[-empyre-] Neuroaesthetics

John Onians j.onians at uea.ac.uk
Mon Sep 8 19:42:43 EST 2008

  Alan and Paul's project is exciting and shows just how close  
neuroaesthetics and neuroarthistory can be, and how helpful an  
acknowledgement of the neural can be  when dealing with the visual-or  
the aural for that matter.  The phenomena of pareidolia, apophenia  
and gestalts all illustrate the way the individual brain tries to  
make sense of its environment, and in a very context sensitive way.   
To me it is interesting that the natural and random marks on the  
walls of caves suggested images to the prehistoric viewer much as  
your random productions suggest forms and images to your machine.
More artists than art historians appreciate the power of the  
uncertain to interest us, and it is very helpful if you can find out  
what the principles are that govern the way meaning comes into being  
and dissolves, and especially the way our inner drives cause us to  
meaning in the meaningless.    I am also intrigued by the variations  
in viewer response, in your case, for example, the variations in  
people's  response to the correspondences picked up by your  
machines.  Do you track this?

On 3 Sep 2008, at 18:51, Alan Dunning wrote:

> 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.
> Alan
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