Survivance - Maria Chávez - Too Much Reality

Too Much Reality

Maria Chávez

Broken records used in turntabling, from New Sounds Presents: Maria Chavez, film still, 2018.

June 2021

The artist Julia Norton recently described a unique form of epilepsy that she has been managing, one that took her years to get diagnosed due to the abstruse symptoms through which it manifests.1 Rather than convulsive seizures, temporal lobe epilepsy is a form of epilepsy whose symptoms express themselves through memory and emotion. At times, she feels an intense sense of what she describes as “horrible déjà vu,” accompanied by a disturbing nausea that leaves her physically and emotionally exhausted for days afterwards. Other sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy describe experiencing moments of reality more intensely than normal, or moments that feel “more real than real.” For some, this sensation feels good, almost as if they were on hallucinogens, although they are actually experiencing an overstimulation of memory protein due to the seizure episode.

Patients with this neurological condition often encounter flashbacks, which can be described as a layering of memories (including those of events that one has never experienced) on top of one’s perception of the world. Julia likens it to suddenly being able to see the world through a frog’s eyes, “where one can see multiple panels of reality all around you.” She describes the experience as “impossible to explain…unless you’ve lived through it.” Julia further explains:

That’s why so many sufferers of this epilepsy become artists, in order to further explain their experiences. The idea of reality as being fixed is not a constant that can be relayed on from person to person or concept to concept.2

Whereas Julia suffers from her brain throwing her into emotional seizures while simultaneously having to manage reality on a daily basis, someone that does not suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy still needs to navigate their daily reality in a pro-adaptive manner. The endurance of psychological strife is a universal and trans-historical constant within human communities. The capacity to thrive, then, relies on one’s ability to adapt to new situations and create spaces of safety within them.

In order to adapt to reality, the brain constantly creates new connections between neurons. This process of neuron connection is known as neuroplasticity, and can be trained and optimized through things like physical exercise, learning a new language, or working on a puzzle. Over generations, activities that evolve our brains take the form of culture. Art has historically been one of the most important and powerful ways for humans to evolve their brains.

This can be particularly recognized in the avant-garde, or artists who throughout history have introduced new ideas and have been shunned for being too new, too different, only for them to become accepted, and even revered later on. In this sense, civilization requires arts and culture to encourage and form opportunities for more neuron connections to develop.

Julia’s description of her neurological condition as being like “multiple panels of reality all around you” can be understood as a form of hyperreality. But it could also be used to describe, quite literally, a multimedia installation. Technological reproducibility allows for moments in time to be recorded into media. These “snapshots” allow for captured temporalities to be brought back into the present at will. Multi-media work that emits multiple snapshots of reality in a single space and time does not flatten them into a single message, but rather presents them all at once, creating a landscape of potential experience.


Maria Chávez, The Rain of Applause (sample), 24-hour sound installation live at INKONST, Malmö, Sweden, April 26, 2014.

In my own sound installation practice, I make frequent use of field recordings or audio snapshots of time. In my ongoing series The Rain of Applause (2012–present), I ask art organizations and venues to record applause from their events for a certain amount of time (one week to one month). I then manipulate the recordings and form them into a compiled sound file, which is emitted through an 8.1 speaker configuration that plays the sound piece for at least six hours and up to twenty-four hours. By placing multiple tiers of audio documentation into dense configuration over a prolonged period of time, the sound of applause slowly begins to morph. A mental form of audio masking occurs in which the mind can no longer identify the source or intention of the sound. This stripping of excess context and information allows the listener to hear the applause not as praise but as rain.


Maria Chávez, Hyper Memory Installation #13, Nature Walk with Folkways records, live-stream November 10, 2020.

My Abstract Turntablism performance practice utilizes my large library of field recordings to create a hyper-memory installation in real time by playing back decades-old field recordings on multiple turntables. Some records played contain sound registered during certain seasons in nature, such as the monsoon period in India, or from wildlife, such as frogs and toads in New Hope, Pennsylvania, or wolf cries at night in the mountains of California. In addition to multiple turntables, I use RAKE double-headed needles, which play back two parts of a record at the same time. Using RAKE double-headed needles on four turntables gives me the ability to isolate or play eight different audio emissions at once.

The experiential density of these “hypermnemonic” installations has the potential to support and aid in developing neuroplasticity. Should we understand cultural venues and institutions as places for those who want to activate their own neuroconnectivity? Providing safe spaces where creative people can produce works and offer new experiences is key to stimulating our brains, which is essential for responding to a reality that changes spontaneously and incessantly proves difficult to navigate.


Interview with author, January 2021.



Survivance is a collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and e-flux Architecture.

Installation, Technology
Consciousness & Cognition, Health & Disease, Sound Art
Return to Survivance

Maria Chávez is an abstract turntablist, sound artist, and DJ. Her latest album is Maria Chávez Plays (Stefan Goldmann’s “Ghost Hemiola”), and she is currently an artist-in–residence with EMPAC (The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) until 2022.


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