Since 2016, Oslo-based artist Martin White has been generating a new archive of the experiments of Norwegian psychiatrist C.W. Sem-Jacobsen, reproducing it by drawing it entirely by hand.
Active in the Norwegian Resistance during the Second World War, then trained by the US special forces, Sem-Jacobsen fled Europe in 1944. In the 1950s at the Rochester State Hospital he began experimenting on live human subjects in the burgeoning science of depth electrography (EEG), which involves deep implantation of electrodes in the human brain. For over 20 years, Sem-Jacobsen conducted these experiments on patients in the US, and later at Gaustad Psychiatric Hospital, Oslo in some cases deliberately without their consent. Sem-Jacobsen was later accused of unethical medical practice, but a Norwegian government-appointed commission concluded in 2003 (12 years after his death) that he had not acted in a way considered unethical at the time of the experiments.
For the Anteroom this month, Melissa Chambers spoke to White about BIG SCIENCE, the ongoing project where he collates, draws and annotates material from Sem-Jacobsen's archive. Here they discuss the artist as archivist, the age of brain warfare and the comic books code, incarceration and justice, and rattling the cage of the cultural record.
Before you read this conversation, you can examine BIG SCIENCE prologue and chapter 1, which was exhibited in the 2021 Statens Kunstutstilling Høstutstillingen in Oslo, and is presented here in digital form:
Melissa Chambers: Ok, tell us where you are right now.
Martin White : I'm in Oslo, in my studio across from the old medieval fortress. Actually, my studio is in a former military building. Have I told you this?
MC: I don't know if you have.
MW: Yeah, it was handed over to the council a few years ago, I think it ultimately will become a school, but in the meantime it’s artist studios. I was going through some of my material, and there's a letter that a US Air Force captain wrote to the head of the Norwegian Air Force about Sem-Jacobsen and his work—saying that the work had great promise for the space race and for the aviation industry or whatever—and the address for the head of the Norwegian Air Force, is this building that I'm in.
MW: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! It's insane. The third chapter of BIG SCIENCE actually ends with a map of this building, like an architectural plan of this building, including a little dot where I am because it’s…it’s just too bizarre.
MC: You are so thick into this! Where is this all leading?
MW: There’s an Errol Morris film that he made for the New York Times. He made a few of them, and one of them's called The Umbrella Man about the guy that was standing with an umbrella during JFK's assassination who became the magnet for a whole bunch of conspiracy theories. People even drew little diagrams of how he could have created a rifle in the handle of this umbrella because it's famously a beautiful, clear day and this one guy is standing there with an umbrella. It turns out to have been this obscure protest about Neville Chamberlain or something, some weird fucking thing. But in this film, there’s an interview with this historian who talks about quantum reality. He's just like: if you get close enough, if you just look at actual reality close enough, shit gets really weird, you know? I think that absolutely happens. Stuff seems like it's a crazy conspiracy, but in reality, this is what it's like. This is what the world is. It’s fucking weird.
MC: Do you think you’re implicated in the Sem-Jacobsen story in that kind of way now?
MW: I don't know. It’s hard to tell. I think about it all the time, but I can't tell. There's a kind of observational bias that starts to happen as well. I've had a couple of meetings with the former head of the neurology department at the university. Not many people have looked into Sem-Jacobsen really, and this guy called Espen Dietrichs was kind of interested, he’s a neurologist, so I was just like, oh my God, yeah! I shared all my research with him, just everything. And just recently, he's started to defend Sem-Jacobsen. He got to know Sem-Jacobsen’s sons and he started to make these speeches, he presented it at this thing called the Norske Selskab. It's like a black tie gentlemen's club, and he cited my research in a paper that he’s now published online. And it's this weird thing, because I know that he's quoted me and that what I said was only a supposition, that in fact I could find no evidence of it. But he's quoted it as though it were, you know, quotable, as though it was a source. I was actually appearing at the top of the Google results for Sem-Jacobsen for a while, until this Dietrichs thing happened.
MC: The thing about you making yourself a hub of knowledge on Sem-Jacobsen, and also possibly a legal target too, is that you're not even Norwegian.
MW: Not even.
MC: You’re an Australian artist living in Oslo. Tell us about your journey there.
MW: I moved here in 2015, my girlfriend is Norwegian, so I'd visited several times over the course of some years, and then I visited the art academy here. I'd finished my undergrad in Melbourne, and I wanted to do my master's and applied here. It's free here.
MW: And it's been really, really good to me. I mean, you know, it's got its problems, the weather sucks and it's expensive and kind of small, but, it's remarkable to be able to do this kind of work here as an outsider. Here there’s this kind of almost compulsive transparency, you know? And I think most of the time because everything is transparent, it actually stops people from looking. It's that bureaucratic tactic of being flooded with information.
MC: How long have you been working with the Sem-Jacobsen archive?
MW: Six years now.
MC: So the artwork itself covers two areas of concern, right? There's the comic book code on the one hand, which is where you start, and then inside of that we zoom into the Sem-Jacobsen stuff. Does our journey into the artwork also mimic your journey into the material?
MW: No, that was a little acrobatic maneuver that I did. Actually how it went was, I was looking through his archive....
MC: OK, already! Why?
MW: [laughs] I can't actually remember. I'm asked that all the time, and I really can't remember. I mean, I think I was casting around, I was looking for a subject. And you're casting around, you’re reading a lot. You're looking up things, googling a lot. I read a book about eugenics in Scandinavia. You know, I was just looking for a subject. I've worked broadly in this kind of way before. And then I just heard about this archive. I saw a couple of images. I think there were two images that were digitized from it, and they were quite compelling.
MC: The electrode brain experiment photos?
MW: Yeah. And then I just requested access, I went to visit it at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology: Teknisk Museum. And it just kept going; there was SO much material. To begin with, my access was very limited, I had to be in the company of an archivist at all times. But I just kept going, and soon they couldn't afford the staff to have me shadowed all the time, so I was left on my own and they began to trust me.
MC: It's interesting that's how you cast about for subjects. Do you think there's a way that subjects are googling for you too? Because this material feels like it was looking for someone to magnetize onto it.
MW: Yeah, maybe. I think archives have this way of... This is the thing, right: there's no such thing as an unbiased dataset and there's no such thing as a completely neutral or objective recording of anything, so to investigate the ways in which our reality is shaped, and it is, by events that most would see as archival or historical, but the framing of these events and the sequencing of events: we’re living in the shadow of that. We’re living in the ripples of the ways in which these things are interpreted. I think archival artistic practice is really exciting because it enables us to expand the context or remix it or to balance it a bit as well; the power balance is different. Perhaps it will change the nature of medical practices to some extent in the future if people see that this kind of work is going on, if they see that they’re held to account, even if it's 50 years afterwards.
MC: The thing you said before about floods of information in plain sight. There's an expectation, isn't there, that when you're looking at an official archive, it's supposed to be a dormant thing, a passive record. It's not supposed to have anything active or questionable in it. Although time and time again through history, we know that to be not the case. The first time that you showed me the photographs from the Sem-Jacobsen experiments, I was firstly like: wow, these are intense mages, we can't publish them, but it didn’t occur to me to question whether what I was looking at wasn’t morally above board, because you told me it was drawn from an archive. Even when you come at it with more skepticism, I imagine it takes a lot of energy to destabilize that context, even for yourself. What was your experience of the imagery the first time you saw it?
MW: It's really hard to not judge. Up-front it looks so nefarious, and I was totally judging it. But I was also just, as a layperson, I was just trying to follow the logic of it. I mean, it's a weird thing to look at an archive because there’s just these cuts from one thing to another, you’re not guided through it. There's no real explanation as to what this information is. It's taken years for me to actually understand what he was working on and how these things are interconnected.
The comic book that he's referenced in from 1965, there's a photograph of it in his archive, of that panel. I got to that panel and I was just like, What the hell? What, WHAT? What is this comic book? So I looked it up, I looked up the characters and I figured out which comic book it was, because it was just a photograph of that panel with no context—he actually called it Superman in his index, which it isn't. But then finding the actual comic and reading through the whole thing, I found it was a useful way into the story, a way to talk about the era, to talk about the paranoia of the Cold War and the comics code, which I already knew about; it's like the Hays Code for film. It’s this McCarthy era in US politics where things were so paranoid and limited, there was such a fear of subversion and communism. So the comic thing was a convenient piece of storytelling. You can get a lot of world building done with it before you zoom into that panel that's very specifically about this Norwegian guy who shouldn't really be quoted in there actually. He's not a good enough scientist, he's not of the same caliber as the other two that are quoted.
MC: Who are the other two?
MW: Jose Delgado and Robert Heath. Delgado was a Spanish Psychiatrist; he pulled this stunt that he got very famous for, where he implanted electrodes into a bull, the most Spanish kind of thing, and the bull would be charging at him and he was able to remote control it, like he could turn it and stop it so that he wasn't gutted by it. He did that kind of stuff with monkeys as well, made them fly into a rage by pressing a button. They had these receiver packs on their backs and electrodes in their brains. Robert Heath was working at Tulane University in Louisiana on a very early form of gay conversion therapy. It was harrowing actually. People would volunteer for this because homosexuality was considered at the time to be a psychiatric condition, and so they'd go to him to be cured and the cure was nightmarish. Observing pornography in front of a whole bunch of scientists with your eyes clamped open and electrodes, and electric shocks and things. It was terrible. So Delgado and Heath are quite famous in this field, and Sem-Jacobsen just isn't.
MC: There are a few different cultural and scientific frameworks that you’ve studied alongside the Sem-Jacobsen archive to try and understand it, between the cuts, like you said. The comic book code is kind of your artistic container for it, I suppose. But there’s other stuff including… and I have never heard of these people… the neo-Kraepelinians?
MW: Yeah, Kraepelinians.
MC: Who is that?
MW: Well, psychiatry is, it's somewhat new, you know? It really hasn't been around for very long. So the neo-Kraepelinians were, in a nutshell, and in my layperson's understanding of it: there was suddenly a desire to find a pathology for a lot of these ‘conditions’; psychiatry was all kind of Freudian up until that point, it was based on very subjective interpretation and kind of cultural interpretations really. Using somebody's memories or thoughts or the way they reflect upon themselves as a text to analyze. But it's completely subjective, and non-pathological as in, there's nothing to measure. If you sent somebody to several analysts, they possibly would end up with several completely different diagnoses. So there was a desire to make the diagnosis uniform and make it scientific. There was this era called The Great Re-Medicalization, where there was a sudden desperate attempt to be able to find parts in the brain that were responsible for different emotional states. It's the era of… do you know the Penfield Homunculus? Have you heard of that?
MW: It’s a drawing this very early neurologist came up with of a tiny human, a homunculus. But its body parts are all out of scale. They're scaled relative to the amount of nerve connections that they have in the brain. So this character has a really big bottom lip, for instance, because the bottom lip is very sensitive and neurologically it's very important, and the hands are huge and things like that. It’s like there was almost a gold rush of finding these areas in the brain, and being able to ascertain that there was some kind of causal link. It's massively oversimplified when you look at it, kind of wild, but it was very exciting at the time. It was the first time they were able to poke one part of the brain and somebody would stop being able to speak or something. Suddenly there was a pathology, or so they thought. There was a way of measuring exactly what was neurologically responsible for what kind of psychiatric conditions. So that led to the neo-Kraepelinians developing the first edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, the DSM, which is still what we live under today. And since then, it’s been expanded and expanded. Interestingly though, there is still no pathology for most of these conditions. There's more and more diagnoses, and fewer and fewer pathologies; there's nothing to measure.
MC: Or no means to measure it right? Like with SSRIs. They’re still blunt science because you can't actually measure serotonin levels in a living brain…
MW: Absolutely. Yeah.
MC: There’s a thread that goes through a lot of your work that’s also to do with the carceral, and you establishing yourself as an artistic interlocutor or probe of sorts into these dark corners of bureaucracy, different bureaucracies. There’s a previous installation that I saw of yours in Australia that deals with this, it was to do with youth detention in Melbourne: 'Ongoing Investigation into the July 2012 Transfer of Three Children from Parkville Youth Justice Centre into Solitary Confinement In an Adult Prison.' Can you talk us through that?
MW: It related to a case in 2012, where at this youth justice center in central Melbourne, in quite a leafy suburb, Parkville, it’s a kind of youth remand center, there’d been a number of disturbances, riots, escape attempts, things like that. As a result of one of them, three indigenous children ranging in age from 14 to 16 were assessed by a body called the Youth Parole Board. And that board determined that these three minors should be sent to a higher security facility. In Melbourne that only means adult prison. There is no other level of Youth Remand Center in Australia. So the Youth Parole Board knowingly sent them to an adult prison. Whereupon the children were, partly for their own safety, and partly also due to a strange bureaucratic quirk in their intake assessment, because they'd been involved in a riot and were deemed to be a risk to staff, as well as the other prisoners being deemed to be a risk to them as minors, because of that they were put into solitary confinement. For months. These kids, each of them separately. And the whole thing, all of that mechanism being legitimate was a massive surprise to me. It's kind of a series of default mechanisms, but still it's a legitimate series of decisions. And the youth parole board could meet and make these decisions about young people without the young people having any legal representation within that system whatsoever. There's no set of allegations, no presumption of innocence. There's no anything. It's just the Youth Parole Board sitting there and making the decision about what to do with these young people.
So, what I found in looking at this closely was that that decision, that meeting wasn't conducted legally, according to their own principles. The board didn't have enough members present to form a quorum. According to their own strange, arcane rules, there weren’t enough people there.
So I felt like I had this smoking gun, you know? I was like, Oh, this is it: this is great. This is exciting. I didn't know the names of any of the young people. I tried to get in touch with them through the Aboriginal Legal Service and several other different mechanisms and never found their names. But even when I started pointing to the rest of it: nothing happened, like nothing happened. I was trying to activate it through talking to journalists and activists, it was really the first time I'd worked on a case like this and it was a really intense experience.
Ultimately, I talked to the Aboriginal Legal Service in Melbourne. And it was they that said: well, to these young people, this is their whole experience of reality all the time. They don't have the sense that I have of being entitled to something going any way other than this. And that really made me think about and question deeply: upon whose behalf am I speaking? You know, it was really an interesting moment, all my fierce questioning and the kind of access that I was demanding to this information, all of that, that was a product of my experience, and my experience is that I should have information available to me and this should be transparent and things should go the way they're supposed to go. You know, the bureaucracy has been made for people like me: literate, intelligent people that can read and have the time to follow up. You know?
MC: Do you think that there’s an expectation, or even worse: a function to that hierarchy? That certain people will be assaulted by systems and certain people won’t?
MW: One of the many perverse things about it is that these Aboriginal young people were also in the care of the state. So the state was their guardian as well as their punisher, as well as their imprisoner, it was effectively their parent. It's just so deeply troubling. On a really Freudian level, it's super disturbing.
MC: You’re drawn to this kind of stuff. Why?
MW: I just think the stakes are fucking high. You know? That through a clerical error or a strange oversight or even, not even an accident… and due to this kind of passivity of a bureaucratic system, that can oftentimes deliberately be designed in this way, that you can have your subjectivity completely violently altered, against your will.
MC: And that it’s often due to connected but also weirdly disassociated, modular decision making processes.
MW: Exactly, yeah, it's atomized. I mean, psychiatry by the same token to me is deeply problematic, because it's the only scientific field, and subset medical field, in which you can be treated against your will. You know, if you break your arm, you don't have to have it fixed. You know that you don't have to. With psychiatry, the diagnostic tools are incredibly subjective and there is no pathology. And you can be diagnosed as something and not really be able to do anything about that. Then you can be medicated, you can have psycho-surgery, you can be sort of imprisoned against your will on the basis of that diagnosis. It's a tool that there's just no arguing with. And for some reason, well, for very clear reasons, it's very connected to the state and to justice. Psychiatric assessments in courts of law. I mean, what is that? How can you call an expert witness to assess somebody's psychiatric state months, weeks, perhaps years after an event? If you look back at some of these diagnoses historically, your blood runs cold. It's really terrifying.
MC: So in both 'Ongoing Investigation into the July…' and BIG SCIENCE, part of the form is the presentation of huge amounts of information, in both cases largely in its original form, as text, and the other part is a re-fabrication of a bureaucratic scenography. It strikes me as very elegant, and also sinister because these things trigger a way of seeing. I suppose in a similar way that there’s no unbiased data sets, there’s no neutral way of engaging with bureaucratic surfaces. Both pieces do this uncanny valley thing but with municipal greys. With Ongoing investigation into the July… I remember the way that you fabricated the electricity plug and this cable casing that went up the wall, stuff like that. You go to great lengths to reproduce these spooky bureaucratic surfaces.
MW: It’s infrastructure that we're sort of anesthetized to or, that sounds so nefarious, but we just don't see it, you know? Like the way power runs in the ceiling of an institutional building or a ventilation or these huge, massive ducts. They’re invisible to us because they're ubiquitous. They're everywhere. Yeah, yeah, exactly.
MC: BIG SCIENCE is mildly mind-blowing in terms of fabrication though because everything in it is hand drawn. You’ve reproduced printed material by literally drawing it with, I mean… with a biro?
MW: Yeah, with different things like felt tip, pretty standard little felt tip pens, pencils sometimes.
MW: [laughs] The first iteration of anything that I did with the Sem-Jacobsen material was a lecture performance a few years ago.
MC: Ah, yeah.
MW: What really interested me about that was that I would do it for like 40 people, quite a small group of people. And it appeared to be very… I made a lot of hesitations, you know, to make it look like an informal lecture, pulling in the same structure about the comic and the comic code and stuff, and it seemed casual. And then the theatricality builds and builds and builds. And you realize in hindsight that it was a very constructed, rehearsed thing. What surprised me about it was the authority that I had, as in people believed me. And that's good, because it's true, but I didn't insist that it was. I was mediating the information. I wasn't sharing the original images. I was filming the images and projecting the images live, but they weren't seeing the original images. It was this level of artifice that was never questioned. And I really enjoyed that. I think that that in itself is a kind of power structure that we're in all the time, we're passively in it and we don't question it. To perform it was also a bit of a legal loophole, because there was no other way that I could transmit the information. I was able to tell people about it, right? But I wasn't able to photocopy or to distribute it electronically or things like that at the time.
So, when it came to looking at it again and thinking about a different form for it, I mean, the drawing, it's the same thing, right? And it surprises me because again, people believe it. People receive it as though they are the original documents, but they're not. I've drawn them. I'm this constant mediator in there all the time. I mean, this is the thing with art too right? It's why it's interesting to look at these things artistically, because there is kind of an artistic freedom. Whatever I say with it or about it, I’m not necessarily saying it's true, you know? It's not journalism.
MC: Why do you think that this kind of thing needs artistic articulation as well as a journalistic one?
MW: Journalism is on its knees, right? It's dying. I think whether or not it will is a different matter, but the parameters are totally fucking different now. The time and the ability to process what’s going on, I mean… journalism is just under an extraordinary kind of pressure to summarize or to put things into a false binary. I think artists are perhaps among the few kinds of people left that have, well, like I said, the time and the attention to move through something like this without having to come to anything approaching a conclusion.
MC: It seems to me that in creating this analogue document, the BIG SCIENCE binder, you’ve created a super democratic object. It’s non conclusive like you say, you literally open with a post-it that just says ‘Hey I want to show you something.’ And it’s impermeable.
MW: Yeah, and ironically it works because the stakes for us as artists are incredibly low. This is a small edition of an artist's book that, you know, really, it's not on the scale of like a New York Times piece of investigative journalism. There is a kind of information dissemination, a kind of rhizomatic spread of information which is just telling it to somebody, that doesn't change. And that's the core of everything. The stakes are low, we can just do it. We don't need to ask permission. I suppose that's what I think the value is of artists doing this.
MC: With the drawing, do you ever think that by literally running your hand over this entire body of information that you've printed it backwards on yourself?
MW: Yeah, totally. It's like an incantation. Absolutely. I mean… my hand, it hurts.
MC: I’ll bet it does.
MW: My eyes are deteriorating rapidly.
MC: How long did this take?
MW: I don't know. [laughs] If it’s all text, I can maybe get through a page a week? I kind of had the pleasure of developing the bulk of what I've got so far without any kind of pressure of outcome whatsoever, like everyone I guess, there was a year where I had nothing else going on.
MC: You also reproduced by hand, some pretty disturbing surgical photographs of people’s brains being probed. What was it like reproducing those?
MW: At that point I was super, super familiar with them and had been working with it for a long time. It's interesting though, have you ever done any life drawing?
MW: There’s a US comic book artist called Chris Ware, he talks about how it's impossible not to empathize with somebody that you're drawing, and that especially with life drawing, it's a great flattening kind of thing. You know, just trying to get the curve of a neck or something. It’s almost like a caress. It's quite intimate. I noticed that starting to happen, like this tender… this tenderness. Yeah, it was pretty moving. But there's something empowering about it as well, and this is a projection, I can't speak for the people, but it's like this is a different attention that's been bestowed upon them than it was then, the attention of making a scientific document or documenting a medical process or something. It's a completely different way of looking. So, I don't know, in a way, I feel like it balances the ledger. Or it does something else to the ledger. It’s giving time and care, but in a different way.
MARTIN WHITE (b. 1978, AU) lives and works in Oslo. He is a graduate from Oslo National Academy of the Arts, RMIT University in Melbourne, and Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne. Recent exhibitions include Is this OK? at Oslo Kunstforening (2019) and Dust Biter at Tokonoma at Melk, Oslo (2018). He has a large-scale solo show upcoming at UKS (Young Artists’ Society) in Oslo in 2023. White’s work has been included in Høstutstillingen at Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo (2021) and Making Sense Together at Norsk Teknisk Museum, Oslo (2017). Prior to his life as a visual artist, White directed performance, film, and television. He also writes essays and reviews alongside researching and teaching.
You can follow the progress of BIG SCIENCE including the release of new chapters HERE
MELISSA CHAMBERS is a theatre-maker and essayist working in London. She is one of the founding editors of The Signal House Edition.
(Image credits: excepts from BIG SCIENCE, 2021 and 'Ongoing Investigation into the July...' 2014 by kind permission of the artist.)