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.

"eunoia"
Lisa Park in the performance piece “Eunoia.” The headpiece is not conveying anything to her directly. It’s reading her.

Video still courtesy Lisa Park/Vimeo

This article originally appeared on OMNI Reboot.

So you show up at an art gallery one day, not really sure what to expect. You pass through the rooms. White walls. Canvasses. Statues. Some of it grabs you. A lot of it doesn’t. Then you enter another room and, besides some more wall hangings, you see five bowls of water sitting on the floor.

Each bowl sits on some sort of electronic device. Wires run out from beneath them. As you’re trying to make sense of all this, a young woman in a full-length smock walks out from behind the bowls and moves into their center. She’s barefoot. What strikes you most, though, is that she’s wearing a strange headpiece, a cross between Google Glass and recording studio headphones, yet no part of it reaches her ears or eyes.

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She sits on her heels in the center of the five bowls and looks at them. Strange sounds rumble out from beneath the bowls, and the water begins to respond to the sounds. At first, it simply quivers. As you watch, however, a deeper sound makes the water in one bowl or another hop up, even splash. The young woman isn’t saying anything. She alternates between looking at one of the bowls in front of her and closing her eyes. She just sits there as the sounds change. The water alternates between still and rippling, and the sound moves between a low drone and sharp charges.

The young woman is Lisa Park. The performance is called “Eunoia.” The headpiece is not conveying anything to her directly. Instead, it’s reading her. It’s a NeuroSky MindWave transmitting data about her brainwaves via Bluetooth back to a computer, where a program takes the brainwave data and translates it into sounds played on the speakers set beneath the dishes of water.

For Park, the goal of the piece is to exercise control over her own mind, to make her mind so still and so calm that there’s nothing for the EEG sensor to read. Ideally, the water is still. The speakers are silent. She has attained total self-control.

It’s just the opposite of another recent art piece called “The Emotional Arcade.” In “The Arcade,” artists Brent Hoff and Alexander Reben use different devices to measure emotional states and encourage people to compete to see who can feel it the most. So, for example, similar EEG technology is used to fill “Rage Balloons,” where participants compete to make themselves as angry as possible. What viewers see are balloons blowing up as the EEG readings inform how much air gets pumped in. The person to get angriest the fastest “wins.”

Park’s work heads in the opposite direction, using technology to aid introspection—not to facilitate chaotic emotions. She says that stillness “has been an ongoing theme” in her work, “something I am always interested in and trying to find. Sometimes I feel like my emotion is too much. It is all around me.” One of the ironies of “Eunoia,” she tells us, is that the audience likes it when the water jumps and splashes. When she struggles and fails to reach the goal of the piece—total stillness—that’s when viewers have something to see.

The piece demonstrates how, in the mind, calm is the heaviest lift. It may be more exciting to visualize frenetic thought, but an absence of thought takes more work to attain. Like the disconnect between viewers’ interest and Park’s goals, language creates an irony between the mind and body. It’s harder for the body to exert itself and easier to rest, but the opposite is true for the mind. Yet both are described in the same terms: "rest" and "calm" vs. "exertion" and "activity."

“Eunoia” is the third in a trilogy of technology-driven performances expressing Park’s feelings about herself and the context of her upbringing. It’s interesting to see the narrative these three pieces create—and how effectively they evoke a future in which we are all awash in our own data.

In the first piece, “Obsession Is a Sad Passion,” Park shuts her head into a large bubble full of butterflies. She doesn’t know why, but Park has always been afraid of butterflies. Locked inside this bubble with butterflies flitting about her face, trying to escape, she stands there, trapped with her fears. Meanwhile, a recording is played: a short story by Patrick Suskind about a young artist driven to suicide by the expectations of the people around her.

The recording is governed by a heart rate monitor attached to Park. If she lets her fear of the butterflies increase her heart rate, the sound of the recording gets lower and slows down. If she’s calm, it remains normal. In this piece, Park is victimized by her own work and must try to master the fears to which she has exposed herself.

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