By others, Digital Philosophy, Essays, Library, Uncategorized

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.

Background

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NSdiagram.png) by unknown author, CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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).

Biosignals

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…

Conclusions

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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By others, Digital Philosophy, Essays, Library, Uncategorized

DIGITAL BODIES

Deborah Lupton, Faculty of Arts & Design, University of Canberra This is a pre-print of a chapter to be published in Routledge Handbook of Physical Cultural Studies, edited by D. Andrews, M. Silk and H. Thorpe. London: Routledge.

 

Introduction

Human bodies have always interacted with technologies. However the nature of the technology has changed over the millennia. In the contemporary digital era, bodies are digitised as never before, both by individuals on their own behalf and by other actors and agencies seeking to portray and monitor their bodies. From Facebook status updates and images, Instagram selfies, YouTube videos and tweets to exergames, sophisticated digital medical imaging technologies and the ceaseless generation of data from sensor-based devices and environments, human bodies now emit vast quantities of digital data. A major change in digitised embodiment is the ways in which detailed data are now generated on the geolocation, movements, appearance, behaviours and functions of bodies and the uses to which these data are put as part of the digital data knowledge economy. The cyborg body has transformed into the digital body, whose data outputs possess commercial, managerial and research as well as personal value and status to a range of actors and agencies beyond the individual.

In this chapter I examine the ways in which human bodies interact with and are configured by digital technologies and how these technologies generate new knowledges and practices in relation to bodies. I use infants and young children as a case study to explain these aspects. From before they are even born, children’s bodies are now frequently represented and monitored by digital technologies, including medical imaging and monitoring devices as well as social media sites, surveillance and self-tracking technologies. In my discussion I draw on literature from sociocultural theorising of the body, childhood, digital technologies and big data, particularly that by scholars adopting the sociomaterial perspective. The chapter is divided into two main parts. The first presents a general overview of theoretical approaches to conceptualising the interactions between bodies and technologies, while the second part is devoted to outlining the ways in which infants’ and young children’s bodies are digitised.

 

Theorising digital bodies

Scholars in the sociology of the body and technocultures developed an interest in the entanglements of human bodies with computerised technologies following the advent of personal computing in the mid-1980s. The terms ‘cyborg’ and ‘cyberspace’ (among many other ‘cyber’ neologisms) were adopted to discuss the ways in which computer users interacted with their PCs and with each other online. Donna Haraway’s work on the political implications of the cyborg as a heterogeneous, ambiguous and hybrid entity has been particularly important in drawing attention to the fluidities of embodiment and selfhood (Haraway 1991, 1997). Many other social researchers into the 1990s and early 2000s seized on the concept of the cyborg to investigate the forms of embodiment that are generated or mediated by digital technologies across a range of contexts: including, for example, computer users, IVF embryos, menopausal women, athletes and older people (Buse 2010, Franklin 2006, Leng 1996, Lupton 1995, Rayvon 2012)

Cyber terminology is not as often employed in discussions of the social, cultural and political dimensions of computer technology use now that academic terminology has moved more to a focus on the ‘digital’ (Lupton 2015b). However the important work of Haraway and others writing on cyborg bodies developed an argument that acknowledges the complexity of relationships between human and nonhuman actors and calls into question ideas about the fixed nature of identity and embodiment (Lupton 2015c). Such a perspective is now often referred to as ‘sociomaterialism’. It recognises that subject and object co-configure each other as part of a relationship. Objects are viewed as participating in specific sets of relations, including those with other artefacts as well as with people (Fenwick and Landri 2012, Latour 2005, Law 2008, Law and Hassard 1999). The term ‘assemblage’ is often used to capture these entanglements. Assemblages of human flesh and nonhuman actors are constantly configured and reconfigured. They facilitate modes of knowing and living the body.

People domesticate technologies by bringing them into their everyday worlds, melding them to their bodies/selves and bestowing these objects with their own biographically- specific meanings. They become ‘territories of the self’, marked by individual use, and therefore redolent of personal histories (Nippert-Eng 1996). This concept of territories of the self acknowledges that bodies and selves are not contained to the fleshly envelope of the individual body, but extend beyond this into space and connect and interconnect with other bodies and objects. These processes are inevitably relational because they involve embodied interactions and affective responses (Labanyi 2010, Lupton 2015b, forthcoming). As Merleau-Ponty (1968) argues, our embodiment is always inevitably interrelational or intercorporeal. We experience the world as fleshly bodies, via the sensations and emotions configured through and by our bodies as they relate to other bodies and to material objects and spaces. We touch these others and they touch us. Our bodies are distributed throughout the spaces we inhabit, just as these spaces and the others within them inhabit. Embodiment, then, is primarily a relational assemblage. The concept of ‘the person’ (including the person’s body) becomes distributed between the interactions of heterogeneous elements (Lee 2008).

 

In the digital age, practices of embodiment are increasingly becoming enacted via digital technologies. We now no longer refer to the separate environment of ‘cyber space’ as our everyday worlds have become so thoroughly digitised. Where once the figure of the cyborg was a science-fiction creation of superhuman powers (Lupton 1995), our bodies now engage routinely with digital technologies to the extent that it is taken-for-granted. It is now frequently argued that online and offline selves cannot be distinguished from each other any longer, given the pervasiveness and ubiquity of online participation. Instead categories of flesh, identity and technology are porous and intermeshed (Elwell 2014, Hayles 2012). Our bodies are digital data assemblages (Lupton 2015c).

Digital social theorists have drawn attention to the increasingly sensor-saturated physical environments in which people move, which add to the pre-existing technologies for visually observing and documenting human movements in public spaces, such as CCTV cameras (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin and Dodge 2011, Lyon and Bauman 2013). Kitchin and Dodge (2011) use the term ‘code/space’ to describe the intersections of software coding with the spatial configurations of humans and nonhumans. They underline the power of code to shape, manage, monitor and discipline the movements of bodies in space and place, including both public and private domains. Digital representations of bodies and digital data on many aspects of embodiment are generated from the various sites, devices and spaces which with individuals interact daily: the transactional data produced via routine encounters with surveillance cameras in public spaces, sensors or online websites, platforms and search engines or from the content that people upload voluntarily to social media sites or collect on themselves using self-tracking devices. These technologies create and recreate certain types of digital data assemblages which can then be scrutinised, monitored and used for various purposes, including intervention (Elmer 2003, Haggerty and Ericson 2000, Lupton 2012b).

The collection and analysis of digitised information about people’s behaviours are now becoming increasingly advocated and implemented in many social contexts and institutions, including the workplace, education, medicine and public health, insurance, government, marketing, advertising and commerce, the military, citizen science and urban planning and management. The growing commodification and commercial value of digital data sets and their use in these domains are blurring the boundaries between small and big data, the private and the public. People are now encouraged, obliged or coerced into using digital devices for monitoring aspects of their lives to produce personal data that are employed not only for private and voluntary purposes but also for the purposes of others. These data have begun to be appropriated by a range of actors and agencies, including commercial, managerial, research and governmental (Lupton forthcoming).

 

Critical data scholars have drawn attention to the valorisation of quantifiable information in the digital data economy and the algorithmic processing of this information as part of new forms of soft power relations and the production of inequalities (Cheney-Lippold 2011, Kitchin 2014, Lupton 2015b). Digital data can have tangible material effects on people’s actions, including the ways in which their bodies are conceptualised, managed and disciplined by themselves and others. The calculations and predictions that are generated by software algorithms are beginning to shape people’s life chances and opportunities such as their access to insurance, healthcare, credit and employment and their exclusion from spaces and places, as in the identification of potential criminals and terrorists (Crawford and Schultz 2014).

It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate digital technologies from their users, as both are viewed as mutually constituted. Technologies discipline the body to better assimilate it to their requirements, their ways of seeing, monitoring and treating human flesh. Bodies about to be scanned by MRI technology, for example, must be adapted and customised to a specific physical norm: they cannot be too tall or overweight, suffer from claustrophobia, wear jewellery or spectacles or contain metallic implants, hearing aids or pacemakers. The patient must stay still and calm according to the directions of the technologies and physicians taking the scan (Burri 2007).

However bodies also shape technologies. The new mobile and wearable devices are carried or worn on the body, becoming a body prosthetic, an extension of the body. When people handle or touch technologies, they may leave the marks of their bodies on the devices: body oils, sweat, skin flakes. Software is also transformed by use. Now that digital technologies are increasingly used as part of the practices of selfhood, digital archives have become important storage places for personalised bodily data. Images, descriptions and markers of users’ bodies are entered into the memories of their digital devices: photographs and videos of themselves, records of their geolocation, the detailed biometric information that is generated by self-tracking apps. Digital devices and software have become repositories of selfhood and embodiment (Lupton 2015b, forthcoming).

Young children’s embodiment and digital technologies

All human bodies are understood to be in the process of constant transformation, requiring engaging in work on the self and reflexive self-monitoring as part of performing selfhood and embodiment. Foucault refers to these ethical practices of citizenship as ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault 1986, 1988), while Beck uses the term ‘reflexive biography’ (Beck 1992, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995) to denote the ways in which people are encourage to seek knowledge and use it to improve their life chances, health and wellbeing. The idea of the unfinished body is particularly true of children’s bodies, which are viewed as requiring constant monitoring, assessment and improvement from themselves and other actors and agencies to achieve the ideal of the civilized body (Jenks 2005, Lupton 2013a, Uprichard 2008).

 

While developing in utero and following birth, children’s bodies are measured and observed for signs of ‘normal’ growth and development, and they are continually subjected to practices that seek to socialise and normalise their bodies. Children’s bodies – and especially those of the unborn, infants and the very young – are regarded as particularly precious and vulnerable, requiring the intense surveillance of their caregivers as part of efforts to protect them from risk and ensure their optimum health and development (Lupton 2013a, 2014). These efforts are now often rendered into digital forms with the use of an array of devices and software.

The sociomaterialist perspective has been taken up by several scholars writing about children’s bodies, particularly within cultural geography, but also by some sociologists and anthropologists (Horton and Kraftl 2006a, 2006b, Lee 2008, Prout 1996, Woodyer 2008). Researchers using a sociomaterialist approach have conducted studies on, for example, children’s use of asthma medication (Prout 1996), the surveillant technologies that have developed around controlling children’s body weight in schools (Rich et al. 2011), children’s sleep and the objects with which they interact (Lee 2008), the interrelationship of objects with pedagogy and classroom management of students’ bodies (Mulcahy 2012) and sociomaterial practices in classrooms that lead to the inclusion or exclusion of children with disabilities (Söderström 2014). Outside sociomaterialist studies, young children’s interactions with digital technologies have attracted extensive attention from social researchers, particularly in relation to topics such as the potential for cyber-bullying, online paedophilia and for children to become unfit and overweight due to spending too much time in front of screens (Holloway et al. 2013). However few researchers thus far have directed their attention to the types of digital technologies that visually represent children’s bodies or render their body functions, activities and behaviours into digital data; or, in other words, how children’s bodies become digital data assemblages.

From the embryonic stage of development onwards, children’s bodies are now routinely monitored and portrayed using digital technologies. A plethora of websites provide images of every stage of embryonic and foetal development, from fertilisation to birth, using a combination of digital images taken from embryo and foetus specimens and digital imaging software (Lupton 2013c). 3/4D ultrasounds have become commodified, used for ‘social’ or ‘bonding’ purposes instead of the traditional medical diagnostic and screening scan. Many companies offering 3/D ultrasounds now come to people’s homes, allowing expectant parents to invite family and friends and turn a viewing of the foetus into a party event. This sometimes involves a ‘gender reveal’ moment, in which the sonographer demonstrates to all participants, including the parents, the sex of thefoetus . Some companies offer the service of using 3D ultrasound scan files to create life- sized printed foetus replica models for parents.

 

The posting to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube of the foetus ultrasound image has become a rite of passage for many new parents and often a way of announcing the pregnancy. Using widgets such as ‘Baby Gaga’, expectant parents can upload regular status updates to their social media feeds automatically that provide news on the foetus’s development. While a woman is pregnant, she can use a range of digital devices to monitor her foetus. Hundreds of pregnancy apps are currently on the market, including not only those that provide information but those that invite users to upload personal information about their bodies and the development of their foetus (Tripp et al. 2014). Some apps offer a personalised foetal development overview or provide the opportunity for the woman to record the size of her pregnant abdomen week by week, eventually creating a time-lapse video. Other apps involve women tracking foetal movements or heart beat. Bella Beat is a smartphone attachment and app that allows the pregnant women to hear and record the foetal heart beat whenever she likes and to upload the audio file to her social media accounts.

YouTube has become a predominant medium for the representation of the unborn entity in the form of ultrasound images and of the moment of birth. Almost 100,000 videos showing live childbirth, including both vaginal and Caesarean births, are available for viewing on that site, allowing the entry into the world of these infants to be viewed by thousands and, in the case of some popular videos, even millions of viewers. Some women even choose to live-stream the birth so that audiences can watch the delivery in real time. Following the birth, there are similar opportunities for proud parents to share images of their infant online on social media platforms. In addition to these are the growing number of devices on the market for parents to monitor the health, development and wellbeing of their infants and young children. Apps are available to monitor such aspects as infants’ feeding and sleeping patterns, their weight and height and their development and achievements towards milestones. Sensor- embedded baby clothing, wrist or ankle bands and toys can be purchased that monitor infants’ heart rate, body temperature and breathing, producing data that are transmitted to the parents’ devices. Smartphones can be turned into baby monitors with the use of apps that record the sound levels of the infant.

As children grow, their geolocation, educational progress and physical fitness can be tracked by their parents using apps, other software and wearable devices. As children themselves begin to use digital technologies for their own purposes, they start to configure their own digital assemblages that represent and track their bodies. With the advent of touchscreen mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, even very young children are now able to use social media sites and the thousands of apps that have been designed especially for their use (Holloway et al. 2013). Some such technologies encourage young children to learn about the anatomy of human bodies or about nutrition, exercise and physical fitness, calculate their body mass index, collect information about their bodies or represent their bodies in certain ways (such as manipulating photographic images of themselves). These technologies typically employ gamification strategies to provide interest and motivation for use. Some involve combining competition or games with self-tracking using wearable devices. One example is the Leapfrog Leapband, a digital wristband connected to an app which encourages children to be physically active in return for providing them with the opportunity to care for virtual pets. Another is the Sqord interactive online platform with associated digital wristband and app. Children who sign up can make an avatar of themselves and use the wristband to track their physical activity. Users compete with other users by gaining points for moving their bodies as often and as fast as possible.

 

In the formal educational system there are still more opportunities for children’s bodies to be monitored measured and evaluated and rendered into digitised assemblages. Programmable ‘smart schools’ are becoming viewed as part of the ‘smart city’, an urban environment in which sensors that can watch and collect digital data on citizens are ubiquitous (Williamson 2014). The monitoring of children’s educational progress and outcomes using software is now routinely undertaken in many schools, as are their movements around the school. In countries such as the USA and the UK, the majority of schools have CCTV cameras that track students, and many use biometric tracking technologies such as RFID chips in badges or school uniforms and fingerprints to identify children and monitor their movements and their purchases at school canteens (Selwyn 2014, Taylor 2013). A growing number of schools are beginning to use wearable devices, apps and other software for health and physical education lessons, such as coaching apps that record children’s sporting performances and digital heart rate monitors that track their physical exertions (Lupton 2015a).

We can see in the use of digital technologies to monitor and represent the bodies of children a range of forms of embodiment. Digitised data assemblages of children’s bodies are generated from before birth via a combination of devices that seek to achieve medical- or health-related or social and affective objectives. These assemblages may move between different domains: when, for example, a digitised ultrasound image that was generated for medical purposes becomes repurposed by expectant parents as a social media artefact, a way of announcing the pregnancy, establishing their foetus as new person and establishing its social relationships. Parents’ digital devices, and later those of educational institutions and those of children themselves when they begin to use digital devices, potentially become personalised repositories for a vast amount of unique digital assemblages on the individual child, from images of them to descriptions of their growth, development, mental and physical health and wellbeing, movements in space, achievements and learning outcomes. These data assemblages, containing as they do granular details about children, offer unprecedented potential to configure knowledges about individual children and also large groups of children (as represented in aggregated big data sets).

Conclusion

As I have shown in this chapter, new forms of bodies are being configured via contemporary digital technologies. Devices that are able to monitor, portray, measure and compare bodies generate unceasing flows of data about individuals which then move into the digital data economy and are repurposed by a range of actors and agencies. I have employed the example of young children’s bodies to demonstrate the manifold ways in which such digitised bodily assemblages are created and the uses to which they are put. Digital data are forms of ‘lively capital’ in three major ways. First they are generated from life itself, in terms of documenting humans’ bodies and selves. Second, as digital data they are labile and fluid as they are generated and circulate in the digital data economy. And third, because with the advent of interconnected smart objects, aggregated data sets and predictive analytics , personal digital data have potential effects on the conduct of life and life opportunities (Lupton forthcoming).

In this age of unceasing collection of often very intimate and personal information about people via digital technologies, questions of data security and data privacy have become paramount. Once personal digital data enter the computing cloud, people lose control over how they are protected and controlled. Recent scandals and controversies, such as the former CIA and the US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s release of documents that demonstrate how national security agencies in western countries are conducting surveillance on citizens’ online interactions and various events of hacking into personal data databases have revealed the precariousness of personal data security and privacy.

Thus far we know very little about how people are engaging with the digital data assemblages that are generated on them, how they contribute to, manage, manipulate and make sense of these assemblages and what impacts they have on people’s sense of selfhood and embodiment. This is a particularly pressing issue for individuals such as the current generation of children whose lives and bodies have been so thoroughly digitally documented. As humans are entering into technological entanglements that are able to document their lives from pre-birth to death in ever-finer detail, many issues and implications remain to be explored. These include who has the right to collect data on people, who controls and has access to the repositories of personal data that are now configured on individuals, how these data are used by those who do have access and what happens to people’s data assemblages after death.

Digital data assemblages are always mutable, dynamic and responsive to new inputs. A recursive feedback loop is established in which information is generated from digital technologies which then are used by the individual to assess her or his activities and behaviour and modify them accordingly, which then configure a renewed data assemblage – and on the cycle goes (Lupton 2012a, 2013b, forthcoming). Indeed one major novel aspect of people’s encounters with digital technologies is the ways in which these technologies are now often designed to ‘nudge’ users into taking up certain practices. Instead of merely providing information, as in older forms of internet engagement, software is coded to algorithmically manipulate users’ personal data and send them ‘push’ notifications to encourage them to purchase more goods and services or change their behaviour to optimise their health, wellbeing or productivity. More and more, our digital machines are taking on the role of managers, task-masters or disciplinarians of our bodies. Commentators are now beginning to envisage a world in which interconnected smart devices, as part of the Internet of Things, interact with the personalised data that each generate to provide advice to users. Thus, for example, the wearable body tracker can interact with smart objects in the user’s home (such as the smart fridge, smart thermostat, smart television and smart bed) to determine what kind of food users should consume, what types of television programs they should watch, what temperature level their home should be set at and for how long and what time they should go to sleep and wake up, based on such features as their mood, body weight, calories burnt and physical activity data.

 

Such entanglements of human bodies with technological devices potentially represent further major changes to concepts and practices of embodiment. For the field of physical cultural studies, they constitute a new and important element of understanding how knowledges, practices, objects, emotion, discourse, data and humans intertwine.

 

 

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Essays, Writing

On Superheroes and Science fiction

You know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating.

Take one of my favorite superheroes, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.

Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S” – that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.

Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak… He’s unsure of himself… He’s a coward.

Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

Superheroes have not only the ability, but also a great tendency, or propensity to do that, as does, I believe, a lot of great literature, science fiction being my particular favourite. I find the idea very exciting that stories and narrative are unfolding in time ranging from alternate past and parallel present to uncertain futures; that seemingly unreal technology is commonplace. But more importantly it’s the excitement of possibilities, of complex hypothetical worlds full of possibilities. But at the same time, what remains consistent is the human condition. The genre of science fiction allows for generating a kind of distance in time and space to allow us room for examining our Human Condition, a kind of a wide angle lens to examine our own anxieties and exhilarations, our own at-once epic and intimate predicaments. Shakespeare did something quite similar…

If our culture sometimes seems to lack a sense of the numinous or spiritual it’s only in the same way a fish lacks a sense of the ocean. Because the numinous is everywhere, we need to be reminded of it. We live among wonders. Superhuman cyborgs, we plug into cell phones connecting us to one another and to a constantly updated planetary database, an exo-memory that allows us to fit our complete cultural archive into a jacket pocket. We have camera eyes that speed up, slow down, and even reverse the flow of time, allowing us to see what no one prior to the twentieth century had ever seen — the thermodynamic miracle of broken shards and a puddle gathering themselves up from the floor to assemble a half-full wineglass. We are the hands and eyes and ears, the sensitive probing feelers through which the emergent, intelligent universe comes to know its own form and purpose. We bring the thunderbolt of meaning and significance to unconscious matter, blank paper, the night sky. We are already divine magicians, already supergods. Why shouldn’t we use all our brilliance to leap in as many single bounds as it takes to a world beyond ours, threatened by overpopulation, mass species extinction, environmental degradation, hunger, and exploitation? Superman and his pals would figure a way out of any stupid cul-de-sac we could find ourselves in — and we made Superman, after all. All it takes is that one magic word.”

In the world of the superheroes, everything had value, potential, mystery. Any person, thing, or object could be drafted into service in the struggle against darkness and evil. We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be.”

“The interior of our skulls contains a portal to infinity.”

Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.

 

– Ali Akbar Mehta

Mumbai

September 2013

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Artist Statement, Essays, Library, Writing

Not on Noah’s Ark, but on the Raft of the Medusa:

Recent Works by Ali Akbar Mehta

 

Normality is the somewhat misleading name that many of us give to the present. It is often the only means of remaining sane while enduring the abrupt horrors and dehumanising provocations that surround us. The artist, however, is not obliged either to neutralise himself to these horrors and provocations; nor is he afraid of exploring the regimes of consciousness that lie beneath the sanctioned threshold of sanity.

And so the jesters, harlequins, cerecloth-swaddled zombies and explosion- flayed refugees who populate Ali Akbar Mehta’s paintings and digital works are not strangers. Not at all, for we know them intimately well, these figures who dominate the 1983-born Mehta’s first solo exhibition: they are ourselves an hour from now, a decade from now, in the near future, or at any moment. Allegories of the present, veiled thinly as a post apocalyptic future, Mehta’s works alternate, tonally, between melancholia and the ludic, between Lent and Carnival. They emerge from a long tradition of critique-through-image that turns our conventions of time, space, gravity and propriety topsy-turvy: a tradition that counts, among its major exponents, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel.

On the testimony of these works, produced between 2006 and 2011, Mehta is an explorer charting a demon-haunted world that balances precariously between compassion and oppression, instability and militarisation; the mushroom cloud of nuclear annihilation is always billowing on its horizon.

*

Mehta is a member of what has been called the generation of ‘digital natives’, who grew up with personal computers, wireless telephony, and electronic retrieval systems of every size and scale. The translation of substance into immaterial form is a basic parameter of the lifeworld he inhabits; with it comes the understanding that data flows rather than being confined, and that images and episodes too are part of ongoing, vast narratives rather than remaining in guarded pools.

Having been exposed to animation as a creative form in his parents’ animation studio, Mehta also embraces comic books, graphic novels, manga and anime as cultural resources.

Ali Akbar Mehta_Harlequin Series; To Glory in Self, like some kind of New Monster, 2010, Archival print on Hahnemuhle paper, 182 x 121 cm

Naturally, then, Mehta is fascinated by the figure of the superhero: who is supremely powerful yet deeply vulnerable, benevolent yet sinister, weighed down by the knowledge of humankind’s ultimate fate yet aware of his role as a guardian of hope and renewal. If the archetype of the great hero enshrines the spirit of indomitable resilience, it also incarnates all the freight of fear and paralysing anguish to which humankind is heir. In many of Mehta’s figures, the ligaments are stretched, the bone is set at breaking point. Indeed, in Mehta’s handing, the body is often an unsettling hybrid of muscular presence and spectral apparition: it is made, seemingly, of ectoplasm or pulp that has momentarily assumed a shape which it may lose without notice.

In Mehta’s imagery of the suffering yet defiant body, we may detect an act of homage to his grandfather, the legendary artist Tyeb Mehta. We find this especially in the trussed figure, suspended from ropes, more prisoner than marionette and hung above the abyss, in ‘The Identity of Violence Series: Suffering and Rapture’(2010). That homage also animates the figure that has been twisted, knotted, folded double in ‘Triptych’ (2007) and jammed into the cage formed by the frame of the canvas.

Ali Akbar Mehta_The Identity of Violence Series; Sacrifice and Redemption, 2010, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182 x 121 cm

*

Mehta’s preparatory process involves a theatre-like ‘characterisation’ of his protagonists: a detailed imagining of their ‘inner lives’, a fleshing-out of their ‘back stories’, a calibration of their emotional temperature based on episodes deemed to have taken place in the past of their fictive present scenarios. As in theatre, this characterisation is not made wholly explicit in the articulated form of the work; nor is it meant to be. Rather, it serves the artist as the substance that confers reality upon his characters, and is the continuing material substrate from which his images and the narratives that concern them will be conjured.

Mehta delights in portraying quixotic figures of unpredictable motivation as they move through the columned halls and terraces of normality, replacing these with the weaving shapes of hallucination and phantasmagoria.

*

Among his protagonists are the jester and the harlequin: the first permitted to speak truth to power, although in politically sanctioned satire and allegory; the second a shape-shifting trickster who celebrates all that is chaotic and out of joint. Accordingly, the artist favours a pictorial space that is psychedelic, its emphasis laid on the play of strange lights and pulsating auras. Indeed, to this observer, his canvases articulate the ominous psychological freight of Bikash Bhattacharya’s paintings of the 1970s.

Humankind lurches from one crisis to the next in Mehta’s post-apocalyptic ecologies, with little chance of redemption. We find predators and victims, survivors and demons, all conjoined in a common destiny, all adrift: not on a Noachic Ark so much as on a Gericauldian Raft of the Medusa. In the painting that gives this exhibition its title, ‘The Ballad of The War That Never Was’ (2010), one of the key figures is modelled on the Deposition, the enduring moment when the crucified Christ is taken down from the cross, except that this figure has no hope of resurrection; another figure in this tableau is based on Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’, except that the banner is fraying, torn to pieces by the wind.

Ballad of The War That Never Was, 2011, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 152 x 198 cm

 

Or, as with the close-packed figures in ‘War’ (2011), screaming as they flail, wrestle and fall together in a grand tapestry of the damned, Mehta’s figures strike us as a contemporary version of Dante’s eternally condemned figures in the Inferno or Michelangelo’s in the Sistine ‘Last Judgement’. The mode of the history painting manifests itself again and again in Mehta’s work, through allusion and citation. But the inspired certitudes of history painting and its heroic belief in the ability of the human will to dominate all circumstance have yielded, in Mehta’s paintings, before a more tragic awareness of human fragility. This artist does indeed take man as the measure of all things, in the classical humanist formulation; but man is here a strained measure, bent under pressure. Precisely for this reason, Mehta’s protagonists speak to us of our own anxieties and exhilarations, sing to us of our own at-once epic and intimate predicaments.

 

Ranjit Hoskote

Mumbai

2011

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By me, Essays, Work, Writing

Notes on Adorno and The Culture Industry

Karl Marx said, ‘Religion is the Opium of the Masses’. Theodore Adorno, 20th century philosopher and film theorist, has arrived at an understanding, that ‘Mass Media is the Opium of the Masses’.

A student of Karl Marx and Hegel, Adorno and his colleagues waited for the prophecised revolution of the proletariat, a movement that did not come to pass. The young intellectuals questioned this – with utmost belief in Hegel’s dialectic system of cohesive global understanding and in the belief of the rightness of Marxist thought – they realised that the problem lay in the popular media culture – the main culprits of arrested development of society –‘Culture Industry’.

Culture Industry today is infecting everything with sameness… the living cells crystallize into homogenous, well organised complexes…The explicit and the implicit, exoteric and esoteric catalog of what is forbidden and what is tolerated is so extensive that it not only defines the area left free but wholly controls it. Even the most minor details are modeled according to this lexicon’. For Adorno, individuals were aware of social issues but the Culture Industry was a glue that was tying everybody up. He believed that if the shackles could be broken, the society would change. The Culture Industry created Burgiouse Art, which destoyed True Art. It produced Art that was packaged, stylised and designed to be escapist and easy to digest, slowly numbing society. ‘Film denies its audience any dimension in which they might roam feely in imagination… They are so constructed that their adequate comprehesion requires a quick, observant, knowledgeable cast of mind but positively debars the spectator from thinking, if he is not to miss the fleeting facts’ and so ‘The products of the culture industry are such that they can be alertly consumed in a state of distraction’.

Adorno goes on to describe, in great thoroughness and detail the problematics of the Culture Industry. He speaks about the dependence of culture monopolies on corporations and big industry, ‘the true wielders of power, to ensure that their sphere of mass society… is not subject to a series of purges’; He speaks about packaging and style of having no individuality – ‘the style of the culture industry, which has no resistant material to overcome, is at the same time the negation of style…up to Schonberg and Picasso, great artists have been mistrustful of style’. The systematic creation of ideals and beauty and the lack of a difference between ‘real or reel’. Film was the most important media that fabricated subjectivity and it was so strong that the viewer doesn’t even realise that he is imitating ‘the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left’. Sameness and standardisation and mass production were killing the possibility of new Art.

During the 30’s, when a number of Jewish intellectual escaped to The United States, they found that even in places like Berkeley and California, the American culture system was designed to control the people. He believed that the system was in a state of decadence and decay, and that Art was providing a ‘false synthesis’. Apart from a few such as Kafka, Beckett and those in his own circles such as Schoenberg and Pierrot Lunaire, he considered everything else false. Adorno’s theories start bordering on paranoia, and he sees everybody as producers and reproducers of the Culture Industry manipulating a fractured society of para-Nazis ‘at once enthusiastic and fed up…in the synthetically manufactured physiognomies of today the fact that the concept of human life ever existed is already forgotten’.

The Culture Industry is converting us into ‘cultural’ products with programmed desire – The system brainwashes you to have needs that are driven by the Culture Industry. ‘The more strongly the culture industry entrenches itself, the more it can do as it chooses to with the needs of its consumers –  producing, controlling, disciplining them; even withdrawing amusement altogether’. The shamelessness of the rhetoric “What do people want?” lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul. ‘The powerlessness of everyone is reflected’.

At one point, he sounds almost hopeful, saying ‘Demand has not yet been replaced by simple obedience’ till you realise, that it is utter desperation that he is feeling, ‘This is the incurable sickness of all entertainment. Amusement congeals into boredom, since to be amusement, it must cost no effort…the product prescribed each reaction…through signals’. Adorno starts to think no change is possible. So he and his contemporaries, want to make things as dark as possible in order to wake people up from their complacence. They were not interested in banishing popular culture, but in changing the state of the system, which they saw as a collective machinery. They attacked, in their writing, many famous composers, like Wagner, whom they felt were producing music simply for entertainment. They wrote against Jazz, they wrote against the radio, and mostly they wrote against Film and Television.

It is all too easy to believe – to start seeing that patterns being unraveled – The formula films, with the fixed blend of action, drama, suspense; the calculated charm of the hero, the idealised beauty of the heroine are all calculated templates. That ‘hit songs, stars and soap operas conform to types recurring cyclically as rigid invariants…In film, any manuscript which is not reassuringly based on a best-seller is viewed with mistrust’. The soap operas and their ‘Obtusely ingenious surprises [that] disrupt the plot…the pure nonsense which, as buffoonery and clowning, was a legitimate part of popular culture’, One can even go as far as to see this similar pattern emerge out of the Contemporary Art scene –The Artist is a solitary figure in the sea of machinations of the Art Gallery/Auction house/dealer/curator combine – The ready supply to the demands of structurally designed ‘taste’ and the meaningless-ness of True Art in the face of Art as investment and determination of worth through auction/sales. In the fact that true departure form style has always been met with skepticism and mistrust. What Adorno calls ‘inferior work has relied on its similarity to others, the surrogate of identity…obedience to a social hierarchy’. How easy it would be to believe that yes, the fact of the matter is that Art in itself does not matter, but are merely objects, pieces in fact to be moved around like pawns to the maneuverings of the economic interests of markets and capital. ‘Freedom was the freedom of the stupid to starve, in art as elsewhere…You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property – all that you shall keep. But from this day on you will be a stranger among us’. A world where it is not about the Art, but the negotiations to survive/climb the ladder of success – ‘The more all-embracing the culture industry has become, the more pitilessly it has forced the outsider into either bankruptcy or a syndicate’.

One is drawn within this framework of thought till one realises that the text has a biased logic that is driven by the need to be true. Adorno’s view of Utopia is essentially fatalistic. Perhaps it is Hegel’s model of Thesis>Antithesis>Synthesis that is essentially linear – similar to Western music format of point:counterpoint, or the linearity of time in Western theology of Creation and Judgement. Synthesis is always doomed to become the Thesis of the next era.

Humanity has always had music and storytelling and dance – the basic forms that contribute and are the base materials for all other art forms, be it theater, radio, film or jazz. From the days of the primitive man, groups or tribes have huddled around bonfire, listening to stories that may have been instructive or merely escapist. Stories, weather myths or folktales are essentially operating on a personal, social or mythic (racial) scale of human understanding. We have learnt how to live, the qualities that we must posses as human beings and the narratives that we are a part of – through these stories. Are episodes of ‘I love Lucy’ Art? Perhaps they are – after all, they were funny, insightful explorations of American culture of the mid-1950. Perhaps WWE is a representation of contemporary American mythology, much as Superhero comics have been.

Structurally, they perform a catharsis – a purging of emotions. Also, if we consider the what Indian Aesthetics describes in the Rasā Theory – In it Rasā is described as the ‘essentialised experience’ of a re-presented event, that enriches rather than performing a purge of emotions. Accordingly, the storyteller’s circle around a tribal fire is as important an institution of education as is the highest exponent of Adorno’s True Art. If all Art form enriches, then even the most banal Mass media may have the potential for some kind of cultural value. Whether Mass Art is the same as Adorno’s idea of ‘True’ Art is another matter altogether.

If we look at the important tropes of stories that have remained with us, whether it is the Hero and his quest, Tragedy, Comedy, or even religion – they have evolved our worldview throughout time. In doing so, they have also simultaneously evolved and remained alive as signs, symbols and signifiers. Signs, symbols and signifiers have been translated as memes that display cultural-evolutionary properties. Like the DNA or the (mostly) detrimental virus, a meme needs a host – the complex mechanism of enzymes all the way up to a cell to republish itself. The transcendence meme “convinces” its host that it is imperative for its survival and the survival of its kin. Memes reflect the same laws that guide genes (an analogy drawn by Dawkins only to make the laws governing memes comprehensible. Whether memes and genes are perfectly analogous or not, is not relevant) – preservation, heritability (learnability, ease of communication, tendency to be transmitted), reproductive isolation for speciation (chinese whispers), mutation causing genetic diversity (adaptability) and self-propagation.

Memes have a bad habit of genes – they become vestigial. The keep reproducing themselves long after the relevance is lost, long after the answers to the riddles have been established, long after the theories guiding them have been dis-proven.

Let’s accept that in the absence of a teleological purpose, it might be wise to invent one – or rather evolve one with a near infinite foresight. If we have evolved to rely on crutches of delusions and fallacies, clarity of mind can be life threatening, and hence, met with an intuitive repulsion.

“To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots – religion, nation, community, family, or profession – are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions, it is the decision that makes the resources. (Alvin Toffler, Future Shock)”

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By me, Essays, Library, Philosophy for the Post Contemporary artist, Work, Writing

On Walter Benjamin

Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin

(15 July 1892 – 26 September 1940)

was a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, historical materialism, and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and Western Marxism.

He is thought to have been associated with the Frankfurt School, but this is not true, unless in relation to the importance of his thinking on Theodore Adorno, and formative friendships with thinkers such as Bertolt Brecht and Gershom Scholem.

Benjamin’s major work as a literary critic included essays on Baudelaire, Goethe, Kafka, Kraus, Leskov, Proust, Walser, and translation theory. He also made major translations into German of the Tableaux Parisiens section of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and parts of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. He wrote on Popular culture, Drama, Theatre, Fim, Art and Language. Among Benjamin’s most prominent works are the essays “The Task of the Translator” (1923) and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936).

Benjamin talks about Wahrheitsehalt (Truth Content – to work) ans Sachsehalt (thingly or object content – pertaining to life) as opposites. Truth content refers to what makes something a ‘True’ work of Art. It is both eternal as well as made up of fragments, ie. it Is a meta-composite truth.

There is no aesthetic refraction without something being refracted; no imagination without something imagined. This holds true particularly in the case of art’s immanent purposiveness. In its relation to empirical reality art sublimates the latter’s governing principle of sese conservare as the ideal of the self-identity of its works; as Schoenberg said, one paints a painting, not what it represents. Inherently every artwork desires identity with itself, an identity that in empirical reality is violently forced on all objects as identity with the subject and thus travestied. Aesthetic identity seeks to aid the non-identical, which in reality is repressed by reality’s compulsion to identity. Only by virtue of separation from empirical reality, which sanctions art to model the relation of the whole and the part according to the work’s own need, does the artwork achieve a heightened order of existence. Artworks are afterimages of empirical life insofar as they help the latter to what is denied them outside their own sphere and thereby free it from that to which they are condemned by reified external experience. Although the demarcation line between art and the empirical must not be effaced, and least of all by the glorification of the artist, artworks nevertheless have a life sui generis. This life is not just their external fate. Important artworks constantly divulge new layers; they age, grow cold, and die. It is a tautology to point out that as humanly manufactured artifacts they do not live as do people.

–Theodore Adorno on Truth content, Aesthetic Theory

 

Benjamin uses or refers to several symbols to explain this:

The Hunchback

The Dwarf:

‘…the dwarf under the table, is time, who is always winning’.

The Angel of history:

Embodies Benjamin’s idea of catasrophe in continuum. Catastrophe is entropic in nature. ‘The Angel of history is standing with wings open, with its back to the future… the winds of future anre carrying it continously forward’.

Benjamin refers to Jeztziet ‘The Now moment’, or the standstill

The Gate:

Future in context of the Jews.

‘…every second is a narrow gate through which the messiah can enter’.

The Tigerleap

Walter Benjamin corresponded much with Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht, and was occasionally funded by the Frankfurt School under the direction of Adorno and Horkheimer, even from their New York City residence. The competing influences—Brecht’s Marxism, Adorno’s critical theory, Scholem’s Jewish mysticism—were central to his work, although their philosophic differences remained unresolved. The intellectual range of Benjamin’s writings flows dynamically among those three intellectual traditions, deriving a critique via juxtaposition; the exemplary synthesis is Theses on the Philosophy of History.

In the “Concept of History” Benjamin also turned to Jewish mysticism for a model of praxis in dark times, inspired by the kabbalistic precept that the work of the holy man is an activity known as tikkun. According to the kabbalah, God’s attributes were once held in vessels whose glass was contaminated by the presence of evil and these vessels had consequently shattered, disseminating their contents to the four corners of the earth. Tikkun was the process of collecting the scattered fragments in the hopes of once more piecing them together. Benjamin fused tikkun with the Surrealist notion that liberation would come through releasing repressed collective material, to produce his celebrated account of the revolutionary historiographer, who sought to grab hold of elided memories as they sparked to view at moments of present danger.

– Margaret Cohen, Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin

The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1928, is a critical study of German baroque drama, as well as the political and cultural climate of Germany during the Counter-Reformation (1545–1648). Benjamin presented the work to the University of Frankfurt in 1925 as the (post-doctoral) dissertation meant to earn him the qualification to become a university instructor in Germany.

Professor Schultz found The Origin of German Tragic Drama inappropriate for his Department of German Language and Literature, and passed it to the Department of Aesthetics (philosophy of art), the readers of which likewise dismissed Benjamin’s work. The faculty, among them Max Horkheimer, recommended that Benjamin withdraw The Origin of German Tragic Drama s as a Habilitation dissertation to avoid formal rejection and public embarrassment. He heeded the advice, and three years later, in 1928, he published The Origin of German Tragic Drama as a book.

He presented his stylistic concerns in The Task of the Translator, wherein he posits that a literary translation, by definition, produces deformations and misunderstandings of the original text. Moreover, in the deformed text, otherwise hidden aspects of the original, source-language text emerge, while previously obvious aspects become unreadable. Such translational mortification of the source text is productive; when placed in a specific constellation of works and ideas, newly revealed affinities, between historical objects, appear and are productive of philosophical truth.

He states that Everything has a language except nature; if nature could speak, it would immediately begin its lament.

Walter Benjamin’s writings identify him as a modernist for whom the philosophic merges with the literary: logical philosophic reasoning cannot account for all experience, especially not for self-representation via art.

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Archival Projects, By others, Essays, Uncategorized, Writing

Odes and Inquisitions: Sino-Indian Connections in Recent Indian Art

The Joseph Batista Gardens is one of the pleasantest places in Mumbai. Sitting atop a hillock, the garden park literally lifts you out of the noise from which even the surrounding neighborhood of Mazagaon, sedate by Mumbai standards, cannot escape.

To the north and west one gains a distinct view of the many mildew-stained high-rises that contribute to one of the highest population densities in the world. To the south, one sees rows upon rows of warehouses and train sheds. And to the east, a clear view of the city’s historical raison d’etre: Mumbai harbor, populated now with freight and naval ships, once open a time with frigates and opium clippers. It is not a picturesque view, for towering in the middle is a massive, yellow gantry crane inscribed with the words “Mazagaon Dock Limited, Shipbuilders to the Nation.” As advertised, this is India’s top shipyard, creating warships and submarines for the Indian Navy, offshore platforms for the oil industry, and tankers and cargo carriers for commercial shipping.

The site of Mumbai’s former Chinatown, centered on Nawab Tank Road, lies in the crane’s shadow. The dockside location reminds one that the basis of the overseas Chinese community in India, like in most places across Asia, was the centrality of China in international maritime trade in the early modern and colonial eras. Until the eighteenth century, Mazagaon was hardly more than a Portuguese fort surrounded by fishing villages. Both pleasantly verdant and conveniently adjacent to one of the best natural harbors in Bombay, the place was bound to change when Zoroastrian Parsi merchants and the East India Company made Bombay the new commercial center of Western India. By the mid nineteenth century, Mazagaon had become a fashionable suburb for Europeans and Parsi merchants, populated with many churches, private villas, and even a couple of luxury hotels.  The shipyard dates back to the early nineteenth century. That is where the Chinese worked, reportedly mainly as nut and bolt fitters. What remains of that community, like the much larger one in Kolkata, is composed primarily of Cantonese, Hakka, and Hupei – which is to say, ethnic groups from the Pearl River Delta area and the main inland areas impacted by the opium trade that was developed by the Portuguese and the British in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

While Kolkata’s Chinatown holds on, Mumbai’s has been almost lost to oblivion. It registers so weakly in the city’s memory that even most lifelong Mumbaikars have never heard of it. Even at its height, Bombay’s Chinatown paled in comparison with that in Kolkata, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the country’s Chinese-Indian population.  One has to dig for mention of Chinese residents in histories of colonial Bombay. When they do appear, they are merely one name in the colorful and multilingual crowd of traders and immigrants from across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East that made Bombay famous as the most cosmopolitan place in the Orient. “Chinese with pig-tails; Japanese in the latest European attire; Malays in English jackets and loose turbans; Bukharans in tall sheep skin caps and woollen gabardines,” closes Commissioner of Police S. M. Edwardes in his account of the ingredients of Bombay’s melting pot streets in the first decade of the twentieth century. Also in “certain clubs in the city where a man may purchase nightly oblivion for the modest sum of two or three annas” – which is to say, in the opium dens –“the proprietor of the club may be a Musalman; his patrons may be Hindus, Christians or Chinese.” Intoxication, Edwardes observes, overcomes “distinctions of race, creed and sovereignty”  – not unlike, say, money and commerce did in the street. But when the sun went down (or, if you were an addict, when the sun came up), Bombay’s various ethnic groups returned to homes in communities that were more often than not segregated from one another.

None of this I would have known or bothered to look into had it not been for Ali Akbar Mehta’s Site : Stage: Structure (2013-14), a show at the Clark House Initiative, a quasi-non-commercial space in south Mumbai. A converted antiques shop of odd dimensions, tucked away spaces, and personal odds and ends, the Clark House tends to make everything installed in its space look like a cabinet of curiosities. Mehta’s Site : Stage : Structure – an impressionistic and sentimental survey of the neighborhood through a mix of video documentary, photographs, and personal knickknacks – appeared to be that by design.

The focus of the installation was on the personal memories of the artist’s own grandparents and grandaunts and granduncles, all Bohra Muslims (another famed merchant community) who have been living in the neighborhood since the early twentieth century. They talk through video interviews about their daily lives, and about their family business of manufacturing fishing hooks, physical samples of which hang on the wall. There were also reflections of a less personal sort, and these were aimed at capturing the historical traces of Mazagaon’s slowly disappearing cosmopolitanism. Three fat photobooks focused on aspects of the neighborhood’s buildings and people. There were also photographs, taken by Mehta and hand-colored by a painter of movie hoardings hired by the artist, of the few surviving churches, crucifixes, and bungalows that once crowded this originally Portuguese settlement. In the same series was also an image of the giant crane at Mazagaon Dock, as well as one of the nondescript pink façade (beige in reality) of a three-story building that houses, on its second floor, the only distinctive remnant of the area’s Chinatown: the Daoist Kwan Tai Shek temple, dedicated to Guan Yu, the famous general of the Three Kingdoms period. It was reportedly built by Cantonese sailors in 1919. A Buddhist temple to the bodhisattva Guanyin was established on the building’s ground floor in recent years.

In another room at Clark House, Mehta had assembled images and objects related to the Kwan Tai Shek temple. On a shelf in the corner were a handful of ritual items, including cups and an incense burner, and figurines from Journey to the West. Pinned upon the wall behind them was a grid of sheets of silver-painted joss paper, burned to send wealth to deceased ancestors. A cabinet in another corner of the room contained various Chinese vessels. Some of the displayed objects were culled from the temple and its caretaker’s home. Others were fashioned by the artist in a makeshift manner (simple canisters splashed with red paint, for example) similar to that used at the temple itself to create facsimiles of items not available in Mumbai

The centerpiece of the installation was a twelve-minute video. It featured artfully shot details of things like the temple’s bright red ceiling, burning incense, and armored Daoist gods. Some information about the temple’s history and its rituals are given in the voiceover, provided by the temple’s jaunty caretaker in a comically round accent. “No way, not while I’m alive,” he says, responding to an unheard question of whether the temple will be dissolved and the land sold. Yet his defiance, and the fact that on most days the temple stays locked and unused, raises the specter that perhaps this generation of Chinese-Indians will be the last to stand up for tradition.

Granted, the Chinese settlement was only one part of Site : Stage : Structure. But as the installation overall could have benefited from a clearer mapping of the neighborhood’s shifting demographics, so the Kwan Tai Shek component might have foregrounded why Bombay’s Chinatown has been reduced to fragments. In 1962, during the Sino-Indian War, many Chinese-Indians, not unlike Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, were either deported if they didn’t have Indian citizenship or sent to internment camps in Rajasthan and Gujarat if they did. Returning to their homes after the war ended, many found their property and businesses damaged or confiscated. In the spring of 1963, the PRC sent ships to India to repatriate those who wished to relocate to China. Others moved on their own to Western countries, many to Canada.  The exodus continues to the present, with growing business opportunities throughout Asia, including China of course. Many of those who are educated abroad choose to stay on in those countries.

Though the internment camps and resulting outmigration are noted in a few scholarly texts, no historian has undertaken a full study. This episode was made known to a wider public a few years ago through Rafeeq Elias’s The Legend of Fat Mama (2012), a documentary for the BBC about Kolkata’s shrinking Chinatown. The story Elias tells of persecution, marginalization, and disappointed emigration applies also to Mumbai, judging from the extensive wall text at Mehta’s Clark House installation. “According to Tulun Chen, Mumbai-based chairman of the Maharashtra Chinese Association,” reports Mehta from one of his many interviews with the community, “there are just around 3,500 Chinese in Mumbai, down from an estimated 15,000 in the mid-1960s.” Those who remain are now third and fourth generation. If they have not disappeared into Indian society, they run hairdressers and Chinese restaurants, including some of the most famous in the city.

Sketch-like though it might be, Mehta’s project is the most focused attempt to document the history and fate of Chinese-Indians in Mumbai. Information about the community is otherwise available only in the form of spotty online travel and entertainment blogs. Some of the artists and curators associated with the Clark House conduct related forms of urban history and ethnographic research, though I have never seen anything at the gallery on the scale of Site : Stage : Structure. Such projects not only enrich Mumbai’s art scene by offering something other than aesthetic wall-hangings and floor pieces, or theory-laden group shows. They also contribute to the city’s self-knowledge as a place with a conflicted and tangled cosmopolitan past. In an era in which rightwing groups continue to insist on Mumbai narrowly as a Hindu Marathi city, counter-historical practices like Site : Stage : Structure serve much more than ethnographic curiosity.

 

Ryan Holmberg

2014

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Ryan Holmberg is an art and comics historian. After receiving his PhD in Japanese Art Historyfrom Yale University in 2007, he taught at the University of Chicago, City University of New York, and the University of Southern California. He is a frequent contributor to Art in America, Artforum, Yishu, and The Comics Journal, and is editor of two lines of translated manga from PictureBox, Inc. in New York: Ten Cent Manga, which focuses on the impact of American comics and mass entertainment on Japanese manga, and Masters of Alternative Manga. As a Sainsbury Fellow, Ryan is undertaking research that would eventually lead to the publication of his book project Garo and the Birth of Alternative Manga.

Ryan happened to walk in one fine day into Clark House, when he was researching a piece on Sino-Indian Connections in Recent Indian Art, which was published in the January/February 2015 volume of YISHU.

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