Narrating War: Performance excerpt, Pispala, Tampere, Finland, 2016

This reading from the book took place at The Memorial of the Red Guards, who died during the Finnish Civil War in Pispala, Tampere. The inscription in the stone says, ‘On this Pispala ridge, the Red Guard in Tampere last stood with weopans in hand defending their cause in 1918’.

The project is ongoing and a copy of the book in its current state is donated to the Pispala Library on the occasion of the exhibition, ‘Where does poetry nest?’, on 6th September, 2016 in memory of the over 5000 year old Civil War that the world, it seems, has not seen enough of.

Ali Akbar Mehta


  Missä runous pesii? | Where does poetry nest?
Poetry—an everlasting inquiry of art, drives language outside its
borders. Poetry sets into play every possible moment of
signification by placing the exercise of imagination at the center
of all contradictions. Poetry as an aesthetic praxis outlines our
possibilities to challenge the everyday, locating potential
transformation at the centre of our political enunciations. Poetry
contradicts and slips between the cracks of meaning, propagating
evidence that something else is there. In its intimacy, it draws
complex figures from our emotions, just to blur them into new and
old unreachable impossibles, to keep us moving, desiring.

If we listen to poetry carefully, we realise that it is something social. Its sociality is voiced as a constant transgression to the de politicised forms of enunciation; these poetic echoes keep on challenging every space of retreat. Poetry captures tautology and pushes it to the edges. Since there is no purity in poetry, it confronts general assumptions with a subtle whistle that triggers a dance of our subjectivities, nude and broken out in sweat. There is nothing too radical for poetry; even if something has already been said before, it can always be said differently.

Poetry is looking back at us from the other end laughing,
flirting, fugitive.

Poetry grounds utopia not as something reachable, but as a practice for keeping the unreachable present. Inhabiting between sentences, it bears testimony that other histories have always been present, through gluing their words together. Within it, art becomes our interlocutor for these other histories, always rebelling, always demanding justice and dignity, driven by the air which feeds change. Another history which finds in every wall not a border, but a place for public denouncement and mobilisation.

Where does poetry nest? It is not a question asking for an answer,
but a question mark waiting to be followed.
[*] The Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros recalled this question during his
time in Lecumberri prison: “Where does poetry nest? I can’t say how long ago this
question emerged within me. But it reemerged when I listened to Macario Huízar. And
the first time I followed it through to interrogation was in prison among a group
of dopers.”

Notes on the photographic image

Jacques Rancière


In the relation between art and image, photography has played a symptomatic and often paradoxical role. Baudelaire made of it the sinister instrument of the triumph of technical reproduction over artistic imagination. And yet we also know of the long struggle of photographers (pictorialistes) to affirm that photography was not merely mechanical reproduction, but rather an interpretation of the world. But scarcely had they won their battle to endow the technical medium of photography with the status of artistic medium, when Benjamin turned the game on its head. He made mechanical reproduction the principle of a new paradigm of art: the productions of the mechanical arts were for him the means towards a new sensible education, the instruments of the formation of a new class of experts in art, namely in the art of interpreting signs and documents. Cinema was a series of tests of our world. Atget’s photos were indices to interpret; Sander’s collections were notebooks for teaching combatants in the social struggle to readily identify allies and adversaries. The photographic medium participated in the construction of a sensible world where men of the age of the masses could affirm their existence as both possible subjects of art and experts in its use.

It seems, nevertheless, that the destiny of the art of photography has no more confirmed Benjamin’s diagnostic than that of Baudelaire. To support this claim, we can point to two phenomena more or less contemporary to one another that concern both photography and its interpretation. On the one hand, the 1980s saw photography invade art museums and exhibitions, taking on the dimensions of monumental paintings. These large-format photographs, amidst the proliferation of installations and video installations, assure, in a certain sense, the continuity of the pictorial surface. But, at the same time, what they present to us on this surface seems to turn its back on the forms of the pictorial revolutions of the twentieth century. Without even speaking of extreme examples like Jeff Wall’s revival of the historical tableau, we can think of the multiplication of portraits and the new status of the portrait, illustrated by, for example, photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s monumental portraits of otherwise indifferent individuals, represented without any particular aura: slightly awkward-looking adolescents on working-class beaches, young mothers still burdened by their babies, or apprentice toreadors, whose red- faced figures clash with the bull fighter’s traditional suit of lights. On the one hand, these full-length portraits present themselves as documents on social types or age groups undergoing transformation. On the other, the absence of expression, combined with the formal- ism of the pose and the size of the image, gives these indifferent gures something mysterious: something that for us also inhabits the portraits of Florentine and Venetian nobility which populate the museums. The teenager in the green swimsuit photographed on a Polish beach, with her slender body, her swaying hips, and her unfurled hair (below) is like an awkward replica of Botticelli’s Venus. Photography is thus not content to occupy the place of painting. It presents itself as the rediscovered union between two statuses of the image that the modernist tradition had separated: the image as representation of an individual and as operation of art.

How should we think this new coincidence and tension between the grand pictorial form and simply the images of indifferent individuals? The interpretation seems, at first sight, split between two extremes: at the one end, an exacerbation of the sensible presence of the photographed subject, in its provocative power with respect to modernist logic; at the other, an integration of this photographic realism – or hyperrealism – into the modernist scheme. In the first instance, we think of course of Barthes and Camera Lucida, the absolute reference for thought on photography in the 1980s. Barthes’s manoeuvre was to break the representation of the indifferent in two. The indifferent is, on the one hand, that which is identifiable by the intersection of a certain number of general traits. On the other, it is the absolute singularity of that which imposes its brute presence, and affects by this brute presence. We recognize here the principle of the opposition between the studium, conceived as the informative content of the photograph, and the punctum, conceived as its affective force, irreducible to transmission of knowledge. This affective force is the transfer of an absolute singularity, that of the represented subject, to another absolute singularity, that of the viewing subject. It is easy to underline the double paradox of this theorisation in light of the ulterior evolution of photography. It privileges a vision of photographic reproduction where it is the having-been of the body that comes to imprint itself on the sensitive plate, and from there touches us without mediation. This raising of the stakes concerning the indexical conception of photography was immediately countered by the digital invasion. At the moment when large-format photography is about to overrun the museum walls and affirm itself as a visual art, it transforms the photographic gaze into the gaze of an individual who pages through albums. But this historical contretemps refers us back to a more fundamental torsion concerning the relation between photography, art and modernism. In a certain manner, Barthes contorts the formalist modernist, who opposed the form (artistic/pictorial) to the anecdote (empiricist/photographic). Barthes diverts the opposition by transferring the anecdote to the studium, in order to pit it against not the artistic form, but an experience of the unique that refutes the pretension to art as well as the platitude of information. However, this opposition between art and photography is perhaps more profoundly the leave given to another modernity, to which Benjamin’s essay bore witness, and that inscribed photography among the instruments of a new social sensibility and a new social consciousness (three elements and not two). It is from this point of view that it seems useful to me to examine more closely the examples through which Barthes operates the opposition between studium and punctum. Let us take, for example, Lewis Hine’s photograph of the two mentally disabled children (below).


Barthes tells us not to look at the monstrous heads or the pitiful profiles that signify the disability. Instead, he opposes to these the force of fascination that is exerted on him by the details without signification: the boy’s Danton collar, the bandage on the little girl’s finger.1 But the punctum thus marked, in fact, obeys the same formal logic as the repudiated studium. It concerns, in both cases, features of disproportion. The privilege of the punctum here is simply to privatize this formal effect. We can read this analysis as the exact reversal of the critical logic previously put to work by the Barthes of Mythologies. What was at stake for him there, in a Brechtian logic, was to make visible the social hidden in the intimate, the history dissimulated as the appearance of nature. From this point of view, the very choice of the photograph is significant. The photo of the two disabled children appears as a hapax (ἅπαξ λεγόμενον ‘[something] said only once’) in the career of a photographer who devoted numerous series to the representation of work and the campaign against child labor. The ‘stupidity’ of the detail drawn from the irreducible hardship and misfortune of the two disabled children can be read like a screen placed before other photos of children: that of the Polish child, ‘Willie’, working in a mill in Rhode Island, or Francis Lance, the 5-year- old newspaper ‘salesman’. Yet, these ‘documentary’ photographs are the bearers of a tension between visuality and signification that is perhaps more interesting than the image of the two disabled children. They are in effect made for the purpose of denouncing the scandal of child labor. Yet, Willie’s attitude, as he sits nonchalantly (taking his midday rest) in a doffer-box, or Francis Lance’s, proudly standing his ground on a train platform with his newspapers tucked under his arm, do not testify to any suffering. What strikes us is precisely the opposite: it is the selfsame ease with which they show themselves capable of both adapting to their work and posing for the camera, thus obliging Lewis Hine to insist, in his commentary, on the dangers of their work, which they themselves seem so unconcerned about.


‘Impovershed ontology’

The activity of the commentator seems to respond, in advance, to the ‘Benjaminian’ demand. It is, in particular, the relation between the child workers, the camera, the photo and the text that follows this logic, linking the appreciation of the photographic performance to new forms of ‘expertise’ and to the experimentation of a new sensible world. The Danton collar suffices to silently settle the accounts with this logic. The only sensible world that the photo witnesses is the relation of the absolute singularity of the spectacle to the absolute singularity of the gaze. Much the same can be said about Avedon’s photograph of the old slave.2 Here the procedure is reversed: no detail distracts from a sociopolitical reading. On the contrary, the mask of the photographed subject speaks of nothing else than the condition of slavery. But the effect is the same: it is slavery in person, as a historical singularity, that offers itself entirely in the singularity of a single face. To declare slavery to be present in person, in front of our eyes, between our hands, is, in fact, to diminish the singularity of the other photographs that speak to us about what took place between the abolition of slavery and our present. For example, John Vachon’s photo, which shows us only the sign reading Colored, nailed high up on the trunk of a pine tree, next to which is the likely object of its discrimination: a simple drinking fountain. The multiplicity of racial discrimination’s forms of sensible existence, and the multiple singularity of these photographs that vary, and thereby tell us of, the visual forms of the metaphor and of the metonymy, come to be crushed against this black mask that presents slavery in person. But this being of slavery identifies itself with its having-been. Avedon’s photo represents the slavery that is no longer on the face of a man who, himself, is no longer, at the time when Barthes wrote his commentary. When all is said and done, the singularity of slavery written on a singular face is nothing other than the universality of the having-been; in other words, death.


It is to this singularity that the image of the two disabled children, which conceals those of the playing children of the factories, ultimately comes down. But this singularity of the image is itself determined by the power of words alone. Taking up again the two traits of the punctum of this photo, it is rst of all the bandage on the finger of the little girl. The French word with which Barthes refers to the bandage is poupée. Yet the French reader who does not know this usage of the word immediately has another image. The ordinary sense of the word in French is ‘doll’. And the identification of this poignant detail with the poupée inevitability evokes a whole series of images: from Hoffmann’s automaton, commented on by Freud, to the dismembered dolls that are a part of the surrealist imaginary, and that contributed more than a little to the transformation of Winnicott’s transitional object into Lacan’s object petit a. In short, the effect attributed to the phraseless singularity of the detail is the power of a word. And this power of the word is further accentuated by the proper name that quali es another poignant detail: the Danton collar. The French reader has no idea what a Danton collar might be. However, the name is immediately associated with that of a revolutionary who had his head sliced off by the guillotine. The punctum is nothing other than death foretold.

The analysis of the photo of the two mentally disabled children is therefore linked with that which Barthes devotes to the photo of the handcuffed young man. The photo is beautiful, Barthes tells us, and so is the young man, but that is the studium. The punctum is that ‘he is going to die’.3 Yet this death foretold is not visible in any of the features of the photograph. Its presumed effect rests on the combination of the brown colouring of the old photographs and the acquaintance with the individual represented, (in this case) Lewis Payne, condemned to death in 1885 for an attempted assassination of the then American secretary of state. But this affirmation of present death once again employs words to deny what constitutes the visual singularity of the photograph – that is, precisely that its present refuses any readings of the young man’s history, of the past that led him there, and of the future that awaits him. The half-nonchalant, half-curious attitude of the young man says nothing about this history, much the same as Willie’s relaxed pose said nothing about the hardships of factory work, and the gaze of the Polish teenager on the beach nothing about what reasons she might have had for exposing herself, nor her thoughts as she stands in front of the camera. What they speak to us of is only this capacity to expose one’s body at the request of the camera, without, for all that, surrendering to it the thought and the feeling that inhabit it. This tension between exposition and retreat vanishes in the pure relation of the viewer with the death that comes to view him.


This disappearance is not only due to the fact that Camera Lucida is first of all a eulogy addressed to Barthes’s dead mother. Behind the expression of personal grief, there is the expression of another grief, that of the gaze that endeavoured to tie the appreciation of the beauty of an image to that of the social reality that it expressed. Yet, his second grief also manifests itself in a type of reading which, contrary to Barthes, sees in the new modes photographic exposition the reaffirmation of a certain idea of the objectivity of the photograph. It is this thesis that was defended in 1988 by a period defining exhibition entitled ‘Another Objectivity’ (Une autre objectivité). The accompanying text, by Jean-François Chevrier and James Lingwood, redefined, in its own way, the relation between two fundamental aspects of the modernist norm: on the one hand, the fidelity to the law of the medium; on the other, the fidelity to a certain type of exhibition surface, the forme-tableau in its formal separation from the multiple social uses of the image. The fact is that the law of the photographic medium does not offer itself up to a simple interpretation. We can liken it to the instrumental conception that makes the camera a means to furnish some objective information about what is in front of it. But, from this, we still have not defined the specificity of the art of photography. We can liken it to the reproducible character of the photographic image. But it is hardly possible to discern the specific quality of an image from the fact that it is reproducible. This is why the theoreticians of photographic objectivity displaced the idea of multiplication in favour of the idea of a multiple unity. Reproducibility thus becomes seriality.

Benjamin based his argumentation on the typologies of August Sander, while Chevrier and Lingwood favoured the works of Bernd and Hilla Becher. But the analogy is problematic. Benjamin expected that Sander’s series would help the combatants in the

social struggle to recognize allies and enemies. There is manifestly nothing of the sort to be expected from the Bechers’ series of water towers or disused industrial sites. They would even fall easily within the scope of Brecht’s critique, which was taken up by Benjamin: photos of factories say nothing about the social relations that manifest themselves there. The interest of the series can therefore no longer be looked for in what it enables us to say about social relations. It boils down to an ethical virtue accorded to the multiple as such, in that it rules out the prestige of the one and of the aura, of the unique moment and of the ecstatic contemplation. But this principle is purely negative. Its artistic ‘positivity’ must thus come from a second manner of thinking the ‘objectivity’ of the medium. This is summed up, for Chevrier and Lingwood, in the notion of the forme-tableau, exemplified by Jeff Wall’s backlit photographs. But what relation should we think between these large scenes in the form of historical tableaux and the identical rectangles that make the Bechers’ views of water towers and smoke- stacks resemble pedagogical charts? None, perhaps, if not the Greenbergian idea of the surface that encloses the artist’s performance and prohibits him from leaving himself, from showing empathy for his subject or from considering himself as a form of social experimentation. In this sense, the Bechers’ industrial sites are a manner of concluding the dream of the artist engineers and factory builders of Peter Behrens’s era, in much the same way as Barthes’s fascination with the Danton collar served to repress photographer Lewis Hine’s engagement on the side of the oppressed and forgot- ten of the factories and hospices. The reference to the essence of the medium is again here a manner of settling accounts with the epoch where the medium was thought of as the organ of a new collective world. Simply put, this settling of accounts is more complex in the case of the Bechers and the theoreticians of ‘objective photography’, for whom the repression of the constructivist dream also wants to be the affirmation of a fidelity to the values linked to the industrial universe and the workers’ struggle: the sobriety of the documentary gaze that refuses the humanist pathos, the formal principles of the frontal perspective, the uniform framing, and the presentation in series that links scientific objectivity and the disappearance of the subjectivity of the artist.

It remains the case: that which is given to see by the objectivist mindset is fundamentally an absence – disused edifices in the place of social classes and types. Yet, photographing absence can be interpreted in two ways: it can be a manner of showing the programmed departure of the industrial world and worker; but it is just as much a manner of playing on the aesthetic affect of the disused (desaffecté) that sends us back to the side of Barthes’s ‘having-been’. This tension in the objectivist idea of the medium is more perceptible still in the series of containers taken by a follower of the Bechers, Frank Breuer, presented during the 2005 Rencontres photographiques in Arles, in the transept of an ancient church, along with two other series, devoted to warehouses and to logos. From afar the spectator perceived them as abstract scenes or as reproductions of minimalist sculptures. Upon approaching, however, one discovered that the colored rectangles on a white background were containers stacked in a large deserted space. The impact of the series was down to the tension between this minimalism and the signification that it concealed. These containers were to be, or were to have been, filled with merchandise unloaded at Antwerp or Rotterdam, and probably were produced in a distant country, perhaps by faceless workers in Southeast Asia. They were, in short, filled with their own absence, which was also that of every worker engaged to unload them, and, even more remotely, that of the European workers replaced by these distant laborers.


The ‘objectivity’ of the medium thus masks a deter- mined aesthetic relation between opacity and transparency, between the containers as brute presence of pure colored forms and the containers as representatives of the ‘mystery’ of the merchandise – that is to say, of the manner in which it absorbs human work and hides its mutations. It consists in the relation between presence and absence, in the double relation of a visible form to a signi cation and an absence of sense. Jean- François Chevrier bases his argument on the idea of an ‘impoverished ontology’ of photography. On one level, this is to say that photography does not have the strong ontological consistency that would enable its artistic forms to be deduced from its materiality. But we can give this poverty a more positive signification. If photography is not under the law of a proper ontological consistency, linked to the specificity of its technical mechanism, it lends itself to accomplishing the ideas about art formed by the other arts. This capacity of the mechanical art to realize what other arts had tried to accomplish by their own means was developed at length by Eisenstein, in relation to cinematic editing, which, via the temporal sequencing of shots, realized what painting had tried to accomplish in fragments. Serov, for example, tried to bring out on canvas the energy of the actress Yermolova through cutting, with the help of the lines of the mirrors and of the mouldings of a room, several different framings for the different parts of the body. The editing of the different shots of the stone lions in The Battleship Potemkin realized this dream of the painter. Photography allows an accomplishment of the same order by capturing a motionlessness that literature tried to attain through the movement of the phrase or the power of the mystery sought in the contortion of the uses of language. The poverty of photography permits it to realize this inclusion of non-art that literature or painting can only imitate by artistic means.


Exacerbating modernism

This is what can be demonstrated by a photograph situated in the interval between Barthes’s ‘having- been’ and the objectivity of the Becher School. Walker Evans’s photograph (left) represents to us a detail of the kitchen in a farm in Alabama. It responds, first of all, to a documentary function at the heart of a major investigation commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. Nevertheless, something happens in the photo that exceeds the task of providing information concerning a miserable situation: a kitchen with neither sideboard nor cupboard, tinplate silverware held in a makeshift rack, a lopsided wooden board nailed to a wall of disjointed and worm-ridden planks. What strikes us is a certain aesthetic disposition marked by disorder: the parallels are not parallel, the silverware is ordered in disorder, the objects on the high beam (functioning as a shelf) are placed in a dissymmetrical manner. This lopsided assemblage composes, in total, a harmonious dissymmetry, the cause of which remains uncertain: is it the effect of chance, the fact that the objects found themselves in front of the objective? Is it the gaze of the photographer, who chose a closeup of a detail, thus transforming a completely random or simply functional layout into an artistic quality? Or is it the aesthetic taste of an inhabitant of the premises, making art with the means available by hammering in a nail or putting a can here rather than there? It is possible that the photographer wanted to show the destitution of the farmers. It is also possible that he simply photographed what was in front of him without any particular intention, and that the photo thus benefits from the beauty of the random. And, it is possible that he took pleasure in seeing a quasi-abstract minimalist scene or, conversely, that he wanted to underline a certain beauty of the functional: the sobriety of the plank and of the rack could, in effect, satisfy a certain aesthetic of design, attracted by the simple and brute material, and the art of living and doing transmitted by generations of simple people. All in all, the aesthetic quality of the photograph stems from a perfect equilibrium, a perfect indecision between the two forms of beauty that Kant distinguished: beauty adherent to the form adapted to its function, and the free beauty of the finality without end.


We don’t know what was going through Walker Evans’s mind in framing his photo as he did. But we do know that he had an idea about art that he inherited, not from a photographer or painter, but from a writer, Flaubert. The idea is that the artist must remain invisible in his work, like God in his creation. But it would be going a bit too far to say that the camera realizes on the cheap – that is, by its mechanism alone – that which, for the writer, involves a never-ending work of subtraction. For impersonality is not the same thing as the objectivity of the camera, and the issue is perhaps not so much to subtract but rather to make the ‘impersonalisation’ of the style coincide with the grasping of the opposite movement: that by which indifferent lives appropriate the aesthetic capacities that subtract them from a simple social identification. The photographer’s gaze upon the singular arrangement of the silverware in a poor Alabama kitchen might remind us of the gaze that Flaubert lent to Charles Bovary as he looked at the head of Minerva, drawn by young Emma for her father on the peeling walls of Father Rouault’s farm. This is not merely to say that the camera directly expresses a poetry of the banal that the writer could only make felt through laborious work on each sentence. It is also the power to transform the banal into the impersonal, forged by a literature that hollows out from the inside the apparent evidence, the apparent immediacy of the photo, just as pictorial silence overran the ‘Flaubertian’ phrase. But this effect of painting on literature and of literature on photography is not the same as a simple shared capacity to trans gure the banality of life into the artistic splendor of indifference. This ‘indifference’ is also the meeting point, the point of tension, between the subtraction of the artistic effect that characterizes the work of the artist and the supplement of aesthetic sensibility that is adjoined to the lives of indifferent beings.

The consideration of both the punctum and the objectivism of the forme-tableau also lacks this relation between social banality and aesthetic power that inhabits the photographic portrait of the indifferent being. To understand what the ‘indifference’ of the photograph of the kitchen in Alabama or of the Polish teenager has in common with that of ‘Flaubertian’ literature, and to what type of ‘modernity’ this indifference bears witness, one must no doubt integrate these images into a completely different evolution of representation ( figuration). To sketch out this history, I would like to dwell for a moment on a singular analysis that Hegel devotes, in his Lessons on Aesthetics, to Murillo’s paintings of the child beggars of Seville, which he saw in the Royal Gallery in Munich. He evokes these paintings in a development whereby he attempts to reverse the classic evaluation of the value of pictorial genres according to the dignity of their subjects. But Hegel does not content himself with telling us that all subjects are equally proper to painting. He establishes a close relation between the virtue of this painting and the activity specific to these young beggars, an activity that consists precisely in doing nothing and not worrying about anything. There is in them, he tells us, a total disregard towards the exterior, an inner freedom in the exterior that is exactly what the concept of the artistic ideal calls for. They are like the young man in one of the portraits at the time attributed to Raphael, whose idle head gazes freely into the distance. Better still, they testify to a beatitude that is almost similar to that of the Olympian gods.


There is one notion in particular in this passage that grabs our attention, that of being carefree. It seems to reply in advance to an analysis of the aesthetic revolution that holds sway today, that by which Michael Fried characterizes the theorizing and the practice of painting implemented by the contemporaries of Diderot. Presenting the characters in the scene as completely absorbed by their task is, for him, the means by which the painters of that period, following the example of Greuze, posed and resolved the big question of artistic modernity: how can a work be made coherent by excluding the spectator from its space? This ‘anti-theatricality’ is for him the essence of pictorial modernity, defined not in a ‘Greenbergian’ manner as simple concentration of the artist on his medium, but rather as definition of the place that it gives to the person who looks upon it. The forme-tableau of Jeff Wall’s lightboxes or of the large-format cibachromes and chromogenic prints by Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky or Thomas Demand seems to Fried to renew, in exemplary fashion, the tradition of this modernity. But it comes at a price, and the active ‘absorption’ of the pictorial character, originally illustrated with such impassioned attention by Greuze’s characters, increasingly becomes an inability to see and to feel seen. Thus, for example, the tourists in Thomas Struth’s photographs of museums are represented in the absence of what they look upon in the Accademia (Michelangelo’s David) or blurred in the darkness in Tokyo in front of a Liberté guidant le peuple, itself separated by a glass pane. Likewise, Rineke Dijkstra’s teenagers are valued first of all for the awkwardness proper to their age, for their lack of control over their bodies which makes them unconscious of what they offer to be seen.7 The window cleaner who, in Jeff Wall’s famous photo, washes the windows of Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion, is not only separated from us by the back that he turns to us and by his relegation outside of the area directly illuminated by the sun; he is also ‘deliberately forgetful’ of the great event signifying the new day, ‘the in ux of the warm morning light’.8 As for the traders at the Hong Kong stock exchange or the workers at the basket factory in Nha Trang, their ‘absorption’ excludes the spectator all the more effectively as it renders them almost invisible by depriving them of all interiority and making of their attention an entirely mechanical process. It would be off-key, Fried emphasizes, to see here any form of representation of capitalist dehumanization. This ‘flattening of absorption’ bears witness, on the contrary, to ‘the consistency with which this artist resists or indeed repudiates all identification by the viewer with the human subjects of his images – the project of severing calls for nothing less’.


‘Objective’ photography therefore demonstrates here the exacerbation of a modernist project of separation. The visual attention that is paid by the modest people, in Greuze’s paintings, to each other and their surroundings is replaced by their ant-sized representation in Gursky’s photographs. But this transformation, in turn, reveals the presuppositions of the analysis: the active absorption of characters by their task is, ultimately, only their passive absorption into the space of the painting. What they are or do matters little, but what is important is that they are put in their place. It is with regard to this positing named absorption that Hegel’s insistence on the carefree inactivity of the young beggars becomes meaningful. Inactivity is not laziness. It is the suspension of the opposition between activity and passivity that aligned an idea of art with a hierarchical vision of the world. Murillo’s child beggars belonged to the type of picturesque paintings that eighteenth-century aristocrats collected as documents on the exotic life of the working classes. Hegel’s analysis removes them from there by giving them a quality which they share with the Olympian gods. This ‘carefree’ attitude is more striking than the new indifference of subjects and their common capacity to be ‘absorbed’. It posits as the exemplary subject of art this ‘doing nothing’, this common aesthetic neutralization of the social hierarchy and of the artistic hierarchy.

The aesthetic capacity shared by the Olympian god, the young noble dreamer and the carefree street child neutralizes the opposition between the subjects of art and the anonymous forms of experience. ‘We have the feeling that for a young person of this type any future is possible’, says Hegel.10 It is a peculiar comment, which makes the gures represented in a seventeenth- century painting contemporary beings whose future we consider. The young beggars testify, in fact, for another modernism far removed from that of Michael Fried’s absorbed characters, without, for all that, becoming identified with the young velocipede racing experts extolled by Benjamin. The future that they bear is the blurring of the opposition between the world of work and the world of leisure, between the naked forms of life and the experiences of the aestheticised world. It is to this modernity that the assertion of Walker Evans’s master, Flaubert, on the indifference of the subject, belongs. This does not mean the possibility for the artist to apply the ‘project of severing’, symbolic of Greenberg’s or Fried’s modernism, to any subject. It is realized only in that space where the artist rids himself of all the habitual attributes of the artist style and comes to encounter the attempts of obscure beings to introduce art into their sensible life, or any other of those forms of experience which their social condition is supposed to forbid. Flaubert may ridicule Emma’s artistic pretension, but her art is forever linked to this artistic aspiration of a farmer’s girl.


It is, similarly, a form of this encounter that James Agee and Walker Evans try to capture, one by bran- dishing Whitmanian enumerations and Proustian reminiscences to describe the houses of poor peasants, the other by rendering minimalist art and social document indiscernible when framing a dozen or so pieces of cutlery in front of four planks of brute wood. Before our gaze, there is thus neither simple objective information about a situation nor a wound inflicted by the ‘it has been’. The photo does not say whether it is art or not, whether it represents poverty or a game of uprights and diagonals, weights and counterweights, order and disorder. It tells us neither what the person who laid the planks and cutlery in this manner had in mind nor what the photographer wanted to do. This game of multiple gaps perfectly illustrates what Kant designated under the name of aesthetic idea: ‘a presentation of the imagination which prompts much thought, but to which no determinate thought whatsoever, i.e., no [determinate] concept can be adequate.’11 The aesthetic idea is the indeterminate idea that connects the two processes that the destruction of the mimetic order left separated: the intentional production of art which seeks an end, and the sensible experience of beauty as finality without end. Photography is exemplarily an art of aesthetic ideas because it is exemplarily an art capable of enabling non-art to accomplish art by dispossessing it. But it is also such through its participation in the construction of a sensible environment which extends beyond its own specificity. What we are shown by the young beggars seen by Hegel, the head of Minerva on the walls of the Normandy farm, the lopsided cans on the beams of the Alabama kitchen, the nonchalant demeanour of the child-worker in his doffer-box, or the swaying hips of the Polish teenager, is that this dispossession which makes art cannot be thought independently of the de-specification which removes all of these characters from their social identity. But this de-specification itself is not the making of an artistic coup de force. It is the correlate of the ability acquired by the characters themselves to play with the image of their being and of their condition, to post it to walls or to set it up before the lens. Judgements about photography are also appreciations of this ability and of what it means for art. This link between artistic purity and aesthetic impurity both fascinated and worried the authors of Spleen de Paris and Madame Bovary. Walter Benjamin wanted to integrate it in a global vision of the new man in the new technical world. Barthes brought it down to the intimacy of the private gaze. Michael Fried now proposes to bring it down to the interminable task of separation attributed to artistic modernity. But this theoretical coup de force would not be possible if the art of photography today was not already the bearer of this tendency to break the historical complicity between the art of the photographer and the aesthetic capacity of his subjects.


Translated by Darian Meacham


  1. Ibid., p. 34.
  2. Ibid., p. 96.
  3. Jean-François Chevrier and James Lingwood, Une autre

1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill & Wang, New York, 1981, p. 51.

objectivité, Prato, Paris, 1989.
5. S.M. Eisenstein, ‘Yermolova’, in Selected Works, vol. 2:

Towards a Theory of Montage, ed. Misha Glenny and Richard Taylor, British Film Institute, London, 1994, pp. 82–105.

6. G.W.F.vonHegel,VorlesungenüberÄsthetikI,Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, 1986, p. 224.

7. Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2008, pp. 211–12.

8. Ibid., p. 75

  1. Ibid., p. 173.
  2. Vorlesungen über Ästhetik I, p. 224.
  3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. W.S. Plu-har, Hackett, Indianapolis, 1987, p. 182.


A Brief History of Biosignal – Driven Art

From biofeedback to biophysical performance

by Miguel Ortiz

This article describes the evolution of the field of biosignal-driven art. It gives an account of the various historical periods of activity related to this practice and outlines current practices. It poses the question of whether this is an artistic field or if it is only a collection of disassociated practices with mere technical aspects in common. The aim is to draw commonalities and artistic differences between the works of different practitioners and encourage academic and artistic discussion about the key issues of the field.

Biosignal monitoring in interactive arts, although present for over fifty years, remains a relatively little known field of research within the artistic community as compared to other sensing technologies. Since the early 1960s, an ever-increasing number of artists have collaborated with neuroscientists, physicians and electrical engineers, in order to devise means that allow for the acquisition of the minuscule electrical potentials generated by the human body. This has enabled direct manifestations of human physiology to be incorporated into interactive artworks. However, the evolution of this field has not been a continuous process. It would seem as if there has been little communication amongst practitioners, and historically there have been various sudden periods of activity that seem to have very little relation to past works and also a very limited influence in later works beyond some technical methodologies and general operating metaphors.

This paper presents an introduction to this field of artistic practice that uses human physiology as its main element.


The Human Nervous System

It is possible to think of the human nervous system as a complex network of specialised cells that communicate information about the organism and its surroundings (Maton et al., 1994). In gross anatomy, the nervous system is divided into two sub-systems: the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). The CNS is the largest part of the nervous system. For humans, it includes the brain and the spinal cord. It is responsible for coordinating the activity of all parts of the body. It processes information, is responsible for controlling the activity of the peripheral nervous system, and plays a fundamental role in the control of behaviour.

Figure 1. Flowchart of the Nervous System, Taxonomy and Organisation. Nervous System Divisions ( by unknown author, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( [Click image to enlarge]

The PNS extends the CNS by providing a connection to the body’s limbs and organs. The PNS provides a means for sensing the outside world and for manifesting volitional actions upon it. The PNS is further divided into: Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and Somatic Nervous System (SNS). The SNS is a component of the peripheral system that is concerned with sensing external stimuli from the environment and is responsible for the volitional control of the skeletal muscles that allow us to interact with the outside world (Knapp, Kim and André 2010). The ANS controls the internal sensing of the various elements that form the nervous system. It regulates involuntary responses to internal and external events and is further sub-divided into Sympathetic Nervous Systems (SNS), which are responsible for physiological changes during times of stress, and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems (PNS), which control salivation, lacrimation, urination, digestion and defecation during the resting state. Figure 1 illustrates the taxonomy and organisation of the Central Nervous System.

There are various techniques and methodologies available to monitor the operation of the nervous system. Changes in human physiology manifest themselves in various ways, ranging from changes in physical properties (i.e. dilatation of the pupils) to changes in electrical properties of organs or specialised tissues (i.e. changes in electrical conductivity of the skin).


Biosignal is a generic term that encompasses a wide range of continuous phenomena related to biological organisms. In common practice, the term is used to refer to signals that are bio-electrical in nature, and that manifest as the change in electrical potential across a specialised tissue or organ in a living organism. They are an indicator of the subject’s physiological state. Biosignals are not exclusive to humans, and can be measured in animals and plants. Excitable tissues can be roughly divided into tissues that generate electrical activity, such as nerves, skeletal muscles, cardiac muscle and soft muscles. Passive tissues that also manifest a small difference of potential include the skin and the eyes. Valentinuzzi defines the latter as “non-traditional sources of bioelectricity” (Valentinuzzi 2004, 219).

Biosignal monitoring has had a large tradition in healthcare ever since Italian physician Luigi Galvani discovered “animal electricity” in 1791 (Galvani 1791; Galvani 1841; Piccolino 1998) which was confirmed three years later by Humboldt and Aldini (Aldini 1794; Swartz and Goldensohn 1998). 1[1. For a more detailed definition of biosignals and their use in the fields of medicine, psychology and bioengineering instrumentation, please see Cacioppo, Tassinary, Berntson (2007) and Webster (1997).]

Galvanic Skin Response (GSR)

Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) is the change of the skin’s electrical conductance properties caused by stress and/or changes in emotional states (McCleary 1950). It reflects the activity of sweat glands and the changes in the sympathetic nervous system (Fuller 1977), and is an indicator of overall arousal state. The signal is measured at the palm of the hands or the soles of the feet using two electrodes between which a small, fixed voltage is applied and measured. Changes in the skin’s resistance are caused by activity of the sweat glands; for example, when a subject is presented with a stress-inducing stimulus; his/her skin conductivity will increase as the perspiratory glands secrete more sweat

The GSR signal is easy to measure and reliable. It is one of the main components of the original polygraph or “lie detector” (Marston 1938) and is one of the most common signals used in both psycho-physiological research and the field of affective computing (Picard 1997).

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

Figure 2. An ideal ECG signal. [Click image to enlarge]

The ECG is a measurement of the electrical activity of the heart as it progresses through the stages of contraction. Figure 2 shows the components of an ideal ECG signal.

In Human Computer Interaction (HCI) systems for non-clinical applications, the Heart Rate (HR) and Heart Rate Variability (HRV) are the most common features measured. For example, low and high HRs can be indicative of physical effort. In affective computing research, if physical activity is constant, a low HRV is commonly correlated to a state of relaxation, whereas an increased HRV is common to states of stress or anxiety (Haag et al., 2004).

Electrooculogram (EOG)

EOG is the measurement of the Corneal-Retinal Potentials (CRP) across the eye using electrodes. In most cases, electrodes are placed in pairs to the sides or above/below the eyes. The EOG is traditionally used in HCI to assess eye-gaze and is normally used for interaction and communication by people that suffer from physical impairments that hinder their motor skills (Patmore and Knapp 1998).

Electromyogram (EMG)

Electromyography is a method for measuring the electrical signal that activates the contraction of muscle tissue. It measures the isometric muscle activity generated by the firing of motor neurons (De Luca and Van Dyk 1975). Motor Unit Action Potentials (MUAPs) are the individual components of the EMG signal that regulate our ability to control the skeletal muscles. Figure 3 illustrates a typical EMG signal and its amplitude envelope.

Figure 3. Example of an EMG signal. [Click image to enlarge]

EMG-based interfaces can recognise motionless gestures (Greenman 2003) across users with different muscle volumes without calibration, measuring only overall muscular tension, regardless of movement or specific coordinated gestures. They are commonly used in the fields of prosthesis control and functional neuromuscular stimulation. For musical applications, EMG-driven interfaces have traditionally been used as continuous controllers, mapping amplitude envelopes to control various musical parameters (Tanaka 1993).

Mechanomyogram (MMG)

MMG is an alternative technology to measure muscle activity. Unlike EMG, MMG is not an electrical signal, but a mechanical one. The contraction of skeletal muscles creates a mechanical change in the shape of the muscle and subsequent oscillations of the muscle fibres at the resonant frequency of the muscles. These vibrations can be audible and are effectively measured by contact microphones and/or accelerometers (Miranda and Wanderley 2006). Due to the characteristics of the signal, the MMG is also known as the acoustic myogram (AMG), phonomyogram (PMG) and viromyogram (VMG).

EMG and MMG signals share many of their characteristics and could be regarded as different techniques to measure the same phenomena. However, there is an important difference that can be explored in artistic contexts. EMG measures muscle fibre action potentials, that is it measures the activation and firing of motor neurons to trigger contraction of the muscle. MMG measures the actual mechanical contraction of the muscle fibres. This means that there is an important decoupling between both signals as repeated actions and muscle fatigue develop during any given activity (Barry, Geiringer and Ball 1985).

Electroencephalogram (EEG)

The Electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors the electrical activity caused by the firing of cortical neurons across the brain’s surface. In 1924, German neurologist Hans Berger measured these electrical signals in the human brain for the first time and provided the first systematic description of what he called the Electroencephalogram (EEG). In his research, Berger noticed spontaneous oscillations in the EEG signals (Rosenboom 1999) and identified rhythmic changes that varied as the subject shifted his or her state of consciousness. These variations, which would later be given the name of alpha waves, were originally known as Berger rhythms (Berger 1929, 355; Gloor 1969; Adrian and Matthews 1934).

Brainwaves are an extremely complex signal. In surface EEG monitoring, any given electrode picks up waves pertaining to a large number of firing neurons, each with different characteristics indicating different processes in the brain. The resulting large amount of data that represents brain activity creates a difficult job for physicians and researchers attempting to extract meaningful information.

Brainwaves have been categorised into four basic groups or bands of activity related to frequency content in the signals: Alpha, Beta, Theta and Delta (Lusted and Knapp 1996). Figure 4 shows each of the frequency bands as displayed by an EEG monitoring system.

Figure 4. EEG frequency bands. [Click image to enlarge]

This categorisation however, is the source of certain controversy as some researchers recognise up to six different frequency bands (Miranda et al., 2003). Furthermore, the exact frequency at which each band is divided from the rest is not cast in stone and one might find discrepancies of up to 1 Hz in various texts dealing with the subject. The following categorisation is based on the guidelines provided by the International Federation of Electrophysiology and Clinical Neurophysiology (Steriade et al., 1990):

Delta waves are slow periodic oscillations in the brain that lie within the range of 0.5–4 Hz and appear when the subject is in deep sleep or under the influence of anæsthesia.

Theta waves lie within the range of 4–7 Hz and appear as consciousness slips toward drowsiness. It has been associated with access to unconscious material, creative inspiration and deep meditation.

Alpha rhythm has a frequency range that lies between 8 and 13 Hz. Alpha waves have been thought to indicate both a relaxed awareness and the lack of a specific focus of attention. In holistic terms, it has been often described as a “Zen-like state of relaxation and awareness”.

Beta refers to all brainwave activity above 14 Hz and is further subdivided into 3 categories:

  • Slow beta waves (15–20 Hz) are the usual waking rhythms of the brain associated with active thinking, active attention, focus on the outside world or solving concrete problems.
  • Medium beta waves (20–30 Hz): this state occurs when the subject is undertaking complex cognitive tasks, such as making logical conclusions, calculations, observations or insights (Rosenboom 1999).
  • Fast beta waves (Over 30 Hz): this frequency band is often called Gamma and is defined as a state of hyper-alertness, stress and anxiety (Miranda et al., 2003). It is found when performing a reaction-time motor task (Sheer 1989).

Biosignal-driven Interactive Arts

In 1919, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote an essay entitled Primal Sound, in which he stresses the visual similarity between the surface of the human skull and that of early phonograph wax cylinders. He then speculated about the possibility of transducing the skull’s grooves into this primal sound using a similar technology as it was used for the playback of wax cylinders. In the author’s own words:

The coronal suture of the skull has — let us assume — a certain similarity to the closely wavy line which the needle of a phonograph engraves on the receiving, rotating cylinder of the apparatus. What if one changed the needle and directed it on its return journey along translation of a sound, but existed of itself naturally — well, to put it plainly, along the coronal suture, for example. What would happen? A sound would necessarily result, a series of sounds, music.… Feelings — which? Incredulity, timidity, fear, awe — which of all the feelings here possible prevents me from suggesting a name for the primal sound which would then make its appearance in the world… (Rilke 1978)

Although Rilke never implemented the necessary interface to generate the primal sound, his idea is extremely seductive in its conception and the artistic-æsthetic implications it proposes. Rilke’s text captures the fascination that many artists hold for the possibility of using physiological phenomena to create art. The implication being that something inherently “human-body-like” might result from the direct sonification of bodily features and physiological functions.

Early Pieces and the Biofeedback Paradigm

In the 1960s, a whole generation of artists indeed reappropriated medical tools and developed systems to harness the subtle physiological changes of the human body. These pioneers slowly created a decentralised movement that sought inspiration in medical science to create works that relate to the human being at a physiological level.

In 1964, American composer Alvin Lucier had begun working with physicist Edmond Dewan and became the first composer to make use of biosignals in an artistic context. His piece Music for Solo Performer, scored for “enormously amplified brainwaves”, was premiered at Brandeis University in 1965 (Holmes 2002).

Lucier’s piece explores the rhythmic modulations of the alpha band of brainwaves by means of direct audification and with the addition of percussion instruments — namely cymbals, drums and gongs — which were coupled to large speakers (Teitelbaum 1976). High bursts of alpha activity would cause the speakers to excite the acoustic instruments, which in turn activated a disembodied percussion ensemble.

Music for Solo Performer challenged the very notions of performance and composition. The work is not prescriptive and the composer does not have full control over the end sound result. Similarly, there is no active performance activity, at least not in the way it was understood at the time. The process itself is the music, a feature that is characteristic of Lucier’s musical æsthetic. Regarding the piece Lucier stated:

To release alpha, one has to attain a quasi-meditative state while at the same time monitoring its flow. One has to give up control to get it. In making Music for Solo Performer (1965), I had to learn to give up performing to make the performance happen. By allowing alpha to flow naturally from mind to space without intermediate processing, it was possible to create a music without compositional manipulation or purposeful performance. (Siegmeister et al., 1979)

Lucier’s pioneering use of EEG signals for music composition was quickly adopted by other composers, most notably Richard Teitelbaum and David Rosenboom. Teitelbaum had been working in Rome since the early 1960s as part of the group Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV). In 1967, he presented his work Spacecraft, in which EEG and ECG signals of five performers were used to control various sound and timbre parameters of a Moog synthesiser (Arslan et al., 2005). A year later, Finnish multimedia artist Erkki Kurenniemi attended a music conference organised by the Teatro Comunale in Florence, Italy. During the conference, he was exposed to Mandord Eaton’s ideas of biofeedback as a source for musical practice (Ojanen et al., 2007). Kurenniemi then designed the Dimi-S and Dimi-T. Two electronic musical instruments that measure changes in the electroresistance of the human skin and the production of brainwaves respectively.

During the following years, Teitelbaum explored biosignals further. His 1968 compositions Organ Music and In Tune incorporated the use of the voice and breathing sounds in order to create a close relationship between the resulting music and the human body that generated it (Teitelbaum 1976).

David Rosenboom carried on Teitelbaum’s explorations and, in 1970, presented Ecology of the Skin, a work that measures EEG and ECG signals of performers and audience members (Rosenboom 1999). He was the first artist to undertake systematic research into the potential of brainwaves for artistic applications, creating a large body of works and developing a series of systems that increasingly improved the means of detecting cognitive aspects of musical thinking for real-time music making.

The following year, musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry began collaborating with scientist Roger Lafosse who was undertaking research into brainwave systems. This collaboration spawned a highly complex and sophisticated live performance system entitled Corticalart (Henry 1971). During the same year, Manford Eaton, who was working at Orcus Research in Kansas City, published Bio-Music (Eaton 1971), a manifesto in which he describes in great detail the apparatus and methods to implement a full biofeedback system for artistic endeavours and calls for a completely new biofeedback-based art in which the intentions of the composer are “fed directly” to the listener by means of careful monitoring and manipulation of the listener’s physiological signals.

Eaton’s system consisted of both audio and visual stimuli for the listener, designed to elicit pre-defined psycho-physiological states which are controlled by the composer. Therefore, his Bio-Music ethos abandons the division between performer and audience. Bio-Music compositions are neither to be “listened to” nor “witnessed” by a large audience, but to be experienced by individual listeners. The composer / performer, adapts his or her algorithms and the presented stimuli to the subject’s individual physiological responses and delivering a consistent “message” or experience for each individual that experiences the work. In Eaton’s Bio-Music, the specific sounds or images presented to the listener are irrelevant as long as they succeed in modulating the subject’s physiological state to that desired by the composer.

Post Biofeedback Practice

Towards the end of the 1980s, the advent of digital signal processing systems and the wide availability of powerful personal computer systems made it possible for researchers to further develop the existing techniques for biosignal analysis in real-time applications. In 1988, California-based scientists Benjamin Knapp and Hugh Lusted introduced the BioMuse system (Knapp and Lusted 1988), which consisted of a signal-capturing unit that sampled eight channels of biosignals, which were then amplified, conditioned and translated to midi messages. The sensors were implemented as simple limb-worn velcro bands that were able to capture EMG, EEG, EOG, ECG and GSR signals. The BioMuse system, facilitated not only the analysis of the signals, but also the ability to use the results of the analysis to control other electronics in a precise and reproducible manner that had not been previously possible (Knapp and Lusted 1990). This allowed them to introduce the concept of biocontrol, an important conceptual shift from the original biofeedback paradigm that had reigned unchallenged during the 1970s. Whilst biofeedback allowed for physiological states to be monitored and, relatively passively, translated to other media by means of sonification, biocontrol proposed the idea and means to create reproducible volitional interaction using physiological data as input (Tanaka 2009).

In order to fully demonstrate the possibilities afforded by their system, Knapp and Lusted commissioned composer Atau Tanaka to write the first piece for their new interface. The BioMuse’s maiden concert took place in Stanford California in 1989. In that concert, Tanaka premiered Kagami, a piece that used EMG signals measuring muscular tension on his forearms (Keislar et al., 1993). This introduced a novel biosignal performance practice that consisted of a highly personal visual and sonic style of biosignal-driven music and stage presence, moving from the archetypal image of the motionless centre-stage-seated bio-performer pioneered by Lucier, to a dynamic musician that explored arm gestures in a highly engaging way.

In 1998, Teresa Marrin-Nakra and Rosalind Picard, who were carrying out research in the field of affective Computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), created The Conductor’s Jacket, a wearable computing device that facilitated the measuring and recording of physiological and kinematic signals from orchestra conductors (Marrin and Picard 1998). Even though The Conductor’s Jacket was originally conceived as a recording and monitoring device for scientific enquiry, its ability to stream data in real time allowed Nakra to use it in performance contexts, where it functioned not as a passive monitoring device but as a disembodied musical instrument.

Biosignals in the 21st Century

The Early 2000s

The turn of the 21st Century brought with it a renewed worldwide interest in biosignals for artistic applications, as many favourable factors converged. On the one hand, personal computers became powerful enough to deal with these types of signals. Likewise, the evolution of the BioMuse and other biosignal measuring devices created by the affective computing team at MIT meant that it was now possible to ecologically measure physiological signals from performers in stage situations in a transparent and effective way. 2[2. The term “ecological” is often used in the field in similar contexts to refer to measurement techniques that do not impede the natural execution of actions by performers.] Moreover, commercially available medical equipment such as the g.MOBIlab, Emotiv’s EPOC, MindMedia’s Nexus units and Thought Technology’s Infiniti systems have become more affordable and easy to use. This contrasts with the complicated and extremely costly systems that were available for artists in the 1970s. The popularisation of the internet, as well as the establishing of international conferences and symposia that dealt with musical interactive systems, meant that information could be shared by artists and researchers at faster rates than ever before, allowing for a steady incremental development of biosignal interfaces and art works created for these novel devices.

This makes the issue of meaning and content even more relevant than ever. The various technologies that facilitate the measurement of biosignals as well as their correlates to human emotion have undergone a great development, yet the associated approaches and metaphors that artists use to create works using these technologies remain relatively unchanged.

In 2002, Australian artist Tina Gonsalves began to explore the ways in which her artworks could monitor the audience’s emotional states, through “the use of bio-metric sensors as triggers for emotional video narratives, leading to both more immersive installations, as well as intimate ubiquitous works.” (Gonsalves 2009).

Her work explores issues of intimacy, empathy and emotional behaviour in humans through immersive audio-visual installations. According to Gonsalves:

Nothing seems as private as the bodily experience of raw emotion. Emotions are a common thread that every human being can read, understand, and share. Emotions influence all aspect of behaviour and subjective experience; grabbing attention, enhancing or blocking memories and swaying logical thought. Emotions spread in social collectives almost by contagion. In cohesive social interactions, we are highly attuned to subtle and covert emotional signals, Our behaviours often mirror each other in minute detail. At times, we may voluntarily suppress our emotional reactions, temporarily disguising our intentions or vulnerability, though “true” emotions are nevertheless evident in a pattern of internal bodily responses that set an underlying tone for behaviour. (Gonsalves 2009).

In 2004, during the International Conference on Auditory Displays (ICAD), Stephen Barrass organised a practice-led research project entitled Listening to the Mind Listening. The project consisted of an open call for composers to write a piece based on the brain activity of a person listening to a piece of music. The data-set was recorded from the brain activity generated by the chief executive officer of the Brain Resource company, Evian Gordon, as he listened to David Page’s composition Dry Mud (1997). The essential criteria for the pieces submitted were as follows (Barrass 2004):

  • Data-driven. Sonification is a mapping of data into sounds for some purpose. The sonification should be the result of an explicit mapping from the data into sounds. The listener should be able to understand relations and structures in the data from the sonification.
  • Time is the binding. The timeline of the data must map directly to the timeline of the sonification. All other mapping decisions are completely open but we need to be able to compare pieces across time, and also compare them with the original data set and source piece of music. This means that the final sonification pieces will all be exactly the same duration as the data set, and original piece of music.
  • Reproducibility. The mapping of the data into sound must be described in a manner than can be reproduced by others. Mappings should be described explicitly. Different mappings will enable different perceptions of information in the data. The experiment should lay a foundation for scientific and æsthetic observations and ongoing development by the research community.

The concert was followed by a set of reviews carried out by the composers themselves, sonification scientists, brain scientists and members of the attending audience. According to Barrass, the experiment resulted not only in a successful concert which presented pieces that were æsthetically well received by the audience, but in providing a clear auditory display that could be used for scientific purposes, thanks to the systematic sonification approach to composition (Barrass et al., 2006).

During the same year, London-based artist Christian Nold began the Bio Mapping project, a community-led initiative to emotionally map urban environments. According to Nold, throughout the duration of the project, over 1500 people took part in it. The project consisted of equipping participants with a GSR measuring device and a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. As the participants walk and interact with the urban surroundings, their arousal level is measured by the GSR sensor and linked to the specific location where important variations on the signal occur, thus creating detailed communal emotion maps which display areas within the city that people feel strongly about.

A year later, Ben Knapp and Perry Cook extended the original concept of biocontrol and introduced a conceptual framework which they called the Integral Music Controller (IMC) [Knapp and Cook 2005]. They define four categories of possible musical interfaces based on the type of interaction between performer and the resulting sound as follows:

  • Traditional Physical Interface. All acoustic instruments fall into this category. There is a direct physical-acoustic coupling between the performer’s actions and the production of sound.
  • Augmented Interface. When one embeds additional sensing modalities to an existing traditional instrument. HyperInstruments fall under this category, the idea being that the interface is augmented to sense events which would not normally produce changes in the instrument’s sound producing or modulating capabilities. For example, a trumpet with pressure sensors on the pistons that can change the sound as more pressure is applied to them, a gesture that does not make any discernable sound difference in a non-augmented trumpet.
  • Remote Interface. When there is no direct physical connection between the performance action and the sound being produced. The iconic example for this type of interface is the computer itself, specifically laptop computers which have become pervasive in concert environments.
  • Emotion Interface. An interface that allows for motionless emotion-driven interaction between the performer and the resulting sounds. Any of the biofeedback interfaces reviewed so far in this chapter could fit in this category, but only once proper analysis has been carried out to identify and assess emotion.

Based on this categorisation, the IMC can be seen as a framework within which specific musical interfaces (or instruments) that afford all possible interactions can be developed in a transparent way. According to Knapp and Cook (2005), the IMC is defined as a controller that:

  1. Creates a direct interface between emotion and sound production unencumbered by the physical interface.
  2. Enables the musician to move between this direct emotional control of sound synthesis and the physical interaction with a traditional acoustic instrument and through all of the possible levels of interaction in between.

Figure 5. The Integral Music Controller Pyramid (Knapp and Cook 2005). [Click image to enlarge]

Figure 5 shows the IMC pyramid, which illustrates the growing complexity of available interfacing options from simple physico-mechanical interaction to the emotion-driven interaction model. According to Knapp and Cook, the image also illustrates the number of available interfaces for each category which narrows down as we climb up the pyramid. I would add to this, that our understanding as creators of each interactive model follows a similar shape, from the well understood traditional instruments to the complex interaction with biosignal-driven interfaces.

In 2006, the artist duo Terminalbeach collaborated with the Trondheim Sinfonietta to create the Heart Chamber Orchestra (HCO). The HCO project consisted of an audio-visual composition where real-time ECG signals were measured from a group of twelve classically trained musicians. The data generated by the performer’s heart beats was used to control a computer composition and visualisation environment which generated a score in real time for the musicians to play, as well as the generation of electronic sound and visual content. During the performance, the score was constantly changed by the state of the musicians’ heart beats and vice versa, creating a closed feedback loop system. 3[3. See Peter Votava and Erich Berger’s article “The Heart Chamber Orchestra: An audio-visual real-time performance for chamber orchestra based on heartbeats” in this issue of eContact! for a discussion and videos of the project.]

Brazilian composer Eduardo Reck Miranda, a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at the University of Plymouth, has carried out important research in the field of EEG monitoring by proposing Brain-Computer Musical Interfaces (BCMI) [Miranda and Brouse 2005a, 2005b; Miranda 2006]. His research focuses on the identification and classification of music-related cognitive processes for the direct control of generative musical algorithms. Miranda has published a series of articles describing the technical and musical implications of BCMIs. Canadian composer Andrew Brouse has collaborated with Miranda, using BCMIs to create meditative musical compositions. Miranda’s research has also fed back into the medical sciences field.

Current State of the Field

The second half of the 2000s has seen an explosion in the use of biosensing technologies in interactive art practice. This has started a process of diversification of practitioners and their original disciplines. Whilst the early works were pioneered by composers linked to the western contemporary or electroacoustic traditions, the turn of the century has seen a large number of artists from very diverse mediums that span from fine arts, media arts, cinema and philosophy.

In 2005, Belgian researcher Benoît Macq directed a project at the eNTERFACE Summer Workshop on Multimodal Interfaces dedicated to the creation of a musical instrument driven by biosignals (Arslan et al., 2005). The project had great success, and for the next four years the core team assembled by Macq continued participating in the eNTERFACE workshops improving their design implementation for biosignal-driven musical instrument. This allowed not only for the team members to work directly in this field but various artists who participated for a single year had the opportunity of approaching the use of these technologies in collaboration with highly skilled technicians as they were developing the instruments. Amongst some of the artists who had these opportunity we have Hanna Drayson and Cumhur Erkut.

A year later, BioMuse creator Benjamin Knapp joined the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) at Queen’s University Belfast. There, he founded the Music, Sensors and Emotion (MuSE) research group. MuSE is a multidisciplinary team focused on both qualitatively and quantitatively measuring the relationship between music and emotion and using this information to inform musical composition and performance. The main areas of interest for the team are:

  • Integral music control: Using both gestural and emotional interactions to control digital musical instruments.
  • The use of physiological and kinematic ambulatory monitoring to measure gesture and emotion during performance.
  • Physiological monitoring of audiences during performance.
  • Contagion of emotion and physiological signals between performer and audience.

Within these areas, the MuSE team has produced various biosignal-driven interactive installations (Coghlan et al., 2009; Jaimovich 2010) and high quality scientific research (Jaimovich et al., 2011).

During 2006, my own work with biosignal interfaces started at Queen’s University as one of the founding members of the MuSE team. Following on the tradition of contemporary classical music practice, my work has largely focused in the integration of physiological sensing technologies with traditional acoustic instruments. In a way that compliments the ongoing research within MuSE, my artistic practice does not focus on the assessment of emotional states but on the intrinsic audible characteristics of biosignals themselves as a source for composing materials and as medium of performance. In a way that could be compared to hyperinstruments (Machover and Chung 1989), I have focused on extending not the instruments, but the performer. I.e., taking the physical actions required to perform on a traditional instrument and the physiological states that these actions produce on the performer as the driving element of sound output. A good example of this is my 2010 work S&V for saxophone, violin and heart rate monitor.

Video 1 (12:38). Gascia Ouzounian and Franziska Schroeder performing Miguel Ortiz’ S&V (2010) at the Sonic Arts Research Centre, Belfast (UK) 2010.

During his time as director of MuSE, Knapp went from instrument designer to performer as he founded the Biomuse Trio in 2008 to perform computer chamber music integrating traditional classical performance, laptop processing of sound and the transduction of bio-signals for the control of musical gesture. The work of the ensemble encompasses hardware design, audio signal processing, bio-signal processing, composition, improvisation and gesture choreography. The Biomuse Trio consists of Gascia Ouzounian (violin), Ben Knapp (BioMuse) and Eric Lyon (computer). 4[4. MuSE research and projects and compositions using the BioMuse system are discussed in “The Biomuse Trio in Conversation: An Interview with R. Benjamin Knapp and Eric Lyon” by Gascia Ouzounian, in this issue of eContact!]

In December 2010, new media artist and sonic artist Marco Donnarumma presented Music for Flesh I at the University of Edinburgh, a first public performance using his Xth Sense system. Xth Sense is an MMG-driven interactive system for the biophysical generation and control of music (Donnarumma 2011). Drawing from the growing fields of open source software and hardware, Xth Sense is not only a bespoke system for the sole use of its creator, but a set of tools that can be easily implemented by the community at large and at a very low cost. This marks an important milestone as it opens the doors for a grassroots physiological-driven arts practice outside university walls.

In April 2012, the Sonorities Festival at Queen’s University had a special theme titled The Body’s Music. The festival focused on innovative relationships between music and the body. In particular, explorations of the combination of body and technology, while delving into the sonic world of the body itself. During the parallel Two Thousand + TWELVE symposium, a plenary session was held with the participation of experts Ben Knapp and Atau Tanaka and some of the more active new practitioners Marco Donnarumma, Miguel Ortiz and Gascia Ouzounian. During this open discussion some of the most relevant questions that had previously only been made in conference hallways and late night pub sessions were tackled, namely:

  • Is this a field or just a collection of decentralised individual artistic practices?
  • Are there any connections or direct progress from the initial intentions of the early pioneers of the 1960s and current practices?
  • Are there any intrinsic musical properties in these signals or are they just a bridge between higher cognitive and emotional states and musical outputs?
  • Are there any opportunities for collaboration and focused development of biosignal-driven musical practice or are the individual interests of practitioners too focused for any commonalities?

Despite long discussions during the plenary session and throughout the festival, this (and other) questions remain open…


The use of biosignal monitoring technologies in interactive art contexts has been present for over sixty years. From Alvin Lucier’s pioneering work Music for Solo Performer to the current practice of biosignal-driven performance and sound installation, the field has advanced both in its technical implementations and the artistic affordances that the medium provides. Developments in medicine and psychophysiology allow us to understand better the meaning and implication of human-generated electrical signals and their correlation to emotion. The work carried out by the Affective Computing Group at MIT and the Music, Sensors and Emotion team at SARC has facilitated the technical aspects of biosignal monitoring for interactive artistic practice. Furthermore, the technical and social advancements in the wider electronic music field that appeared in the early 2000s has evolved and matured into the establishment of specific interest groups that allow for thorough research and artistic practice in the field.

It is now easier than ever to incorporate physiological measurements onto the stage; thus, biosignal-driven art can now be carried out in a practical way, without the need for the large and expensive equipment used in the early 60s and 70s. This opens the door for deeper artistic and æsthetic explorations, which in our opinion should become the central focus of creative work.

The opportunities seem open ended and it is up to the artistic community interested in harvesting the physiologic mechanisms of the human body to fully realise their potential beyond the mere novelty of the interface.


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