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Mediating Emotion

Unstable Empathy

Everyday life is full of emotion. We react to situations, conversations, sudden events and elements of our environment in affective ways. As the Neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio complellingly argued[1], emotions, such as pleasure and preference, are intrinsic aspects of making decisions, from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Above all, however emotion is an instrument for communication. We are constantly attuned to others’ facial expressions, gestures, posture to gauge their feelings, to find when it is the right moment to pitch a discussion or figure out what is the response. The ability to decipher the inner world of others through their minute changes in expression, is essential for successful and satisfying communication, but also the ability to relate and empathise with others, even the ‘other’ is an augmented Cybraphon.

In the digital world, emotions are usually communicated through linguistic and meta-linguistic means, words and signs (yep, even emoticons), and systems of emotion detection, called ‘sentiment analysis’, can be used to determine the affective component of a piece of text. The Cybraphon was based on such an approach, counting tweets and other online mention and using sentiment analysis to gauge their valence and respond. In the recent years, development in Neuroscience, computing and a surge in Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) has resulted in various methods of sensing and quantifying human emotions, measuring the operation of the autonomous nervous system (GSR) or the electrical activity of the brain (EEG).

However, this measurement approach only provides a continuous stream of numbers, usually plotted as linecharts or other; it can be very informative but gives little room to engage and empathise with the human on the other side of the wire. Artists have explored these issues in various ways, visualising, sonifying, 3D printing or even knitting (yes) the electrical activity of the brain. The art project “Sounds of Complexity” (2009) by Mattia Casalegno was an exercise in the creating new spatial and sonic forms, and exploring how brain oscillations can be transformed into visuals and sounds. In the first part of this video, we watch a mesmerising landscape generated by neural oscillations, while sound takes over a while later.

But, for all its fascinating atmosphere visualising brain activity, there is little to converse or engage with. Neither the human behind the oscillation is visible, nor the relationship between visuals is obvious enough to create insight and understanding. Unstable Empathy [links 1, 2, 3] was an interactive installation for the Tangible Feelings Festival, created by the artists Mattia Casalegno (IT/US) and Enzo Varriale (IT), exploring the use of EEG technology as a means for communication. It is interesting to notice how the artist, Casalegno addresses the question of mediating emotion, from his previous work (2004) to this one a few years later.

A cocoon-like, oversized helmet, constitutes a ‘relational device’ for two participants. Placed in front of each other, inside this cocoon-like construction, each one is facing a camera and a screen. Both are wearing an EEG headset monitoring their brain activity, and using their emotional state as a controller for a visualisation. Real-time footage of their faces is deconstructed and superimposed  using feedback from the the EEG, engaging the ‘players’ in a game of communication and mutual discovery. The artists used the alpha-band from the EEG signals, which show an increase when the person is more relaxed. Thus, keeping relaxed as the visual imagery and soudscapes become overwhelming is essential to maintain the interaction with the other.

“The two players quickly realize that the narration of the imagery is directly driven by their brain activity. They also realize they can continue the journey only forcing themselves in an emphatic relation: shifting between chaos and organization, they constantly have to renegotiate their own mind states in order to let the narration going on, in an unceasing research of a shared balance. “

 “… a collaborative experience in which the meanings of cooperation, entangling and consciousness are directly perceived at the physiological level. […] With the only prompt to “feel”, the players develop their own methodology of interaction, to finally discover their own physiognomies superimposed and experience their selves as a single entity.”

Emotions and feelings are usually transient and immaterial, much like the impressions of life that trigger them. Some linger longer than others and some will remain is memories. Art is not only about expressing one’s own experience, thoughts and feelings, but also to create an experience for others, evoking situations and feelings. Literature, painting, cinema and the other arts are emotive. That is why I find particularly intriguing the art installation Cerebral Hut. The space is constant permutation, respond to the changes in user’s emotional states. Created by a team of designers led by the turkish architect Guvenc Ozel [1, 2] it explores questions of kinetic art and architecture , real-time monitoring of individual experience and rendering brain activity visible. But above all this, it is the idea of sensing emotions and creating an adaptive and communicative space, that creates a possibility to relate in a multimodal way with the artwork.

 

 

It is this material and tangible aspect of this last project that really gets me. Perception is multimodal and so is our communication with each other. When so much is produced and lost everyday in the digital domain, it is the work of data scientists to make sense of the data, it has an ever greater importance to create objects that bridge our digital and real selves.

 

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