For once count yourself lucky if you missed an art opening. Synaesthetics, a new exhibition at Reverse Gallery in Williamsburg opened last Friday; sure, there was free booze and great people watching, but the two interactive installations that are featured and the trans-sensory trips they inspire are best experienced in isolation or maybe at most with one other partner. Both Eunoia II, by Lisa Park, and Format No. 1, by Louise Foo and Martha Skou, strangely mimic our increasingly digital experience of the world, which is itself a lonesome, disconnected way of engaging with people more and more through social media.
Maybe the iPhones used in Format No. 1 are there incidentally, but it’s almost creepy how natural it is to hold the phone’s camera up to the wooden black blocks of various shapes and sizes on the wall, dragging it across and listening to the beeps and blips and atonal rings blasting through the headphones.
Not being one to read directions ever, I must have looked like a neanderthal hitting the phone’s screen with no results. The gallery girl finally demonstrated how it worked, but other than that initial fit, how to engage with the installation was alarmingly intuitive. Not unlike everyday life, the iPhone became the mediator here, transforming dull shapes on a white wall into musical instruments. Visitors can adjust the sounds based on proximity and how quickly they move the screen across the wall.
But it was artist Lisa Parks’s piece that really drew me in. Users put on a brain wave-reading headset that presses a metal sensor onto the forehead and clips another onto one ear lobe. I was pretty dubious as to whether this thing was really doing what it claimed to be doing, but a constantly updating wave graph on an iPad swayed me otherwise.
The system is hooked up to a network of black bowls filled with water that looks a bit like a Sputnik chandelier. The bowls vibrate with a booming sound (that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi movie) according to two simplified readings of brain waves, “meditative” and “attentive,” which are displayed on the iPad screen respectively as blue and red. Whereas meditative thoughts result in deeper, more pulsating sounds, attentiveness leads to higher pitched sounds.
Still leery about the accuracy of this supposed brain wave reader I decided to test it out. When I was writing or speaking with the gallery attendant, the red line would spike. The blue line was dominant when I closed my eyes and thought back to a childhood memory.
The installation is designed for two people to use at once and lucky for me a couple walked in right after I’d figured the thing out. Pairing up with a stranger supposedly results in higher notes, while hooking up to the installation with a friend or significant other will inspire deeper sounds. The stranger and I orchestrated a weird mix of both, probably since she was with a friend and I was with randos. The result was a weird symphony of organ-like bursts of sound seemingly without rhyme or reason.
At first, Synaesthetics might seem like a fancy children’s museum exhibit, all cheap wowzers and little substance. But when I sat down alone with a drink after leaving the gallery I started to think about why Eunoia II was so appealing. The answer gets at the heart of one of the exhibition’s themes, which is employing “novel technologies to mediate, augment, and echo our experience of the world around us.”
It’s not insignificant that, when users are finished with Eunoia II, the iPad prompts them to post the results of their reading to Instagram. The installation itself is appealing because it mimics social media. Users of Facebook, Instagram, and whatever else exist on a scale of very passive to very active. There are people who seem to post to Facebook with the ease of stream of consciousness. They share photos of travel, shots of their breakfast, basically a window into their daily existence and banal experiences, whereas other users have highly curated social media presences. Photos follow strict aesthetic guidelines and posts are meant to convey a certain persona. Eunoia II imitates the former.
Similar to how passive users produce social media content, by simply existing, we are affecting the sounds produced by the machine. Watching as our brain waves morph on the screen is a reminder that we can try to transform the waves, and can momentarily be successful at it, but eventually have little control over where they go. At some point, we’ll stop trying to think a certain way and the waves will fall back down to a personal neutral. The same is true of social media output. Unless we’re hyper-conscious of everything we post, there’s going to be some fray in the consistence of persona, and eventually social media will betray something about us that isn’t necessarily in line with the conscious output of our social media “selves.”
The fascinating thing about the installation is that it does tell us something about ourselves, however basic those revelations are (“meditative” and “attentive” are not exactly groundbreaking divinations of our brain chemistry, but we’ll take what we can get). Eunoia II like social media becomes a strange sort of window into our subconscious while at the same time functioning as a conduit for social interaction.
But as with social media, the ultimate functions of Eunoia II is that of a mirror, a way for us to display ourselves to other people and a way for us to invoke a separate apparition of ourselves. But it’s also a way to see how other people view us based on how they interact with and respond to our visible self– in this case, the music created by our brain waves.
In the case of Eunoia II, we’re seeing and hearing how a computer sees us. It’s almost as if we’re looking at a dystopian vision of social media, one that taps directly into our brain and one where users have little control over what is posted. The results are entertaining at first, but the implications for the future of brain wave technology are actually a little terrifying.
Check out Synaesthetics at Reverse Gallery located at 28 Frost Street in Williamsburg, viewing hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 1 – 7pm or by appointment.