• Report: Big, Open & Beautiful #9 

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    Posted: 12 April 2016

    An evening with Hack the Body

    Pakhuis de Zwijger

    Hack the Body brings together artistic projects sharing the same underlying idea: using new sensor and information technology to explore innovative concepts within biometric measurement, neuro-feedback and data generation.

    The main topic of the evening was the intimacy between technology and our body: technology is getting closer and closer to our body and in some cases it's even incorporated in it. Besides its proximity, it helps us to capture, save and share our body data, turning humans in objective dataset. How is this changing the way we relate to our body and the world around it? What do we gain by creating a quantified version of ourself? And what do we lose? Those were some of the questions that triggered the audience of the sold-out event in Amsterdam. Frank Kresing, research director at Waag Society, was the host of the evening introducing the theme and the inspiring speakers of this Big, Open & Beautiful episode.

    The first speaker to take the stage was Ira van Keulen, senior researcher and parliamentary liaison officer at the Rathenau Institute. As sociologist of technology, Ira focused her talk on the blurry boundaries between body and technology and how the latter is more and more invading our personal sphere. Nanotechnology, information technology, biotechnology and cognitive science are coming together to digitize our life: this convergence creates new technology areas such a nanomedicine, personal health genomics, and cognitive technology but also new interactions between sciences. All the biological processes can be described in digital terms: biology become technology and viceversa. Ira described the intimacy relationship with technology with prepositions and adverbs: in us, between us, about us, like us. In us, like the smart pills able to detect cancer; between us, regarding our daily means of communication; about us, collecting knowledge and data about our buying behavior for example; like us, when technology tries to imitate us, like chat bots. Being surrounded by technology makes us question what it means to be human and which tasks we want to hand over to technology. Should we take more time to understand technology, before embracing it?

    According to the next speaker, Jan van Erp (professor of Tangible User Interaction at the University of Twente), we should see this relationship like a symbiosis, technology is made to improve our life and maybe to reinvent the future of our species. How? With cyborgs for example, beings with both organic and biomechatronic body parts. The idea of cyborg traces its origin probably in 1562 with one of the first iron controllable hands. Nowadays we have different examples, mainly referring to additional parts to restore missing ones of the body (leg blades) or to improve / enhance our physical capabilities (exoskeletons to carry heavy weights, pacemakers, bio-compatible bones, bionic ears…). The future challenge is to become cognitive cyborgs, to enhance our brain activity and even creativity.

    How art is dealing with those concepts? Herman Maat, from the artist duo Lancel & Maat, explained the audience how these reflections are affecting their artistic practice. I'm part of a network, I link that's why I am: updating the famous sentence by René Descartes, Lancel & Maat stated the core of their artistic research. Media are extending our capability of connecting to each other, but they leave out the human aspect, such as facial expressions, body language and touching. The sense of touch is involved in different works such as Saving Face, where touch is used to scan the face of the participants or in Tele_Trust where audience members wears a DataVeil that, when touched, it enables the wearer to connect with other people's smartphones. With their E.E.G. Kiss project, part of Hack the Body program, they focus especially on the intimate interaction of a kiss, how it's possible to measure what kissers feel together and to transfer this experience online through E.E.G data.

    Remaining in the art world, Marco Donnarumma, another participating artist in the Hack the Body program, brought the audience at the intersection of sound and performance art. Sound is around us, but also inside us, it's a vibrational force that shows that we are alive. Our corporeality, the perception of our bodily nature, can be triggered and enhanced with sound and technology, especially in collective experiences. This is what he did with 0_Infinity: in a huge factory space, the architecture grows, morphs and falls apart thanks to a 4d audio system with columns of directional speakers and high-powered lights, controlled by biophysical signals and movement data from the visitors' bodies. In Corpus Nil, it's the body of the artist to become the controller of a sound and light object, through the neuronal voltage and bioacoustics, produced by his body movement.

    Closing speaker of the evening, Chris Salter, artist and research chair in New Media, Technology and the Senses at Concordia University. Chris made the audience doubt human senses, maybe just machines can be trusted and sense our true us. They can measuring life, they can quantify our self. In a sensor society, what kind of self we are if we are represented by numbers? Even within machines, the self is seen as a numerical structure. In his Hack the Body participating project, Qualified Self, together with the artists TeZ and Luis Rodil-Fernández , Chris investigates synchrony through an experimental Self Lab in which an oscillation between the self and the lack of self will be projected onto test persons/audience members. So, in the urgent question of who owns my data, should we maybe first wonder who is the MY?

    We want to thank our partners that made this event possible: Pakhuis de Zwijger, Waag Society, Rathenau Instituut, We Are Data Mirror Room and Europe by People.


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