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Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Science fiction films (with a few notable exceptions such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey) often show rockets and spaceships exploding loudly in outer space. Yet, there's no noise in empty space. What we call "sound" is actually vibrations in the air.

In a similar way but with more scientific backing, Sam Conran, a recent graduate from the Design Interactions course at the RCA, has been looking at the 'sonification' of live macrocosmic phenomena that are actually not producing any sound. The result of his research is the Kabbalistic Synthesizer, a fully functioning prototype that uses the combination of electric signals in order to simultaneously synthesises variations in the Earth's magnetic field with cosmic rays and Jupiter's magnetic storms.

The device is comprised of a Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer to create a uniform magnetic field and read local variations in the Earth's magnetic field; an 18 tube drift hodoscope to detect cosmic rays and their trajectory from other galaxies; a fractal reflector and loop antennae mounted on a robotic base that tracks Jupiter or the Sun and picks up magnetic storms coming from these celestial bodies. These instruments can be modulated from a control panel.

The project has ultimately been a quest to understand sound design as a gnostic utility and fundamental precedent to the way we might interact and value our environments..


Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer

Hi Sam! Why do you think it was important to speculate on sounds that don't exist? What guided your design of these sounds?

I guess being what, I am I have a relationship with sounds that don't exist - that's maybe why it's important for me, I'm passionate about exploring sound design that changes perceptions in real life as opposed to just on screen. My project was guided by this and an example called 'the Singing Comet' is useful. This was a sound that went viral and was the main talking point of the ESA Philae mission in the media.

What's interesting is the way the sound was portrayed in relation to the science and the aesthetic relationship the designer made to film sound. We all have this collective idea of what space sounds like which is guided by the big sound designers and the first filmic experiences of space - I think what the singing comet demonstrates through its success is the desire we have for space to be animistic as opposed to a vacuous dead zone. What guided my design approach was the way this sound had been pushed into the world as being real. The sound of the singing comet was designed and made by compressing data from days into seconds and mapping this to parameters of effects within some sound software.

I personally thought it would be nice to focus on the idea of creating real sounds and real time relations that we can perceive in relation to our own perception of time - not compressed and not stretched. As a result, the only parts of which I can say I have designed are the ways in which the user of the synthesizer can play and manipulate the raw inputs - the rest is process. It has been more about the pulling together of already present techniques for monitoring these phenomena than designing sounds to fit them. The sounds are not being determined by me but the ways in which they are listened to, which is guided by these processes.

The radio telescope is a noise input receiving raw noise coming from the cosmos and Jupiter/Sun noise emissions at 21mhz. The Magnetometer is translating real-time 'micro Tesla' fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field to a process called FM Synthesis, an already existing theory of natural sound synthesis invented by John Chowning in 1973 (Stanford department of AI). The Cosmic Ray detector doesn't make sound at all but is acting as a random event generator - as the arrival of cosmic rays are truly random I liked the idea of using them to trigger processes on the other sounds, like a keyboard on a traditional synth. 

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Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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18 tube drift Hodoscope. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Jovian Receiver 21.1mhz and Fractal Loop Antennae. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

How much of the technology already existed and how much have you had to develop yourself to create these 3 instruments?

The technology for all the devices was already invented but it's not off the shelf. Each device was designed and hand built, needing a lot of help in the end to produce. I have not read physics so the process has relied on many generous people at Imperial Blackett Lab and online. There was a lot of googling. 

I was also curious about the reasons behind your choice of phenomena to explore: why magnetic storms, cosmic ray, the Earth's magnetic field? What did you find particularly interesting?

I ended up replacing the usual functions of a synthesizer; noise - signal and operator/keyboard with object-based experiments that could replace these. In the Synth the noise is coming from the radio telescope the signal is coming from the Helmholtz Coil/fluxgate and the Keyboard is operated by the Cosmic Ray detector. There is no real reason beyond that - they are all fascinating phenomena and I became aware of some strange theories about the Earth's magnetic field along the way but it wasn't my intention to sign post anything like that. During the show that's something I had to be clear about - this is a synth that takes raw inputs and allows you to adjust, play and filter the outputs, in the end its all about the theatricality of the sound and its source and how that changes our perception.

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Calibrating the magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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View of the installation at the work in progress show, Royal College of Art. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Are you planning to expand the project and work on other macrocosmic phenomena?

I am looking into ways in which I can streamline it, make it more portable. I would like to get it to a stage where I can start to collaborate with it, the synth outputs a standard control voltage so the cosmic rays could be used with other modular systems. I think next steps is to have all the software self contained in the synth. I'm trying to figure out the best way to do this at the moment.

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Research phase at Imperial College. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Your work is called Kabbalistic Synthesizer. I get the Synthesizer part but why Kabbalistic? Why introduce this element of esoterism in the work?

Kabbalistic is a very loaded word, but I feel it could not be anything else. The name was the starting point, it came before the project had begun to develop and has stuck all the way. It fits the process which definitely on the technical side of things has pushed me into a new world - It's inherently esoteric if you're not a proper physicist I think. It's how I've felt all this year. The name also fulfills a role as a brand name for the device, everyone can relate to that I think - it frames the synth as a product. Hooking into the macrocosmic through sound is quite desirable I discovered. A lot of people during the RCA show approached it as a genuine attempt at innovation. 

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Cosmic noise. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

One of the final paragraphs in the Creative Applications article about your project says: 'The Kabalistic Synthesizer is an alchemists approach to sound making and ultimately a project that seeks to understand and debate the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium and how 'sonification' can be combined with the synthesizer to access and objectify the unknown.' Could you explain with more details the bit about "the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium"? What did you mean by that?

What i'm trying to get across is really summed up in the comments section of the singing comet recording. I intended the project and its sounds to provide a kind of critical ambience to think about design strategies that might incorperate mindfulness through immersive/hedonistic tech. I'M A BIG FAN OF THIS BTW.

Do the instruments function in any type of place, environment and condition? What are the best conditions for the instruments?

The best time and place would be up a mountain during a solar storm. 

At the show, you mentioned that you were going to do some performances with the instruments? Where will this happen? And what is a performance like? Do you just let the instruments pick up and create the sound or do you actually intervene and modulate them for example?

I'm doing a performance on the 8th August at Wilderness Festival; it's a show and tell as a backdrop to a talk by John Thackara about "ways of knowing and monitoring the environment in real-time as the starting point for a new economy". I'm hoping to get good signals as its in a forest outside of London - I will play with what's there, have a listen. It's all dependent on what's picked up and then there are the controls that make it more of a performance, its a lot like tuning a radio, you can dial in.

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Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Thanks Sam!

You can listen to some of the sounds produced by the synthesizer on soundcloud.

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Julius von Bismarck, POLIZEI, 2015. Photo by Timo Ohler

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He Xiangyu, Tank, 2011-13. Plant-based-tanned leather. Photo by Timo Ohler

Fire and Forget is military jargon for a type of missile guidance that can hit its target without the launcher being in line-of-sight. The expression is symptomatic of a new type of warfare in which the people firing, killing and destroying are emancipated from the fear for their own life and the direct physical -or sometimes even visual- contact with the victim(s) of their shooting.

The exhibition Fire and forget. On violence currently on view at KW in Berlin asks whether this loss of direct physical confrontation has led to a new definition, production and perception of violence.

The show follows four main threads: the first one explores how Borders are decided and enforced to contain political, economic, cultural, religious, or ethnic tensions. Affect explores the long-term impact that violence from a distance has on the human psyche. Memory/Remembrance investigates whether history and commemoration inhibits or heighten violence. The final section looks at how the Event of violence itself reflects how each new situation is once again a singular moment of release, and of a decision for violence.

Fire and Forget is a brilliant and timely exhibition. However, while walking from room to room, i kept wondering why most works were not accompanied by descriptions and commentaries. Some of the pieces on show as self-explanatory, others left me frustrated. I could guess they were interesting and coherent with the whole show but i missed the elements to fully understand why.

Fortunately, i am a blogger and had plenty of time to waste online looking for the missing pieces of information...

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Kris Martin, Untitled, 2010. In the background, works by Henning Rogge and Hrair Sarkissian. Photo by Timo Ohler

Many Europeans (and Americans) tend to associate the Middle East with violence and several pieces in the show brought some much needed nuance to our prejudices.


Sharif Waked, To Be Continued, 2009

Sharif Waked's film, To Be Continued, follows the format of the "living martyr" videos made by a man or woman declaring in front of a camera their determination to carry out a suicide bombing mission.

In this video, however, the protagonist, played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, doesn't read his last will. Instead, he reads a lengthy excerpt from One Thousand and One Nights. By mixing the familiar and feared figure of the suicide bomber with poetic texts, Sharif Waked confounds our expectations of masculinity in the Islamic world.

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Hrair Sarkissian
, Execution Squares, 2008

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Hrair Sarkissian
, Execution Squares, 2008


Video interview with Hrair Sarkissian on Execution Squares

Hrair Sarkissian's series Execution Squares shows fourteen public squares in three Syrian cities (Aleppo, Lattakia and Damascus) at sun rise, the time when executions usually take place in the country. The condemned person is often brought to the square at 4.30am, and their body is left there until around 9am so that citizens can witness the scene on their way to school or work.

In the late 1990s and 2000, the practice became less frequent in Damascus because the capital had become more internationally visible, Sarkissian explained in an interview. But they kept doing it in other cities such as Aleppo, where at least one person was hanged every month.

The artist was as a schoolboy when he passed one of these squares and saw three bodies hanging in the street. The image has haunted him ever since. Sarkissian's images show empty streets, there is not hanging body to gape at, no trace of violence. Yet, once you know the story, the photos seem to be haunted by the brutality that took place on those squares.

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Roy Brand, Ori Scialom and Keren Yeala Golan, The Country Sand Printer, 2014. Photo by Timo Ohler

Nowhere does daily border violence manifests itself so stringently as inside and around the ever expanding Israel land. Walls, watchtowers, constant controls and other obstacles regulate the movements of Palestinians.

A room in the show is almost entirely occupied by The Country Sand Printer, by Roy Brand, Ori Scialom, and Keren Yeala Golan. The machine traces the evolution of the Israeli state through its settlements, reprinting over and over the expansion of Israel into the sand. A mechanic metal needle lightly draws lines in the sand, ensuring that traces of previous plans remain visible while new lines demarcate new territory borders.

A nearby video by Armin Linke, Road Block at Gaza City, Netsarem Settlement Beach Road (sorry couldn't find any image of it online and i didn't take any of the work while i was visiting the show) seems to respond to the invasive printing machine. The film shows how an event as banal as a roadblock near Gaza City forces Palestinians to make long and uncomfortable detours by foot in order to get to their intended destination. Colonization isn't just a theft of land, it is also a theft of time.

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Henning Rogge, Mascheroder Holz, 2011

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Henning Rogge, Altwarmbüchener Moor, 2013

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Henning Rogge, Projensdorfer Gehölz, 2013

Like Sarkissian
, Henning Rogge documents in photos the scars left by violent events. This time however the traces are still visible. His series shows how nature has adapted to the craters left by the bombs launched during World War II in Germany. After the war, the craters have slowly become part of the landscape and ecology, offering new pond habitats for animals, including endangered species.


Damien Hirst, Do It, 1995-96

The ultra short video above reminded me how good Hirst can be. The artist takes a gun and explain very quietly the best way to shoot yourself.


NEOZOON, Buck Fever (excerpt), 2012

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NEOZOON, Buck Fever (video still), 2012

Buck Fever explores the emotions that surround the violence perpetrated against animals. The film is a You Tube collage of hunter amateur recording the moments directly preceding and following the shooting an animal.

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James Bridle, Drone shadow, ongoing project. Photo Timo Ohler

Guided missiles and drones are clear examples of Fire and Forget technology. James Bridle's silhouette of a drone painted on the street in front of KW reminds us that, in spite of being located far away from the battlefield, drone operators fire but do not forget. Studies have shown that the pilots can still develop mental health problems like depression, anxiety as well as other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

More images from the show:

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Joachim Koester, The Place of Dead Roads (production still), 2013

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He Xiangyu, Tank, 2011-13. Plant-based-tanned leather. Photo by Timo Ohler

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Daniil Galkin, Tourniquet, 2015

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Fire and Forget. On violence, installation view. Photo: Timo Ohler

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Emily Jacir, Bank Mirror, Ramallah, April 22, 2002, 2002

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Ala Younis, Tin Soldiers, 2010

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Ron Amir
, Malek, 2004

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Chto Delat, Time Capsule. Artistic report on catastrophies and utopia, 2014/2015. Photo: Alexander Koch / KOW

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Mircea Cantor, Shooting, 2005

Fire and forget. On violence was curated by Ellen Blumenstein and Daniel Tyradellis. The show remains open until August 30, 2015 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin.

The Glomar response refers to the US government prerogative of power to "neither confirm nor deny" the existence of information. The expression was created by the CIA in 1975 in response to media inquiries about a covert program which involved the Glomar Explorer, a salvage vessel built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. The form of non-denial denial is symptomatic of the times we are living. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing opacity of political and social processes accelerated by computer code and secret law is countered by the growing ability of individuals and activists to use those same networked technologies to investigate and act with ever greater agency.

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James Bridle, Seamless Transition. Inflite Jet Centre, Stansted airport Photograph: Picture Plane

The Glomar Response is also the title of James Bridle's solo show which will open tomorrow at NOME, a gallery in Berlin dedicated to the interweaving areas of art, science and political activism. Bridle's exhibition will present a series of works that use computer code, investigative journalism, and visualization to explore hidden spaces and classified information. Whether they investigate CIA torture, automated police surveillance, relics of British imperialism or immigration, the works on show demonstrate the impact that politics has on technology and architecture.

"Politics are encoded into the architecture and the technology," the artist told me during a skype discussion. "They betray the intent. But we still need some literacy in order to be able to decode the situation so my work aims to make these codes visible but it also calls for the need to raise this literacy.

There's also another aspect to these works and it's that i'm not entirely convinced by this process. I think that there are limits to what you can do. None of these works is going to lead to huge changes in the system. The pieces in the show also speak of that frustration."

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Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001), 2015. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

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Chagos (Waterboarded Documents 002), 2015. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

Bridle will premiere the work Waterboarded Documents in Berlin. The installation is made of research documents surrounding the operation of websites and domains that end in .io. These web domains, popular with a number of trendy companies, are linked to the island of Diego Garcia and the other islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. But most people who use these domains are unaware of the dark story of these islands.

The islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory form an archipelago that was forcibly depopulated in the 1970s by the United Kingdom, at the request of the United States which needed an unpopulated island to set up a military base. Ironically, the base is called Camp Justice. Because of its strategic position, the US used it as a base during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a CIA black site and transit point for the extraordinary rendition programme.

The British government has consistently denied any illegalities in the expulsion. Moreover, in 2010, the British Cabinet announced that most of the archipelago would be turned into the world's largest Marine Protected Area, a move that will prohibit commercial fishing as well as oil and gas exploration in the area. Leaked documents seem to confirm Chagossians' suspicion that this MPA was created to prevent the islanders from returning to the islands.

The case has not been heard by any international court of law as no appropriate venue has been found to accept the case.

The navigation charts, maps and other documents shown in the gallery have been submitted to waterboarding, just like some of the people 'interrogated' in the framework of the rendition program. The water damage also alludes to claims made by the British Government that files relating to the UK's role in the CIA's global rendition operations could not be released due to accidental water damage. Finally, these damaged documents illustrate the complicity between contemporary technological networks and older forms of entrenched and imperial power.

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Inflite Jet Centre, Stansted airport Photograph: Picture Plane

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Special Immigration Appeals Court, London. Photograph: Picture Plane

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The interior of Inflite Jet Centre. Photograph: Picture Plane/The interior of Inflite Jet Centre

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Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, Heathrow. Photograph: Picture Plane/Picture Plane

Bridle is also showing Seamless Transitions, a work that demonstrates the quality of his investigative practice and that makes tangible and visible sites shrouded in invisibility and secrecy.

Developed in collaboration with digital imaging studio Picture Plane, Seamless Transitions puts into images three unphotographable sites of immigration judgment, detention and deportation in the UK: the Special Immigration Appeals Court, whose design is informed by the need to present secret evidence; Harmondsworth Detention Center, a privately run prison near London Heathrow Airport; and the Inflite Jet Center, a private terminal at Stansted Airport that the Home Office uses to deport rejected asylum-seekers.

Bridle reconstructed the spaces by collating witness accounts, planning applications and open source information in the hope that the resulting animation would raise a debate about the legal procedures of immigration and detention. Moreover, the work looks at the use of new imaging practices to carry out investigation in the absence of other visual media such as photography.

Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it, he told ICON. Physical representations make more tangible the kind of things people find it difficult to talk about because they are non-physical, digital or complex.


James Bridle Interview - Seamless Transitions

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James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 004 (Information Commissioners Reports, 2008-2012), 2015

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James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 005 (David Miranda), 2015

The third piece exhibited at NOME is Fraunhofer Lines, a series of visualizations from a variety of sources, including the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture and the UK Information Commissioner's reports on automated police surveillance. These documents, released following Freedom of Information requests, have been analyzed with computer vision to reveal the extent of redaction and the discrepancies between different documents. They are named and patterned after the gaps in the sun's spectra discovered in 1814 by physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer, which both revealed the absence of certain frequencies of light reaching the earth's surface and pointed toward new methods of analysis and understanding.

And i'll end the story with video for anyone who doesn't get a chance to see the exhibition in Berlin this Summer:


re:publica 2015 - James Bridle: Living in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

James Bridle - The Glomar Response is at NOME gallery in Berlin from 25 July until 5 September 2015.

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Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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X-1SB and Boomjet models receiving initial coats of paint

High-Speed Horizons is another of my favourite works exhibited at the graduation show of the Royal College of Art earlier this month.

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One of the models in the exhibition space

In this project, Design Interactions graduate Tim Clark plays with the language and history of aviation, offering us a trip into critical and speculative visions of alternative energies.

Aviation, says the designer, has always been viewed as a test bed for radical new ideas and visions to reshape culture, politics and economics on Earth and far beyond it. Some of these dreams of alternative futures became reality and even transformed other areas of life (especially in military or space exploration contexts), while others were aborted because of political, economic or environmental pressures.

Tim Clark tapped into this fascination for unrestricted innovation to design a series of airplanes that investigate the possibility to ditch environmentally damaging fossil fuels in favour of sonic booms and nuclear power.

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Bell X-1. Image Smithsonian Air and Space Museum


Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier, X-1, 1947. Newsreel from 1948

The most experimental and speculative aircraft research is often classified. An example of this is the American X-Plane. Started after WW2 and still in operation today, the program conceived a series of experimental planes and helicopters and used them to test new technologies and aerodynamic concepts.

The first of American X-Plane model, the Bell X-1, was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight in 1947. This breakthrough opened up a new field of supersonic research and led to experimentation in aerodynamics and new propulsive systems.

Supersonic speed travel is accompanied by an explosive 'bang' sound called sonic boom. These sonic booms also generate enormous amounts of energy. In theory they could thus power planes with an efficient, green and sustainable energy source.

But sonic booms are one of the main reasons why supersonic airplanes never became more commonplace. In several countries, the law prevents aircrafts from flying above Mach 1 due to the shock wave's auditory and vibrational disturbance.

Limiting the impact of sonic booms is a current concern of the aviation industry as many are dreaming of a new supersonic age. But if it is to be more successful than the last one (the Concorde required high quantities of fuel), a supersonic plane would need an energy source free from the influence of global affairs, politics and planet scarring infrastructure. Something that we can quickly produce and have complete control over -- like sonic booms.

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Tim Clark, The X-1SB, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Tim Clark, The X-1SB, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons (X-1SB being airdropped by B-29 Duo mothership. Oil on canvas by Michael Lightfoot), 2015

The X-1SB, aka the "Sonic Sundae", is Clark's counterhistorical research aircraft designed to test the feasibility of this sonic boom propulsion. Its cone shape design is the combination of a .50 caliber bullet (an object know to be stable while breaching the sound barrier) just like the design of its predecessor the X-1 aircraft, and the shape of the shock wave created by an object traveling faster than sound.

The front of the aircraft features a housing for an interchangeable triangular spike used to test how different shapes could create potentially optimized shock waves to use for propulsion.

And because Clark's work is counter historical, Sonic Sundae and Boomjet (more about that one below) were to have existed before any of the anti-noise laws were to have been instituted.

He told me: I am suggesting that in a sonic boom powered world those laws would not exist because the ability to travel with that type of greener propulsion would probably be more beneficially economically than instituting the flight restrictions. In this case the benefit of the disturbance would outweigh the desire to limit the noise.

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Conceptual drawing of a supersonic biplane. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT News based on an original drawing courtesy of Obayashi laboratory, Tohoku University

Anyway if we were to live in true supersonic age these restrictions would need to be changed/relaxed anyway sonic booms or not. The big research in limiting the sonic boom now is finding a way to make a wing design that will create little to no noise when it breaks the sound barrier so it does not disturb people below the plane. Amazingly this question was answered over a decade (1935) before we even broke the sound barrier (1947) by Adolf Busemann who suggested a supersonic biplane design where the two wings would be used to cancel the other wave out.

It's crazy to think a supersonic jet would resemble a biplane from the 1920s but it would probably be the best solution and it was theorized way before it ever would be seen as a problem which is amazing. MIT just did some research into it in the last year or so and it would totally work and might be quite viable.

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Tim Clark, B-29 Duo, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

Because of its large rear circumference, the X-1SB cannot fit under the fuselage or wing of a larger aircraft for taxiing and takeoff. The B-29 Duo "Double Mama" has thus been designed to be its carrier aircraft of choice.

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An F/A-18 Hornet breaks the sound barrier in the skies over the Pacific Ocean, 1999. Image Ensign John Gay, U.S. Navy (via wikipedia)

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Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Tim Clark, The Boomjet, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Boomjet on mobile aircraft crawler. Computer rendering by Tim Clark

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Tim Clark, High-Speed Horizons (Boomjet taxiing at water-based airport. Watercolor on paper by Hector Trunnec), 2015

Another of Clark's designs, the Boomjet is a sonic boom-powered commercial transport that sustains its flight by driving 47 propellers from the pressure energy released by the aircraft as it travels faster than the speed of sound. The sonic boom transport vehicle stores excess energy for use during takeoff which can be vertically or from water depending on location.

Clarks then looked at another source of energy that could disentangle aviation from its dangerous relationship with fossil fuels: nuclear energy.

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The Convair NB-36 in flight, with a B-50. Photo: USAF - U.S. Defenseimagery.mil photo no. DF-SC-83-09332 via wikipedia

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Advert from November 1951 AIR TRAILS magazine promoting the promise of nuclear power as an unlimited energy source for flight. Image from Secret U.S. Proposals of the Cold War: Radical Concepts in Factory Models and Engineering Drawings by Jim Keeshen

During the cold war both the USSR and the USA had an experimental nuclear aircraft program. While the risk was high, nuclear power promised an aircraft with theoretically unlimited range capable of constant flight.

Only two known nuclear aircraft that have been fully built and tested. The NB-36H was America's nuclear-powered aircraft. Refitted for this new propulsion system after it was damaged in a storm and deemed unfit for combat, the aircraft featured a direct phone line to the President of the United States that was to only be used in the event of an incident. The NB-36H completed 47 test flights between 1955 and 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. It was scrapped in 1958 when the Nuclear Aircraft Program was abandoned.

The Soviet Union's aircraft, the Tu-95L, was based on the Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber and missile platform. First flown in 1952, the plane is still in operation today and Russia sometimes flies it in close proximity of the airspace of other European countries in order to affirm its military presence.

The nuclear variant of the TU-95 flew from 1961 to 1965.

Both the USA and the Soviet Union had ambitious plans for their second nuclear-powered aircraft but due to environmental concerns, political pressures, and rumors that the other side called off their research both projects were shelved.

While the risk of a nuclear accident is deemed too high in aviation, we have nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines and 11% of all the world's electricity being based on nuclear power.

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Tim Clark, Air Laissez-Faire, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Tim Clark, Air Laissez-Faire, High-Speed Horizons, 2015. Photo by Juuke Schoorl

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Designer applying the 500+ dry transfer window decals and nuclear logo decals to the Air Laissez-faire model aircraft

Clark proposes to update to our times a technology that looked promising at the height of the Cold War. And the ones willing to bankroll the experiment might not be countries but technology companies which are already at the forefront of some ambitious innovative projects (Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic for example.) Because these tech companies are increasingly under governmental scrutiny so that they don't get out of control, they might also take to the sky to further innovation free from the restriction of regulation, utilizing the energy source historically clouded by politics to sustain continuous flight and prove that anything is indeed possible through innovation. An inspiration for the idea is Blueseed. This "start-up community on a ship" proposes to gather hundreds of immigrant entrepreneurs on a floating startup city in international waters off the coast of San Francisco and have them live and work undisturbed by the burden of national boundaries and government regulations.

Clark's mini Silicon Valley on air is called Air Laissez-Faire. A nuclear power plant on board of this self-piloting aircraft would provide virtually limitless amounts of continuous propulsion, while a crew made of nuclear physicist, chemical engineer, radiation consultant, and other figures would ensure safety on board. The mega plane presents satellite and radar communication equipment for remote business meetings, all necessary business facilities as well as a landing space on its rear wings that allow small 'commuter aircrafts' to whisk entrepreneurs from and back to major business centers.

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Carsten Höller, Isomeric Slides, 2015 during installation of Carsten Höller_ Decision at Hayward Gallery, Courtesy the artist and LUMA Foundation. Photo David Levene

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Carsten Höller, Divisions (Wall Painting with Aphids), 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan. Photo © Linda Nylind

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Carsten Höller, The Forests, 2002_2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Air de Paris. Photo © Linda Nylind

The show to see and experience in London at the moment is Carsten Höller: Decision.

Carsten Höller likes to unsettle, upset, delight and surprise. You get out of one of his shows and feel like you've lived through 'something' new and totally unexpected. The Hayward retrospective is an experiment, from the perspective of the artist but also from the one of the visitor, in perception and decision-taking: are you going to enter through the doors on the right or on the left? Will you dare to be harnessed to a flying machine? Will you ingest one of those curious little pills that are dropped from the ceiling? Or will you just watch and see what other people chose? And in the end, will you conclude that this was fun but a bit shallow or that it was thought-provoking and enlightening? Is this art or just entertainment?

The exhibition is what you would call a crowd-pleaser (although the £15.00 entrance ticket is definitely not crowd-pleasing.) Which in conservative art speak is a bit of an insult. It shouldn't be. Because art doesn't need more snobs and because if gigantic slides, bouncy Stonehenge and rain rooms are what it takes to get everyone to experience and discuss contemporary art, that's good enough for me.

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Carsten Höller, Decision Corridors, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

The first decision you take is whether to access the show by the entrance on the right or the one on the left. I chose the left one and very quickly regretted it. I found myself in the darkness of a long, a very very long steel corridor. It sometimes goes up, sometimes down, it bends to the right or to the left. With each step, i was wondering whether i should keep on walking or whether i should just hurry back to where i came from and take the other entrance (which takes you to a similarly awful corridor if i understood correctly.)

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Carsten Höller, Flying Mushrooms, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

Now of course i find it funny so i'd recommend the experience to anyone because one day, i promise, you finally reach the end of the tunnel and find yourself in a room inhabited by huge hallucinogenic mushrooms. They are mounted on a mobile and you're invited to push them around. And every single adult but me thought it was jolly good fun to push a bar and make the mushrooms turn.

Next, please!

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Carsten Höller, Pill Clock, 2011-2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

Right after the red and white mushrooms, you encounter a growing pile of red and white little pills. Every three seconds, a little capsule drops from the ceiling. You're actually free to pop one with water from the nearby mini sink. There's no information about what is inside the pills. That's part of the experiment, of course, it's another decision you have to take.

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Carsten Höller, Upside Down Goggles, 2014 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

People were queuing to try the Upside Down Goggles. The goggles are based on an experiment carried out by George Stratton in the 1890s. While studying the perception in vision, the psychologist wore special glasses which inverted images up and down and left and right. He found that after 4 days wearing them continuously, his brain started to compensate, and he could see the world the right way up again.

Höller's perception-altering goggles are very disorientating. You feel a bit seasick and unsure of your steps.

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Carsten Höller, Two Flying Machines, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo © Ela Bialkowska

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Carsten Höller, Two Flying Machines, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo © Ela Bialkowska

More queuing! This time to be harnessed to one of the Two Flying Machines. You can pretend you're Icarus flying over the Waterloo Bridge. Except that you're just dangling from a big arm and slowly rotating while other visitors and the odd guy on the top the double deckers are pointing at you.

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Carsten Höller, Dice (White Body, Black Dots), 2014 and Reflections On Her Eyes, Reflections On My Eyes, 1996_2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation view Carsten Höller_ Decision, Hayward Gallery, London, 2015

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Carsten Höller, Half Mirror Room, 2008_2015 and Snake, 2014 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo © Linda Nylind

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Carsten Höller, Dice (White Body, Black Dots), 2014. Installation view Carsten Höller_ Decision, Hayward Gallery, London, 2015. Courtesy the artist

The top floor of the Hayward also houses Half Mirror Room, a room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors positioned at 90-degree angles to one another, another disorienting experience. How big is this room really? Are these mirrors or is this another of Höller's tricks to play with our perception? In the middle of the room is a super big dice. Instead of black dots, it has holes for children to crawl through.

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Carsten Höller, Two Roaming Beds (Grey), 2015. © Carsten Höller. Produced with Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, and HangarBicocca, Milano. Installation view_ Carsten Höller_ Decision, Hayward Gallery, London, 2015

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Carsten Höller, Two Roaming Beds (Grey), 2015 and Half Clock, 2014 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Thyssen-Bornewmisza Art Contemporary

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Carsten Höller, Two Roaming Beds (Grey), 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Linda Nylind

Meanwhile, two self-navigating robotic beds are quietly gliding around one of the gallery spaces. The beds move in relation to each other, using radio beacons and a laser. During the day, a big sign informs you that you shouldn't touch them but if you have £300 to spare, the beds are yours to sleep in at night. I read that for that price, you also get "dream-enhancing toothpaste."

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Carsten Höller, Isomeric Slides, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and LUMA Foundation Photo © Linda Nylind

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Carsten Höller, Isomeric Slides, 2015 © Carsten Höller. Installation View Carsten Höller l Decision, Hayward Gallery, London 2015. Courtesy of the artist and LUMA Foundation Photo © Linda Nylind

Höller's shiny Isometric Slides are a very efficient marketing ploy to lure you into the building. They are also the last episode of your journey into the exhibition. You get to climb to the top of the space with a fabric bag and then merrily slide all the way back to normal life.

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The catalogue is pure Höller. It takes the form of two books wrapped in glossy white paper. Two because it forces you to decide which one to read first. One of the books contains new short stories by six writers - Naomi Alderman, Jenni Fagan, Jonathan Lethem, Deborah Levy, Helen Oyeyemi and Ali Smith - responding to the theme of decision-making. The other one focuses on the show itself with a photographic interpretation of the multiple ways of experiencing Höller's immersive exhibition and an interview in which the artist talks to curator Ralph Rugoff about participatory art, proprioception, machines for meditation, and aphid's non-sexual mode of reproduction. I haven't looked at the short stories yet but i greatly enjoyed reading the interview.

Decisions is at the Hayward Gallery in London until 6 September.
If you're in London this weekend, do check out the programme of Hayward's performance day on Saturday 18 July, as part of their exhibition Echoes & Reverberations.

As usual, i took some pretty bad photos at the show.

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