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art by Melissa Mead

A Theory of Sixth-Sense Aesthetics

Ciro Faienza enjoys being hyphenated as a writer-actor-director of film and theatre, author-poet-visual-artist-critic, and twenty-something Italian American. His essays and book reviews have appeared in Reflection's Edge, and his work as a film director and cinematographer has shown at the London National Gallery, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Dallas Hub Theater. He is currently at work on a feature film.

William had to wiki the word "psi-phy". The explanation--"... pop-cultural slang for the various disciplines of psioneurology, neurophysics, and quantum neuroscience,"--sent him on an endlessly nesting hyperlink tangent before he finally gave up and tabbed back to the blog entry that had prompted the search in the first place.
Simone leaned over the screen in his hand. "What are you looking at?"
Certainly his ears registered the sound, but it didn't make it past his attention filters. The blog entry read:
... but it's time for a small confession--I don't subscribe to this sustained vogue for Theories of Everything. I'm sick of reading about the rise and fall of the various avenues of discovery: string theory, information theory, variable speed of light, ad infinitum. I remember when holographic theory was one step away from quackery, before the "new" and "revised" monikers.
Before a lot of things, you might say.
The biggest change you and I have seen in our lifetimes to the whole mess has been, of course, the psi folk. But watching all the big thinkers scramble to make room for it has taken up too much of our time, I think--does it embarrass anyone else that we have to explain something before we can accept it? What difference does it make whether you think it's neoronal channels or entangled synaptic states? It's still a damn strange rose, whatever you call it, and anyway, when I took science, "I don't know" was a perfectly acceptable answer.
William shifted on his feet. "Neoronal. I love it. These guys: Neoronal," he said, mostly to himself, with a shake of his head.
Simone stared at him, and suddenly he noticed her silence. He looked up. "You ever heard the term 'sigh-figh'?"
A thoroughly baffled look. "What kind of a question is that?"
"No, with a 'p', with two 'p's."
"Oh. Yeah, of course, everyone has. That's what you call it."
William kept reading, but not before catching the look on Simone's face. He'd had a fascination with the shape of her mouth since he first met her--articulate, and somehow feline, and now kinked at a corner. He decided she must be irritated with him for withdrawing to his reader, a thought that lived in the top and back of his skull. He told himself he didn't care, that it was her fault, for bringing him to something so much more hip than he had the energy to be. (So hip, in fact, that the gallery was exceeding its fire code maximum occupancy.)
But it wasn't true--it did bother him. Their art show visits had gotten harder for William over the past few weeks, like a string of awkward holiday dinners. In fact he was doing this reading for her. Doing homework. Researching. If he couldn't appreciate the art, at least he could talk just as well about it as all the mouth-breathers he was bound to jostle shoulders with.
William's blogger had gone on to say that psi art was revealing more about psi-phy than all the sciences, and how much the blogger loved this artist in particular. One phrase, "... and his work transcends all the id-stroking fantasies of his contemporaries," sounded to William like something he ought to be able to quote for the next hour.
Simone, he realized, had disappeared from his side. He looked around for her hair, running Lola red, amid the gallery patrons and nude men on pedestals. The room was crushed with people, all their colors brilliant against the neutral gray of the concrete walls and pillars. Some of them wore black and drank bright drinks from small glasses. Most were prettier than William.
And the nude men irritated him a little. As a weird-for-the-sake-of-weird cliché, they fit perfectly--chiseled, silent, dramatically lit. Some were covered in ropey strings of color, others in bits of paper or lines of text. One had bands of pulsating light projected onto his genitals. And people were touching some of them--on feet, muscled thighs, and outstretched hands--which seemed shockingly out of place. Like licking an ice sculpture.
Simone emerged on his left, with a friend, doubtless the gallery director Nina Barrea whom Simone had met by chance while abroad. Nina had the impervious look of people in her profession, vanguard chic with deliberate under-embellishment, as if to say, "I wear this all the time." The hands she extended introducing herself fascinated William--viperish, he thought, with sharp gold nails and wiry tendons, darting snake-like into each animated gesture as she spoke.
But she had asked him something. He tried to find it in his short-term memory and failed. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"I said like Hearst? The newspaper magnate?"
"Oh! That's funny, I haven't gotten that in a while. No, just William Randolph." A pause. "So two thirds of the newspaper magnate."
Nina made a sound like a kid mimicking a machine gun. "I see," she said, "And how have you been enjoying the pieces?"
"We just got here. I haven't figured out the models, though. Are they part of the permanent collection, or..." He trailed off as she raised her eyebrows. Simone was studying the floor.
"The... models. The psychometrons?"
"Psychom... Yes. Oh."
Nina smiled, gracious and amused, and placed a hand on his shoulder to turn him toward the pedestals.
"Most psi artists are the exhibit," she said, free hand gesturing her point. "Sort of like masters of ceremony. Étienne was the first to create his pieces as interactual memories in surrogates, who then convey the experience. Psychometrons."
William felt like a fourth-grader.
"They remind me of Rauschenberg's combines," Simone decided aloud, eliciting a stunned "oh" sound from Nina.
She stared at a model riddled with Pollock ejaculations, then said with gravity, "Yes. Oh my god, yes. It's like they're mediated combines. That's brilliant, Simone."
"Only, " Simone looked for a word, "contingent."
"Mm. Mmm." Nina nodded seriously, hand to chin, and kept her gaze on the naked man covered in paint. "Yes. That's it."
"Well, I think I'll take my first look, then," William said after a moment, with an awkward abruptness that he couldn't quite explain. The two women turned to him.
"Oh, of course, sure, no, have a look around," said Nina. "Hope you don't mind if I borrow Simone for a bit." She had locked elbows with Simone, who smiled at her, then looked expectantly at William.
He took his leave with some relief and was glad to see by the look she gave him as he turned away that Simone understood. Embarrassment (especially in front of her) was difficult for him to shake if it came early enough in an evening, and it tended to act on his charisma as the single touch to the butterfly's wing.
It occurred to him that he probably didn't look as out of place as he felt. He dressed well enough. He was the right age. His girlfriend was visibly close with the host. It was paranoia to believe his emotional tells were plain on his face, that the people around him would bother to look closely enough at an ordinary stranger to notice he felt like an idiot. Nevertheless, after a few minutes he was looking for some kind of harbor from the sea of people and found it at the wine table.
Simone tapped him on the shoulder while he was mid swallow on a mouthful of overly fruity red. "Hey, babe," she said, "babe" being the word she used when she felt particularly on top of her game. It implied a fabulousness William never felt and was never sure he lived up to.
"Mm, hey. You have your talk with Nina?"
"I mean, I did talk with her," she said evenly. "I'll be talking with her all evening."
"I just came to see how you were doing."
William raised the corners of his eyebrows and lips very slightly, thinking he might erase unconscious indicators of gloom and sulk. "Yeah. It looks really interesting. I'm trying to decide where to start." He told her some of the things he'd read about the exhibit beforehand, without attributing them, so that his favorite observations in his own words sounded like his own thoughts. It was not peculiar or even notable to him that this minor lie made it past his lips with no guilt whatsoever. Minor lies had started to work like lubricants for William.
Simone listened, standing on one foot with the other propped against the planted ankle, like a ballet pose of some kind. Occasionally she pushed a handful of shock red hair back from her forehead, alternated on which hip she rested her weight, licked the corners of her mouth. When William had finished, her eyes were shifted to her left, in thought. Then:
"You ever read that review of the Orbit Hotel in the Times a few weeks back?"
William blinked. "Yeah, I think so. One about sexual tourism?"
Simone nodded. "The basic point was how obviously the company was catering to the Zero-G Club, that it was probably going to fail because everyone knew microgravity sex was overrated."
"Oh is it?" William grinned into his glass.
"See, that's the thing--no. It isn't." She paused for emphasis. "Everyone is always saying it like they're so world-wise, and they talk about how lovers fly apart every time they collide, or the fluids that stay suspended in the air, or that you have to work a lot harder because there's no gravity for leverage, or all kinds of things, and it misses the point.
"The guy I was with before you took me to the Orbit for his birthday, which at the time I thought was a truly magnanimous act of self-love, but he was so committed. We brought a sling, with elastic, to help keep us together, and a towel, of course, because you know how things get. Works just as well to soak things up up there as down here."
William nodded of course. He thought of rain floating in place and of waving a towel through it, slowly, to watch the drops disappear into dark spots on the cloth.
"Your room has a wall-to-wall window," she continued, "though the earth-side views are more expensive and we had to settle for the space side, but it was... I don't want to talk about stars, it wasn't some transplanted pastoralist shtick." She traced her bottom lip with her finger, the way she did when she was writing. "You lose awareness of weight and surfaces," she said at last. "You stop worrying about what's reciprocal or even who you're having sex with, because it feels so good to be moving like this, you've never moved this freely before, and you can feel yourself like a beautiful machine, like perpetual motion, and you're this animal, in your most animal state, way out in the black...
"It's sex versus the void, Will. I am telling you it is not overrated."
William cleared his throat. "Sure, I see that. But what, ah--"
"My point is you can't trust everything you hear about the practical stuff. Some experiences have to be primary experiences. Psi art is so much bigger than psi-phy, you have to give in to it and actually take in a piece."
He frowned. "I'm going to. I was just getting a drink."
"Okay, okay." She folded her hands in front of her. "That's fine, I'm just seeing how you are."
Conciliatory. Maybe patronizing, William thought, though he realized that might be uncharitable. Sex with a previous boyfriend was, after all, an intimate topic that indicated trust. Like the kind of trust she expected of him when she asked to groom his back for blackheads. She used her thumbnails to pinch the skin and squeeze out little nodules of congealed oil, and would sometimes stay at it for almost half an hour. It satisfied her, she claimed, the way social rituals were supposed to. He guessed he understood that, at least partially.
Simone excused herself with a kiss and went back to schmoozing, but not before suggesting William look at the piece labeled "Identity" at the far end of the gallery. He grabbed a second glass of wine. Ten or eleven nude models (psychometrons, he corrected himself) occupied the space, each with clusters of viewers touching some body part. The piece closest to him sported the glowing penis, but too many people were crowded around it, so he skipped it for the next in line.
The psychometron was well lit, with specular highlights tracing smooth curves along every muscle, especially the long sinewy clusters at his thighs. The phrase, "I am a strange loop," adorned the hairless pectoral expanse above his left nipple. William watched for a moment and noted almost no movement, despite the fact the man must have been there for a few hours now. Gingerly William inched his hand toward a shin bone, and the instant his finger made contact--
--found himself ten feet away from the psychometron, walking towards the piece. He stopped and watched for a moment, noting almost no movement, then gingerly inched his hand toward a shin bone, until contact--
--sent him ten feet away again. Again he walked, and stopped, and watched, thinking the whole time that he was following exactly the same movements, but nonetheless he touched the shin again. Upon the fourth iteration, was worried about breaking out of the cycle, and the second his hand was about to touch the shin--
--he jerked it away. And blinked. Motor control, it seemed, had returned to him.
"Strange loop," he whispered to himself. "Jesus. Psi-phy."
A vampish middle-aged woman to his right took her hand away from the psychometron and laughed. "Yes."
He approached the next piece with a measure of bravery. The man's eyes were closed, and a black band was painted across his lids, but no text indicated a title. William did see a tiny number on the wall next to the piece, but he didn't have the monument list, so he simply touched the body.
Nothing happened. "What?"
"Oh, you don't know?" asked a man to his left, who initially had gently cupped the psychometron's buttock. He had silver moons suspended in the whites of his eyes. "You've been standing there for a whole minute. This is the death piece."
William looked at him quizzically for a moment, but when the man said nothing else, William walked away.
A few of the other pieces played similar hallucinatory games, which William tried to pretend were starting to bore him. His expectations had been directed by phrases like transcends and primary experiences, and he thought nothing about the idea that psi abilities could manage total sense hallucinations should be surprising or revolutionary. People, he reasoned, had been preparing for such a thing since the 20th century, with drugs, with virtual reality, and so on. It wasn't until the eighth piece that he got a sense of the layers he might be missing.
It started with a mental impression of a briefcase, an image like the kind in the half-dreams that come between falling asleep and actually sleeping. Details like the type of clasp and the texture of the leather were unclear. Along with the image came an incredible sense of expectation. Willaim held his breath. He thought the briefcase was going to open and he couldn't wait to see what was inside, as though it were the answer to some question he'd forgotten he'd asked. Part of him knew this feeling had no justification, and therefore must be a transplant from the psychometron, but that didn't make it any less real. He hadn't been this excited about opening anything since a childhood Christmas, or the first time he'd removed a girl's clothes.
The briefcase came closer in his mind, and William gasped. Unconsciously he reached a hand out to grab it, perhaps to open it himself.
Without any fanfare, the briefcase disappeared.
A wash of exhilaration flooded him, like that perfect, specific moment when a birthday present has just been opened. Confused, William searched his memory, thinking things had happened so fast he'd missed something. His hand fell away from the psychometron's body, and he noted that the pleasure fell with it.
It irked William. His emotional memory gave him the satisfaction of having seen the contents, but he hadn't actually seen them, and now that his contact with the image was broken, he was left with a peculiar empty feeling. Whether it had been his own emotion or a grafted one, he still wanted to see what was inside.
He considered the idea that the contents didn't matter, that the exhilaration was key, but the specificity of a briefcase, glimpsed not as a simple picture, but rather as an image of the idea of briefcase, seemed to negate this notion. Perhaps it was an image culled from his own memory, and he already knew the answer? Or maybe he was supposed to invent its contents. Choose his own ending.
Nothing satisfied. He pondered it a few minutes more and decided the artist had played a very subtle, very interesting trick with him, one he had not been prepared for. Then he remembered Simone's suggestion about the last piece in the row.
He looked and saw a statuesque psychometron with squares of paper applied uniformly across his body. Six people were touching him.
William started in that direction, until Nina came into view.
"William, hello."
"Nina, hi. This is--"
"Great, isn't it?" She scanned the pieces, a rancher surveying her land.
"Yeah, I especially liked the one--"
She turned back to him. "Listen, I'm glad I found you, because I've got a surprise for Simone and I thought you'd want to be there to hear it."
He raised his eyebrows. "Oh, really?"
"Yeah, come on, this way." She lead him to Simone's spot on the gallery floor, then motioned to someone a few feet away, "Nigel, you should come, I want you to meet someone."
It was the older gentleman with moons in his eyes. He smiled at William.
"Everyone, this is Nigel Rivers," Nina continued, "he and I have been working friends for years, and Nigel this is Simone Simek, you remember, I told you--"
"Yes," he said enthusiastically and shook hands with Simone, whose smile was genuine.
"And Nigel, William..." She looked at him.
"Randolph," William finished and shook hands.
"Nigel and I," said Nina, "have been working, Simone, for a few months now, just on the logistics, really, of jump starting the first critical journal devoted exclusively to psi art."
Simone gasped. "Nina, that's great, that's a great idea, wow. When are you--"
"Ah, but listen. I don't know anyone in the community that has as much to say about this as you do, and I think you've got great, solid insights." Simone was blushing now. "And I'd like you to come on and write for us."
Simone's hands went to her mouth, and Nina laughed, with affection. The three of them carried on a looping display of thank-yous and congratulations, flurries of article ideas, and what William called name-dropping, for which he tried to window dress by keeping his smile up and sipping from an empty glass.
He was genuinely happy for Simone. But it seemed to him that he could only distract from her evening at this point, and circumstance was not affording him a way to get that across to her.
"So, William." Nigel turned to him. "How are you liking the show?"
"I ran into him at 'Untitled,'" Nigel explained.
"Oh?" said Simone, with an expectant look to William.
"I find that piece so profound," said Nina, "even, you know, while it's so on the nose."
"Have to say, I had some trouble with that one," said William. A glint from a silver moon caught his eye. "The one that really got me was the briefcase."
"Ah," said the three of them.
"Isn't that wonderful?" Nigel asked no one. "Fantastic tension. Fantastic."
"Yes, I agree," said Nina. "It's breathtaking."
William interrupted Simone, told her to go, was told by her to go, then said, "I don't think I'd read anywhere that psi abilities extended all the way to, I guess, telegraphing emotions the way that piece does."
"Hmm," said Nina.
"I think some of those researchers at Duke might have a good time with it," William continued.
Simone looked to William and asked, "What did you think about the concept, though? I mean the piece itself?"
"Well," William rubbed the back of his head, "I haven't made up my mind about it. It's certainly interesting, the tension, like you said. I can't decide if I should be putting something in the briefcase, or if it symbolizes the unpacking of it, or--"
"Oh, I see," said Nigel. "You're thinking of it like a painting. The trouble with that, of course, is that it can be limiting with work like this. You were right to think about the use of 'emotion', as you called it, but you might be more rewarded if you looked at the pure suspension of the poles."
"The psycho-virtual and the virtual-objective," Nina nodded.
"Will, it's like--" Simone rubbed her bottom lip. "It draws attention to the difference between emotional truth and what that truth is a response to."
"Okay. But, I think the briefcase was a pretty powerful symbol--"
"Let's not forget, though," from Nigel, "Étienne is a post-existentialist." Simone and Nina nodded, looking at him. "He doesn't play around with empty signifiers."
When the women chuckled, William managed, "That's interesting," and wished he'd had something in his glass so a sip wouldn't prove false.
He tried again. "Has anyone considered that, though? The research? I think it's clear that there's a lot to suggest psi art is revealing more about psychic phenomenon than all the sciences."
The group went silent. Nina considered the statement with her head tilted for almost a whole second, then decided, "To be honest, I don't find the parapsychological specifics of his work to be very interesting."
"Oh I agree," said Nigel.
She continued. "What we actually have here, what I write about when I historicize it, is a restructuring of conceptualism via a formalist schema, because, do you see, he treats concept like a design element--"
William tuned out. Nina's hands were alive, darting around ideas, striking at points, seizing attention. He began to think of them as working the marionette strings of the people in conversation, and wondered whether he gained anything by being unattached. After a minute he made a slow, graduated removal of himself from the circle, which closed undisturbed at his departure, and wandered to the isolated hallway in front of the restrooms, to lean against the wall for a rest. Before long, Simone came around the corner.
She saw him and stopped, without saying a word. Her breathing came loud through her nostrils.
Talking to the ground in front of his feet, William said, "I don't get why he's post-existential. What does that even mean?"
Simone was a silent for a few seconds, then said softly, "It means he's resolved the god problem and the collective crisis."
"So have solipsists. I don't see the point."
"Shut up."
"Simone, I--"
"You're still trying to be funny." She said it like a swear word. "This wasn't about you, Will. This was supposed to be an opportunity for me. You were supposed to see something I actually care about and meet the people who can teach me--"
"Teach you? What 'teach you'? These critics, these echo chamber groupies?" He stepped away from the wall.
"Teach me what I want to learn."
"I don't get it. You were going to make art, not write about it."
"Don't do that. I have no psi potential, I can't make anything like this. What's the point of painting or code art or sculpture when there's someone who doesn't need any medium at all? And I'm not one of them?"
He could sense at the edges of her words a beseeching, a fragility she didn't usually show to him. Nothing seemed like the right response. "Simone," he tried soothingly, "the work you do is beautiful."
"God, your fucking beauty." She creased a sleeve of her shirt and touched the fold once to each eye. "'You're beautiful, Simone.' 'That's beautiful, Simone.' It's your fall back when you can't think of anything else. Do you know what I hear when you say that? I hear 'leave me alone.'"
"That's ridiculous."
"I hear, 'Leave me alone. I don't want to have to work to make you happy.'"
William maneuvered his urge to scream into a theatrical eye roll and arm flap. "What is wrong with you?"
"You used to listen when I explained this stuff. You used to defer to me, and now you just look down on me for it."
"I do not--"
"I do not. And is that what you want, anyway? Someone deferring to you, your own little groupie?"
She nearly screamed in the little concrete hallway. "I have worked very hard at this! Not just years of school, but dozens of shows, and hundreds of conversations, and hours of reading, and hours of thinking. We like that, remember? We like experts, and people who think, we are not fans of the vox populi."
"I don't know what you want from me."
"I want to be more than someone who fucks and does pretty parlor tricks."
"Jesus, that's glib." He pressed into his eyes with thumb and forefinger. "And what am I to you? A trophy? What am I to you?"
The corners of Simone's mouth softened, and she sighed. William's anger floundered at the look in her eyes, finding suddenly no resistance. She said simply, "You were supposed to be my friend."
His throat tightened. "Simone--"
"I can't afford to look like you are making me feel." Her face turned away, the visible cheek blotched pink.
"Me? I--"
"William. I am going now." She walked back out the hallway.
William hurt. He wished for nothing more than the ability to predict these moments. It seemed the surface of their exchanges never revealed what lay beneath them until it was too late, and these days that meant calling her name as she walked away from him.
He leaned against the wall, and thought of tension, and voids, and the kind of movement that might make him forget who he was with for the simple fact that he was moving. He doubted his own "emotional truth" and couldn't answer what it was a response to. Nigel must be wrong, he thought. William, after all, couldn't graft his own emotions on to himself. He was forced, like everyone else, only to respond, in the best way he knew how. William hadn't lingered between two poles. He had wanted to know what was hidden, what was inside. He went to find Simone.
She was back with her friends, laughing, he noted with relief. He came into her field of vision and caught her eyes. Her smile only barely slipped, and he hoped the look she gave him meant what it seemed. Just as he was about to reach her, however, something happened.
The entire crowd of patrons suddenly froze, in unison, and turned to face the center of the gallery. William almost stumbled and stared dumbly at them, until they all spoke, in unison.
"The chances of me are infinitesimal, yet nonetheless, I am," came the voices. Silence again, then:
"I am an emergent phenomenon."
"She who creates, creates herself."
And whatever it was that had hold of them, released them.
Pandemonium. One lady wrapped her arms around herself and stared wide-eyed at the floor. Several people burst into incredulous laughter. The buzz of furious conversation soon overwhelmed the echoing space until the words disappeared into white noise.
"Simone," he yelled across to her. She turned to him and hurried to his side.
"Will, did you feel it?" She took his hands into her own.
"What? I don't know what just happened."
"It's the second half of the 'Identity' piece!"
His heart sank. "I didn't get to see it."
She didn't seem to hear. "We were all Étienne! You were and I was and..." she covered her mouth with her hand and looked up at the ceiling, astounded.
"Simone, I wanted to tell you I'm sorry, and that I--"
"Don't you see what he's done?" The entirety of her irises were visible as she searched his eyes and held his hands. "We've come full circle from the death of the Author. It's the death of the Audience!"
Too quietly he said, "I was going to tell you what I would put in the briefcase."
"Will, I've got to find Nina, I mean," she laughed "Étienne!" She laughed again and disappeared into the throng.
Several other people picked up her game. He could hear around him the sounds of the artist's name as people called it to refer either to themselves or to someone else in the room. A crowd of people had been taken over by a remote mind, and yet whatever fear there had been disappeared, to be replaced with various forms of delight.
Will couldn't help but find it lonely, to be surrounded by the revelry of an experience he hadn't shared. He wondered how the last two minutes would have been different if he had made it to that final psychometron, and had for less than a minute shared a room with people who were precisely no different from him in any way. Then it occurred to him that if the room's only identity were his own, he would be by definition alone.
No one noticed that he was silent as he made his way to the front of the gallery. The coat check was still in operation, and the steward made no comment when he didn't tip.
Outside he caught the city lights and the moon, which was not silver, but a pale, soapy yellow. He thought he would walk home, and drink a little, and fall asleep. Sleep sounded wonderful. He could wake up the next morning, he thought, and never know that, for a brief period of time, he had disappeared.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Author Comments

The story began as a classic SF what-if--there's at least one art form for all five senses, so what would art that appeals to the sixth sense "look" like? I thought about this with a kind of obsessive detail, and soon I'd come up with a theory and whole body of imaginary psi art, complete with critical responses. Of course it's people and stories that actually interest me, so William and Simone became my tragic pair caught in the war of ideas between the populist and the elite. (Sometime later I read Robert Smithson's quote that the ideal medium for conceptual art is telepathy, and I wondered if that meant he'd beaten me to the punch.)

- Ciro Faienza
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