[-empyre-] speed addiction, interactive technologies, some notes on science

Gordana Novakovic gordana.novakovic at gmail.com
Tue Oct 11 06:08:48 EST 2011

Hello and good evening.

Thank you, Johannes, for your very kind introduction. Coming from a
bit different background, I am quite ignorant about lots of theories
and practices that you are fluent in and it’s been quite a lot of
fast-forward learning for me which I most appreciate. I will start
with some kind of brief introduction and hopefully through the
evolution of the discussion I will be more clear where my thoughts and
experience might contribute to the overall topic – probably by adding
more unanswered questions. I’d like to apologise for what might appear
as a bit dry tone, but – at the moment, I am working on a grant
applications – not the only one obviously, trying to articulate my
ideas into a language that scientists can relate to, and than funding
bodies. It feels a bit schizophrenic – these streams of thoughts
running in parallel through my mind, so please bear with me.

I have been reading your posts with delight and great interest, and
reflected on stillness, silence, rhythm; stillness through movement
particularly resonant...and how all of that relates to the digital
technology saturated contemporary urban environment and art forms that
exploit digital technologies.  Speed pollution. The name that comes
first to my mind is Paul Virilio and his ideas about how speed and
acceleration mark and shape technology enabled world, and his
reflections on dromposphere in relation to war, media and technology
and contemporary society. Are people becoming addicted to speed? How
and why?

I will start with some notes on interactive art. I believe that
interactive art can be defined exclusively if addressed as a process,
more specifically: a complex system of interdependent processes. The
clear boundaries of an installation cannot be defined in the same way
as we cannot define the clear boundaries of a participant's body. Our
bodies, transparent for environmental influences, within interactive
environment become dissolved. As opposed to fine art artefacts,
interactive installation is not a passive reflective object. It
creates a dynamic feedback process between human body and the system.
It is the participant that sets interaction in motion and induces the
process of interaction that depends upon her presence and activity. On
the other hand, interactive installation is active, emissive,
overpowers the human body; through interaction, body becomes an
absorbing receiver. There should be no question about it: the
installation navigates our perception rather than we make sense of the
perceptual situation. Compared to cinematographic forms and fine art
objects, the level of mediation in this perceptual situation puts the
participant in the position to replace perception of the object with
an openness in observing the perception itself.

The perceptual hypotheses offered by the participant will depend on
the complex sum of cultural habits and lived experience. But equally
important is the current state of the body and its receptiveness to
specific sensory stimuli which depends on inter-relationship between
such factors as minor or major organ misbalance, hydration, time of
the day, emotional state. Depending on the way that sensory stimuli
are orchestrated, experiencing an installation can sharpen attention
and provide profound kinaesthetic experience in a unique way. In
situations of sensory overload it can disperse attention and cause
different negative side effects manifested as minor nuisances such as
headache, eye or ear irritation. Occasionally it can cause more
serious disturbances such as nausea, vertigo or even epileptic
seizure. But what happens within our bodies when there are no such
dramatic manifestations?

My long time commitment have been to design installations that engage
participants in a spontaneous non-verbal communication between two
entities. The unanticipated responses from the audiences inspired my
search for understanding the nature of interactive interfaces and how
do they affect my potential participants-to-be. And I started looking
for the answers. Now, after years of research, I have more questions,
but hopefully more focused and articulate.

For the last few years, from the field of phenomenology (in particular
Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and consciousness studies my interests have
shifted to cognitive sciences and psychoneurology and
neurophenomenology, firmly rooted in the Mearleau-Ponty’s
philosophical concepts (Alva Noë among others advancing action in
perception has already been brought into discussion.). Another
prominent philosopher from the field that I think might be quite
useful and hopefully relevant to our discussion is Shaun Gallagher
(also expert on meditation) with his theory about body schema and body
image that explains how our movements are ‘decided’ before we become
conscious of our intentions as a part of natural coupling between the
human and the environment and how the interaction with the world
shapes our body/mind.

Probably the strongest scientific paradigm that bridges the famous
body/mind gap and provides empirical evidences for philosophical
concepts of phenomenology and embodied mind is the field of brain
plasticity (pioneered by the late Paul Bach-y-Rita, followed by
Michael Merzenich, and others). It shows that the brain is not fixed
and closed, but very open to the influences from the environment, that
it changes constantly through interaction with it and through the
processes of learning. It turned out that the brain is especially
susceptible to digital technologies.

This scientific paradigm can particularly be useful in understanding
the nature of addictions. It tells us that the origin of addictions
resides in the brain’s chemistry. If we are engaged in some activity
that triggers secretion of so called ‘hormones of pleasure’, or
‘happiness’ such as the neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphin and
serotonin, we soon develop a craving for this particular stimulus, and
we want more of it for pretty much obvious reason. In case of, for
example, shoot-them-up computer games, according to some research, it
seems that the speed of actions/editing (the rhythm?) is the major
player in producing the feeling of pleasure rather than it’s content
(which cannot be disregarded, of course). However, we soon become, so
to speak, resistant to certain stimuli and need stronger sensations in
order to get desired bran’s response. All neat and jolly, but how can
we get proper scientific investigation that will analyse
psycho-neurological basis for real life experiences?

Here we are faced with the limitations of the current scientific
methodologies and technologies available to empirically study these
phenomena because most of them are designed to analyse motionless
individuals in non-natural laboratory environments, often ‘buried’ in
the sarcophaguses of various brain scanners. What do these experiments
tell us about the lived experience? I had lots of delight reading
Noë’s latest iconoclastic book with a very provocative title Out of
our Heads (Noë, 2009) where he bitterly criticises these technologies
and seeing brain as the only key for understanding perception,
emotion, consciousness. He says: ‘Our culture is obsessed with the
brain - how it perceives; how it remembers; how it determines our
intelligence, our morality, our likes and our dislikes. It’s widely
believed that consciousness itself, that Holy Grail of science and
philosophy, will soon be given a neural explanation. And yet, after
decades of research, only one proposition about how the brain makes us
conscious—how it gives rise to sensation, feeling, and
subjectivity—has emerged unchallenged: we don’t have a clue.’

It will be interesting to see whether and how Noë’s approach, and the
broader field of brain plasticity in neuroscience, will affect our
understanding of the visual and multimedia experiences that occur in
response to digitally mediated data and artworks in the future. One
thing is certain: the current focus on the technologies themselves is
misguided, since what can and will be perceived is determined as much
by the internal nature of the perceiver as by the external
manipulations of the objects of perception.

One of the problems in understanding the true nature of interactive
art I believe comes from the theory that links these art forms to
plastic arts, video or cinematography. When I conceived my first
interactive piece in 1994-6, I was immediately struck by the positive
response and interest for the piece - by the experimental theatre
community. Since then, I have been looking at (and for) theatrical
elements in interactive installation. That led me to explore Artaud
and ritual and ask the question: is interactive installation a new
theatrical form? Might it actually be a form of Aratud’s Total Theatre
(of cruelty)? And if so – is it leading us back to the origins of
theatre: ritual? Does it have the capacity to be developed into a
contemporary, digital technology enabled ritual? Can it provide us
with complex experiences that ritual enables?

Recently, again chance played its role in directing my work. When I
exhibited my ongoing piece, based on the computational model of the
function of the human immune system designed to induce meditative,
contemplative experience, to my surprise, I was approached by a few
butoh dancers who wanted to collaborate with me on the piece. My
knowledge about butoh was very vague, but I learned a bit, and my
intuition was strongly in favour of it. But what, how...? And than in
April this year - the 1st Artaud Forum, yet another Johannes’ brain
child. Two physical workshops with Biyo Kikuchi and Olu Taiwo.
Complete tectonic shift. It was this physical experience guided by the
real masters that woke up my poor untrained (not to mention aging)
body to bring me clarity of mind. I knew what I wanted to do/make. It
was a magic moment of understanding, or anticipating, the reflection
and expended consciousness through movement. Now comes the hard bit of
materialising the vision. And I’ll stop here, where the grant
application starts (or I might agree –it is gardening that makes more
sense by the end - probably true, go out first thing in the morning,
and join our young upstairs neighbour who has been planting some
bamboos at the back of our garden).

just a couple of references, but if anybody is interested in some
particular one, I would be of course happy to oblige:

Noë, Alva., (2009). Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and
Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Hill and Wang.

Gallagher, Shaun., (2006). How the Body Shapes the Mind.  Clarendon
Press; New Ed edition (12 Oct 2006)

With best regards,



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