Performance, Art, and Cyber-Interoceptive Systems (PACIS) [research statement]

The human sensory system can be understood as a filtering system. Physical form and activity are perceived by the senses and translated into modulated streams of ionic current, which move through the body, via the nervous system, to the brain. Specialized brain regions receive and decipher these modulated current signals to process them for interpretation by other functionalities operating within the body (Nicholls et. al. 2012, pp. 69-182).

There are volitional and non-volitional (autonomic) aspects to our bodies. We can consciously and intentionally stimulate motor neurons, which innervate muscle fibres, to move our bodies. Other processes, like heart rate, digestion and perspiration are primarily involuntary. Some actions, like breathing, are subject to both subconscious and conscious control (Ibid. pp. 383-528). Our conscious thought rests upon an emotional sea, and our emotions are linked to autonomic processes in our bodies. Our mood, which stimulates our conscious thought, influences our perception because our emotional substrate acts as a neurological filter as well (Lewis 2000; Cacciopo 2000).

The medium established by our physiological state therefore is pivotally important. The manner in which we generate conscious thought is dependent upon our emotional state. Emotional state is reflected in autonomic processes, within the body, that are related to our physiological state (Izard 1991). William James described the mental aspect of emotion, emotional feeling, as subject to underlying physiological state and not vice-versa (James 1890). Antonio Damasio has described emotion as ‘the ever changing landscape of the body’ (Damasio 1994). Significant scientific research has shown that the only way we can consciously access the emotional brain is through interoception (Bessel van der Kolk 2014).

We seek to explore how technology can help us expose and augment non-volitional, autonomic processes of the body using performers who have developed advanced interoceptive awareness. The advantage in using these performers is that they are accustomed to being observed and have an ability to recreate emotional states. Our desire is to employ bioinformatic sensing to create regulatory feedback systems, inspired by cybernetic theory, in order to optimize heightened presence in the pursuit of new forms of embodied performance, embodied human computer interaction, and embodied cognition. We use the term ‘cyber-interoceptive systems’ to describe a feedback connection between performer, computer, other performers, the audience, and the environment facilitated by bioinformatic sensors.

Bioinformatic sensors are a special class of sensors that track heart rate, muscular movement, eye movement, skin temperature and breathing (Picard 2001). Recent research in bioinformatics suggests that it is possible to generate reasonably solid, actionable vectors to indicate the real-time emotional state of an individual using a layering of complex data sets sourced from physiological variables that contribute to an individual’s emotional valence (range of pleasant to unpleasant) and arousal (range of activation and deactivation) (Lang 1993; Cacciopo 2000; Scherer 2005; Chanel 2006; Stickel 2009; Nicolaou 2011; Koelstra 2012). Arousal and valence data of a performer can be used to develop co-collaborative applications that help us increase our somatic awareness, make mediated emotive and somatic connections with each other, mediate the bi-directional emotive connection of a performer with an audience, and help mediate the affect of an individual within an environment.

Much of the inspiration for incorporating cybernetics into this work has come from N. Katherine Hayles’ book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Hayles 2008) where she describes the rise of human-machine integration through the history of cybernetics, an interdisciplinary pursuit of a general science of the workings of the human mind (Hayles 2008). Norbert Wiener, a pioneer in the field of cybernetics, describes cybernetics as “the study of the communication and control of regulatory feedback both in living beings and machines, and in combinations of the two” (Wiener 1948). Hayles’ book provides a critique of technology as moving us culturally away from a natural self, to a disembodied self, losing subjectivity as our intelligence is co-produced with intelligent-machines (a.k.a. the ‘posthuman condition’). The incorporation of cybernetics with interoceptive practices is done in conscious resistance to this tendency. We seek to develop systems of human-machine integration that enhance interoceptive somatic awareness, drawn from the belief that human intelligence is an embodied intelligence that is not housed in the brain, but is inclusive of the body and the environment. This view is aligned with current trends in psychology and brain science (Van der Kolk 2014; Damasio 2000).

One of the unique aspects about this project is the incorporation of the nuanced interoceptive somatic system known as The Batdorf Technique, developed by Erika Batdorf. The Batdorf Technique is a somatic education system that allows performers to access, catalogue and recreate emotional states and develop heightened presence through physiological awareness.  This work relates to literature in embodied cognition, which studies the empathic relationships between the observer and the observed that indicates that “sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion” (Singer 2009). The technique includes a carefully developed approach to the inclusion of emotional discovery during interoceptive awareness training. The technique organizes the practitioners’ access to specifically located awarenesses related to involuntary systems (breath, blood circulation, temperature, relationship to gravity, skin, etc.) that can eventually be consciously modulated to vary the kinaesthetic state being communicated. The training systematizes the full scope of a performer’s work from the early stages of interoceptive awareness to the complicated juggling of this somatic work with layers of external structure (from conscious exteroceptive musculoskeletal movement to choreography and memorized text) in the act of specific kinaesthetic communication with an audience.

The Batdorf Technique belongs to a class of somatic movement education techniques that focus on the re-education of the body to support holistic health, injury recuperation and prevention, and increased dynamic range of expression. The practice of somatics was defined and named in the 1970s by Thomas Hanna and others (Eddy 2009:5-7) influenced by forms such as Yoga and Martial Arts and based on practices originating in the early 20th century. Somatics practice draws on several fields, such as new interoceptive explorations in psychology (Ogen 2000; van der Kolk 2014; Payne 2015); body work (Rolf 1989; Rywerant & Feldenkrais 2003; Harer et. al. 2008); emotional work in actor training (Rix 1993; Schechner 2001; Adler 2002); and movement education (Hartley 1995; Hackney 2003; Groff 1995), including moving between these sub-areas. The Batdorf Technique is a unique somatic movement practice, in that it 1) encourages the full range of human physical and emotional experience and expression; 2) has systematized the process of a performer’s development from fundamentals in interoceptive awareness to then simultaneously also juggling sensory information, such as eye contact, spoken text and/or choreography and observation (audiences); and 3) has a structured approach to training practitioners to repeat at will various emotional states for performance while being observed (for performance).

This interdisciplinary research-creation project will result in works that integrate computational arts and performance. Computational art describes the development and use of interactive technologies that incorporate audio-visual and sound software for the creation of artistic exhibits and performances. The bridging of computational arts and performance practice has a long history that includes works of such pioneers in the field as Laurie Anderson (Howell & Anderson 1992) and Stelarc (Smith 2005). The bulk of existing work in computational arts performance is primarily gesture-based and relies on kinetic interfaces using a variety of sensors ranging from simple (switches, slides, buttons), to complex (motion capture systems, real time 3D scanning) (Dixon 2007). Recent methods involve the use of bioinformatic techniques such as eye tracking (Bellucci et. al. 2010) and muscle movement (Electromyography/EMG) (Tanaka 2000), which are still mainly kinetically focused. There has also been a rise in work that is looking at the brain as an interface using low cost Electroencephalogram (EEG) devices that can read brainwave patterns (Pressing 1990; Tanaka 2000; Le Groux et. al. 2010; Eaton et. al. 2014). While it is possible to use EEGs for various kinds of mental state tracking, consumer level EEGs are primarily only good at detecting the differences between concentration and meditation states (Dunn et. al 1999). Works that look at the use of interoceptive methods as a means of interfacing with computational art are rare. Even fewer deal with emotive inclination as driver in dance or theatre contexts. The newness of this research presents a unique and novel opportunity to develop systems that integrate aesthetic experience and affect with usability and interface that can be used to develop a collaborative creative suite of tools and applications that are able to anticipate the inclination of the performer/artist/designer in real time.

PACIS 2016

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