Numero Deux


Time Machines: On the work of Ekta Aggarwal

Scott Benzel

“Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it. Hume’s famous thesis takes us to the heart of a problem: […] given that repetition disappears even as it occurs, how can we say ‘the second,’ ‘the third,’ and ‘it is the same’? It has no in- itself. On the other hand, it does change something in the mind which contemplates it. This is the essence of modification.”

– Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition


Humans have mastered one aspect of the art of time-travel. We can effortlessly, without technological augmentation, without any external apparatus, travel forward in time. In fact, we are compelled to do so. The future is always arriving, methodically, metronomically, on time. Try stopping it. Why is this apparently infinite series of one-way (exit?) doors so automatic as to be taken entirely for granted? Physicists and mathematicians have struggled with the compulsion of forward motion through time at least since Einstein’s teacher Minkowski conjoined “space” and “time” in “spacetime,” and found that the math works equally well in either direction (physics is famously time-symmetrical, its equations work equally well backwards as forward in spacetime). Per Einstein, a person/alien/whatever speeding away from Earth at the speed of light looks back and sees our past while a person speeding toward the Earth sees our future. Most of the stars that we see at night died billions of years ago. We can’t separate the milk from the coffee once its mixed in. And we can’t stop time or turn it back.

In 1997, the British experimental music group Coil recorded the album Time Machines. Each track is named for a drug: 7-Methoxy-B-Carboline (Telepathine), 5-Methoxy-N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, etc. These drugs are said to alter time, and the claim of the music is the same—the group’s goal with the album was “to cure you of time.” There are clues to each song’s desired effects in the choices of substances that they are named for: N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is said to come on full-blown—a lightning-strike Blakean revery: “ To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour,” 1 while Telepathine (in addition to DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca) is reported to have the quality of a Laplacian demon-attack-cum-high-dimensional trash compactor—compressing time and information as the experiencer feels the universe flooding in: squeezing then exploding perception into a momentary “God’s-eye view.” The songs themselves are the sonic equivalent of moiré patterns: layers of repeating minimalist pulses and drones drifting in and out of sync with one another. Returning to Deleuze: “repetition changes nothing in the object or the state of affairs […] a change is produced in the mind which contemplates: a difference, something new in the mind.”

The album’s conceit that a person can be “cured” of time suggests that time—contemporary clock-time in particular—is susceptible to alteration or suspension. The songs’ titling suggests that aesthetic phenomena contain somatic powers similar to those of powerful, mind-bending drugs. Michael Fried followed Denis Diderot in noting similar effects brought on by certain mid-18th century paintings. In Absorption and Theatricality, Fried suggests that the “perfect trance of involvement” brought on by the work of Jean- Baptiste-Siméon Chardin or Jean-Baptiste Greuze “rested ultimately upon the supreme fiction that the beholder did not exist, that he was not really there, standing before the canvas.” The paintings’ ability to “absorb,” to fix attention is, per Fried, a function of the works’ intensely internally focused content “and the causal and instantaneous mode of unity that came with it.” For Diderot, it is the work’s very indifference that takes us out of time, momentarily transporting us into the time of the painting. The canvasses championed by Diderot usually depict their subjects’ absorption—the boy in Chardin’s The Card Castle (1737), is intensely focused on building a house of cards—suggesting that the weird powers of mimesis and psychological transference are somehow triggered as we become lost in the works.


1 From “Auguries of Innocence,” by William Blake.


Many an artist in their wasted youth has engaged in repetitive pattern-making brought on by a drug reverie or sheer boredom; the high school notebooks of artists and non-artists alike are full of them. The intuitiveness of this activity, the fact that generation after generation engage in it, might provide a hint to the inherent somatic power of the repetitive pattern to take us out of time. On a purely surface level, Ekta Aggarwal’s patterns and intense colors do exactly this.

But Aggarwal’s canvases and drawings also suggest another, deeper approach to time. From a later passage in Difference and Repetition: “The imagination is defined here as a contractile power: like a sensitive plate, it retains one case when the other appears. It contracts cases, elements, agitations or homogenous instants and grounds these in an internal qualitative impression […] This is by no means a memory, nor indeed an operation of the understanding: contraction is not a matter of reflection. Properly speaking, it forms a synthesis of time” (italics mine).

The contractile power of Aggarwal’s work includes but extends beyond interweaving traditional Indian art and craft with Western modernist and postmodernist practices. The labor-intensive paintings, drawings, and textile works incorporate traditional patterns, designs, and materials sourced from traditional producers and production networks (the “canvas” support is Khadi, a locally-produced handmade cotton textile) as well as their contemporary equivalents— the grid, the mathematical object, the minimalist mark, synthetic paint, the pencil. Just as the work effortlessly contracts the affective distance between traditional and contemporary systems of representation and production, the intensive focus and labor apparent in its production contracts and materializes the time of artists and craftspeople, invoking the costs and pleasures of artistic labor; each work reflects and refracts labor-time, life-time, and the exceptional time set aside for culture– remnant of premodern ritual and carnival– designated a site out of time.

Words like contemporary, traditional, modern, postmodern, history, etc. are imbued with time to a degree that we mostly forget. Kant reminds us that Time itself is transcendental: the medium (and creator/destroyer) of all that is and can be, whereas time as we tend to think of it—clock-time, factory- time, free-time—is a recent invention, necessary to modernity’s processes of rationalization. Aggarwal’s work, with its complex patterning, complete or interrupted flows, variegated intensities and materials, and traditional and modern pictorial references, suggests that a moiré of timescales are always in effect; to paraphrase Bruno Latour, “We have never been entirely modern.”

The continuity between traditional and contemporary practices is most clear in Aggarwal’s work when she incorporates traditional patterns into repeating visual phrases not unlike those of Agnes Martin and other minimalists. But once again, there is difference: Aggarwal’s work subtly undermines the minimalists’ famous placidity and erasure of incident—some minor topological distortion is introduced or a full-scale “pattern interrupt” occurs. Often in Aggarwal’s work the effect results not from the incident- free “all-over” systems of the minimalists but from the successive, slow iteration or mutation of pattern, with each “phrase” mutating slightly, revealing itself to have grown from a “seed” within the previous mark . Zooming out, Aggarwal’s entire body of work similarly appears to evolve, with each work permutating from explorations undertaken in previous works.

This quality of Aggarwal’s practice—a body of work comprised of paintings and drawings that are at once precise and formally complete and exploratory, experimental, and sometimes wildly contingent—is

part of what gives it its unusual power: difference is always pushing out from between the cracks of repetition.

In the essay Shuttle Systems, Sadie Plant makes the case that the invention of the automated loom and traditional textile production’s transition to full automation reflected modernity’s paradoxical compression and continuation of deep time: “While the industrial revolution is supposed to have made the break between handheld tools and supervised machines, the handmade and the mass-produced, the introduction of technology to more primitive textiles techniques is both a break with the old ways and a continuation of the lines on which the women were already at work. Even before its mechanization, the loom was described as the “most complex human engine of them all.” Gandhi considered the production of Khadi an integral part of the Indian freedom struggle, calling it swadeshi (self-sufficiency) for the subcontinent. Grasping the historical processes behind Aggarwal’s material choices (Khadi as support, handmade textiles infused with locally-produced dyes, modern synthetics) is integral to understanding the work.

Plant goes on to emphasize the information-storage and time-contractive qualities of textile work: “Information can be stored in cloth by means of the meaningful messages and images which are later produced by the pen and the paintbrush, but data can also be woven in far more pragmatic and immediate ways. A piece of work so absorbing as cloth is saturated with the thoughts of the people who produced it, each of whom can flash straight back to whatever they were thinking as they worked. Like Proust’s madeleine, it carries memories of an intensity which completely escapes the written word.”

Building on the “intensive data structure” of Khadi, Aggarwal infuses the work with similarly abstract- but-structured information: interference patterns composed of interlocking or overlapping histories and cultures, repeating forms, and actions with a nod to the trance-state of the high school notebook scrawler. Aggarwal’s work doesn’t stop time or cause it to flow backwards—it reminds us instead of the variability and multiplicity of times that we inhabit, contracting them, allowing us to step (perhaps only momentarily) outside of ordinary clock-time into the deeper time of reflection and absorption.





Lazarus Canary: Thigmomorphogenesis, World Knots, and Psi Chicks

in the deep-dive work of Alan S. Tofighi


Scott Benzel


It is the supreme law of Unreason. Whenever a large sample of chaotic elements are taken in hand and marshalled in the order of their magnitude, an unsuspected and most beautiful form of regularity proves to have been latent all along.

–Sir Francis Galton, Natural Inheritance (1889)


Thigmomorphogenesis (plant trauma) was conceived of by Cleve Backster, formerly CIA’s top interrogator and an expert polygrapher. As proof of concept, Backster’s students “murdered” a plant in front of another plant hooked up to a polygraph, triggering an off-the-charts “trauma” reaction in the observing plant. For Advanced and Implied Psychological Stress Evaluation for Simulacraceae, leprechaun Aglaonema, and Human No.1, an early work realized at California Institute of the Arts, Alan S. Tofighi (they/them) had a plant witness a routine crime while hooked to a polygraph, with a plastic plant as a control. Tofighi then polygraphed themself and compared their “trauma reaction” to that of the plant.1 This early work—with its carefully-structured enactment of historically accurate research predicated on dubious “science”—established a trajectory for Tofighi’s practice: the works are almost always realizations of ongoing investigations into anomalous, epistemologically marginal or dubious phenomena, related artifacts, and the subcultures and epistemic bubbles surrounding them, punctuated by strange subjective experiences, anecdotes, and obsessions.

In the context of the current epistemological crisis, Tofighi’s work walks a difficult if amusing line: what is the role of the deep diver in an empire in decline, in a world subject to increasing existential threat, while its most powerful actors and institutions either tell bald faced lies or fail to find their way to something resembling truth?

In the present work, Predictive Programming: Process(ion) of Voids and Mental Remants (2014-2022), Tofighi explores humanity’s persistent compulsion to forcibly extract order and meaning from randomness—and this process’ epistemic shadow: new methods for scamming, dissimulating, pulling the wool over eyes, and hiding one’s tracks. In this examination of the technology of prediction and psychic phenomena’s weird relationship to matter and electronics, Tofighi ties an investigation into epistemic cul de sacs—the PEAR lab, its milieu, and its discontents—to one of phenomena obscured by the limits of human perception. The resulting effect is as if Hans Haacke’s spiderweb charts revealing intentionally obscured real estate relationships2 were combined with the more esoteric revelation of electromagnetic waves permeating the gallery in Robert Barry’s Electromagnetic Energy Field (1968), or the “psychic” phenomena evoked by Barry’s Psychic Series (1969).


1 In the piece’s original conception, Tofighi proposed taking a job at a convenience store in hopes of being robbed in front of the plant, triggering an authentic Thigmomorphogenic response“in the wild.” This proposal, as well as a recreation of Tofighi’s adolescent arrest for faking a demonic possession, were shot down by institutional authorities.
2 This refers to Hans Haacke’s seminal work of institutional critique, Shapolosky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971


Sentinel Species


Miners in the 19th century used songbirds to detect the presence of otherwise undetectable deadly gases in the underground shafts in which they were working. Thousands of asphyxiated canaries later, a portable iron lung the size of a small birdcage was designed to resuscitate the tiny creatures. The brainchild of John Scott Haldane—inventor of the “Black Veil” gas mask of WWI, and a diving apparatus to prevent “the bends”— the resuscitator was built by Siebe Gorman and Co. Ltd. in 1920. Haldane’s interest in the resuscitation of this sentinel species perhaps influenced his son J.B.S.’s entry into science, his elaboration of mathematical biology, and his narration of the 1940 Soviet film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms.

Notorious for images of Soviet scientists severing dogs’ heads from their bodies, attaching them to artificial circulatory systems, and, in at least one (faked?) case, reattaching living head to wagging dog body, the film featured remnant crypto-Biocosmists—post-Stalinist-purge descendants of the mystical Cosmist Nikolai Fedorov and his technoscientist heir Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, an early theorist and pioneer of spaceflight. The Cosmists’ concerns were both mystical and technological—per Fedorov’s radical interpretation of biblical prophecy, they pursued two eschatological imperatives: to conquer space and to revive the dead. These seemingly bizarre priorities filtered into mainstream scientific thought of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the canaries, like the re-cephalized canine, were revived deus ex machina by a science they couldn’t comprehend, for reasons simultaneously mystical and technical, making a powerful impact on the technoscientific imaginary that continues, sub rosa, to this day. These few resurrected creatures were anomalies among the sentinel species (lab rats, bomb-sniffing dogs), mostly killed off wholesale in the name of scientific and human progress.


Beyond the Pseudorandom


Like the elder Haldane, Sir Francis Galton was a member of the Royal Society and a ferocious defender of Darwin and his heresy. Galton’s eugenics (he coined the term and, in many ways, begot the awful legacy of so-called “scientific racism”) and other fruit of the knotted Galton/Darwin family tree would influence the younger Haldane’s field of mathematical biology, his eugenicist beliefs, and his Fabian socialism—apparent contradictions notwithstanding. The Galton Board (or quincunx) physically demonstrates the principle of regression to mean under the law of large numbers: balls bounce off of descending rows of interleaved pegs, tumbling chaotically, and ultimately settling into a “normal distribution” —a bell-shaped curve at the bottom of the device. Galton conceived of the apparatus as a physical demonstration of order descended from chaos, as well as a model for population genetics (it was also, more prosaically, the prototype for an entire genre of kinetic arcade games from Pachinko to pinball). Haldane and his peer Julian Huxley—who coined the term Transhumanism in his 1957 essay of the same name—continued the legacy of the Russian Cosmists along the lines that Tsiolkovsky delineated, subtly infusing technoscientific development with cryptic, mystically-inflected Utopian Humanism.

Today the law of large numbers—engine of Galton’s quincunx and Haldane’s mathematical biology—is everywhere: from strong encryption and facial recognition to “big data,” the physics of crowds, weather systems, and nuclear reactions, the particle systems generating CG explosions in the latest Marvel blockbusters and the scintillating prism-hued alien flora and fauna quietly assimilating the Earth in Annihilation (2018). The operation of the law of large numbers suggests just this sort of doppelganger “sentinel species,” purring along beside us, just beneath perception, quietly remaking us.


The World Knot


“One of the most longstanding dilemmas in the history and philosophy of science is the so-called mind/body paradox, which Arthur Schopenhauer referred to as “the world knot.” The problem resides in the difficulty of establishing a scientific connection between mental and physical phenomena that can specify in any useful detail how these two complementary categories of human experience relate to one another.” —Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne, Consciousness and the Source of Reality: The PEAR Odyssey

In the 1970s Rene Peoc’h conducted weird experiments with chicks bonded to a robot: at birth, the chicks were removed from their mother and paired with a mobile robot whose movements were electronically randomized. As more chicks bonded with the robot, its movements became less random and more focused on the location of the chicks. According to Peoc’h’s findings, the Psi-chicks’ love bond with their robot mother intervened—perhaps at a quantum level—with the electronics of the randomizer built into the robot.

In 1979, the engineer Robert Jahn founded the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory, predicated on Peoc’h’s findings: “PEAR was conceived and implemented […] for the primary purpose of determining the potential vulnerability of physical systems and technological processes involving random elements to the conscious or unconscious intentions of their human operators. Its ancillary goal was an attempt to comprehend the implications of any such anomalous interactions for a broader understanding of human consciousness and its role in the establishment of physical reality. “

The importance of anomaly to science is summarized by Jahn and co-author Brenda Dunne in Consciousness and the Source of Reality; according to this history/manifesto, they pursue: “the long- revered dialogue of sound empirical experimentation with astute theoretical modeling, first proposed in the 17th century by Sir Francis Bacon as the ‘scientific method,’ with particular attention to the role of anomalies in motivating scientific investigations, and maintaining them on realistic and productive courses (emphasis mine).”

The online Princeton Global Consciousness Project grew out of PEAR. Per the website:

“When human consciousness becomes coherent, the behavior of random systems may change. Random number generators (RNGs) based on quantum tunneling produce completely unpredictable sequences of zeroes and ones. But when a great event synchronizes the feelings of millions of people, our network of RNGs becomes subtly structured. We calculate one in a trillion odds that the effect is due to chance. The evidence suggests an emerging noosphere or the unifying field of consciousness described by sages in all cultures.”

In February 2022, Princeton pulled the plug on both projects. The New York Times reported: “Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events.” The short article ends with a quote from Robert Jahn: “If people don’t believe us after all the results we’ve produced, then they never will.”


Degrade the Threads


Jeffrey Sconce, in The Technical Delusion, Electronics, Power, Insanity, speaks of early manifestations of television-related psychosis. A psychiatrist diagnoses a patient mimicking the actions depicted in TV

commercials using materials at hand (fishbowl water for shampoo) as suffering from “command- automatism and echopraxia to television.” Per Sconce, “this vaguely comical portrait of psychosis and television also confirmed a suspicion already ubiquitous at mid-century: electronic media seek to control us, perhaps even to the point of commandeering the nervous system.” He continues: “With the Information Age, electricity has become the nervous fluid of the entire planet […] its historical conversion into global electronics describes a concurrent shift in the species from figurative to literal cyborgs.”

With this shift, classical epistemics’ “ways of knowing” began to drift—woozy quasi-philosophies and weird epistemes proliferated and were kind of fun. In the second decade of the new century, malignant epistemes born of the id-saturated chaos of the chans began to degrade the threads, filtering upward to higher realms of media until, in an apotheosis of “command-automatism and echopraxia to television” reality came unmoored for entire populations. The same forces of randomness that allowed for the revolution in technoscientific development caused people fed on steady streams of “nervous fluid” to collectively, epistemically, lose their shit– atrophying such formerly prized attributes as logic, culture, and interpersonal relationships, while increasingly bizarre, polarizing epistemes unraveled former “consensus reality.”

With this work, Alan S. Tofighi continues to examine the ways in which ideas—malignant or beneficent—interact, assimilating and transforming one another and their hosts, and the ways in which new ideas are adopted or rejected, immanentizing or de-immanentizing the looming Eschaton. The work has something of the Cosmist in it, but also a real sense of body-horror dredged up from what could be described as the chthonic noosphere. Where the Princeton Global Consciousness Project envisioned the noosphere as a transformative layer of enlightening information “unifying consciousness” as it encircled the outer atmosphere, Tofighi goes where the predominance of evidence leads: to the depths.