He was the winner of the ARCO/BEEP International Fair prize of the contemporary art Arco of Madrid, Brainloop is a performative platform which uses a brain-computer interface (BCI system) which allows a subject to use electronic instruments with the mere imagination of the motion of their limbs. In the case of a tetraplegic subject, the commands visualized only mentally don’t transform into effective movements because they are blocked in the cortico-spinal level.
The BCI interface were discussed for long in the recent period with that mix of esoteric curiosity and misbelief which usually are limited to the science and technology sectors which involve mind and body: modality of neurological communication between brain and electronic interface, BCI systems allow a real communication but not muscular with the help of the computer and a series of multimedia contents (audio, video, text) inside them and also distributed in Internet and likely on eventual online platforms. And everything is strictly in real time. With the BCI Graz developed by the centre of research in Graz , the imagination of gestures such as the movement of the right hand, the left hand or that of feet, transforms into a not muscular signal of communication in order to diffuse messages and commands in the outside world.
In brainloop therefore the subject/performer Markus Rapp is able to explore urban areas and rural landscapes with the motory imagination of his limbs while he travels the world in Google Earth selecting locations and choosing the position and the angulation of the virtual camera. During his travel the system memorizes every data regarding the movements of the virtual world. This sequence of images is re-proposed in the second phase of the performance while Rapp, always using the BCI, builds a soundscape ad hoc selecting and manipulating audio file in real time.
The aesthetic and emotive realization of Brainloop completes the beginning path started by Davide Grassi with the project Brainscore, adding important elements for a live performance, the same that many media artist disregard on an international level when they move with too easy manners from one media to another and from a type of fruition to another. I want to honour Davide for the “sensibility” with whom he manages to mix in Brainloop every ingredients of the scientific research, of the experimentation and of the scenography yield of the live, the audiovisual space of the performance and the typical elements of Net of the most original “connected live art”. I want to speak with Davide Grassi even if we have little time for this interview, both to honour him of the important price received and for the curiosity of knowing more about brainloop.
Marco Mancuso: can you tell me about Brainloop? How was born the idea, how it is composed and how it is in its live components?
Davide Grassi: the Brainloop idea was born from the inspiration of other projects realized between the end of the 90s and the beginning of this decade, for example Nuclear Body and Brainscore-Incorporeal communication. Nuclear Body was realized in collaboration with the Isitute Oncology of Lubiana using the radioisotopic scanning, a technique used in the field of the nuclear medicine which exploits the ability of decline of some radioactive isotopes for the valutation of the state of an organ of the human body giving the image on the screen of the pc. We try to deploy this technique to copy and stick the artist’s body from a physical reality to a digital one creating a virtual double. Brainscoer was instead a performative platform which allows two operators to communicate in virtual environments administering a flux of information (audio-visual messages) without using conventional codes such as gestures and languages. The result was reached combining the neurofeedback technology and a eye tracking system for the activation and dthe administration of commands on a console in front of each performer.
The result was exciting but we don’t eliminate the physical participation of the performer in the administration of the own avatar. The operator must move the eyes in order to deploy the eye-tracking system. Moreover, the received data from the electroencephalogram of the operator, still having a direct influence on the manifestation in virtual reality, wasn’t controllable in a voluntary way. Brainscore was a project that, even if visionary, was realized completely within the artistical field with every limits that it has involved.
Then some years later, I saw a practical demonstration of the BCI system (Brain Computer Interface) which allows a subject to operate electronic devices with the mere imagination of the motion of their limbs and I thought to make further steps towards the perfection of those aims that in Brainscore were not still reached.
Marco Mancuso: tell us of the use of the BCI interface, with these interface were made many advances above all in the therapeutic applications for tetraplegic people, giving them an instrument to dialogue with a pc and so to communicate. How do our project Brainloop operate technically, explain us how your performer can choose the movements of the camera and in GE and also how it chooses sounds or audio patterns to use in the performance. I ask myself how high is the level of concentration of the performer to not send mistaken signals to the interface.
Davide Grassi: Brainloop uses the BCI interface studied at the lab of interface brain-computer of Graz . This BCI uses a not invasive technique such as the electroencephalograph (EEG) to register, filter and isolate specific electric signals of the brain and then they are transmitted outside and transformed in commands to a computer, are those that are evident when an intention of movement is created. This happens little before that the movement is effectively made. In other words they are signals which refer to the simple will to make a movement. Markus Rapp, the operator of Brainloop, uses 3 different thoughts for managing the whole performance: the feet movement, that of the left hand and that of the right hand. This allows him, in the first phase of the performance to give 3 key commands which are respectively scroll, select and back.
Activating the scroll command at the level 1 of the first phase runs a tape on which appears the 5 continents. The performer not thinking at one specific movement, stops the tape and activating the select command (imaging to move the left hand) selects the continent he wants to visit. The virtual camera of GE moves on that continent and on the console of the operator appears the relative panel for the level 2 which is the same of the level 1 apart from the fact that the running tape now contains portions of the chosen continent.
Following the described modality for the choice of the continent, the operator now could ask what part of the continent he wants to explore and the camera of GE will move on the selected area. In the level 3 it will be chose the country exactly.
With the back command (imagine to move the right hand) we come back to the previous level. Beyond the three principal commands there are other two of them which are activated combining the physical movements of the feet with the left or right hand. The first combination of thought (feet-left hand) activate the show borders command which makes the borders visible in GE while the second combination (feet-right hand) makes the name of the city appear. If these commands were already activated before then the available commands of the operator are hide borders and hide cities in order to make these two features of GE invisible.
In the scroll bar of the level 4 there are the virtual camera which are Scan, Move, Pan, Tilt and Zoom. The tape of the commands moves always thinking to move the feet and then the thought of movement of the left or right hand will define if the camera will move to right or left (if we choose Scan or Pan) ahead or behind (if we choose Move) and up or down (with Camera and Tilt). The virtual camera of GE will execute the given command. The coordinates of all the locations visited during the first phase are memorized. This process is visible from the bar Recorded data which is in the low part of the console.
When the system gathered a sufficient quantity of data we pass at the second phase of the performance when the locations of Gee investigated before are reproposed while the performer created the soundscape always exploiting the BCI. And so on the console appear 9 soundtracks. 4 are of time, 4 of setting sounds and one, called local, contains sounds, loop and sample tied to the continent or the country which GE is showing in a given moment. This track therefore changes contents (which are found again in a casual way from a database) in comparison with the movements of the GE camera.
Thinking at the movement of the feet, Markus chooses a track and imaging the movement of the left hand activates or disactivates it. Once the track is activated the Adjust command, which is activated thinking at the movement of the right hand, is available. Selecting it we reach the second level of the console which allows to adjust the different effects (Reverb, Equalization, Frequency, Chorus, Delay and Pitch Shift) if a time track or a parameter or a setting track is activated. Every effects or parameters are operative on a scale from 0 to 10 and it is gifted of a Mute/Unmute independent taste.
The effect or the parameter is chosen among the different opportunities thanks to the imagination of the movement of the feet, then, thinking at the movement of the left and right hand we handle the increase (increase command) and the decrease (decrease command) of the effect or parameter. Mute/Unmute is activated with the combination of thought feet-left hand while feet-right hand corresponds to the back command which brings to the complete vision and to the status of the 9 soundtracks. Both in phase one and two the operator is represented on the console from an icon (a square face with the electrodes in text) at the centre of the quadrant. The available commands are collocated as a halo around this icon. When the operator thinks at the movement of a particular limb, it reveals itself on a graphic level, from the appearance of a symbol of that limb inside a balloon near the face and moreover from the appearance of a sketched line which connects this to the icon tied with the activated command.
The level of precision of BCI Graz is more than 90% and it is enough for an artistic performance such as brainloop but it hasn’t yet a full reliability for a more commercial application of BCI.
Marco Mancuso: you are famous in the world of new media art as an artist who prefers expressing himself with a multidisciplinary technological interpretation towards the net and its derivation inside the software art. Even if you go on experimenting with media and technological means, with brainloop you abandon for a moment the virtual context of Internet in order to concentrate better on a performative discourse. What did you inspire in the creation of brainloop?
Davide Grassi: I don’t know if I am more popular in the world of new media art or in any other context because of the nature of my work, that is beyond intermedia also multidisciplinary this is because I don’t love only one type of expression, of a kind or different realities rather than repeat the same system even if it is winning. During the last years with my artistic work, I confronted myself directly with oncologists and other doctors, with macroeconomists, operators of the stock exchange and experts of marketing, beyond with hackers, programmers, theorists, performers, musicians, designers, directors and various artists. The performative aspect is recurrent in a great part of my work, it’s enough to think at I need Money to be an Artist, Brainscore, Problemarket.com, Silent Cell Network, Brainloop and Re:akt!, while the use of the Net has often a supporting functions, an essential complement at the work.
Coming back to Brainloop, I would say the performative aspect was unavoidable, it was there also before because from the very beginning we want to exploit the opportunity of the BCI to give orders using the only power of thought. Therefore we need a thinker, a performer
Marco Mancuso: in the same time, in Brainloop you keep a close dialogue between the real and virtual component, between the live and software elements thank to the use of GE and also to a general atmosphere which makes as collage between the performer and the audience, a sort of play between the real works, typical of a performance, and the recording and setting of landscapes coming from a virtual navigation in the net spaces. We don’t forget that the same images captured by the software of Google, are obviously satellite images and so real. These references between real and virtual seem to be one of the key of a project of this type what do you think about it?
Davide Grassi: sure, the dialogue between the live and software elements is very close in this job, or better it is interconnected. The references between real and virtual on the consequence of the fact that I don’t like exploring these world in a separated way. I am more interested in the intersection point of these two realities. It was already evident in Brainscore where the flux of information goes from the physical space of the performance to the virtual one (from the performers to the avatars) and then it goes back to the audience (from the avatars to the audience). In this sense the avatars took the role of mediators of the information behaving like a virtual filter between the performers and the audience. These follow the development of the performance in RV, projected with the stereo on a great screen with the help of glasses with polarized lens which allow the 3D perception. So the avatars appeared to the audience like threedimensional figures, almost touchable in the physical space between the two performers contributing to the perception of an interzone of coexistence between the physical and virtual reality suggesting a very effective identification of the operator with their avatar.
Marco Mancuso: how was born the collaboration with the experts who help you with the technical realization of Brainloop? I mean, how did you compare yourself with the scientist of Graz for the BCI interface, with a sound designer, a performer and a programmer? How did you gain the neurological knowledge to coordinate such a work?
Davide Grassi: after having attended a practical exhibition of BCI Graz, I asked a date with the prof. Gert Pfurtscheller who was the chief of the lab of interface brain-computer of Graz . During the meeting I described him the Brainscore project, created some years ago using a neurofeedback system and what I would like to do with BCI Graz. The professor was surprised by my idea and accepted immediately the collaboration. He gave me many books (from which was created a sum up in the research section of the web page of the project) and he put me in touch with Reinhold Scherer who became the real collaborator of the Brainloop project. I acquired the neurological knowledge with the Brainscore project, but the lecture of Pfurtscheller and above all the verbal specifications of Reinhold gave me further information which allows me to deepen the topic.
I have already worked with Brane Zorman, the sound designer, and Suncia Hermansson, the programmer, in previous projects. I knew their abilities well and what they can offer to the project. In the first phases I organized separated meetings with everyone and I went alone to Graz once every two months to meet Reinhold and Seppo Gruendler, the coordinator of Vision Space, the space where the performance was hosted. When the financial frame was clearer allowing me to establish more exactly how the project will develop, I began to organize meeting of group with collective expeditions in Graz every month. We began to see the results with Markus Rapp, the performer only some months before the official presentation in public.
Imagen © Co-producción: cankarjev dom
Marco Mancuso: you are very careful at the space of sound and of images in the performative environment, this is the most important and hot theme in the context of the modern multimedia performances. In the description of the project you speak of sensorial three-dimensional immersity of the audience, obtained not only with images but also with a 5.1 device whose sounds are manipulated in real time by the performer with the BCI interface and so without physical movements and without playing nothing. How important was for you this element and what was the consequence of this?
Davide Grassi: in Brainloop the most important aspect wasn’t the sensorial immersity but the use of cerebral impulses for the controlled and voluntary administration of the events in the virtual reality. I considered also the importance and the impact which the space of sound and the three-dimensional perception of the images could have for the performance but I didn’t make it as the main problem for the development of the project. The aspect of the space of sound was reorganized in comparison with what should be initially. In a first moment, Brainloop should be performed in CUBE, a space within IEM (Istitute of Electronic Music of Graz) prepared for the space of sounds around all three the axis x, y, z. then for different reasons, we renounce to this option making shift with a simple surround 5.1.
Marco Mancuso: in short, you as an artist with a project like Brainloop, supported by an organism such as Akisome, are more interested at the experimentation between aesthetic audiovisual languages, the available technologies, the design of the interactivity and the multimedia instruments or you are more concentrated on a preciser direction of your artistic form, so that the new media art can dialogue with the contemporary art, its institutions and its churches? This is a present theme in many international festivals and I want to know your opinions
Davide Grassi: I am interested in 2 aspects. I don’t believe that one excludes the other. It is clear that in Brainloop the experimentation aspect of the aesthetic languages and of the technologies occupies a more relevant part rather than the dialogue with the contemporary art. But in my work I don’t exclude anything and I believe it’s important to stimulate the points of contact between some experiences of experimentation and the traditional way of the contemporary art, its institutions and its churches. I also believes that the artistic work isn’t only selfreferential and it manages to have a relation of effective exchange, with the more different fields and spheres which make the contemporary society.