Communicative paths of body and technology: Notes on the work of Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU
Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. Top: PICO_SCAN, 2000. Bottom: Mobile Feelings II, 2003. Interactive Installation.]
Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau’s work illustrates the alliance between art, technology and science. Their diverse backgrounds –art and computer graphics for Sommerer and sculpture and biology for Mignonneau- have equipped them with the theoretical and technological skills to expand their knowledge into different fields of interdisciplinary research, creating artworks based on a fusion of the real world with the digital.
An important part of their work focuses on the creation of artificial life forms that evolve and breed within an interactive environment, which depends as much on code, as on the actions of the participants. This code is inspired by the genetic code of real life forms, and as such, it is subject to the rules and necessities of the real world, adopting biological mechanisms such as growth, reproduction, mutation, adaptation and intelligence. At the same time, the digital code is the result of programming, a mind construction based on mathematics, which can be extending infinitely, depending on the knowledge and imagination of the artists.
In other words, it is the artists who designate the diverse forms the artificial life can take, the possible mutations, the sources of energy it will use, and the way it will breed and eventually die. In this dialogue between the dictations of the real world and the imagination of the artists, the participants are encouraged to intervene, granted with the power to decide which life forms will remain active and which ones will recede into a state of non-existence.
Thus evolves a complex dialogue and a strong interdependence between the digital world and the real world, between the artist, the artwork and the audience.
In order to see how these relations evolve, we will have a look into PICO_SCAN (2000), an artwork that aims to analyse body data coming from the participant and link it to artificial life creatures. The interface of the artwork includes a screen and a small scanner, equipped with a video camera and sensors that capture distance, colour, touch and position. At first, when the users hold the scanner at a certain distance, they see a projection of their image on screen. If, however, they move the scanner closer, this projection is fused with artificial life creatures, that interact with their image. As these creatures ‘feed’ on the pixels of the image –each one having its own designated preferences on a specific colour of pixels- groups of creatures move onto different parts of the image, in order to ‘eat’ their pixels of preference. The creatures that get enough energy from the pixels of their preference are in the position to ‘breed’, producing new creatures that have the same genetic code as their ‘parents’.
As a consequence, the participants are granted with the authority to influence the growth and reproduction of the artificial life forms, by moving the scanner onto different parts of their bodies, and thus providing the environment with different types of pixels to be ‘consumed’. At the same time, they come across a new reflection of their image, fused with technology.
Sommerer and Mignonneau stress that they ‘aim to create artworks that can interpret and visualize the users’ interaction’.
From a more generalized point of view, the simulation of artificial life projects the individual as part of a universe that can only be explored through observation and movement. However, it is an observation from a subjective point of view, since we cannot observe ourselves and our surroundings from an external position. Our body image, malleable by the use of technology, changes incessantly, through the frame of the program and the impact of our own decision to interact with it.
In PICO_SCAN the artwork becomes the point where the artificial environment of the computer, which is governed to a certain extent by the laws of nature, merges with the image of the user; the results of this merging are as unpredictable as is interaction within the real world. It is a world that is constructed by a combination of code –an abstract construction- with biology, shaped by the will of the artist and the audience.
The two artists are also concerned with the issue of communication, approaching it with a strong focus on the body. Interacting with others via technological devices is taken for granted in today’s reality; mobile technology and the internet have imposed a new social rule, that one needs to be within reach at any time; in addition, the evolution of social networks has created the urge to share intimate thoughts and private information with a large group of people.
It is certain that these advents have enhanced human communication, however, among the images and words exchanged there’s an important part of communication that is being lost. This part is intimate contact and the impact of one’s presence.
Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau sought a way to recover this communication in Mobile Feelings II (2003); the artwork is comprised by small handheld devices that capture and transmit breathing and heart rate, by means of a combination of electromechanical actuators, vibrators and fans. The breathing rhythm and heart pulsation of the person holding the device is transferred to a device held by another user, by being transformed into a light breeze and a pulsing light respectively.
The artwork highlights the role of non-verbal communication, which is often intuitive and less premeditated than speech. It also encourages the participants to focus on touch, as the reception of the artwork showed. Some people who experimented with the work said it was a good ‘flirting tool’, as it allowed them to get closer to each other without talking. Others noted that they felt as if they were ‘holding each other’s heart in their hands’. Feeling someone’s breath and heartbeat is the kind of intimacy that only exists between friends, family or lovers; this aspect was the reason the work caused aversion to some users, who felt they revealed too intimate things to a stranger, and appeal to others, who found the experience comforting and sensual.
Even though the question of intimacy created ambivalent feelings, most participants agreed that in order to sense the heart of the other person they had to focus on touch, reducing thus the other sensory input channels. Therefore, the artwork revealed a new way of perception that was not necessarily related to vision, the predominant sense when it comes to experiencing an artwork or most things –at least in the Western tradition.
One could say that Mobile Feelings II, when viewed in relation to Aesthetics, defies Baumgarten’s separation between primary senses that belong to the mind (hearing, seeing) and secondary senses that belong to the body (touching, smelling, tasting), bringing us thus closer to a more complete experience of the world, in line Phenomenology, which places experience in the centre of perception.
Sommerer and Mignonneau establish a direct way of communication between the artwork and the audience, as well as between the users and their bodies. After focusing on these mobile devices for a while, the users inadvertently synchronize their breathing and thus establish a new way of telecommunication, based only on corporeal elements.
 Exhibition: 2001, Martin Gropius Bau –“ImageCurators and Signs of the 21st Century,” interactive installation PICO_SCAN, Berlin, Germany
 Laurent Mignonneau; Christa Sommerer, ‘PICO_SCAN – using body data to create artificial life forms’, in AROB5th International Symposium on Artificial Life and Robotics Conference Proceedings, Oita: Oita University, Japan, 2000, pp.124-127.
2004, Microwave Media Art Festival, Hong Kong.
2004, European Media Art Festival, Osnabrueck, Germany.
2005, STUK Festival, Leuven, Belgium.
2005, Wired Next Fest ‘05, Chicago Navy Pier, Chicago, USA.
2010-2011, EXTIMACY – Art, Intimacy and Technology, ESBALUARD Contemporary Art Museum Palma, Spain.
2011, A-Volve, Eau de Jardin, Phototropy, Life Spacies II, Mobile Feelings, Arts Santa Monica Barcelona, Spain.
2011, Art Focus For Technologies: Charm and Challenge, National Center for Contemporary Arts (NCCA), Yekaterinburg, Russia.
 Christa Sommerer; Laurent Mignonneau, “Mobile Feelings –wireless communication of heartbeat and breath for mobile art,” International Conference on Artificial Reality and Telecommunication Proceedings, Seoul: ICAT2004, 346-349.
 Gerfried Stocker; Christa Sommerer; Laurent Mignonneau, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau: interactive art research, Vienna: Springer Verlag, 2009, p.207.