Machine-Aided Meditations

Machine-Aided Meditations

Artist Lisa Park uses EEG sensors to master her fears and seek stillness amid the chaos of her own brainwaves.

So you show up at an art gallery one day, not really sure what to expect. You pass through the rooms. White walls. Canvasses. Statues. Some of it grabs you. A lot of it doesn’t. Then you enter another room and, besides some more wall hangings, you see five bowls of water sitting on the floor.

Her mind so still and so calm that there’s nothing for the EEG sensor to read. Ideally, the water is still. The speakers are silent. She has attained total self-control.

Each bowl sits on some sort of electronic device. Wires run out from beneath them. As you’re trying to make sense of all this, a young woman in a full-length smock walks out from behind the bowls and moves into their center. She’s barefoot. What strikes you most, though, is that she’s wearing a strange headpiece, a cross between Google Glass and recording studio headphones, yet no part of it reaches her ears or eyes.

She sits on her heels in the center of the five bowls and looks at them. Strange sounds rumble out from beneath the bowls, and the water begins to respond to the sounds. At first, it simply quivers. As you watch, however, a deeper sound makes the water in one bowl or another hop up, even splash. The young woman isn’t saying anything. She alternates between looking at one of the bowls in front of her and closing her eyes. She just sits there as the sounds change. The water alternates between still and rippling and the sound moves between a low drone and sharp charges.

The young woman is Lisa Park. The performance is called Eunoia. The headpiece is not conveying anything to her directly. Instead, it’s reading her. It’s a NeuroSky MindWave transmitting data about her brainwaves via Bluetooth back to a computer, where a program takes the brainwave data and translates it into sounds played on the speakers set beneath the dishes of water.

For Park, the goal of the piece is to exercise control over her own mind, to make her mind so still and so calm that there’s nothing for the EEG sensor to read. Ideally, the water is still. The speakers are silent. She has attained total self-control.

Park exploring calibrations for turning EEG readings into sound in Processing. Screenshot from an early video from the project.

Park exploring calibrations for turning EEG readings into sound in Processing. Screenshot from an early video from the project.

It’s just the opposite of another recent art piece called The Emotional Arcade. In the Arcade, artists Brent Hoff and Alexander Reben use different devices to measure emotional states and encourage people to compete to see who can feel it the most. So, for example, similar EEG technology is used to fill “Rage Balloons,” where participants compete to make themselves as angry as possible. What viewers see are balloons blowing up as the EEG readings inform how much air gets pumped in. The person to get angriest the fastest “wins.”

Park’s work heads in the opposite direction, using technology to aid introspection—not to facilitate chaotic emotions. She says that stillness “has been an ongoing theme” in her work, “something I am always interested in and trying to find. Sometimes I feel like my emotion is too much. It is all around me.” One of the ironies of Eunoia, she tells us, is that the audience likes it when the water jumps and splashes. When she struggles and fails to reach the goal of the piece—total stillness—that’s when viewers have something to see.

The piece demonstrates how, in the mind, calm is the heaviest lift. It may be more exciting to visualize frenetic thought, but an absence of thought takes more work to attain. Like the disconnect between viewers’ interest and Park’s goals, language creates an irony between the mind and body. It’s harder for the body to exert itself and easier to rest, but the opposite is true for the mind. Yet both are described in the same terms: “rest” and “calm” versus “exertion” and “activity.”

Eunoia is the third in a trilogy of technology-driven performances expressing Park’s feelings about herself and the context of her upbringing. It’s interesting to see the narrative these three pieces create—and how effectively they evoke a future in which we are all awash in our own data.

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A tear falls during Lisa Park’s “Obsession is a Sad Passion.”

Park is victimized by her own work, and must try to master the fears to which she has exposed herself.

In the first piece, Obsession Is a Sad Passion, Park shuts her head into a large bubble full of butterflies. She doesn’t know why, but Park has always been afraid of butterflies. Locked inside this bubble with butterflies flitting about her face, trying to escape, she stands there, trapped with her fears. Meanwhile, a recording is played: a short story by Patrick Suskind about a young artist driven to suicide by the expectations of the people around her.

The recording is governed by a heart rate monitor attached to Park. If she lets her fear of the butterflies increase her heart rate, the sound of the recording gets lower and slows down. If she’s calm, it remains normal. In this piece, Park is victimized by her own work, and must try to master the fears to which she has exposed herself.

The second piece in this trilogy of self-control and anxiety, Le Violon d’Lisa, is the most narrative. In it, she has modified a cello bow so that it creates sound when it comes in contact with skin that has a very small amount of electrical current running through it. The piece begins with her body being unveiled and a male performer beginning to play music on her exposed back after putting her head into his shoulder, much as one would an actual cello. Park’s body is played in that way for a while, until she begins to act like a living person and eventually plays herself. She transforms from an object into a human with agency.

With Eunoia, she closes the loop. She doesn’t just have agency—she exhibits control. She has opted for stillness. She’s choosing to seek her own goals, not what her audience wants from her performance. The audience might want to see drama: water jumping and shaking and exploding, as if powered by a sort of telekinesis. But that’s not what she pursues.

That said, Park explains that it’s not so simple just to ignore the audience. She spent three months practicing with the EEG sensor, the speakers and the water. By the end, she was able to create stillness in the water. “When I was by myself, it was easier,” she said. During performances, it gets much harder. Having other people around makes her nervous. She responds to their presence. She can get there, but it takes her longer and she can’t hold it.

She’s performed Eunoia three times. First, at the Spring 2013 show for NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, then at the digital arts space 319 Scholes in April and finally at “Art from the Heart 2013” at a Gowanus Loft. “If I do this again,” she told us, “I think the ideal would be to do it for five or six hours. There I would reach a point where I am in the zone.”

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These works, she told me, initially explored the limits placed on women with her upbringing; now, however, she says, “I realized last year that it is myself who is putting those limits.” Park is not the only artist who has found that using technology to augment introspection helps yield insights.

When I met Brent Hoff, one of the architects behind the “Rage Balloons,” he told me several similar stories. In one, a young woman said she would definitely win the balloon contest because she was so angry at an ex-boyfriend. Once she was strapped in, though, she couldn’t muster even the faintest inflation on her balloon. Afterward, she told Hoff that she’d realized she wasn’t angry at him. She just thought she was.

It won’t be long before more people—not just artists—will be able to create their own methods of transmuting brainwaves and emotions into real world manifestations. In fact, two engineers have a Kickstarter for the first completely open source EEG platform, allowing users to get pure data and feed it back out into anything they want, any way they want.

How long before we start to see more pedestrian applications of this data? For example, managers could use EEG sensors to tell them which of their employees really stay focused throughout the day and which ones let their minds endlessly wander. It’s not quite machine-assisted telepathy, but it’s getting there.

Lisa Park may continue to ride the cutting edge of this technology. She has already begun exploring other ways to take readings of her own emotions and physically manifest them. For Park, however, the technology is only a tool, one which facilitates a new level of introspection, yielding personal and artistic growth.

30 Comments

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