New York

Tyler Coburn, Remote Viewer (animation), 2018, digital video, black-and-white, silent, 7 minutes 42 seconds.

Tyler Coburn, Remote Viewer (animation), 2018, digital video, black-and-white, silent, 7 minutes 42 seconds.

Tyler Coburn

Koenig & Clinton

As surveillance and communications technologies grow ever more sophisticated, so, too, must our expectations of privacy evolve to both answer and anticipate these new forms of digitally enhanced access. And yet, long before the days of search engines and social media streams, there were drug-addled Delphic priestesses, clairvoyants gazing into crystal balls, and salon-parlor spiritualists, spewing ectoplasm or rapping away under their tables. While instances of paranormal prescience are well documented around the globe, mainstream science has kept a careful distance from the subject. Indeed, when Upton Sinclair published Mental Radio (1930), a book documenting the purported telepathic abilities of his second wife, Mary Craig, pioneering parapsychologist William McDougall praised the writer for his courage in venturing into a field “in which reputations are more easily lost than made.”

Tyler Coburn delved into this history with “Remote Viewer,” an exhibition economically comprised of a text, an object, and an animation. The last restages the experiments reproduced in Mental Radio, for which Craig used her gifts to replicate drawings made by someone in another room (or even in another city). Of her nearly three hundred logged attempts, roughly a quarter were deemed “successful matches,” while more than half qualified as “partial successes” for their respective formal correspondences (say, a roller skate mistaken for an upside-down horse’s head). Coburn’s nearly eight-minute video Remote Viewer (animation), 2018, scrawls out the drawings of Craig and her test subject side by side in a manner that recalls Craig’s own characterization of how an image came to her: as if “drawn by an invisible pencil.” When each pair is completed, it vanishes from the frame and a new set begins, transforming the projection surface into a kind of ESP Etch A Sketch.

Sinclair concluded that his wife must be receiving vibrations from a “brain radio” emitting waves through the atmosphere. Coburn conjured this effect by neutralizing the gallery lights with gray filters. The resulting haze was just perceptible enough to suggest that something indeed might be “in the air.” This implication was given sculptural form in Remote Viewer (object), 2017, a slender white rectangle laid like a carpet across the floor. Made in collaboration with the Manhattan design firm Bureau V, the object’s milky surface resembled that of poured plastic, but its material is actually high-density MDF, ingenuously manipulated so that one corner rises in a rumpled ridge, as if a mental vibration had been caught in the act of passing through.

Neither of these pieces was accompanied by any additional context or explanation. Instead, Coburn offered his audience Remote Viewer (takeaway), 2018, a two-page text printed on translucent vellum, so that the typed letters form a ghostly palimpsest when the pages are stacked. Lyrically composed, the text flows in waves, as the author surges from the experiments of early Spiritualists to the incorporation of psionic tactics into modern warfare, including the Cold War–era units dedicated to “remote viewers”—“flesh-and-blood prototypes of drones” who “flew the psychic airstreams in search of nuclear missiles, secret submarines, and tanks.” Coburn concludes that anyone endowed with this kind of sight is doomed to paranoia, for he or she knows the true extent to which the human mind has left its kitchen door unlocked.

Kate Sutton