Brain-Wave-Reading Technology Creates Amazing, Thought-Provoking Art

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Jan. 7 2014 9:45 AM

Reading the Artist’s Mind

Lisa Park uses EEG technology to create performance pieces that reflect her brain activity.

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The second piece in this trilogy of self-control and anxiety, “Le Violon d’Lisa,” is the most narrative. In it, she has modified a cello bow so that it creates sound when it comes in contact with skin that has a very small amount of electrical current running through it. The piece begins with her body being unveiled and a male performer beginning to play music on her exposed back after putting her head into his shoulder, much as one would an actual cello. Park’s body is played in that way for a while, until she begins to act like a living person and eventually plays herself. She transforms from an object into a human with agency.

With Eunoia, she closes the loop. She doesn’t just have agency—she exhibits control. She has opted for stillness. She’s choosing to seek her own goals, not what her audience wants from her performance. The audience might want to see drama: water jumping and shaking and exploding, as if powered by a sort of telekinesis. But that’s not what she pursues.

That said, Park explains that it’s not so simple just to ignore the audience. She spent three months practicing with the EEG sensor, the speakers, and the water. By the end, she was able to create stillness in the water. “When I was by myself, it was easier,” she said. During performances, it gets much harder. Having other people around makes her nervous. She responds to their presence. She can get there, but it takes her longer and she can’t hold it.

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She’s performed “Eunoia” three times: first at the spring 2013 show for NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, then at the digital arts space 319 Scholes in April, and finally at “Art from the Heart 2013” at a Gowanus Loft. “If I do this again,” she told us, “I think the ideal would be to do it for five or six hours. There I would reach a point where I am in the zone.”

These works, she told me, initially explored the limits placed on women with her upbringing. Now, however, she says, “I realized last year that it is myself who is putting those limits.” Park is not the only artist who has found that using technology to augment introspection helps yield insights.

When I met Brent Hoff, one of the architects behind the “Rage Balloons,” he told me several similar stories. In one, a young woman said she would definitely win the balloon contest because she was so angry at an ex-boyfriend. Once she was strapped in, though, she couldn’t muster even the faintest inflation on her balloon. Afterward, she told Hoff that she’d realized she wasn’t angry with him. She just thought she was.

It won’t be long before more people—not just artists—will be able to create their own methods of transmuting brainwaves and emotions into real world manifestations. In fact, two engineers have a Kickstarter for the first completely open-source EEG platform, allowing users to get pure data and feed it back out into anything they want, any way they want.

How long before we start to see more pedestrian applications of this data? For example, managers could use EEG sensors to tell them which of their employees really stay focused throughout the day and which ones let their minds endlessly wander. It’s not quite machine-assisted telepathy, but it’s getting there.

Lisa Park may continue to ride the cutting edge of this technology. She has already begun exploring other ways to take readings of her own emotions and physically manifest them. For Park, however, the technology is only a tool, one that facilitates a new level of introspection, yielding personal and artistic growth.

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