[-empyre-] Neuroaesthetics

Alan Dunning einsteins-brain-project at shaw.ca
Thu Sep 4 03:51:43 EST 2008

Hi Everyone,

I'll kick this off.

Both Paul and I work inside an art/science collaboration that has 
been in existence for some  twelve years. The project  develops and 
presents systems and installations using analog or digital interfaces 
to direct the  output of the human body to virtual and sculptural 
environments that are constantly being altered through  feedback from 
a participant's biological body. The core of the Einstein's Brain 
Project is a  discursive space that engages with ideas about the 
resituation of the body in the world and its  digital cybernetic and 
post-human forms.  The project's work is focused on how 
representations of the biological body might be manifest in  the 
world through mediatized spaces and how these representation conflate 
the virtual, symbolic and  imaginary worlds in the the moment to 
moment construction of a self.

Currently we are working on a series of works that use strategies of 
EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) to look at the development of 
pattern and meaning arising out of random noise.

These works work use the ideas inherent in EVP to examine ways in 
which we construct the world through pareidolia, (a psychological 
phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus - often an image or 
sound - being perceived as significant), apophenia (the seeing of 
connections where there are none) and the gestalt effect (the 
recognition of pattern and form). EVP is the recording of errant 
noises or voices that have no explainable or physical source of 
origin. These recordings are made when the recorder is under very 
controlled circumstances. Most often white or pink noise is used as a 
medium that is (it is suggested) acted upon by other electromagnetic 
forces. This electromagnetic medium produces forms that are, 
occasionally, like human speech.

In Ghosts in the Machine (2008) two projectors project large images 
onto the walls of a room. One projection shows video static overlaid 
with text and the outlines of bounding boxes, the other shows black 
and white images of what appear to be blurry and indistinct images of 
human faces. Ambient noise fills the space. Just at the threshold of 
recognition can be heard what appear to be human speech in different 
languages. A CCD camera is turned on but enclosed in a light tight 
box. Its input is adjusted with maximum gain and brightness to reveal 
the video noise inherent in the system. This noise forms the optical 
equivalent of audio noise and is used in a similar way to provide a 
medium that can be modified by external forces to produce images and 
sounds. The video noise is mapped to audio by sampling pixels in a 
QuickTime matrix and using the values to manipulate a stream of pink 
noise. Voice recognition software parses the modulated noise and 
translates any sufficiently voice-like sounds into its nearest vocal 
equivalent. Face tracking algorithms using a cascade of Haar 
classifiers scan each video frame and look for any combination of 
pixels that form the basic characteristics of a human face. These are 
areas that are loosely characterized as eyes, nose and mouth with a 
sufficient degree of symmetry. When the software finds such a 
combination of pixels and symmetry, the software draws a bounding box 
defining the area and zooms the area to full screen, its contrast and 
brightness is adjusted, blurred and desaturated to clarify the found 
images. The images produced are only occasionally reminiscent of 
human faces. More often than not, the images produced are recognized 
as indeterminate organic forms with volume and space, but fail to 
resolve themselves into anything recognizable. But occasionally, 
images are produced that are astonishingly and strikingly like a 
face, although in actuality containing only the barest possibility of 
being so.

An audience's response to the sounds and images in Ghosts In The 
Machine is, like all apprehension of works of art, a complex 
interplay of expectation and desire dependent entirely on a 
contextual, located and distributed body. The expanded body/machine 
field - body, brain and world looping back and forth along endless 
recombinant cognitive pathways  - plays an essential role in meaning 
making in the face of the indeterminate. An early incarnation of the 
series was first shown in the Centro Popular de la Memoria in 
Rosario, Argentina. This building contained a former illegal 
detention center that was used by the provincial police between 1976 
and 1979 to hold people without formal charges and torture them, 
under the pretense of fighting radical left-wing political subversion 
and terrorism. It was informally termed El Pozo: The Pit. The Sound 
of Silence was installed in a room directly above The Pit. Naturally 
enough the images and sounds that observers saw and heard in what was 
generated by random noise from the camera related directly to the 
horrors inflicted on those incarcerated in El Pozo. Noise was 
interpreted in the context of the lost and invisible bodies that had 
been incarcerated. Another installation occurred at a mental hospital 
in Trieste, Italy. Here the noise was characterized differently and 
altogether different content was built within the work. Such 
contextual imagining is not unusual - works of art are never 
autonomous, but always part of a contextual continuum. But in these 
works content is so completely dependent on context for the any 
meaning that might be generated, that it is seen as a visualization 
of a momentary and located epistemological unconscious.

In these installations the computer does the hard work of analyzing a 
complex visual field, but the task of meaning making is left to the 
observer as discovered faces barely meet the requirements of a facial 
arrangement, consisting only of blobs and indeterminate grain. 
Seeing, representation and the interpretation of external phenomena 
has never been a matter of objectivity. Seeing is a complex activity, 
and the perception of visual forms, aesthetic experience and 
cognitive interpretation are more at home with the aleatory, the 
misperceived and the phenomena of indeterminacy than with the notion 
of the world as a fixed reality. It is these that drive the 
installations. The installations are generative, closed systems. 
Noise from a CCD camera is analyzed for patterns. An algorithm looks 
for patterns that match the basic geometry and physiognomy of the 
human face. What it actually finds are pixels on a screen that have 
no indexical relation to a real world face. They are not images of 
people, but another kind of image loaded with meaning, which arises 
accidentally, but irresistibly and inevitably, from the hybrid 
interaction between machine and body and world. To all intents and 
purposes when these patches of pixels look like faces, they are 
images of faces. That such obscure images resolve themselves into 
faces without conscious effort, and that remain even when attending 
closely to them, suggests that it is paradoxically their lack of 
objective meaning that generates their form. It is the very ambiguity 
and intedeterminacy of the images that allows the brain to 
reconfigure them as indexical.


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