Biometric sensors, made cheaply available by do-it-yourself (DIY) prototyping platforms such as Arduino, allow a shift away from visual interfaces to proprioceptive interfaces, away from the touch of a finger and towards a more internal, embodied form of sensing. One possible effect of this shift is away from the command-control methodology which was a historical basis for cybernetics, and towards a form of modulation and cooperation akin to intersubjectivity. In this paper, we will consider recent writings on interface relevant to the shift from external to internal, or from haptic to organic, discuss our experiences creating and using them, and explore some of the implications of this shift.
As an illustrative example, we will discuss our work technésexual, a performance where we commit erotic acts in physical and virtual space simultaneously, using heart rate and temperature sensors to amplify and modulate the sound of our heart beats for two audiences. This performance explores how relations between people, and between people and technology, change in Mixed Reality environments. technésexual uses the body as a musical instrument to produce sound with the Puredata programming language, in order to bridge the physical performance space and the 3-dimensional multi-user virtual environment of Second Life. The sounds of our heart beats are also sent into Second Life and emanate from our avatars as they too commit erotic acts. This performance involves what we call an “organic interface”, or a physical interface which responds to one’s organs. Erotic touch becomes a way to activate the body and change its internal state.
2. Considering Interfaciality
Much recent writing about interface is concerned with the shifts in interface design enabled by new technologies. In her book Materializing New Media, Anna Munster writes that the focus on the face, representing instrumental rationality, has reinforced the mind/body split, and that this currently shapes much of interface design. She argues that there is a need for new media artists to expand interface design to incorporate much more of the human body, in order to allow for greater expressivity, but also greater potential for transformative experience. Munster uses examples such as Rokeby‘s Very Nervous System, an audio interface controlled by movement, and Char Davies’ Osmose, a virtual reality interface controlled by breath [Munster 2006].
She highlights the move towards an invisible interface, where the interface becomes an undefined space for experience. Munster states that “we need to radically rethink the interface in our modes of realizing our relations with the machine as the point of both contact surface and disappearance of the space of difference between humans and computers.” [Munster 2006] The organic interface in technésexual demonstrates this “disappearance” by internalizing the interface.
One of our main motivations with technésexual was to move beyond the focus on the visual in mixed and augmented reality applications. Alexander Galloway‘s recent essay “The Unworkable Interface” considers the trend towards the invisibility of interfaces. Galloway’s writing has explored the shift from a disciplinary society as described by Michel Foucault to a control society as described by Gilles Deleuze. The move to a control society is precisely the internalization and embodiment of power. Galloway writes that “windows, doors, airport gates, and other thresholds”, examples of types of interfaces, controlling access to spaces, “are those transparent devices that achieve more the less they do: for every moment of virtuosic immersion and connectivity… the threshold becomes one notch more invisible” [Galloway 2009].
Discussing the example of World of Warcraft‘s complex interface, he proposes that to imagine an interface as something transparent is to oversimplify it and to ignore that there is an internal aspect of the interface itself, an internal relation, an “intraface”. Galloway’s analysis is important to our own thinking of organic interfaces in that our goal is not to create a totally transparent way of interacting with virtual worlds, but instead to open up new potentials for understanding and experiencing the body. Instead of abandoning the tradition of performance art using the body as a medium by moving towards virtual bodies, we seek to expand that tradition by finding rich interfaces in-between the physical and virtual bodies. The notion of intraface underscores the power relations implicit in the form of an interface, implying that more liberatory structures can be imagined.
The visual component of virtual experiences has been over developed to the detriment of our many other senses, both exteroceptive, interoceptive and proprioceptive. If we consider the many dimensions of our awareness of the internal state of our bodies, including not only balance and muscle positioning, but also stretch receptors in our muscles, we can begin to open a vast new possibility for interface design.
3. Previous Experiments with Physical Interfaces
Initially, the idea to use heart rate monitors came from a public conversation between Stelarc and Cárdenas in which Stelarc stated that “avatars have no organs”. [Cárdenas 2009] We found this statement to be problematic, implying a clean separation between the physical body and the avatar body. In a way, our initial idea for technésexual was to create “avatars with organs”.
Our interest in using DIY electronics emerged out of our previous work using different technologies to map positionality, including a Nintendo Wii and motion capture. In Mehrmand‘s sextrument, a live durational performance where she masturbated for one hour, with a Nintendo Wii remote controller, she explored this notion of embodied interface. The accelerometer sensor in the Wii-mote measured the speed and intensity of her hand movement, which sent messages to MaxMSP, altering the sound of her voice. Behind a door, she invited viewers to look through a peephole, evoking anxiety and states of desire. She found the Wii-mote interface problematic as it was cumbersome.
In Becoming Dragon Cárdenas lived for 365 hours continuously in Second Life wearing a head mounted display and markers which were tracked by a Vicon motion capture system, mapping her movements onto a dragon avatar in Second Life. The Vicon system was a frequent source of frustration, as the software was proprietary and unreliable. Motion capture also predisposed viewers to expect a literal one-to-one relation between her body and her avatar’s, which felt limiting. From these experiences, we decided to focus on using cheaply accessible electronics components, combining shared interests in performance, the body, and desire.
4. Creating Organic Interfaces: Embodied Experimentation and Surprise
In its first analog rendition, technésexual was performed at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics in Bogotá, Colombia. Even this low-tech version of the performance introduced us to a new level of intimacy with each other and a new knowledge about each other’s bodies. We attached a piezo sensor, acting as a contact microphone, to a stethoscope. Experimenting with the piezo, we could hear each other’s heartbeats for the first time. We realized that many people might go through their lives without hearing the sound of their heart beat, or their lovers’ heart beat, that this was knowledge which had been kept to doctors.
Subsequent performances relied on a Polar heart rate monitor using an electrocardiogram, which worked through wet contact of the skin near the heart. The sensor detects the electrical pulse that creates a heart beat and sends this data wirelessly to a polar receiver module. We soldered a bridge circuit so that this module could communicate with our Freeduino and Arduino using the I2C interface. The Arduino code, in a language based on C, must initiate communication and periodically request an array of data. One element of this array is a number representing the current beats per minute. The next component of our heart monitor interface is a USB connection to our computers. Our arduino code sends the current heart rate over the USB serial port of our computers, and a patch in the Puredata graphical programming language listens to the serial port.
This is accomplished using the comport object in Puredata-extended, and sending the heart rate to a sampler loop which plays a recording of our heartbeat at the current rate. Finally, the sound output from Puredata is routed through a Presonus Firebox into the microphone input of Second Life using voice chat from each of our avatars, allowing the audio to be spatially located in Second Life as emanating from our avatars and causing the voice intensity indicator above their heads to pulse with a green glow.
A recent performance of technésexual at the Nevada Museum of Art included a temperature based touch sensor. Using a thermisistor, we are able to detect when one performer touches the other’s body. This data is used to modulate the pitch of the heart rate up, controlling the sound by means of sensual touch. In this way our bodies become instruments, comparable to the way bagpipes have a drone, a continuous sound of air passing through the reeds, while having a chanter which can control the pitch (usually set two octaves higher than the drone) to play a melody.[Baines 1979] In technésexual one can hear our heart rates at the actual rate continuously (the drone), in addition to hearing that same sample modulated at a higher pitch using the temperature sensors (the chanter) creating a new kind of interface for music making. The drone of the bagpipes is heard as long as the musician is pumping the bellows, the same way that our heart beat is played as long as we are plugged in.
Our initial expectations were challenged through experimentation with the devices. We found that our heart rates when performing were considerably higher than at rest, and surprisingly when we begin kissing, our heart rates go down. At first, we wrote the Puredata patch to work correctly with our resting heart rates observed in our studios, 65-70 for Cárdenas and 75-80 for Mehrmand. Yet when we did our performance with the devices at the annual GLAMFA exhibit, we found that our starting heart rates were between 105-115, causing noticeable audio glitches. After which we rewrote the patch to accommodate the higher heart rate by scaling the length of the playback to fit the current rate. Still, as the duration of the piece unfolds, from 15 to 30 minutes, we discovered minute changes in our heart rates, up or down at particular moments, such as touches to our body parts or removing particular pieces of clothing. We end the performance naked and the amplification of our internal organs’ states adds more depth to our degree of exposure, exposing what cannot be seen.
5. Erotic Touch
By performing technésexual, we found that organic interfaces can add intimacy to a performance, and not just increased intimacy, but different forms of it. We wanted to continue our practices of durational performance art and relational performance, engaging the dynamics of our own intimate relationship. Inspired by the work of such artists as Marina Abramovic and Ulay, as well as Shu Lea Cheang and Lygia Clark, we created instruments that allowed us to both be in mixed reality simultaneously and to create sound with the interaction of our bodies. Using erotic touch, kissing, we activated our organs directly, using our skin itself as a touch based interface.
Through this process, we gained a different kind of understanding of our own intimate states, that of a deep comfort and relaxation, beyond our original conception of excitement. The audience is also invited to a deeper form of intimacy, with entirely new strata of connection between the viewer and the performer, as the interior of the performers’ bodies becomes part of the audience’s multi-sensory experience.
Audience members have described the performance to us as intense, as putting them in a trance and as making them sweat. We could also think of this work as creating erotic interfaces, as their use requires an intimate knowledge of one’s body, close attention to the state of the body and an increased intimacy between the performers, the technology and the audience.
Through organic interfaces, we are opening up the liminal space of performance, making the performers’ and the audiences’ bodies porous and intermingled, encouraging an escape from subject-object, performer-audience or controller-controlled relationships.
6. Intersubjective Somatic Architecture
Another example of internalized interfaces has been proposed by Ricardo Dominguez, who has written that capitalism is shifting from multinational capitalism towards “particle capitalism or nano driven-technology.” [Dominguez 2010]. He proposes that this shift is accompanied by a move from interface towards introjection, or the introjection of the interface. In this new condition the somatic architecture becomes part of the system of production. Dominguez is part of a collaboration called the Particle Group investigating this shift. On the Particle Group website, Dominguez writes, “her left breast was now selling almost all paclitaxel* 10 particles as the matter market cycle hit a high value exchange. “How small can anything be?”… Her left breast was fading with each of the trespasses of her trans_patents the cancer had been metastatic till now.” [Dominguez 2006].
Such imaginings imply a possible future for organic interfaces in which people’s organs are the site of production, and nanofactories in our own bodies enact a will other than our own, troubling notions of bodily autonomy. Perhaps organic interfaces made by artists can foster critical thinking about their implications and allow their future to be shaped differently.
Another possibility for interfaces, outside of encouraging control, is the possibility of intersubjective interfaces, as theorists such as Sherry Turkle have discused [Harrell 2009].
One of our main inspirations for thinking about the value of intersubjective interfaces is Donna Haraway, who writes, “the partners do not precede their relating: all that is, is the fruit of becoming with.” [Haraway 2008] The concept of “becoming with” resonates with our interest in exploring our intersubjective experience of our intimate relationship using mixed reality technologies.
As we consider the future of interfaces and nano-bots which inhabit and commingle with our bodies, we can learn much from the kind of feminist values Haraway employs: cooperation, accountability and care. Haraway argues that “touch ramifies and shapes accountability… Touch, regard, looking back and becoming with– all these make us responsible in unpredictable ways for which worlds take shape.” [Haraway 2008] Still, this touch needs to be considered in all of its complexity, reframing the earlier dissapearance of difference of Munster and the outside within the inside of Galloway into an intersubjective commingling without clear distinctions or identities. Haraway does this when she considers interface:
Technologies are organs, full partners, in what Merleau-Ponty called “infoldings of the flesh.” I like the word infolding better than interface to suggest the dance of world-making encounters… Infoldings of the flesh are worldly embodiment. The word makes me see the highly magnified surfaces of cells shown by scanning electron microscopes. In those pictures, we experience in optic-haptic touch the high mountains and valleys, entwined organelles and visiting bacteria, and multiform interdigitations of surfaces we can never again imagine as smooth interfaces.
With technésexual, we have attempted to find a line of flight from our most intimate moments and the interior of our bodies, out to an audience and into the networked reality of Second Life’s multi-user environment, blurring and mixing all of these. This interface, or infolding, begins with the erotic touch of our skin and travels through a network of organs, biological and technological, to create sound in multiple realities. What is required to use it is a sense of one’s body, an ability to listen to proprioceptive sensations and a willingness to engage in intimacy. Our hope is to encourage the development of future interfaces which leave behind the expectation of control and move towards co-becoming and intersubjective symbiosis.
Baines A. 1979. Bagpipes. Oxford.
Cárdenas M. 2009. Becoming Dragon, 3 Minute Documentation. Accessed on January 2, 2010. http://vimeo.com/3874238
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Dominguez R. 2010. VR Timeline. Accessed on January 2, 2010. http://www.thing.net/~rdom/VRtime.html
Galloway A. “The Unworkable Interface.” New Literary History 39.4 (2009): 931-955. Project MUSE. 18 Nov. 2009 http://muse.jhu.edu/.
Haraway DJ. 2008. When species meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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