Carsten Höller on His New Participatory Work: ‘It Makes the Phone Freak Out’

Before Carsten Höller was an artist, he was a scientist. He has a doctorate in agricultural studies for which he concentrated on the communication strategies of insects. Though he would come to shed his academic ambitions, his fascination with communication—both its manipulation and its potential for breakdown—has been a continued source of interest. At Dreamverse, a tech, art and music festival that opens November 4, Höller is debuting a new participatory art piece. 7.8 (Reduced Reality App), 2021, is an augmented reality (AR) work that can be experienced through the Acute Art app. The piece hijacks the phone, making it vibrate and flash at the tempo of 7.8 beats per second. Höller has long been fascinated by this frequency, which has been postulated to disrupt brain waves and cause slight hallucinations, and has shown up consistently in his work since the 1990s.

A freestanding wall filled with lightbulbs glows in an empty courtyard.

Installation view of Carsten Höller’s Lightwall (Outdoor Version), 2021; MAAP Lisbon. Massimo de Carlo

This isn’t the first time Höller has played with the psychedelic. Fly agaric mushrooms have featured in many of his works. The storybook red- and white-spotted fungus, while poisonous, has also been used in shamanistic settings to induce visions. For his exhibition “Soma” (2010–11) at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof he fed a herd of deer this mushroom, which is found in their natural diet, and distilled their urine to create a kind of healing potion. 

For his next experiment, Höller has looked to the technological to create what he calls a “social relational” event. Though the work can be viewed individually, anytime, anywhere, the piece is first going to be launched at the festival preceding a DJ set from Alesso. There’s no knowing how these frenetic sonic waves will affect the crowd. ARTnews spoke with Höller to learn about how he developed his most participatory work to date.

How did you decide to work with AR technology?

Acute Art, a London based company that works with contemporary artists to help produce augmented reality pieces, reached out to me. I wasn’t interested in working with AR just because it was a new medium—I prefer that the conditions arise naturally. But I did an exhibition [titled “Day”] at the MAAT Museum of Lisbon, where I was working with the 7.8 hertz frequency. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to use the phone as part of an exhibition. So, with Acute Art, we developed what I call ‘a reduced reality app,’ not augmented. Dreamverse became interested and now we are planning to launch it in November during the festival.

What did you end up developing?

Basically, what it does is very simple. It makes the phone freak out. The screen starts to flicker at a frequency of 7.8 hertz, that’s very fast—7.8 times per second. But not just the screen of your phone, the torch flickers and the phone haptics, meaning the vibration, also starts to pulse at this rate. Something that was once very stable becomes disrupted, it’s very annoying. But it’s also very interesting.

How so?

The 7.8 hertz frequency does something to you. It somehow interacts with you and interacts with probably your brainwaves, which are typically between 4 and 12 Hertz. This was postulated by a German scientist, Hunberger, in 1924. He was the one who discovered brainwaves and postulated that these waves could be influenced from the outside. If you hold the flashlight close to your eyes you start to see color fields and it’s possible to have visions. It’s like a cheap version of LSD. It will be a social experiment to see what happens when people do that together.

Right, because there’s going to be a moment where those attending the festival will be using the app simultaneously. Can you describe what the plan is for the unveiling of this artwork?

There is a whole evening of events planned. One is that the DJ Alesso, who is related to the Swedish House Mafia (not really my kind of music but I think it works in this context) will perform. But before the music starts we will have a screen at the concert venue with a QR code so that those who have not downloaded the [Acute Art] app can get it quickly. We will then switch off the lights and sound at the venue and just have people with their phones playing the 7.8 app. Then, the stage lights will sync to the 7.8 frequency. This will last for a few minutes, and then the concert will start. It’ll be a live experiment.

Will you be collecting data?

It’s probably a good idea, but not for me. I want this to be a very subjective experience and, as you know, science and subjectivity are not very good friends. So I’m not collecting any data but if somebody else wants to do it, I think it would be interesting.

A woman reclines in a chair wearing big headphones and pink sunglasses.

Installation view of Carsten Höller’s Du You, 1994; at Schipper & Krome, Cologne. Courtesy Carsten Höller

It sounds like the phone, for the art piece, goes into this state of extreme glitch. Is that a sort of commentary on your stance towards technology? 

Of course it is. First of all, it’s a way for you to see things in another way. What is this thing, this technical device you hold in your hands, was to collapse, to come alive? As I described, the phone is freaking out, it’s becoming alive, in a sense, it’s producing an effect. And we don’t know what happens if you [continuously perform the art piece]. These phones may not be suited to it, and they will all fail collectively, and you can imagine some kind of science fiction scenario.

Is this work a way of playing with the fantasy of this kind of collective failure? 

Yeah, it is playing with this fantasy. But, at the same time, it is also producing some very beautiful effects. So it has these two sides. It is quite hallucinatory, as I said before, and I think it makes you high in some way. But it also makes you think, ‘what the fuck is it that I’m holding in my hand here?’ It’s crazy! It’s like it’s alive. It’s moving. It’s blinking. It’s vibrating. It’s making sounds. 

Your work has consistently been engaged with defamiliarization and hallucination. But typically, the catalyst for your works that deal with the psychedelic are mushrooms or using lights to mimic the 7.8 herz frequency. This project, however, is advanced technically in its use of AR technology. How do you feel about moving to the technological side of this psychedelic prompt?

I’m very open to exploring different things, I’m very interested in messing things up.

A woman looks at her phone, the flashlight is on.

Carsten Höller, 7.8 hz (Reduced Reality App), 2021. Acute Art

Source: Carsten Höller on His New Participatory Work: ‘It Makes the Phone Freak Out’

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