The Art of Suggestion: My Day in the Tank

Written by Jenna Jauhiainen
Photos and images by Jenna Jauhiainen & Aarni Korpela / Höyhentämö

My Day in the Tank (Image by Aarni Korpela)

My Day in the Tank is a performance that takes place inside the viewer’s mind. The heart of the experience is an hour spent floating in a modern isolation tank. The performance is the creation of The Power of Suggestion[1], a four-year project that studies theater and performance as suggestion processes, and suggestion as the primary element in performances. For me My Day in the Tank was a lesson of suggestion not only as a part of the performative arts, but as an integral element in experiencing all of life.

Note: If you are attending My Day in the Tank, I would suggest reading this after your own experience.

Why choose suggestion as the focal point of artistic research? Isn’t suggestion a thing of self-help books, advertisements and hypnotherapists? By definition a suggestion is an idea or a plan put forward for consideration. This sounds pretty everyday – we suggest ideas and plans for each other all the time, which makes suggestions sound as something that come from the outside world. We often fail to realize that it is the internal suggestions that are even more common than external ones.

If one observes one’s thinking for a day or just for an hour or two, one will notice the dialogue within is filled with suggestive chitchat. We suggest ourselves attitudes, interpretations and evaluations of the world around us. Thus, in a sense, we suggest ourselves the varieties of our lived experience. Our personal mannerisms, our individual style and even our overall lifestyle have all been processed through external and internal suggestions.

Any object as such does not actively suggest anything, yet it is potentially suggestive. What fulfills this potential is the mind. An object can suggest a function by its shape (say, a hammer), yet we always react to such suggestions based on the situation we are in and the individual contents of our minds. If we see a hammer on a podium in an art gallery it will (most likely) suggest different things than it does on a construction site, and in both situations it will suggest different things to me and you.

Personally, I think art is the greatest suggestion of all. Yet its suggestiveness does not depend on the qualities of any given work of art, but the ways we appreciate them. Art often makes us so open for suggestions that we actively look for them. We assume an artist has implanted suggestions of potential interpretations onto his work, we read into the suggestions of context by the curator and sometimes we even ponder whether the medium suggests the message. In short, we expect there is more to a work of art than meets the eye. The subtlety of experiencing art, I would argue, builds from a web of suggestions that either really are there in a given work or are projected to it by our minds.

Suggestions are particularly prevalent in the performative arts, because every performance builds on the suggestion of a performative reality that unravels in the here-and-now of an individual performance. This performative reality is a multilayered process, built between the suggested audience and the suggested performer(s).The isolation of this process is very cleverly crafted in My Day in the Tank: the performance that happens is a suggestion itself and the performer is each individual’s mind in suggesting itself an experience of the performance – a kind of a perfect loop.

Sensory deprivation tanks have been in existence since at least since the 1960s. It was John C. Lilly who initiated the study of sensory deprivation tanks, pairing his experiments with the use of LSD. His attempt was to use sensory deprivation to study the human mind devoid of external stimuli. After psychedelics were made illegal around the turn of the decade to the 1970s, the scientific research of them went heavily underground for the rest of the millennia. Yet the tanks continued to be studied, and have since then evolved into becoming a thing in the wellness circles, gaining new names such as flotation tank and REST tank. Science argues that the health benefits of floating in salt-water induced weightlessness include reduced pain, stress and blood pressure with the occasional increase in focus and creativity.[2]

In considering the nature of this performance, I feel I need to describe my own My Day in the Tank in order to speak of it. As expectations are one of our key internal suggestions, I should say that in experiencing My Day in the Tank I was expecting to have my consciousness altered by the sensory deprivation process. I was expecting a somewhat psychedelic experience.

My My Day in the Tank

I arrived with a friend to Korso by train on 8th of November 2014, on a Saturday noon. We found our way to Katin Kauneuskulma easily even though there was a busy market going on in the small center of Korso. On the ground level it looked just like any other spa, yet what we found downstairs was truly unique: a harmonious space with dark wood furniture, colored lights, soothing music and an electric fireplace. I immediately felt at home, particularly as the contrast between the busy market-day Korso on the ground and the wellness haven underneath was so strong. My sense of time ceased to be, and for the next hours underground I did not glance at my watch once.

A member from Kati’s staff showed me the tank. It was in a room of its own, paired with a small toilet and a shower. I was told to take a shower before entering the tank, because the less grease my skin had the better the epsom salt of the tank could affect it. I was shown how to open and close the tank, and told that if I wanted, I could turn on the lights inside. I was advised to wear earplugs in order to avoid water going into my ears, and not to have it go into my mouth nor my eyes. A tube of vaseline was provided to cover any wounds that might react uncomfortably to the salt of the tank.

The tank under the colored lights of Katin Kauneuskulma.

After I knew what to do once I would be left alone with the tank, I met Risto Santavuori who structured the performance for me. I had tried to minimize my expectations of the experience, but I still had some: I expected I would transcend my body and/or my mind in some way. Being rather experienced in meditation and consciousness expansion, I supposed that I would be able to follow and dwell on the suggestions given to the degree that I would experience something at least bordering profundity.

Risto led me down a long hallway. As we stopped by a closed door, he said: “Inside this room the performance begins.” I emptied my mind and opened the door. Inside the small room was a chair, an armchair and a table between the two. I sat into the chair and Risto took a seat in the armchair. On the table was a white writing board with the text what comes to mind written on it. Risto repeated the question on the board to me, and wiped it clean.

The first thing that came to my mind was the perception of a smudge of blue on the board, a smudge that stayed on the board after the text over it was wiped clean. I said, “Colors come to mind, because there is a smudge of blue on the board,” to which he replied, “Could that be represented with a symbol, a shape or a word?” “Yes, the word color or the word blue.” I wrote color over the blue smudge.

Risto asked “Is there anything you would like to add to this image? Does it expand in any way?” I looked at the white board with a tiny blue smudge with the word color written over it, and realized I wanted to frame it. I drew a circle around the smudge and said, “I am interested in what is here, around it” and pointed to the large white area around the circle. Risto told me I had answered his third and last question before he had the time to ask it, and thus I was ready to enter the tank.

I took a long shower. I washed my hair with shampoo with added colloidal silver, one that was provided by the spa. I washed my body very thoroughly in order to minimize the amount of oil on my skin. From the hour of tank-time I had, I think I spent about fifteen minutes preparing to enter it.

Once in the tank, all kinds of things began to rush through my mind. First I was distressed whether my body was floating in the best possible position. I kept softly bumping into the walls of the tank as I searched for the most relaxing posture. I stretched myself in the slimy epsom salt water and even tested if I could relax with my feet in the lotus position. I believe it took me another fifteen minutes to get my body positioned in a way that I was able to relax physically.

One thing that bothered me in relation to my expectations of the tank itself was that it was not completely silent nor completely dark inside it. There was a slight humming sound coming from the air conditioning, and the light switch and some other switches had tiny lights on them.

After I had my body in order and I was somewhat comfortable with my surroundings, I tried silencing my thoughts. It proved to be a lot harder than it usually is – thoughts kept surging into my consciousness even though I did my favorite meditative technique I often use to empty my mind: every time I breathe out also the thoughts I have at that moment leave my mind. Usually it takes less than a minute for my mind to settle to thoughtlessness. Yet in the tank this technique proved ineffective: new thoughts kept surging in. The expectations I had and the pressing need to have a meaningful experience weighed in on me. I also knew I was going to write about the experience later on, which meant that my writer’s voice kept interrupting me with raw analysis of the experience and even more raw analysis of me analyzing. I felt trapped. For a moment I even thought about just getting up and returning to the shower as I felt so unable to settle into the experience I wanted.

As my mind was battling against itself my body silently kept relaxing more. I had slight muscle spasms, the same kind one has before falling asleep. According to unverified online sources, at some point the floating leads to a transition from beta or alpha brainwave states to theta, which typically occur briefly before falling asleep and again at waking. In a float tank, this theta state can last for several minutes without the loss of consciousness. I believe I experienced this, because for a moment my mind bordered a dream sequence in thought, from which I quickly rose back to the place in my mind where I worried about time and the quality of the experience I was having. And then I heard a knock outside and knew I was to get up.

I returned to the shower and felt physically very relaxed. As I stood there, looking at the dimly lit room the tank was in, I realized I was now in the white area of the board that had interested me. The word color I had written and circled was a concept, a representation of the conceptual quality of the mind. The circle I drew around it symbolized both the tank and my mind.

The experience I had suggested for myself unraveled in an instant. I realized that all the things that constantly plague a mind – time, stress, feelings of inadequacy, expectations, critical thoughts – went through my mind inside the tank. I had been inside the physical metaphor of my mind, experiencing it as a performance, a separated totality of something I recognize as a part of myself. As I stood there in the shower, looking at the white capsule of a flotation tank, I felt I was in the great big world that extends endlessly through time and space – the unknown white area I immediately knew interested me more on the white board than what I had written and drawn on it.

This is a very personal experience. It was an embodied, experienced truth of something I have held true for a long time, but never experienced so tangibly before. My mind suggested me an experience that was profound, yet not in the way that I was expecting to experience profundity – which is what makes it profound when you really think about it. I know this sounds somewhat esoteric, but I had a very strong feeling of my mind using this opportunity, the blank canvas of a board, to experience internally accepted truths. This is at the core of suggestions themselves – what we suggest to ourselves as real become experienced as real.

After the shower I dressed up and returned to the small room. This time Risto adviced me to take a seat in the armchair. There was water, nuts and fruits on the table and also the writing board, this time with no blue smudge. He asked me to describe my experience to him, in short, and I told him of how I reached the realization of the meaning of my initial drawing only after I came out of the tank, and how I now understood that my own thinking bounds my experience like the circle bound the concept of color on the board. I told how, no matter what the contents of my mind are, there is a great big world out there I want to direct my attention to more than I want to listen to my internal doubts and fears.

Risto asked if I could describe my experience with a symbol, a shape or a word. I drew a small pebble into the middle of the white board, explaining that “My thoughts are here in the center, surrounded by the network of them.” Then I began to draw a spiral that extended from the pebble to cover the whole board, and said “Yet my thoughts will always move ahead, approaching the world outside.” He asked whether I wanted to leave the spiral on the board or wipe it clean, and without hesitation I said I want to wipe it clean. To explain it, I said “This reminds me of the monks who gather painted grains of sand into intricate forms only to wipe the shapes away the moment they are finished.” The lesson learned is not the external, it is not in the performance – it is within the experiencer, or say, the audience.

Thoughts after My Day in the Tank

What My Day in the Tank sought to do was to isolate suggestion as a constructive element in performances. In my experience it succeeded in reaching this aim. It showed how a performance happens inside the viewer’s mind. This is as intriguing as it sounds and triggers many questions: can my mind suggest experiences for me? Does my mind suggest me an experience every time I encounter art? And, most wildly, does my mind suggest me every experience I have? What I experienced in the tank and from having talked with others who went through it also leads me to answer yes to all of the above. This process of suggestion that goes on between my mind and my consciousness is like a play. My subconscious desires, fears and evaluations affect my internal dialogue, feeding in suggestions that I consciously integrate to my assessments of what goes on around me.

From having talked with the artists behind My Day in the Tank, it would appear that the tank cannot suggest a particular kind of experience, but a different kind each time. Each mind goes wild within the tank. One of my initial expectations was that I would be given some kind of a suggestions when entering the tank. This proved wrong – even the blue smudge on the board was nothing but an accident. You cannot make a viewer experience a specific kind of a performance inside the tank, nor can you even make yourself experience what you assumed you would. The subconscious mind feeds and formulates the experience in a different way, every time.

The performances of My Day in the Tank will continue next spring (2015). This time they will be organized in request. In the year 2015 Höyhentämö also presents a performance series Another Day in the Tank which takes the concept to the next level with thematized tank performances.

My Day in the Tank
Director: Eero-Tapio Vuori & working group
Performance: Aarni Korpela, Risto Santavuori, Juha Sääski, Eero-Tapio Vuori & Sanna Uuttu
Part of The Power of Suggestion -project

[1] More about the Power of Suggestion project (in Finnish)

[2] One rather recent study on the effects of modern isolation tanks to both consciousness and physical well-being is accessible online here.