewing.

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Tyler Coburn, ‘Remote Viewer’, 2018. Courtesy: the artist

Tyler Coburn, ‘Remote Viewer’, 2018. Courtesy: the artist

17:33

I am at a high altitude above the ground, looking down as if from an airplane. Ahead of me the curvature of the Earth is visible. I see a low hill on the horizon. The landscape is dark, but beyond the hill lies the glow of a sunrise, sunset or perhaps light pollution from a large conurbation. Directly below me is what appears to be a city grid layout, delineated in an orange light. To the upper left of the city grid the light appears brighter. Again, the light is crepuscular, as if from a sun or large moon rising. I draw the hill and city grid and append the drawings with the words ‘aura/sunset/sunrise’, ‘brighter here’, ‘city grid night’, ‘orange light’, ‘altitude view’, ‘glow’.

17:38

Hatcher asks us to share our data. Coburn makes notes. Both provide evaluative remarks after each volunteer speaks about their experience. One woman describes having seen an industrial warehouse and sensed what appeared to be a large patch of viscous, rubbery substance. Another describes sensing a sugary smell. Two volunteers record a large body of water, and one tells the group she strongly ‘felt’ the words ‘voter suppression.’ Old Hippie Guy tells the group he has seen inside a hospital of some kind, and proceeds to describe his emotional feelings with some enthusiasm. Coburn interjects. He apologizes for ‘making an example of’ Old Hippie Guy and firmly asks him not to pollute the session with emotional responses. Old Hippie Guy grimaces and fidgets more but does not argue. For a brief moment, the atmosphere in the room becomes tense.

17:41

Before the second viewing session begins, we are given a few minutes to share our findings with the person next to us. I compare viewings with a young man in his late 20s/early 30s. He comes across as earnest and self-effacing, asking if I am a writer or artist. I ask what he does but he deflects conversation back to my drawing.

17:44

Second session: I am now on the ground in the area of the city grid from my first viewing. I draw three telegraph poles receding into the distance, beyond which are low, dark hills. Above this I write the word ‘BRIGHTNESS’. To the left of the telegraph poles I list the following: Telegraph pole, Overhead cables, Night, Brown, Empty (no people), Crackle, Orange, Railroad, Freight.

17:49

Coburn asks the group if we have any questions at this stage. I ask if there are aspects to the practice of remote viewing that could be useful for artists/creative people? For example, for the purposes of meditation, warm-up exercises, brainstorming?

‘For me,’ Coburn says, ‘it's interesting that remote viewing is really on that razor's edge between being the legitimate transmission of remote sensory data and an act of pure creative production. The fact that military remote viewers used pencils, paper and clay to generate things of supposed significance for intelligence gathering only blurs the edge. I am interested in analogies between remote viewing and automatistic practices in fine art: for instance, the way in which Breton and Aragon conceived of themselves as ‘modest recording instruments’ and performed a mock-scientism in some of their seminal group portraits.’

17:55

Hatcher distributes clay to the volunteers for the final exercise of the workshop. We are instructed to begin a third viewing, this time refining or recording our impressions in three-dimensions. In the short allotment of time we are given, I fail to manipulate the material into little more than a flat waffle shape bordered along one edge by a misshapen sausage form. Hatcher asks the young man next to me to tell the group what he has recorded. ‘I saw an ocean…’

18:01

‘No … that’s wrong,’ interrupts Old Hippie Guy. ‘Not an ocean. A lake. Right? A mirror, a camera, an eye … a boy punished for looking at a man … and two others, they’re wading into the water, toward the island. They left me behind …’

The young man continues. ‘All I was saying was that I was getting an ocean impression …’

‘No. You didn’t see anything. You just made it up. A lake. Not an ‘impression’ – a body. Getting inside everything – head, chest … Scanning our bodies. His body too.’ Old Hippie Guy gestures at the younger man. ‘I’m sure it sees him with his ironed shirt or whatever – running around with dogs and eating garbage. It sees him. It sees all of this. I know you think I’m crazy, but don’t you get it? Don’t go in the water. It’s awful. There’s a mind in there, seeing everything and putting it all together. Making something new. It’s horrible. You’re not even listening. It doesn’t matter. There’s no future!’

He marches to the exit, failing to make a dramatic exit as he fumbles with the door. The group sits in silence. Coburn has his hand over his mouth as if in shock. Hatcher maintains a calm expression. Old Hippie Guy finally exits the room, the sound of his remonstrations continuing down the corridor until he is out of earshot. The volunteers are silent, looking around to gauge the temperature of the room. Was Old Hippie Guy truly upset, or was he a plant? Was he a psychologically damaged guinea pig from the CIA’s MK-ULTRA programme, or had he taken the brown acid at Woodstock? Was the young man next to me shaken by the experience, or was he too a plant? Maybe he’s the real Ian Hatcher. And what about that woman who kept mentioning voter suppression? Was she the real Tyler Coburn?

18:10

The workshop is dismissed. On my way out I ask Hatcher if he will reveal to us the target for our remote viewing session? ‘No,’ he smiles.

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Tyler Coburn, ‘Remote Viewer’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Tyler Coburn, ‘Remote Viewer’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Undisclosed location, New York
Thursday 15 November 2018
20:43 hours

I receive a message from Coburn through the regular telepathic channels in which he informs me of the following:

‘There were three actors [in the workshop]: Sam Khazai [Young Man], Bill Weeden [Old Hippie Guy], and Jenny Seastone [who reported viewing the warehouse and viscous substance]. Bill was very loosely modeled on Ingo Swann, the queer remote viewer who had an art studio on the Bowery and was also a cosmic artist. This character was partly designed to push against and ultimately reject – through his break/exit – my restrictive parameters for viewing by introducing a less structured, digressive, even unhinged type of speech.’

‘Part of the reason we wanted three actors was to open a horizon of relativism. We rehearsed the thing with the hope that it would be apparent, at workshop’s end, that Bill was an actor. Some people also got that sense from Sam, but Jenny almost always wasn’t recognized as such. So, as you peel back the layers of the workshop, the realization that she could be an actor throws everything into greater uncertainty. Who wasn’t performing some predetermined role? To what extent could one say that they too aren’t, in one fashion or another, scripted?’

I open up my Third Eye and respond to Coburn. What do you and Ian hope people might get from the experience of remote viewing? Have you learned anything surprising/interesting/useful from conducting the workshops? I receive the following answer in the form of sigils mysteriously burned into the wall above my desk:

‘The participants or viewers of a parafiction, as art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty has written, ‘are classed.’ There is always a small contingent in the room who knows the premise from the outset, and a larger group who senses that Bill is an actor during his break/exit at the end, but there remain some who never get it and leave genuinely frustrated that the target was never revealed and disturbed by Bill’s behaviour. In these select cases, we have tried to talk things out with participants after the fact to provide more context for our decision making. Our intent is never to make one feel like the butt of some obscure joke, or cheated, or deceived. Indeed, part of the reason the workshops are free is to offset the ethical problem at their centre. Rather, our hope is that people walk away with some seeds of doubt planted: doubt about how much of the workshop was scripted and constructed, about why the target was never revealed, and so on. Can this experience – disorienting and discomforting as it may be to some – help cultivate critical skepticism that we need today? My hope is that these workshops help facilitate greater awareness and critical skepticism in participants. For me, that's the important takeaway.’

It could be argued that remote viewing is simply another way of expressing old Romantic ideas of the artist as conduit for higher truths and insights. Or a fuzzy metaphor for the workings of the imagination – the remoteness referring not to a specific physical location, but to the viewing of distant memory or experience, or to the representation of information via conceptual art strategies. The remote viewing target of this workshop was the group itself. It was an exercise in self-perception – perception of our belief systems, a way of getting us to see how vulnerable each of us might be to manipulation, given specific emotional conditions. By encouraging the participants to make, essentially, conceptual drawings, it was also an exercise in constructing information and truth for each other, using the simple creative constraints of paper, pencil and the basics of language. Yet important questions remain unanswered. How much did the CIA spend on pencils and paper? Is there such a thing as military-grade clay? And can I take classes in psychic pottery?

Main image: Tyler Coburn, ‘Remote Viewer’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Dan Fox is the US Editor at Large of frieze magazine and is based in New York. The author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016), his latest book, Limbo (2018), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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