From Vardøger to paranoia

This text by Asbjørn Blokkum Flø was originally published on in connection with the production of the installation Doppelgänger in 2014.

Doppelgänger […] a wraith or apparition of a living person, as distinguished from a ghost. The concept of the existence of a spirit double, an exact but usually invisible replica of every man, bird, or beast […] to meet one’s double is a sign that one’s death is imminent. (from Encyclopædia Britannica)

At the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see a tribe of great apes, man’s ancestors, gathered in front of a monolith. The tall, black object has a threatening effect on the apes who first approach it shrieking and jumping, and then gradually, cautiously attempts to touch it. The monolith as a sign of advanced alien technology and progress are repeated throughout the film.

Stanley Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey

In the installation Doppelgänger the monoliths has a slightly different function and form; here they appear as sound. The seven three-meter high steel monoliths that constitute the installation are sound producing objects that transport sound from the public space into the installation’s timbral body. This timbral body consists of the sound from the location’s public space that is transported into this site-specific and immersive sound installation.

Through this re-contextualization of the sound of the social space one achieves a critical reading of the social structures of the location in the form of a massive sound installation. Doppelgänger thus becomes a parallel, devilish materialisation of the social space; through the installation’s transformation of the sound of the space, the unknown qualities of the space are brought into the forefront. This is the shadow version of the “real” world – shadow versions where unconscious structures are uncovered. The notion of a parallel world is realized in Doppelgänger.

Listening to the social sound involves an analysis of the social structures as they appear in space as sound. Sound in the social space may seem chaotic, but under the surface patterns exists such as monologues and dialogues, from chaos to easily recognizable structures. In the installation these structures are examined; what do they represent, and what happens when they are re-contextualized into the installation?

The installation Space
One arrives at the installation through the gallery door and is met by a dimly lit room occupied by seven three-meter tall illuminated metal monoliths. They are acoustically activated by electromagnetic arms and surround the listener with a constantly shifting spatial sound field that continuously utilizes new sound structures from the gallery’s social space. This immersive sound ranges from a deep rumbling physical sound to small grains of sound that spreads through the space. The combination of massive sound and nuanced acoustic metal timbres gives an intense, sensuous sound experience.

From Vardøger to paranoia
The conception of the doppelgänger has a long tradition both in literature and folklore. From the Scandinavian conception of the vardøger, to 19th century writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, we find this shadow-less twin existence that mediates signs and events across time and space. The English painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s picture How they Met Themselves (1864) shows the romantic interpretation of the doppelgänger myth. A couple in love meets their doubles in the forest and the distressed woman swoons in this meeting with her own self.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: How they Met Themselves (1864)

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story William Wilson, the idea of the doppelgänger is turned into a study of morality in which the dubious protagonist is dogged by his doppelgänger most tenaciously when his morals fail. The 19th century’s fascination with the doppelgänger did also spread into real life, and descriptions of doppelgänger experiences were numerous, with eyewitness accounts from among others Percy Shelley, Abraham Lincoln and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Modern medical science claims to be able to recreate the doppelgänger experience through electromagnetic stimulation of the brain, and connects the phenomenon to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and paranoia.

The Doppelgänger myth as a metaphor
Whatever model of explanation or context one uses for the doppelgänger phenomenon it is interesting to examine the phenomenon as a metaphor. In folklore the doppelgänger were often seen upon as a messenger of sickness, danger or death. The doppelgänger is in its Scandinavian variant, vardøger, an omen and often forebodes an accident or other malicious incidents. In the 19th century conception, the doppelgänger was also used as a metaphor for the split personality.

The Modern Art Museum with its social basis is an interesting object for this social sound interpretation. In addition to being a exhibition space for contemporary art, this is also a social meeting point and constitute in itself a micro-cosmos filled with social and economical capital. These structures make up a unique point of departure for a social timbre study.

In the installation the doppelgänger appears as an unveiling of the real. The acoustic space is stripped of its outer layer and reveals its inner structures. A new parallel version of this space appears. Apparently the same, but the doppelgänger is never the same and in this installation the doppelgänger can forebode both danger and misfortune.

A complex, polyphonic sound experience
Social spaces may at first appear as random walls of noise, but anyone who has tried to carry on a conversation in a noisy environment knows that this is actually quite possible despite the surrounding distractions. This shows that the brain is capable of focusing the listening functions in different ways according to the situation, something that is well documented in psycho-acoustics. The sound of the social space can contain everything from embarrassing silence to a pulsating stream of voices, glass and music. This sound has its own circadian rhythm and also changes constantly throughout the different days of the week.

In the short film Truck Stop (1993) we observe the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould as he enters the complex web of sounds, conversations, voices and different social settings that exist in his local Truck Stop. As the camera gradually zooms in on his ear and his fingers we can literally feel what he hears; a complex polyphonic sound experience. This illustrates that the social sound is not just a random wall of noise, but also a complex web of social intentions and timbral nuances. This is the starting point for the installation Doppelgänger.