Boing Boing pal, Peter Bebergal, has a new book coming out later this month called Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural. In 2015's Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock n' Roll, Peter explored what he identified as the "occult imagination" and how it had provided critical inspiration to many ground-breaking rock artists of the 60s and 70s (and beyond). In Strange Frequencies, Peter takes a hands-on look at how technology has always gone hand-in-hand with explorations of the otherworldy. He experiments with building a spirit radio, EVP (electronic voice phenomena) recordings, a brain machine, and an automaton, and examines the legend of the Golem (arguably the "programmable robot" of Jewish mysticism), spirit photography, and the relationship between stage magic and magic of the supernatural.
To give you a taste of some of what's in Strange Frequencies, Peter recently appeared on Ryan Peverly's Occulture podcast. Peverly says that Strange Frequencies is the coolest book you will read all year.
JS: I’m glad you brought up divination because that relates to something else that was revelatory to me throughout the book, namely: that the ‘technology’ in the “technological quest for the supernatural” of the title isn’t just cameras, or televisions, or other mechanical devices, but also that crystals or sigils and other more fundamental tools external to our bodies are a kind of technology we use. Can you talk about that role of technology in relation to the spiritual imagination?
PB: Magic and technology are both methods of using tools to manipulate or get some modicum of control over our experience in the world. The magician or medium and the inventor are intimately related, because they are all attempting to break open conventional ways of working with the forces that shape our lives. Magic is, indeed, a kind of spiritual hacking. When the medium is using a seeing-stone to try to speak with angelic beings, they are cracking open the machine of the universe and repurposing it. Think of a table of occult correspondences as a schematic or vice versa, and your imagination is enchanted in an entirely new way.
JS: Yes, that reminds me of one of my favorite lines from your book: “…technology is not merely an external experience, but an inner process of making that moves through all things.” That idea of ‘inner making’ recontextualizes the “craft” in “witchcraft” in really interesting and exciting ways—and also the “stagecraft” of magicians. The magic is in the making and in the performing as much as—or more than—in the materials themselves. What was the most magical experience of making you had while researching this book?
PB: There were many moments of amazement; spending time with the photographer Shannon Taggart and her photographs of mediums, staring into filmmaker Ronni Thomas’ dreamachine, and speaking by Skype to the actor/magician Nate Dendy when suddenly an entire deck of cards fell out his mouth, to name a few. But there was a moment when I was in the studio of the horologist Nico Cox. She was showing me a clockwork mechanism called a bird box. She wound the device, and after a deeply pregnant pause, a tiny feathered bird popped and began to sing, moving back and forth, its small beak opening and closing. Rationally I knew that it was a mechanical object, but I felt myself fall into that uncanny valley where my imagination was entranced. What was real and not real, life and not life, became irrelevant in the face of this marvelous object. This, I realized, is what magic truly is. Someone created this device, according to their will, and caused change to occur in both the world and in the consciousness of the observer. It was no wonder that one time people thought an automaton like this was powered by infernal forces. Even knowing it was all a matter of gears and bellows, I still could not understand how such a thing could exist.
[Photo credit: Haute Macabre]