His next film interweaves documented rituals and healing modalities with shamans, dowsers and other energy practitioners, and direct addresses to the viewer in the form of invitations to experience mind-altering techniques. Dismayed by the dissolution of cinematic space into content to be infinitely scrolled, Matthew Lessner is abandoning more traditional film production for experiences that involve an audience at its most receptive. Neurofeedback technology—mainly used in the medical treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, and cognitive disorders, but now also in the field of wellness—is used in his new project through the prism of art to address metaphysical questions. Is reality an individual construction?
Aude Launay: Matthew, you are both a visual artist and a filmmaker, and you situate yourself more and more at the intersection of contemporary art and cinema. In 2020, with SAINT Y2K 1, you offered a first multisensorial experience of a film displayed to audience members individually within an art installation involving custom incense, crystals and a comfortable sculptural space to sit in. This way, you created the conditions for a mindful presence of the audience to your work, going against the now ordinary experience of moving images that mindless scrolling has become. Is that something you precisely had in mind when designing this installation, or did you have another vision or purpose?
Matthew Lessner: Yes, definitely, the desire to offer an audience the opportunity to step into a more immediate and immersive physical experience has been a major motivation in moving away from the more conventional cinematic space that I used to primarily function in. I’m really excited by this idea that I might be able to actually offer people the possibility to inhabit, even if temporarily, another kind of physical reality— including, as you mention, smell, lighting, acoustics, energy of a space.
When I started making films, the ritual act of going to the cinema and sharing that space and energy with other physically embodied beings was an essential part of the magic and intrigue of the whole thing for me. Even just traveling to the video store, walking through its aisles, picking up the VHS boxes, studying their artwork, smelling the smells of the place: that was all part of what drew me to film. At some point in the past decade, it really hit me that even though my films were screening and being released at major film festivals, and winning awards, and having limited theatrical releases, probably 99.9% of the people who would ever see them would do so on the same glowing screens where they pay their bills, write e-mails and shop for shoes, maybe while also cooking spaghetti or dozing off in bed. I think this realization really motivated my desire to start experimenting with positioning my work in a novel way, for me at least, that would require people to come and experience it with their physical bodies, to be more present. Certainly, fewer people will have the opportunity to see these works, but hopefully those that do will have more valuable and memorable and impactful experiences. I would really like to be able to offer people something else than simply more content to consume on their phones, something more communal.
A.L.: In 2023 you will present HYACINTHE2that you describe as “an interactive film experience using brainwave technology to explore how state of mind impacts reality”. Can you explain the mechanisms that allow for this to happen?
M.L.: Sure. A few years ago I became aware of these consumer-grade headsets that were being sold to supposedly help people reach deeper states of meditation by using a kind of basic audio neurofeedback. Essentially, a set of sensors in the headband situated along the prefrontal cortex of the brain monitor a particular range of brainwave patterns whose increase or decrease is broadly associated with different stages of the meditative process. If a user is moving toward deeper states of meditation, they receive real-time auditory feedback and rewards, which will hopefully help them going further into these meditative states, but if their brain waves return toward a more active or busy state of mind, those rewards will be taken away.
When I heard about these headbands, I wondered if it would be possible to modify them in such a way that, instead of an audio-based system, the user’s brain waves could control a set of video filters in real time. I consulted with my brilliant friend and collaborator Leo Hiselius, and he told me it was indeed possible, and so that’s what we’ve set out to do.
In the HYACINTHE exhibition, individual audience members will be outfitted with one of these modified headsets and will be shown a film that is conceived to encourage a state of mindfulness. The film will then be influenced in real time by the ways its viewer’s brain reacts to it: what the person sees will be directly influenced by the way their brain waves react to what they see. This way, we hope to be able to make tangible the spiritual and psychological axiom that, at least to some extent, the reality we are all experiencing is shaped by our own perception of it—an idea that seems increasingly obvious to me as I walk my own healing journey, but one that can also be difficult for me to clearly bear witness to, so hopefully this work will help making that more immediate and concrete.
A.L.: So, far from ELIZA3, the therapist conversation bot from the 1960s that mostly rephrased what people were telling her in the form of questions—following an actual therapeutic method—, here the human-software interaction is designed to produce a sensory impact on the reality the viewer is experiencing. I refer to ELIZA as a landmark in human-computer interaction history but also to highlight this tendency humans have to think that software is more powerful than it actually is when most of the work happens in general in the human brain that the software simply complements in one way or another. Here, with HYACINTHE, we have these headbands enhanced with custom software that demonstrate the power of our own brain waves on our reality. So the tool is here to lead its users to ultimately learn how to experience their own brain power on their own. This places your work outside of the classical polarity at play within digital arts—marvelling at the technology for the sake of it or criticizing this same technology— with a demonstration of the possible uses of the technology but to better get rid of rid, in a way. What are your thoughts on this conflation of high-end technology and thousand years old mind-altering techniques like meditation?
M.L.: This technology is a tool, and like any tool it can be used for good or for ill, to help or to harm. It seems more than obvious that certain forms of unbridled technology are having devastating consequences on global society and on individual psychology, but at the same time I think that it’s interesting to consider the possible ways these tools might help us heal instead of just dismissing them because of the harm they are causing when used in certain ways.
Many paths can lead to the same or similar destinations, some might be considered shortcuts or windows or portals along the way (psychedelics, breathwork, technology), perhaps less sustainable and enduring than others (meditation, monastic living), but I don’t think they are necessarily less valuable, nor do I think one is inherently better or worse than the other. I think various modalities can co-exist and complement each other, and I don’t think one needs to replace the other.
I also think different paths and approaches are more or less appropriate for different individuals at different times in their lives or at different stages of their personal development. For an extremely advanced meditator, what this project seeks to demonstrate might be completely obvious and superfluous, but for someone who has no experience with any mindfulness practice or consciousness expansion, or for someone who becomes anxious when attempting to silently meditate, this might be quite impactful, and perhaps it might even act as a kind of stepping stone to other paths or approaches. Even for someone like myself, who has a years long history with a variety of modalities, including meditation, breathwork, and plant medicine, being able to see the immediate impact that my brain state has on what I am experiencing has been extremely valuable. I don’t see this as a replacement for any of those other modalities; it’s not as if upon seeing this principle demonstrated one achieves some kind of enlightenment or arrives at a particular destination, but I do think it can be a helpful tool in making the invisible visible, and perhaps a guide along one’s healing path or even an entry to it.
A.L. : HYACINTHE appears to be a way for you to substantiate the links between neuroscience and shamanism, and to express the fact that these practices that could appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum of the knowledge of the brain are indeed two facets of it, in the manner, if you will, of the work of the medical anthropologist and shaman Alberto Villoldo4.
Have you told the neuroscientists and the shamans you have interviewed for this project that you were interested in making those links obvious and if so, how did they react to that?
M.L.: I think that’s a fair assessment, although I don’t think I’ve explicitly expressed that idea to those I interviewed for the project. So far, the conversations have been focused on healing in whatever form it manifests, though I do think those links arise spontaneously and will become more explicit as the material coalesces.
One of the most inspiring persons I’ve inteviewed thus far is Vassilia Theodoridou on the island of Ikaria in southern Greece. She works with various modalities, including energetic dowsing, which is why I initially contacted her, but she describes herself as a “self-healing consultant,” or facilitator, rather than a healer or a shaman, which I think is a deeply meaningful distinction. In one of our early discussions, she told me that “all healing is self-healing,” which really stuck with me, and she described her role as to help people recognize their own capacity to heal rather than to perform some act upon them. In a way, I think this is similar to what is happening with neurofeedback, where the technology is making certain patterns and ways of thinking visible to individuals, but in the end it is their own brains that actually provide the healing.
Vassilia and I discussed the ways in which much of modern western medicine has obscured individuals’ own capacity to heal by overemphasizing outside intervention, as well as by focusing on the treatment of symptoms instead of identifying and healing the root causes. I think so much of our individual healing capacity has been robbed from us and offloaded onto other people in positions of authority. Obviously, there are situations where intervention is essential and necessary, but I suspect not as often as we think. We are so often led to believe that we need others in order to heal, instead of being informed about our own innate abilities and encouraged to step into our own power. Hopefully this project can help to illuminate that a bit.
Aude Launay & Matthew Lessner
1 October 3-11, 2020, Hökens gata 11, Stockholm.
2 SKF/Konstnärshuset, January 2023, Stockholm.
3 ELIZA was developed by Joseph Weizenbaum at the MIT from 1964 to 1966.
4 Alberto Villoldo notably published Power Up Your Brain, the Neuroscience of Enlightenment (2011), together wih celebrity neurologist David Perlmutter.