Covert Operations: Tyler Coburn and Ian Hatcher’s Remote Viewer Explores CIA Seances

"Remote Viewer" workshop. Image courtesy Tyler Coburn and Ian Hatcher.

“What just happened?” As participants leave Remote Viewer at Dunes—a new contemporary art space in Portland, Maine—on a rainy night in June, the atmosphere of nervous tension generated by this performance/lesson/thought experiment persists in the air. Remote Viewer is a workshop-based participatory piece developed by artists Tyler Coburn and Ian Hatcher. It was presented this month at Dunes (an innovative exhibitions-and-project space run by artist-curator Boru O’Brien O’Connell) in two sessions as part of New York-based curator Nicole Kaack’s new series Body Double. The piece asks participants to take part in what is being presented as a CIA-perfected, Cold War-era astral projection exercise.  

Led with brittle precision by actress and sculptor Jennifer (going by Jenny throughout the performance) Seastone, Remote Viewer ostensibly instructs participants in the technique of remote viewing. Remote viewing is the act of psychically traveling through one’s own mind to visualize and describe a specific unseen target—”virtually transporting yourself to another place and literally viewing it,” in Seastone’s formulation. Specifics about how and why the US government developed this program are omitted. It’s the second night of the performance and nine people have signed up to participate. We’ve been seated around a large table and presented with paper and pencils, which Seastone slams crisply down. The idea of using clairvoyance to locate and analyze an otherwise inaccessible place, object, or person is explained through the example of Joe McMoneagle, a CIA agent with an unusual talent for remotely viewing targets and describing them in written testimony and hand-drawn images. 

In this case, a picture of the target that we’re searching for is folded inside of a sealed envelope, which Seastone portentously states she has never opened; it was, she says, given to her by Coburn and Hatcher in advance of the workshop, presumably back in New York. A feeling of nebulous, semi-occult wrong-footedness accompanies her instructions to take notes on all that we see, hear, smell, and feel during our visionary state. Our “work” is presented as both magical and practical at once, resulting in a nicely destabilizing cognitive dissonance. 

Psychic journeys of this kind have, of course, a long history. Tibetan Buddhist “dream yoga”; the “visualization tubes” of Spiritualism (a movement developed by the Fox sisters, who ended up drunkenly debunking one another’s practices by 1888); astral projection work attempted by the Swedenborgians and Theosophists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the automatist practices of the Surrealists between the world wars; and the well-documented fact of the US government’s experimentation with paranormal technologies during the Cold War (notably in the case of Project Stargate, the umbrella under which Joe McMoneagle operated in the 70s and 80s): throughout history, people have been attempting to transport their senses without moving their bodies. 

When monolithic institutions of power have nowhere else to turn and are forced to look to the paranormal for help, an interesting juncture can be reached. Things have gone so wrong politically and socially that everyday reality can no longer be trusted or relied on, even by those in the highest positions of authority. With its insistent tone of instability and paranoia, Remote Viewer gestures toward this state of existential helplessness without delving into how deeply broken the official mechanisms must be to fall back on occult practices in order to assure relative world peace. A wider look at the genesis and history of clairvoyant journey practices may have helped underscore the strangeness and incongruity of Cold War-era military reliance on remote viewing. 

By the time the last Remote Viewer exercise is revealed to revolve around the imagery and narrative of a Seastone-centric nightmare (“What is the shape moving in the corner…can you see abrasions on the hands and arms?”) participants have been rattled out of their acceptance of the CIA-informed educational construct of the workshop; their belief in Seastone as a teacher; and their attempt to learn a new “skill”. Anchored in a 1970s horror aesthetic and sidestepping bigger questions of power, oppression, access, and desperation, Remote Viewer challenges participants to overcome the determined artificiality of the workshop’s structure. Still, participants were afforded a glimpse of a practice that may yet be valuable, deeply buried, and only discernible through the most careful tuning of the mind’s eye.  

In the conversation below, Remote Viewer curator Nicole Kaack answers a few clarifying questions about the event and its larger conceptual container, Body Double.

Hilary Irons: Nicole, thank you for sharing more about Remote Viewer and Body Double! One of the first questions I had about the piece involves the performative framework that it takes. What is this workshop meant to foster for the participants, as curious learners with an interest in the workings of the mind? What do you think the artists are hoping participants will take away from this experience?

Nicole Kaack: The intention of the workshop is willfully ambiguous. It’s unclear whetherTyler and Ian endorse the parapsychological practices that the workshop instructs. And I’d say that is in line with the ultimate intention—to prompt the participant to doubt, regardless of the inclination that they enter the workshop with. Certain moments of suggested violence or theatricality might surprise a paranormal enthusiast and prompt reservations as to the reliability of our narrator (the workshop leader). 

At the same time, skeptics are invited to engage quite actively with the techniques. I was surprised, for example, by the zeal with which someone who entered the work as a nonbeliever began to insist on the descriptive fragments that emerged from her viewing. Remote Viewer is neither dogmatic nor entirely atheistic but equally levels belief and disbelief. 

HI: How were the two sessions of Remote Viewer different from one another? They ran on sequential nights with different sets of participants.

NK: The workshops on June 3 and June 4 had wildly different tenors. The first night opened towards a circumspect suspension of disbelief. I think this was significantly aided by the presence of a number of regular practitioners of remote viewing, a factor that prompted a higher level of investment, or at least courtesy, from the cynics among us. 

Participants the first night performed more for the room—that is to say, they took on a greater level of responsibility for determining the psychological state of the other attendees.It came through in jokes, light argumentation, and even blatant suspicion. As we went around the room sharing our viewings, micro dramas of contrast played out between the differing affects of the participants.

The second night—I fear the one you attended!—was suffused with a high level of skepticism. The participants were a more passive presence, which necessitated that the workshop leader Jenny take on a more active role as an object of scrutiny.

HI: One of the instant clues that this piece was not a straightforward instructional scenario was the absence of both Tyler Coburn and Ian Hatcher, and the very specific governess-like affect of Jenny Seastone, who led the workshop. Could you tell us a little bit about her role in the piece, how this relates to Coburn and Hatcher’s vision for the project, and what Seastone is projecting?  

NK: I like that characterization of Jenny as “governess-like”—she gives substitute teacher, all business, matter of fact. The shuffling of papers and the abrupt snick of a closing laptop seem to say, “Not my problem.” But sometimes a gleam of sincerity or enthusiasm kind of peeks through the clouds in a secretive smile or the over-eager rip of paper as she opens the envelope containing the target. 

Jenny’s had a lot of relationships with Remote Viewer. She’s been a participant, student of the technique, and, now, instructor. In the current version, Jenny’s very intentionally positioned as a surrogate for Tyler and Ian, a single schizophrenic persona who is by turns aloof and avid. Though the artists did not view the workshop remotely, they might be said to have manipulated it from afar through Jenny’s hands and mouth.

The presence of Jenny is a warning—explicitly verbalized at the beginning of the workshop—that if you are watching, there’s nothing to prevent another from watching you. In short, remote viewing is a two way street. Jenny underscores this, returning/reflecting our actions back at us. Even while unremittingly espousing the techniques that she teaches, Jenny embodies the types of reaction that a participant might have to remote viewing: reserved and distrustful, excited and impatient, solemn, distressed.

The last section of the workshop dramatically shifts from the attempt to surveil an inanimate “target” to the attempt to see a person—Jenny’s long-lost childhood friend, also named Jenny. While she describes this other person, tries to locate them in a room quite different from the one that the workshop takes place in, it’s hard to resist the sense—underscored by queries such as, “Does she look exactly like me?”—that Jenny is seeking herself, the same self that we’ve been watching so closely for an hour or more. Jenny is Tyler and Ian. Jenny is us. Jenny is not herself. 

HI: I know that the Surrealists practiced a form of automatism that was functionally, but not conceptually, related to the work of Spiritualism and Theosophy, so I’m curious to know if you feel as though Remote Viewer has a similar relationship to any actual historical or current psychic/occult practices. What do you think the relationship is between Remote Viewer as a group thought experiment and the more direct, sincere, or mercenary ways that this psychic technology has been deployed historically?

NK: Remote Viewer explicitly draws upon these Spiritualist prehistories, encompassing seances, automatic writing, and more recent parapsychological investigations. I think that Tyler and Ian are interested in the way that the seed of this idea—perception of the physical through the mind’s eye—has expressively transformed across the years to communicate a cultural zeitgeist, one often equally tied to political history. 

As Tyler has written, “Spiritualism had a second coming, as it were, in the years following The Great War, when those lost and those left had no other means of contact.” The development of the remote viewing program during the Cold War likewise typifies a certain paranoiac mindset prevalent at that time in the US. Today, this same seed might be seen in the magical realist ubiquity of surveillance.

As you’ve suggested, however, I think that the way you engage with these techniques can differ dramatically depending on perspective. The CIA’s Stargate Project (of which remote viewing was a part) was ultimately about military and domestic applications of paranormal phenomena. Long before this, the Surrealists used similar techniques to draw attention to the bewitching illogic of how the mind perceives and invents. 

Some of the most interesting moments of the workshop emerged for me when it felt like we were visioning collectively, writing as a group. The target is a little blue room with white molding, is a cubicle in a hospital ward inscribed with white signage, is the bottom of a swimming pool inscribed with caustics. 

HI: Could you tell us a little bit about Body Double, the series of performances you’ve curated this year, and how Remote Viewer fits into the overarching theme you’ve been working with?

NK: Body Double is a series of three programs that collectively focus on presence, transference, and virtuality. Each of the works included in the series explores these entwined concepts in a different way. 

In Xavier Cha’s performance Audition, the artist invites the audience into the process of auditioning, inviting us to watch ten performers present their differing interpretations of the same role. The work draws attention to the distinct personas developed by the actors—but also to the strange moment of transition as they seem to become someone else. 

beck haberstroh’s masquerade-cum-workshop We are already gathered considers the massive datasets used to train the generative artificial intelligences that produce deepfakes. For the project, haberstroh contacted individuals whose likenesses are included in the LAION dataset without their knowledge and discussed the conditions that they would like to place on the circulation of their own image. The workshop proposes a new model of consent for the public use of personal data and also utopically invites these individuals to identify something that they would like the project to “generate,” exploring how big data can be by and for those whose information it mines.

Likewise, Remote Viewer investigates a state in which the participant is other than or beyond themself—while also tying into questions of social performance, and the division between public and private.

A secondary subject of investigation in Body Double is the mutability and extent of performance. While each of the included projects does not explicitly define itself as such, I consider all three to be performative—though they exert different, and perhaps unexpected, pressures on their audiences. All three are also a second or even third iteration of a work performed previously—and in this way, similarly explore how the same gestures can take on new lives when the actors and audiences are altered. 

Hilary Irons is a Maine-based painter and curator. She is Gallery and Exhibitions Director at the University of New England, and is represented by Dowling Walsh Gallery. She received an MFA from the Yale School of Art in ’08 and a BFA from Parsons School of Design in ’02, and has attended residencies at the Albers Foundation, Skowhegan, MacDowell, the American Academy in Rome, the Pace House, Hewnoaks, the Canterbury Shaker Village, and the Surf Point Foundation. She has written for The Chart, Art New England, Maine Magazine, and other publications.

Remote Viewer was performed on June 3 and 4, 2023 at Dunes in Portland, ME. The next iteration of Kaack’s Body Double series, Xavier Cha’s Audition, will take place at Miriam in Brooklyn on June 28, followed by beck haberstroh’s We are already gathered at Parent Company in Brooklyn from August 3 through 5.