Perceiving through the body: A phenomenological approach to George Khut’s biofeedback interactive art | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

george-khut-drawing-breath

George Khut, The heart library project, image source: artist’s website

An omnipresence of technology and constant connectivity: our daily reality could be the realization of the cyberpunk and sci-fi visions of the 20th century. However, there was one thing that was largely absent from these u-/dys-topias and that is still here: the body. In this sense, the body-centred technology of our time couldn’t be further apart from those essentially Cartesian dreams of immaterial existence.

Taking George Khut’s interactive art as a case of study, this article deals with biofeedback technology and how perception is formed through body experience. In this sense, Khut’s art complements phenomenological and post-phenomenological readings regarding the role of the body and technology in the formation of knowledge and experience.

Philosophical views on the body: from East to West and from Cartesianism to Post-Phenomenology

The role of the body in the understanding of the Self and the surroundings has become subject of diverse philosophical and cultural approaches through time.

In the East, the body has never been left out of the picture: For Eastern philosophy the relationship of body and mind is treated as a dynamic correlation, viewing the duality of body and mind as mutually inclusive. Perception starts with the body, through breathing and interacting with the environment. Therefore, body and mind are conceived as interdependent and intertwined with each other.[1] These notions are strengthened through cultural practices in the Indian tradition, that use breath control as a way of altering consciousness.[2]

At odds with this integral view of the Self, a large part of Western thought has been built on the presumption that the cognitive process is primarily related to the brain, which is considered as separate from the body. The origins of the dichotomy between the mind and the body could be traced to ancient Greek philosophers, who highlighted the importance of the soul in the search for knowledge and discarded the body as a burden in this process, a ‘tomb for the soul’ as Plato described it.[3] The spreading of Christianity, which saw in the body a potential for sin and in the soul a potential for divinity, magnified the gap between the two.

This duality was further solidified with the dominance of Cartesianism from the 17th century and on. For René Descartes the body is an inferior ‘object’, subjugated to the power of the mind, while matter is being discarded as something inferior. So, the body cannot be a source of knowledge. For Descartes the mind is not subject to the laws of nature, as is the body; it is a nonmaterial entity, superior to the fragile shell of the body. In this sense, the body becomes the object of medical research, as a tool that needs to function perfectly or be restored to correct function, when it doesn’t. This objectification of the body is actively challenged by biofeedback, as we shall see below.

Even though the role of the senses in the building of knowledge became a strong focus in aesthetics –as we can see in Alexander Baumgarten’s philosophical queries, the presumed division of body and mind was not challenged until mid-20th century. Phenomenology focused on the perceptive power of the body and the unity of body and mind. According to Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, the only way to understand a phenomenon is to be engaged in it. Therefore perception is an active, bodily involvement with the world, rather than a distant observation from the outside.

The movements and gestures of the body, from a Merleau-Pontian point of view, are one with any thought that lies beneath them. When we reach our hand to pick up an object, thinking and reaching out are a complete and indistinguishable action, an integrated bodily performance. In a few words, intention and outcome are perceived as a whole. What becomes even more important in this theory is that the tools that we use also become an integral part of perception.[4]

Therefore, our sense of the body is not limited only to the surface of the skin, or even to the way it moves within the environment; it is extended to the tools we use[5]. In line with Heidegger’s theory that the tool becomes one with the user’s body, with a tendency to ‘disappear’ for as long as it functions correctly,[6] the phenomenological approach agrees that tools are integrated within the frame of action; a painter ‘thinks with the brush’ and similarly the computer users think with the computer interface.

Therefore, the technological tools become an extension of the body as well. When understanding the process of embodiment, it is useful to keep in mind Don Ihde’s contribution to the phenomenological positions presented above with his postphenomenological, technology-related enquiries.[7] Ihde studies all aspects of embodiment, taking into account the earthly body of phenomenology and the socially and politically constructed body of postmodern discourse; to these viewpoints he adds the idea of the body which is interactive with technology. The basic idea behind the latter is that technology becomes a mediator in the relations between people and the world:

the experience of one’s body image is not fixed but malleably extendable and/or reducible in terms of the material or technological mediations that may be embodied.[8]

Ihde concludes that

we are our bodies –but in that very basic notion one also discovers that our bodies have an amazing plasticity and polymorphism that is often brought out precisely in our relations with technologies. We are bodies in technologies.[9]

Therefore, our bodies and our relations with technologies define who we are and how we think. This is even more easily observed when focusing on technologies that are built specifically for that purpose: to aid the understanding of the body and to improve perception.

Biofeedback technologies and their role in George Khut’s interactive art

Thanks to technology, a large part of body functions that are largely unconscious can be visualized and thus brought into focus. Biofeedback means that an internal function is monitored electronically and “fed back” to the subject in audiovisual form. A useful tool for medical research, biofeedback technologies capture the data from a person’s bodily functions, measuring the slight variations in breathing, heart rate or body temperature, and subsequently transform these changes to audio-visual stimuli. As the subjects are being presented with those images, that follow their corporeal rhythm, they reach a more profound knowledge of their body, where they can even influence the behaviour measured.

George Khut’s interactive works measure the heartbeat and breathing rhythm of the participants and transform the collected data into sound and images. Thus, his work adds on the dialectic regarding the unity of body and mind, on one hand, and the integration of technology to the perception of the body, on the other hand.

His research on breath and heart rate is reflected in works such as Drawing Breath v.1 (2004) and v.2 (2005-2006), Cardiomorphologies v.1 (2004) and v.2 (2005-2006), Res’onance Body [Box] (2003) and The Heart Library (2007-2009). These works are all based on the control of audio-visual patterns on screen through breathing and heart rate, varying in the way they project the unity of body and mind.

Drawing Breath, 2004 (with John Tonkin) from George Khut on Vimeo.

Drawing Breath v.2 (2005-2006)[10] is an interactive installation activated by the breathing rhythm of the participant. Breath is captured via a sensory belt and transmitted onto a screen in the form of abstract lines, which expand during inhalation and become minimal during exhalation. The simple graphics reflect the gush of air that fills the body with each breath, forming a captivating image. The users could alter the graphics consciously by altering their breath.

An interesting dimension to the work is its breath-activated spoken word soundtrack; as the users breathe, they hear a text in Mandarin and in English, which flows according to their breathing rhythm. The voice at times counts the breaths and at times recites phrases related to breath. Via this soundtrack, the artist manifests how breath is used as a metering device during poetry recitation, whereas the counting of breaths refers to a basic tool of meditation, used as a way of training attention.[11] In addition, one should keep in mind that the influence of poetry recitation in heart rate and breathing rhythm has been demonstrated through medical research.[12]

Cardiomorphologies, 2005 at Beta_space Gallery, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia from George Khut on Vimeo.

In Cardiomorphologies V.2 (2005)[13] the visitors are invited to sit on a reclining chair, where they have their heartbeat activity monitored through a hand-held device and their breathing measured by a pressure-sensitive strap placed around the ribs. The collected data are analysed into abstract colours and circles on a screen in front of them, while the sound of their heartbeat and breathing is transmitted through headphones.

George Khut designed Cardiomorphologies v.2, considering the public’s experience within each stage of the work’s development. As he notes,

My goal through this process was to create a work that allowed participants to explore the embodied nature of their subjectivity through a detailed and sustained focus on their own breathing and heart rate patterns.[14]

That is to say, the artist is primarily concerned with helping the participants gain a new vision of their body functions, and understanding their body and mind as a whole. Thus, the work fulfilled the intention of the artist “to facilitate considerations of body-mind continuities, grounded in the reality of our moment-to-moment experience of ourselves as physiologically embodied subjectivities”.[15]

As we see from the artist’s words, George Khut also shares the phenomenological view of the unity of body and mind. What becomes striking in the reception of the work is that the participants perceived the visuals as a real reflection of their inner feelings and thoughts: for example, one of them claimed that the lights were going out when he thought about his girlfriend, or another one saw the soothing visuals as an effect of his inner calmness. There were users that tried to control the visuals by altering their breathing, describing the process as a ‘joyful experience’, while some others noted that the rhythm of the visuals had an impact on their breathing.[16]

The Heart Library Project: St. Vincent’s Public Hospital, Sydney from George Khut on Vimeo.

In The Heart Library Project (2008)[17] biofeedback technology returns to the place where it is usually applied: the installation took place in a hospital, manifesting the connection between the state of the mind and the body in a particularly prominent way. In this interactive installation, the participants would rest on a bed, with their heart rate monitored; initially, they would look onto a reflection of themselves on the ceiling, which would become gradually altered by ripples –as if it were reflected on the surface of water- and by a multi-layered field of coloured spots. These changes reflect the changes in the heart rhythm of the participants, inviting them to contemplate on the link between their emotional state and subtle physical changes in the body and challenging them to control the interaction by evoking different kinds of memories. After the interactive experience, the participants could share their experience by participating in a hand painted experience map. As the description of the project stresses, “The Heart Library Project celebrates the human body as a felt experience – a body informed by life experiences, worldly relations, and personal motivations.”[18]

The place of the installation is significant; in hospitals the body often becomes objectified as it scanned, observed and analysed during medical exams –viewed as something separate from the thoughts and feelings of the person being examined. On the contrary, in Khut’s installation the participant has a certain control over the action and the installation becomes a bridge between the body and the mind. This way, the work of art can help through the healing process.

In a way, these artworks showcase how one can understand the body through technological means, by controlling its functions. This could be viewed as an extension of diverse cultural practices –meditation, breath control, yoga – that were also focused on altering consciousness through the control of bodily functions.[19] The experience of biofeedback interactive art, as the reception of Khut’s art has shown us, could be a potent tool in the understanding of the Self, by aiding the understanding of the body, opening new roads of communication between users, and creating a new vision of one’s surroundings. As biofeedback art reaches a wider public in the form of wearable technologies and mobile applications, our ‘bodies in technologies’ constantly re-define the methods of perception and discover new paths for knowledge.

 

George Khut’s ‘The Heart Library Project’ will be presented in the exhibition, Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, FACT Liverpool, 5 March 2015 – 17 May 2015.

More information about the artist: http://georgekhut.com/

 

[1] Âli Yurtsever; Umut Burcu Tasa. “Redefining the Body in Cyberculture: Art’s Contribution to a New Understanding of Embodiment”, in Daniel Riha; Anna Maj (eds.), The Real and the Virtual: Critical Issues in Cybercultures, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2009, p.5.

[2] See Grammatikopoulou, Christina (2013), Encounters on the Borders of the Immaterial: Body, Technology and Visual Culture. Art and Breath (1970-2012), Barcelona: University of Barcelona [online] <http://art-breath.com/immaterial-culture.pdf>

[3] Âli Yurtsever; Umut Burcu Tasa. “Redefining the Body in Cyberculture: Art’s Contribution to a New Understanding of Embodiment”, in Daniel Riha; Anna Maj (eds.), The Real and the Virtual: Critical Issues in Cybercultures, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2009, p.4.

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge, 2005.

[5] Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, “Art and Embodiment: Biological and Phenomenological Contributions to Understanding Beauty and the Aesthetic” in Contemporary Aesthetics, V.3, 2005. [online] <http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=291>

[6] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (A translation to Sein und Zeit), New York: State University of New York Press, 1996 (1953) pp. 69-70.

[7] Don Ihde, Postphenomenology and Technoscience, New York: Suny Press 2009, pp.38-44.

[8] Ihde, Don (1979), Technics and praxis, Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Group, 1979, p.74.

[9] Don Ihde, Bodies in Technology, Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, 138.

[10] Exhibitions:

2006, “Drawing Breath: Triptych”, exhibition “Strange Attractors”, Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai, China.

2006, “Drawing Breath v.2” exhibition “Open Letter”, Metropolitan Museum, Manila, Philippines.

2006, “Drawing Breath v.2” exhibition “Open Letter”, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

2005, “Drawing Breath v.2” exhibition “Open Letter”, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand.

2004, “Drawing Breath v.1” exhibition “Asian Traffic: Phase 5”, Gallery 4A, Sydney, Australia.

[11] George P. Khut, Development and Evaluation of Participant-Centred Biofeedback Artworks, Phd dissertation, Sydney: School of Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney, 2006, pp.134 and 136.

[12] According to medical research, the recitation of hexameter modulated heart rate, during the recitation and for a few minutes after that. During recitation of hexameter there was a prominent cardiorespiratory synchronization, in other words heart rate and respiration synchronized. However, the recitation of other kind of poetry or normal conversation did not have the same results on heart rate and breathing. See: Dirk Cysarz; Dietrich Von Bonin; Helmut Lackner; Peter Heusser; Maximilian Moser; Henrik Bettermann, “Oscillations of heart rate and respiration synchronize during poetry recitation”, American Journal of Physiology, AJP – Heart, August 2004 vol. 287 no. 2, H579-H587 [online] <http://ajpheart.physiology.org/content/287/2/H579.full> (Accessed: August 15, 2011)

[13] Exhibitions:

2005, Beta_space Gallery, Powerhouse Museum Sydney, Australia.

2006, This Secret Location, Exhibition curated by Helen Cole, Inbetween Time Festival of Live Art & Intrigue, Arnolfini, Bristol, Great Britain.

2007, I Took a Deep Breath…, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, curated by Hannah Matthews as part of Biennial of Electronic Arts, Perth, Australia.

[14] Khut 2006, p.148.

[15] Khut 2006, p.174.

[16] For more details about the reception of the work, see Lizzie Muller; Greg Turner; George Khut; Ernest Edmonds, “Creating Affective Visualisations for a Physiologically Interactive Artwork”, in Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of Information Visualisation, Los Alamitos, California: IEEE Computer Society, 2006, pp.651-658.

[17] Exhibitions:

2007, Performance Space (creative development residency) “The Living Room Project”, Australia

2008, “Enfoldings and Disclosures” exhibition with Lisa Jones, UTS Gallery, Sydney NSW.

2008, “Mirror States” group exhibition, Campbelltown Art Centre (NSW) and Moving Image Centre (NZ).

2009, The Heart Library Project: St. Vincent’s Public Hospital, Darlinghurst (NSW).

2012, “Wonderland” group exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Taipei (TW).

2015, Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, FACT Liverpool.

[18] The Heart Library” [online] < http://georgekhut.com/projects/heartlibrary>

[19] Drew Leder, The Absent Body, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp.52-53.