Haus-Rucker-Co, Laurids-Zamp-Pinter Environment Transformer/Flyhead, 1968. Photo: Ben Rose. Archive Zamp Kelp

Long before the proliferation of today’s wearable technologies, the Viennese architectural collective Haus-Rucker-Co imagined a series of prosthetic devices intended to change how we understand our surroundings. One of them was the Mind Expander/Flyhead Helmet—an insectoid, turquoise-tinted headpiece made of transparent PVC, first prototyped in 1968. A kind of sensorial cocoon, the helmet is outfitted with a pair of optical prisms that “filter and multiply optical impressions” and a “portable echo device” that amplifies sounds before transmitting them to a pair of headphones.

The Flyhead Helmet was part of a two-year-long experiment that Haus-Rucker-Co dubbed Mind Expanding; it harnessed design to produce an “audiovisual defamiliarization” of one’s environment. Conceived at a time when psychedelic substances such as LSD had become popular as a means of altering perception, the Flyhead Helmet was intended to be a physical artifact that would heighten one’s sense of spatial awareness without the use of drugs. More than a half-century after its inception, this playful object provokes questions not only about the hallucinogenic effects its wearers might have experienced, but also about the ways in which technology can mediate our relationship with space, and with each other.

On the occasion of the exhibition of the Flyhead Helmet in Gallery 417: Body Constructs, we invited three celebrated contemporary writers—Jonathan Lethem, Heidi Julavits, and John Jeremiah Sullivan—to imagine hypothetical (mis)uses for this enigmatic device.
—Evangelos Kotsioris, Assistant Curator, Department of Architecture and Design

Haus-Rucker-Co, Günter Zamp Kelp, Laurids Ortner, Manfred Ortner, Klaus Pinter. Mind Expander/Flyhead Helmet. 1968

Haus-Rucker-Co, Günter Zamp Kelp, Laurids Ortner, Manfred Ortner, Klaus Pinter. Mind Expander/Flyhead Helmet. 1968

By John Jeremiah Sullivan

If you have ever known an asthmatic person well, and especially if you have ever slept beside one, you know that their breaths have two stages. There will be the initial, normal sort of inhale, and then something seems to collapse mid-flow, some inner flap, and a second, weaker breath—higher-pitched, faintly gasp-like—follows the first one in, and the doors made a sound a lot like that when she showed her eyes to the scanner.

We stepped through and up to the railing of a high walkway and surveyed the facility. The first thought was of insect eggs. You know how some bugs will lay them in neat clusters by the thousands. I saw endless-seeming mirrored rows of bright emerald eggs on a vast white floor. The impression was probably influenced by the fly-like appearance of the helmets themselves.

It was quiet. There was a hum, but like your own blood in your veins. You really had to focus to hear it. She led me through the aisles, and invited me to ask questions. Occasionally she would consult her forearm, where a digital display appeared on her skin, or from underneath it, inside. Her hair was gathered into a very small stiff ponytail at the nape of her neck. I was falling in love but knew it was mostly because she was the last living woman I would ever see, and anyway the sedative made me experience the love in a sisterly way. It was strong but not physical.

She said the people chosen to write the software are not who you would expect. You don’t want empaths, she said. They go insane after about a month. We choose the flattest types, she said. People who never laugh.

I asked if most of the programs involved sex. She said, “Yes, but not all.” I asked, “Can you tell me some of the most frightening or beautiful of them?” She said, “No, we’re not allowed to do that.”

“In some they are alone,” she said, as if she pitied me just enough to give me that bone.

They had the clients laid back under these blankets that were like giant bibs, so you couldn’t see the shape of the bodies, to know if they had atrophied or anything. You couldn’t see the faces in the helmets, either, just the reflection of the ceiling lights on the visors. Inside, each dreamed its dream, over and over, and the dream seemed fresh each time, for as long as the contract lasted.

I asked her if she intended to do it herself. She said, “Now? No. But they tell me everybody says that at first.” I think that was the only time she smiled. But it was enough to tell me that we were having the same thought, that she would leave the institute and I would go with her.

If you have ever known an asthmatic person well, and especially if you have ever slept beside one, you know that their breaths have two stages. There will be the initial, normal sort of inhale, and then something seems to collapse mid-flow, some inner flap, and a second, weaker breath—higher-pitched, faintly gasp-like—follows the first one in, and the doors made a sound a lot like that when she showed her eyes to the scanner.

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he works with the nonprofit research incubator Third Person Project, dedicated to recovering the forgotten Black history of the Cape Fear country. His next book, The Prime Minister of Paradise, is forthcoming from Random House.

“Accident Report”
By Heidi Julavits

Unseasonably wet conditions in the mountains combined with high winds gusting over the desert created a dense fog event in the magnetic variance zone located at
Latitude: 44° 15' 34.80" N
Longitude: -68° 34' 5.39" W

Captain T. Shigo
First Medical Assistant D. Tomlin
First Chopper Pilot R. Brown
Water Rescue Coordinator D. Flaco
Navigator F. Brix

Container Ship MA-66-13 (“The Maggie”) approached the magnetic variance zone at 05:34. The previous night, First Medical Assistant Tomlin celebrated his 32nd birthday aboard the Maggie, during which a poker game, that lasted into the morning, was played. At approximately 05:32, Navigator Brix, on a losing streak but feeling optimistic, bet her sextant, astrolabe, and charts against an All In raise from Tomlin. Few people aboard the Maggie liked Tomlin; his ideological views were described by one crew mate as “capitalist on a mythically grandiose scale.” His nickname onboard was “the Submersible” because in his spare time he invented new technology based on “daydreams, safety-approved by hubris” per Captain Shigo, who frequently needed to reprimand him for breaking protocol and using what he called his Mind Expander Helmet to treat shipmates for ailments ranging from finger sprains to insomnia. Eventually the helmet was locked in the hold and Tomlin given a disciplinary warning. Unfortunately, when Brix lost the All In wager, and surrendered her navigational aids to Tomlin, Tomlin threw the aids into the ocean, at which precise moment the Maggie entered the magnetic variance zone, and encountered a fog event that ranked, based on subsequent analyses, 67.432 on the WARP scale. Given the normal WARP range is 12.23-31.56, the fog event was considered an historic achievement from a climate perspective. Regardless, the ship was sightless, the magnetic variance pulled on both the (now sunken) compass needle, as well as the pistons and propellers, which sent the ship into a literal tailspin, moving it backwards and in a circular motion at 20 knots per hour. In a bid to recover the navigational equipment, Water Rescue Coordinator Flaco threw out a location buoy at the approximate site of the equipment’s disappearance.

Given the options, which is to say there were none, and the extreme seasickness suffered by 97% of the crew, Captain Shigo agreed to release to Tomlin the Mind Expander Helmet. Tomlin had long claimed that the helmet was immune to magnetic disturbances, due to its reliance on “galactic sub particle gravity” as its location source, and so would be a greater than sufficient replacement for the standard, earth’s magnetism-and-celestial-body-based navigational tools, toward which he harbored publicized disdain. (His repetitious insistence, one crew member testified, earned Tomlin more than a few “beat downs.”) Once Tomlin donned the helmet, crew members reported hearing the sound of female singing, likely explained by the fact that the rigging had thickly tangled as the Maggie traveled in a backwards spiral and thus provided greater resistance to the apparent wind, producing a high-pitched keening noise.

Harder to explain was the reported appearance in the sky of approximately twenty small children dressed in blue, pocketed art smocks. These small children—“definitely kindergartners” according to Shigo, who has grandchildren, and so knows—were later described as “zombies” that seemed “extremely pissed off.” Those crew members who weren’t felled by nausea reported that Tomlin, in his helmet, had the ability to control the kindergartners as a single entity by dramatically shimmying his shoulders, and so it appeared to the more delirious that they were at a school choir/dance performance, if five-year-olds had the ability to suspend themselves twenty feet in the air. Tomlin, it was also reported, started to spew an endless series of meteorological reports in a cheery voice nobody recognized as his own. Tomlin described day after day of occasional clouds and pleasant temperatures and the frequent afternoon appearance of something called “blur.” It was also reported that the helmet, originally green, turned into what looked like a black snow globe, and inside of it, bright particles whirled, punctuated by occasional periods of sudden whiteness, that resembled to an engine room technician, also a skier who’d once been buried, an avalanche. Some reported hearing thunder. Meanwhile, the kindergarteners started to literally descend on the helicopter pad. At which point, First Chopper Pilot Brown dragged himself across the deck and into the helicopter’s cockpit. Simultaneously, the water rescue team boarded the helicopter, presumably to prepare to search for the location buoy, so that they could dive down to retrieve the navigational instruments before the situation became unrecoverably dire. However, Tomlin directed the kindergarteners to bunch together on the helicopter’s propeller like barnacles. When Brown started the engine, the propeller spun around, and the kindergarteners turned into a transparent blue cloud. What happened next is unclear. Either the helicopter erupted in blue flames, or it was overtaken by a rogue wave that breached the deck from the stern. Regardless, many crew members found themselves in the ocean, covered in what were later identified as patches of frostbite.

There is no conclusion. However, among the notable facts guiding the ongoing investigation:
    1. The Maggie, swept clean of all personnel, drifted out of the fog event, and was discovered two hours later by another container ship, 3-7H8N (“The Ethan”).
    2. Initially, the bodies of the relevant personnel were never recovered. All other crew members were rescued from the ocean by The Ethan.
    3. Related or not, the first surge of “the tantrums” began at roughly the same time as the appearance of the historic fog event. In just one week, kindergartens and preschools across the country sustained an estimated 20 million dollars’ worth of damage. Walls were covered in finger-painted graffiti messages that no one could read, because the vandals couldn’t spell. Encryption experts are still trying to decipher.
    4. The location buoy was recovered and divers dispatched. After four days of searching, the divers discovered Tomlin, wearing the Mind Expander Helmet, an anchor tied to his feet.

Heidi Julavits is a professor at Columbia University and the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Folded Clock: A Diary. With Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton, she edited the bestselling Women in Clothes. She is the author of four novels, among them The Vanishers, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the PEN New England Fiction Award.

Haus-Rucker-Co, Laurids-Zamp-Pinter Environment Transformer / Flyhead, 1968

Haus-Rucker-Co, Laurids-Zamp-Pinter Environment Transformer / Flyhead, 1968

Haus-Rucker-Co, Laurids-Zamp-Pinter Environment Transformer / Flyhead, 1968

Haus-Rucker-Co, Laurids-Zamp-Pinter Environment Transformer / Flyhead, 1968

“Fly Ashtray Screen Reducer Morning (for Cortazar, Goldblum & Wire)”
By Jonathan Lethem

The world is a pane. The pane, a glass brick to batter against, searching for the portal, the air pellet hole to crawl through. Quit your addiction to glass. Find the lip of the frame instead, grope with your feet to its edge. The screen a grid comprising the matrix of universal possibility, the stars so far out of reach. Yet you find that with this special reduction survival headset you have completed your current ruse and are through. Through to the breakfast table, daily slog of life’s resuming. Yet not ordinarily from this vantage, not usually at this scale. That bridge beyond, yawning into mist, the arch of a teacup spoon across boiled seas. Salt and pepper shakers loom, twin monoliths, possibly featuring seamless doors to teleportation portals, if only you can get them to slide open. Ashtray, a gray dusty birdbath in which to twitch your wings, seeking to attain moth status. Coffee steam an intoxicant you float through, high to the ceiling. Never mention the butter. The butter is a trap. Skim it lightly enough it might make the ointment you crave, yet butter’s a quicksand, they’ve left it out all night to soften into horror. Never mind your compound eyes, the flat surfaces of the open book at the breakfast table make braille furrows for you to read with your six tender feet, acres ploughed and raked and seeded by the printing press. Could you still dial that telephone, reach the complaint line, return the package? Did you even keep the headset packaging? Rest on the buttons of the telephone, to push one might be enough. The second hand of the clock a whirligig carousel, another place to cling, yet bridge to nowhere. Where does the time go? Up, then down, to fling you off. How did you get so tiny? Was the headset itself the trap that drew you in, that merged you, excavated your lurking flyness? Fly girl, but you don’t stop. Fly guy, but you don’t stop. You don’t stop. You batter the window, penetrate the screen, read the mountainous braille, skim or totally evade the butter, eat the dust. The goods in the fly ashtray. Ride the currents of the morning, wafts of breakfast. It smells so good. It looks so big, scone mountain, maybe you’ll dart off with a fleck of caramelized ginger, crazy candy glitter, inebriant. What a way to start the day. You mustn’t sweat the small stuff because there is no small stuff. It’s all big stuff to you. You – you are the small stuff, and inside this fly headset you are sweating profusely, you may in fact drown in a drop of it, legs wiggling in the air. Bug-fish-bird, you may drown in the air. The fly is nothing if not irreversible.

In 1999, Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn won a National Book Critics Circle Award. His most recent book is Brooklyn Crime Novel. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005, and teaches creative writing at Pomona College.