SENSORIUM: Interdisciplinary Practices of Embodiment and Technology

For this panel we propose to discuss a range of interdisciplinary practices of embodiment and technology.
Dates: 
Sunday, 18 September, 2011 - 09:00 - 10:30
Chair Person: 
Janis Jefferies
Annie Abrahams Shared Still Life/ Nature Morte Partagee (2010)

Chair: Prof. Janis Jefferies

For this panel we propose to discuss a range of interdisciplinary practices of embodiment and technology.

     Today [the body] and its visceral surroundings are studded with earphones, zooming in psychopharmaceuticals, extended with prostheses, dazzled by odorless tastes and tasteless odors, transported by new media, and buzzing with ideas.
     C. A. Jones, ed., Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

Following Jones's discussion we will explore the ways in which practitioners and writers address the physical and affective aspects of our increasing engagement with technology, whether through performance or through engagement with robots and avatars. What types of sensorial experiences and intimacies can be explored in which virtual and physical spaces are increasingly blurred? Can play, be a part in revitalizing our sensorial system? Can these practices offer a time and a space for reflection on embodied technological experiences?

The panel aims to explore performance practices and contemporary cultural discourses that study intimate encounters, addressing issues around bodies of data and flesh, play in encounter with robots, avatars and physical/virtual presences- desire as embodied condition and disembodied fantasy, the human and posthuman self.

Paper Abstracts

I Feel Therefore I Am: Robots and Avatars - Our Colleagues and Playmates of the Future

Ghislaine Boddington

This innovative project explores how young people will work and play with new representational forms of themselves and others in virtual and physical life in the next 10-15 years. It examines multi-identity evolutions of today's younger generations within the context of a world in which virtual and physical spaces are increasingly blended.

In one of the Robonaut tweets, August 5th 2010, and at a recent Artificial Intelligence Lunch Debate, the diverse group of experts involved with Robots and Avatars discussed the implications of blended reality. This discussion is particularly relevant in relationship to the use of sensory feedback technology that gives users a more heightened and tactile experience and that provides new and more tangible ways of behaving through (and with) new representational forms.

Commenting about the problems with traditional understandings of artifical intelligence at the Lunch Debate in June, Professor Noel Sharkey suggested that with robots and avatars we should not be saying, "I think therefore I am" but instead, "I feel therefore I am".

According to researchers on Robonaut, "As the project matures with increased feedback to the human operator, the Robonaut system will approach the handling and manipulation capabilities of a suited astronaut."

With more haptic technology that uses sensory feedback to recreate the sense of touch, a user might wear gloves that allow them to feel objects in a virtual world. The user could examine the texture and weight of rocks or even experience the crunch of icy Martian dirt.

Is this another vivid sign that we have entered the dawn of the age of post-biological intelligence?

Annie Abrahams's Experiments in Intimacy

Maria Chatzichristodoulou

"What makes for a livable world is no idle question. It is not merely a question for philosophers. Somewhere in the answer we find ourselves not only committed to a certain view of what life is, and what it should be, but also of what constitutes the human" (Judith Butler Undoing Gender)

"In fact, all my work emanates from one big question: how can we live in a world that we don't understand?" (Annie Abrahams, in interview with Maria Chatzichristodoulou)

This paper explores the work of French-based pioneer of networked performance art Annie Abrahams, in relation to notions of intimacy in mediated performance practice. Specifically, it explores two of Abrahams's pieces: Shared Still Life / Nature Morte Partagee (2010) and L'Un La Poupee de L'Autre (One the Puppet of the Other) (2007). The paper suggests that, unlike a plethora of other technologised practices, Abrahams's work resists the celebration of utopic notions of the technologies of connectivity and interactivity. Instead, its focus is on broken links and miscommunications, that is, the failure of both technological and human connectivity. The article argues that the acceptance of failure as an element that is embedded in the make-up of networks is what renders Abrahams's Internet embodied and visceral, "an Internet of feeling" (as termed by Ruth Catlow in her essay accompanying Abrahams' If Not You Not Me exhibition at the HTTP Gallery in London). It further argues in favour of a "banality" that characterises Abrahams's work. This banality is not the safe zone of intimacy identified by Dominic Johnson in his recent lecture Live Art and Body Modification, but a far more troubling manifestation of it. Finally, the article proposes that Abrahams belongs to a generation of female artists who, as Morse has suggested, seek to challenge their very artistic medium.

The Emergence of Consciousness

Anna Dumitriu

The Emergence of Consciousness project uses performance art and digital technology in order to investigate the scientific study of consciousness and the possibilities of developing 'machine consciousness'. The project is inspired by perspectives of embodiment as characterized by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch and situatedness as applied to evolutionary robotics by Rodney Brooks. Dumitriu, artist in residence in the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics at The University of Sussex, works with sensory and movement deprivation (e.g. blindfolds, physical restraints etc.) and augmentation, in an attempt to take on the role of a robotic agent herself and try to understand what it feels like to be a robot.

Technologies of Mediation and Immediation

Janis Jefferies

The word medium and its cognates, such as media and mediation, have a strangely double aspect. On the one hand, a medium acts as an enabler, as a bridge, connecting things that might otherwise be completely disjoint. On the other hand, a medium is something that palpably stands between. Mediated experience is always second-hand; mediated experience is, by definition, not immediate. Even air as a medium through which we apprehend the World distorts. Worry about this led David Hockney, for example, in the late-eighties, to prefer photocopiers to cameras as he felt that the images produced by the latter were largely pictures of the air between the camera and the subject. The technologies of what might be called new or digital or interactive media have been intense cases of this doubleness, but this may change.

In 2002, researchers at the Touch Lab at MIT shook hands across the Atlantic with researchers at University College, London. They shook hands using a fast computer connection, pressure sensors and actuators. That handshake may well herald a new era in communication across the Internet and could also be the harbinger of new ways in which we experience other people and objects through technological mediation. This change is much more fundamental than simply adding one more sense, arguably a relatively minor one at that, to the array of senses with which we interact with computers. Touch is very different from the senses-vision and audition-that, up to now, have been almost the sole ways of accessing the world through computing technology. The difference is bound up with the notion of distance and mediation. The things we see and the things we hear, even when not apprehended through machines, are almost always at some remove from us, mediated at least by air; the things we feel are things that are in contact with us, things that are touching us as we touch them. Once immediate senses-like touch and taste-are added to the engagement with computers, the experience becomes manifestly more immediate, more participatory, more part of a real world. As Steven Connor points out, in his article "The Menagerie of the Senses" (The Senses and Society, 2006) spiders are the one animal that routinely feels things at a distance (Conners, 2004). Spiders do this, fittingly, by feeling things on the far corners of their webs.

In this paper I discuss possible future technologies and the kinds of engagements with a range of practices they enable, referring to Ludwig van Bertalanffy notions in Robots, Men and Minds (1967) with respect to arguing for a complex system of components in interaction towards fluid bodies and mental energy.

Bios of the Participants

Ghislaine Boddington

Ghislaine Boddington is an artist, director and curator specialising in interdisciplinarity in the performing arts and the integration of body responsive technologies, virtual physical networks and interactive interfaces.

Ghislaine develops solutions based on twenty years work with shinkansen and Future Physical (1989 - 2004, now archived at British Library and at www.connectivity.org.uk) and with, amongst others, the ICA and Dance Umbrella. She has directed and curated numerous events, workshops and symposia on body technology throughout eastern and western Europe, the US and Asia (including Arizona State University, International Theater Festival Hamburg, and the Theatre der Welt) . She is well known for her work on cultural identity and inter-authorship processes of creation.

She works as part of body>data>space, an interdisciplinary design collective based in East London and engages in creating fascinating connections between performance, architecture, new media and virtual worlds. She process directs large scale projects across Europe (EU Culture) and internationally, enabling an exchange of skills and knowledge and creating networks among young professionals in numerous countries.

She holds an Artist Research Associateship at ResCen, Middlesex University, where she explores tele-kinetics, tele-presence and tele-intuition. She regularly writes and collates collections of topical thoughts from artists worldwide. Ghislaine is an Associate Editor for Theatre Dance and Performance Training. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts.

Maria Chatzichristodoulou

Maria Chatzichristodoulou (a.k.a. Maria X) is a cultural practitioner (curator, producer, performer, and writer). Maria holds a PhD in Art and Computational Technologies from Goldsmiths Digital Studios, University of London. She is Director of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Theatre and Performance at the School of Arts and New Media, University of Hull (Scarborough campus). In the past Maria taught at the University of London colleges Goldsmiths, Birkbeck and Queen Mary, and Richmond the International American University. She also worked as a Community Officer at The Albany (South London). Maria was co-founder and co-director of the international media arts festival Medi@terra, and Fournos Centre for Digital Culture in Athens, Greece (1996-2002). While in Greece, she also performed with Diplous Eros Ensemble and with the director Syllas Tzoumerkas. In London, Maria initiated and co-directed, together with Rachel Zerihan, the festival and symposium Intimacy: Across Digital and Visceral Performance in 2007 at Goldsmiths, Laban, The Albany, Home London and online. Maria is co-editor of the volume Interfaces of Performance (Ashgate, 2009). She has lectured and published widely.

Anna Dumitriu

Anna Dumitriu is an artist, currently Artist in Residency at the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, Sussex University, while also undertaking PhD studies at the University of Brighton (UK). She has exhibited and presented work in a wide variety of contexts nationally and internationally, including: Whitechapel Gallery, The Institute of Unnecessary Research, Brighton, Photo Biennial Fringe, Futuresonic, Warwick University, Goldsmiths, University of London, HTTP gallery (UK); Novorsibirsk State Museum (Russia), Siggraph, New York Hall of Science, University of Florida Contemporary Art Museum (USA); ETH (Switzerland) and STEIM (Netherlands).

Janis Jefferies

Janis Jefferies is an artist, writer and curator, Professor of Visual Arts at the Department of Computing, Goldsmiths, University of London, Director of the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles and Artistic Director of Goldsmiths Digital Studios. In the last five years she has been working on technologically based arts, including Woven Sound (with Dr. Tim Blackwell) and has been a principal investigator on projects involving new haptics technologies (with the goal of bringing the sense of touch to the interface between people and machines) and generative software systems for creating and interpreting cultural artefacts, museums and the external environment. She is an associate researcher with Hexagram (Institute of Media, Arts and Technologies, Montreal, Canada) on two projects, electronic textiles and new forms of media communication in cloth. She currently holds a Crafts Council Spark Plug curating award for a project that seeks to examine the creative and dynamic relationship between mathematics, mathematical forms and craft through an exploration of a particular maths and textile archive, called Common Threads. Key publications include, "Laboured Cloth: Translations of Hybridity in Contemporary Art", in The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production, edited by Joan Livingston and John Ploof , and published by The Art School of the Art Institute of Chicago/MIT Press in 2007, and "Contemporary Textiles: the Art Fabric" in Contemporary Textiles: The Fabric of Fine Art, Black Dog publishing, 2008. Her essay, "Loving Attention: An outburst of Craft in Contemporary Art" will be part of the forthcoming anthology Extra/ordinary: Craft Culture and Contemporary Art (forthcoming, Duke University Press and edited by Dr. Maria Elena Buszek). Recent publications in 2010 include 'The Artist as Researcher in a Computer Mediated Culture', in Art Practices in a Digital Culture, eds. Gardiner and Gere, Ashsgate Publishing. She is co-editor of the volume Interfaces of Performance (Ashgate, 2009).