A lot of think tanks these days dedicate time to indoctrinating followers into the political hive mind — but a new one in Sunset Park lets you lounge in a sea of salty sensory deprivation while contemplating ways to destroy the prevailing paradigm.
German artist Thom Kubli has installed his “FLOAT! Thinktank 21” isolation chamber in a gritty warehouse on 33rd Street, and says that his sensory deprivation experience — think “Altered States” with a Chomsky-esque twist — is the way to plant the seed of self-agency.
“I like the idea of losing all known references — if you think about issues, it’s good to have a different perspective,” said Kubli, who added that the inspiration came from the nerve-wracking economic crisis.
But don’t think this isolation experience in Kubli’s sound and lightproof tank full of saltwater will be as mind-numbing as tuning into C-Span — quite the contrary.
“Some people have psychedelic experiences,” said Kubli, who has had about 20 one- to two-hour sessions in the tank. “Some people see crazy stuff — lights and shapes. People say their breathing and body become more synchronized and that sound resonates strangely.”
Count me in.
Of course, I had some reservations as Kubli ushered me into the tank, which looks like it’s straight out of “2001: A Space Odyssey,”
Namely, would I end up like William Hurt in “Altered States” — a sick, twisted humanzee — or, even worse, like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly” — a freakish mutant that must be put out of its misery by Geena Davis?
No worry, Kubli said. The tank is a meditative experience — there are no side effects involving genetic mutation.
So with a little trepidation I stepped into the tank filled with highly salted water — enough to make me able to float without any effort. The water was at body temperature, along with the rest of the tank, making it unclear where the water level began and ended.
Soon after shutting the door on reality, I stretched out, let my ears take in the water and began to hear Kubli’s voice, echoing underwater through speakers installed in the sides of the tank.
“You are now in a zero gravity environment … imagine yourself as a politically active person, regardless of whether you are or not.”
I tried for a moment to think about politics, but I was preoccupied with more immediate concerns: “Wow, look at that light-insect creeping around the roof of the tank! Whoa, how did it just get even darker in here? Hey, why is there a ray of light at my feet? Where is that music coming from? Why do I hear a subway rolling into the station? Am I running out of oxygen? Am I going to die in here?”
And then, sooner than I could say, “Get me the hell out of here!” it was over.
“Yeah, that was 45 minutes,” Kubli said.
The mental heavy lifting was done in the name of art, of course. Kubli envisions his piece as an enriching experience that will hopefully make a person become more politically engaged.
To prepare me for the experience, Kubli had me spend time in the “context space,” where he had arranged an assortment of books and audio recordings to get me ready to ruminate on zero gs and activism. One of the books was by John C. Lily — a pioneer in isolation experimentation.
A contemporary of Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, Lily subjected himself to sensory deprivation while tripping on hallucinogens. Later, Lily spent a great deal of time trying to communicate with dolphins, leading to his declaration that the bottlenosed bastards can imitate human speech — a finding that has yet to be confirmed by those off drugs.
Kubli’s recordings of himself — spoken in a thick, authoritative German accent that was oddly soothing at the same time — only increased the feelings of disorientation.
He said that the zero g experience presented an opportunity for new modes of thought.
It certainly was exhilarating, but I can’t say that my political sensibilities changed. Of course, that won’t necessarily be the case for anyone else that goes in the tank. As Kubli said, “The experience is different for everyone — it’s about planting the seed of an idea.”
I don’t know if any ideas were planted in my dome, but I did learn that somewhere in my brain, there is a hint of claustrophobia.
“FLOAT! Thinktank 21” at Marian Spore gallery [55 Third St. between Second and Third avenues in Sunset Park. (646) 620-7758] runs through September.