Sunday 22 August 2010

There's no doubt Hamsters are among the most thorough researchers. Henrietta is an edge dectector par excellance, no robot could excel in her ability to find edges, and more importantly, gaps in those edges within seconds of being placed at the centre of a large room. Luckily my years of running have paid off and I am just about able to keep up with her. She is the perfect tonic for sluggish researchers, guaranteed to pepp up any project. I'll be sad to see her go home on Thursday.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Soundboxes made by young participants in the Sounds Like Graffiti project Bradford (photo curtesy of Shanbina Aslam 2010)

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Keyboards 'dirtier than a toilet'
Some computer keyboards harbour more harmful bacteria than a toilet seat, research has suggested.
Consumer group Which? said tests at its London offices found equipment carrying bugs that could cause food poisoning.
Out of 33 keyboards swabbed, four were regarded as a potential health hazard and one harboured five times more germs than one of the office's toilet seats.
Microbiologist Dr Peter Wilson said a keyboard was often "a reflection of what is in your nose and in your gut".

Monday 9 August 2010

Beginning of new paper for interart thingy in September:

Figure and Ground: The body as a locus of narrative and knowing.


This paper will investigate the way bodies and language are intertwined, examining how illness or trauma require us to speak from the body in different terms from those of orthodox academic research or Cartesian epistemologies. The paper will look at ways in which the body, particularly in illness, may be a site of transformation and a means for re-conceptualising epistemology and narrative. My doctoral practice, which is represented by the artists’ book South, is committed to an investigation of alternative forms of knowing that are grounded in material practices, such as the generation of meaning through tactile experiences.
Readers of South are invited to construct their own narrative interpretations through touch, sound and movement, to locate themselves within and through the environment. The fictional protagonist of my work is an embryologist called Ivan Dâr. Ivan Dâr experiences a ‘mental breakdown’ in which he loses the ability to differentiate himself from his wider environment. The paper will demonstrate how my work makes an explicit connection between subjectivity, epistemology and location, citing Grosz (1994) and Haraway (1991) as key theorists on the role of both embodied and environmentally situated knowledge production, but also describing the specific practices I have developed and through which I have generated alternative forms of knowing and narrative within the South system.
The paper will connect the centrality of corporeal and located knowledge production to the notion of site-specificity in the South project.

‘The ill body’s articulation in stories is a personal task, but the stories told by the ill are also social’ (Frank, 1997: 3).

Those of you who are expecting to read a scientific treatise should already be dismayed by the subjective slant of my writing. Others may be wondering what on earth I am doing using such resources – as the phobia, the displacement, my years of being mute. Are these theoretical assets?
My goal may once have been to make you all say a resounding communal ‘yes’ following a meticulous submission to the elegance of my logic. But there is no longer an ‘I’ to either persuade or be persuaded.
In fact, If I am supposed to be writing an autobiography there is a fundamental flaw in the contract which my publishers have hitherto not noticed - there is no real ‘I’ to autobiographize. Although it is true I use this solitary symmetrical construction on a habitual basis. This ‘I’ of which there is no solid empirical evidence represents a vast number of un-useful habits – such as the continuous construction of injurious symbols, phobias and fears.
Taking a small stroll through Borough Market not far from where I was born and brought up, will expose a cornucopia of such anxieties, the fear of not having material things and sensuous experiences, to name just two. You may retrace these steps yourself; beginning perhaps by the ship of avaricious cruelty we currently call the Golden Hind. A boat that represents every malignancy you can care to name. Start here, at this mendacious centre piece of Thames-side reverie. Through larceny and brute self-serving this vessel has triggered chains of greed that bring us, for example, the ostrich salami, the Kenyan Kum Quat, not to mention new world pineapples. Here we may test not only our personal degrees of freedom – our slavery to the senses, but those of geo-political proportions, how sites and selves and senses form a complex political ecology in which we are all deeply embedded.

Taken from South, a psychometric text adventure, an artists’ book that, along with a software interface, is the result of my doctoral practice over the last three years.

Among other things the book features fictional narratives about and ‘by’ a reclusive computer scientist called Ivan Dâr. His experiences of mutism and a condition called legendary psychasthenia are at the centre of these narratives. This paper will demonstrate how these narratives connect to my research as an artist-programmer, and how the body in illness can have profound implications for our understanding of language, logic and our relationship to the notion of ‘the site’.

According to the sociologist Arthur W. Frank, the Greek prophet Tiresias was granted narrative powers by dint of his blindness. But is this a humanist interpretation (replete with all the abstract and rationalist positionings the term might imply) or is Tiresias’s story an opportunity for what Michel Foucault might have called a ‘bio-political’ exegesis, in which we see political power impacting on every facet of human life, including our bodies? Frank’s stated goal was to ‘shift the dominant conception of illness away from passivity – the ill person as “victim of” disease and then recipient of care - toward activity. The ill person who turns illness into story transforms fate into experience” he writes (Frank, 1997: xi).

Though Frank’s telling may be humanist in part, his theme of the body ‘as the ground of stories’ (xi) is larger than a humanist positioning might entail. The body in illness becomes not only as Frank puts it, ‘a witness to the conditions that rob others of their voices’ but an opportunity to re-conceptualise the body as a site of epistemological agency, to re-conceptualise our sense of our being in the world, and to integrate the body into new epistemologies and methodological approaches.

The body in my own doctoral work has been both the material and agent for a series of epistemological investigations. These investigations are offered throughout ‘South, a psychometric text adventure’, which is both an artists’ book and a software package that works dynamically with the book and its readers.

My doctoral work operates within the interdisciplinary areas of fiction and intra-activity, subjectivity and agency. It supports the case for epistemological fluidity, and emphasises that such volatility does not emanate from post-modern philosophy alone but from the body itself. These ideas are also investigated via my fictional stories about Ivan Dâr, whose extreme experiences of, on the one hand, mind-body separation – the idea that the universe contains two fundamental types of entity: mental and physical, in which immaterial minds are housed in physical bodies, and on the other the opposite of substance dualism, a sense of external space invading and annihilating his subjective boundaries.

My doctoral work has aimed to place location, sensation and tactile response at the forefront of the site-oriented experience it offers to readers. Spatial fragmentation and psychic disorientation are also part of my site-specific narrative works, in which readers can find narrative threads through tactile experiences or lose themselves and find the work collapsing around them. The South project is committed to an investigation of alternative forms of knowing that are grounded in material practices, such as the generation of meaning through tactile experiences. Readers are invited to construct their own narrative interpretations through touch, sound and movement, to locate themselves within and through the environment.

Within the complex formation represented by the South project, embodiment, contingency and site specificity are linked. The knowledge generated by the reader in engaging with the South algorithms is not separable from the processes that form that knowledge. Hence, the emphasis on re-formulating radically different experiences dependent on local and subjective conditions. The South book and its readers, like the volatile content of the Thames itself are inherently unstable and localised, at least in my conception of them. The interdependency of each algorithm, and its direct relationship to the subjective state of readers, enables the book to also at times deliberately limit the mobility of users, emphasising the idealisations as much as the realities at play in this work.
In conjunction with the South software and egg, the book takes on an even greater degree of contingency, issuing instructions that have been generated in response to economic and meteorological events as well as my own subjective changes. It is significant that in this largely mutable configuration it is the overtly fictional content, the stories I have written about Ivan Dâr and his subjective dis-integration that retain the greatest degree of stability. Ambiguity, tension and mystery, if they exist at all, emanate from the experiences readers generate for themselves in the materiality of their research into the site and their own subjectivity and embodiment. As Grosz states in (1994), eschewing disembodied, computational models of cognition represents an opportunity to ‘displace the centrality of the mind, the psyche, interior or consciousness (and even the unconscious) in conceptions of the subject through a reconfiguration of the body’ (Grosz, 1994: v ii). But, in reconfiguring the body we might also seize an opportunity to reconfigure the inter-subjective and technological boundaries between bodies and computers. This is a theme that is also raised by Donna Haraway who identifies the seemingly contradictory requirements of a so-called successor science, a science defined by Sandra Harding (1993) as a project that will address the systemic short comings identified in particular by feminist epistemologists and scientists, failings which Haraway defines as the ‘hierarchical positivist orderings of what can count as knowledge’. (Haraway, 1991: 188).
Haraway frames this successor science as owning a ‘radical multiplicity of local knowledges’ (187). Such a multiplicity enables a new form of objectivity that can accommodate post-modern insights into knowledge production, particularly post-modernism’s emphasis upon power relations, and its attack upon the implicitly universalising, overarching and grand narratives of humanism.

My thesis presents the case for works that are subjectively and environmentally situated, arguing that intra-active, as opposed to interactive works can enliven digital literature and artists’ books. Intra-activity posits a situated and dynamic form of inter (or intra) action that unfolds between or rather within the moment of connection between a range of actors, or agents, both human and non-human. It does not pre-suppose fixed meanings or a priori separations between subjects or objects. (see Barad 2007).

Intra-activity necessitates a re-framing of epistemological processes within both the sciences and the arts. My thesis also reflexively explores the situated and non-neutral nature of my research, placing it within a social-historical context. Not in the service of indulgent self-reference, but to underscore the presence of a subjective position with the research process, and the value of examining that position through all aspects of research and practice, The South book and project assumes that not only its author but also its readers are intricate, intelligent and often inconsistent. The current form of the South book assumes a broad readership, ranging from people who are interested in London, walking and psycho-geography to those who are curious about what a location can tell them about themselves. Other readers may come to the book through their interest in game forms such as ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books and text adventures. All readers will find themselves required to engage in a series of psychometric (or psychologically evaluative) processes woven in and around the South Bank.

A significant part of my practice has involved the construction of evaluative processes and procedures, both in analogue and digitally mediated forms. I have also researched the historical context of such evaluations and critical approaches to the notion of personality assessment. The analysis of psychometric tests relates closely to my research into the notion of the subject. The notion of psychometric evaluations has its roots in the evaluation of intelligence (associated in particular with the nineteenth century eugenicist Sir Francis Galton) but later also evolved into the investigation and evaluation of ideas around personality traits or the notion of psychological types, such as ‘extroverts’ and ‘introverts’. My own interest in Psychometric tests stems from my childhood exposure to many forms of psychometric test designed by my Grandfather, who was an educational psychologist involved professionally (and ambivalently) in the psychometric evaluation of children. The procedures he designed were often tested on myself and my siblings and had the quality, at least in my own mind, of games, a connotation that I have clearly not abandoned over the years. The South software and book frames subjective evaluation as a form of mutable, multi-linear surveillance, fiction and performance, in the sense that readers are invited to physically act out the construction of different identities. This engagement with subjective evaluation is also intimately connected, within my work, to the notion of the site[1].

South proposes a mutable form of both subjectivity and site specificity. The site in South is formulated by specific situations and corporeal sensations, the book therefore emphasises both situated and embodied interaction. Many of the evaluative procedures involve the senses, and indeed the progression of the evaluations through the five senses is part of the underlying narrative of the assessment process. The emphasis upon sensory and embodied interaction in both the South book and software also enforces the central notion that the technology we use does not exist in isolation from the cultural or physical spaces in which we live and work. The question of what constitutes knowledge or intelligence in these tests is also challenged (it is also an important question in the context of claims about intelligence and computing), what, the book asks, do we mean by intelligence? Are there other types of intelligence or knowledge that computers and conventional research processes can deploy, such as:

• Embodied knowledge

• Tacit knowledge[2]

• Situated knowledge

The processes presented in the South book and software are designed to facilitate an exploration of these questions within and through the South Bank location. My own subjectivity is also posited as a site or meta-location, resonating throughout every aspect of the South project. The book and software therefore aims to understand individual subjects and sites, but in order to work with these concepts I have had to investigate what the notion of a subject and subjective experience means. My research, (including lived experience) suggests that the notion of both the subjective and the subject is politically fraught and philosophically unstable; as such it is highly conducive to a critical artwork that capitalizes on instability and contingency. The dynamic, mutable and networked nature of the subject framed by my research is highly suited to a computational form, and can, I suggest, support a meaningful use of computational strengths in relation to artists’ books, augmenting them with dynamic qualities that one could argue analogue books do not (literally) have. The notion of the site is also posited as a similarly complex configuration.

Treacherous Blue Books: South stories.
It was clear that crossing the forest had cost each of us the power of speech (Calvino, 1977: 4)

Woven into the algorithmic procedures embedded in the South book are a series of fictional narratives, these narratives and meta-narratives enjoy varying degrees of convergence with reader experiences and with the narratives readers themselves enact through their exploration of and response to the South Bank. The protagonist of my own fictions is a character called Ivan Dâr; his story articulates questions of authenticity, separability, normalcy and ‘natural’ language. These questions are embedded within my own cultural and socio-historical background. My grandmother, who was profoundly deaf did not learn sign language but instead attempted to lip-read (with, as I remember it, little success). This may be viewed within a wider historical context in which ‘oralism’ (the use of spoken language) was emphasised over the use of sign-languages, not least for it normalising significance in relation to the majority hearing community. In Van Cleve (1999) Anne T. Quartararo’s chapter on deaf identity and French republicanism succinctly expresses the relationship between language and ‘civilisation’, and the motivation for making the deaf speak like the hearing as opposed to using manual sign languages:

The goal was to make deaf people more “human”, or, like the rustic peasant forced to learn correct French, make deaf people more “civilized” through the use of the ”spoken” word
(Quartararo in Van Cleve, 1999: 45).

In 1880 the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf was held in Milan. The congress infamously ruled that oral education should prevail over sign language. This resulted in the widespread promotion of oralism (including lip-reading) over manual languages, arguably motivated by a strong desire to make deaf people appear ‘normal’. While I do not wish to portray my grandmother as a victim of these policies, I think it is arguable that the normalising sensibility underpinning these rulings did have an agential role in her ability to communicate and by extension to many wider aspects of her life.

In a different, though not unconnected form, my paternal grandfather also experienced constraints upon his language. Although he was born and brought up in South Wales (like my grandmother, in the early twentieth century), he was not allowed to speak Welsh. This fact exists within the wider historical context of Welsh language suppression which reached its apotheosis in the so-called ‘Welsh-not’. The Welsh-Not was a wooden block that children were forced to wear as a punishment if they were caught speaking Welsh at school. The denigration of the Welsh language was supported by the infamous ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’ (Brad y Llyfrau Gleision), an influential report into the state of education in Wales commissioned in 1846 and presented in 1847. The report enforced a notion of Welsh culture as inferior and the speaking of Welsh as educationally and socially detrimental. In my grandfather’s case it was his own Welsh mother who enforced the prohibition, based on the idea that the Welsh language was ‘common’ and a language for peasants, an idea that had been widely reinforced and apparently absorbed by many Welsh people as a result of the 1847 report. In light of the fact that some of my Grandfather’s relatives on the Island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) were reputedly monoglot Welsh speakers, the prohibition could be interpreted as effectively severing him from those family relationships.


Above, the ‘Welsh Not’, worn as a punishment by Welsh children if they spoke Welsh
at school. The Welsh Not illustrated above can be purchased as a gift from the site
welshhistorystories .com, adding, one might argue, another layer to the wider
narrative of the Welsh language.

The fictional protagonist of South, Ivan Dâr, experiences a breakdown in which he can longer speak, this echoes the fact that, in addition to the restrictions imposed upon my grandfather’s childhood mode of speech, in the early 1930s in London my Grandfather experienced a twelve month psychosomatic ‘breakdown’ in which he could also not speak at all. This inability to speak is framed within my re-telling as a silent articulation of some of the tensions inherent in the hierarchies of value faced by migrant and colonised communities in relation to their ‘mother tongue’, even (perhaps especially) if their own mothers collude in its suppression. Ivan Dâr experiences an even more bewildering lack of groundedness, loosely based on a condition known as ‘legendary psychasthenia’, in which people cannot locate themselves, or differentiate themselves in relation to the wider world, which one might conceptualize as the environment beyond the boundaries of their own skin. Roger Caillois in 1935 described this condition as one in which space becomes an annihilating agency acting against subjects:

Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis. It ends by replacing them. Then the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is "the convulsive possession." All these expressions shed light on a single process: depersonalization by assimilation to space, i.e., what mimicry achieves morphologically in certain animal species
(Caillois, 1935).

Figure and ground

The closest we can get to a view without perspective is the fragmentation of so-called legendary psychasthenia, as Grosz writes in (1994), it is a view that can form no perspective and cannot locate itself in time or space. Grosz emphasises the notion of body image as intrinsic to our ability to create a ‘distinction between the figure and the ground, or between central and peripheral actions. Relative to its environment, the body separates the subject’s body from a background of forces’ (Grosz 1994:83). By stating this, Grosz is challenging Cartesian mind-body dualisms and placing the body at the centre of epistemological processes. But Grosz is keen to deny holism or transcendental notions of mind-body unity. Her approach is more complex, alluding to mind-body processes as a form of interconstitutional entanglement, a mobius strip of ‘inscriptions and transformations’ (vii). Elizabeth Grosz’s work on the body reconceptualizes subjectivity and provides a framework for explaining subjectivity through corporeality rather than through binary notions of the conscious versus the unconscious. Likewise Grosz does not construe mind and body as opposites, but as two parts of a whole.

Frank makes the connection between modernist medicine and colonisation, stating that colonization was central to the achievement of modernist medicine, in which the ”sick person” emerges ‘as a recognisable social type in the early eighteenth century. The condition necessary for the emergence of this type was that “the diversity of suffering be reduced to a unifying general view, which is precisely that of clinical medicine” (Frank, 1997:11). This reduction can be connected to the top-down, disembodied and propositionally based structures that have dominated computation. However, it would be naive to present an alternative conception of the relationship of the body to the mind as a straightforward opposition to rationalism or positive science, or as Grosz warns us not to replace one orthodoxy with another, such as those of holism or transcendentalism. In the case of the sick body Frank writes “Bodily systems are the infolding of cultural traumas into the body. As these bodies continue to live and to create history, these symptoms outfold into the social space of that history’ (Frank, 1997: 28). The contingency of the body in illness is connected to the contingency that underpins all knowing and all being – the ‘burping, spitting, defecating’ body of Kristeva’s abjection. Likewise the stigma of illness is linked by Goffman, Parsons and Frank to the kind of contingency sickness manifests. But Frank complicates this role of illness by stating that the ‘doing-something’ of proclaiming and narratavising is a form of meta-control (32) over illness. In the face of such complexity it is necessary for the readers of South to test the limits and distributions of these notions experientially and subjectively

In offering such experiential investigations the South book attempts to reconstruct some of the infoldings and assimilations to space I have discussed, both in its structures and in the exercises readers are invited to take part in. Ivan Dâr, the central character of South is framed as a man literally in search of himself, struggling with both ‘breaking the boundary of his own skin’ (as Callois puts it) and of physically locating himself. The paradoxical and borderless Klein bottle, (illustrated) is an apt representation of the condition Callois describes, and which Ivan Dâr endures, ‘a space where things cannot be put’, because he has no location in space. At times the book deliberately aims to bewilder or undermine its own readers, hinting at the possibility of space as an annihilating agency working against them, generating a hostile space by means of its aesthetic strategies and by asking readers to undertake paradoxical or impossible tasks, lying to them, issuing contradictory instructions or leaving exasperating lose ends. Ivan Dâr’s fictions return to the theme of his so called sickness and the strategies he devises to still operate within the city despite his phobias and disintegrating boundaries:

Read from the South book, Cartographies of ConstraintMy parents always criticised me for my fear of bridges, which I now know is called ‘gephyrophobia’. We lived so close to Waterloo Bridge my parents were exasperated by the limitations my phobia created, by what they characterised as my ‘scenes’ and ‘tantrums’ every time we crossed to the North. I didn’t want to be criticised for my fear of bridges. I wanted them to accommodate it, but this was not possible. My father would carry me across the bridge screaming. My mother would stride across it, leaving me to choose between the twin horrors of bridge crossing or maternal abandonment. At about the age of five I began to devise strategies that would nowadays be characterised as tantamount to neurotic compulsions, but which at the time I found absorbing and satisfactorily distracting.
Before I go on I should say that I realise now my fear of bridges really stands in the place of a much more primal fear: the fear caused by the breakdown of any distinction between subject and object, of any distinction between ourselves and the world of dead material objects….
I began to impose a range of restrictions and complex procedures upon myself, like an inverted version of the Bridges of Göttingen problem. I challenged myself to move through London with the maximum amount of riverine proximity without actually crossing any bridges. …my permutations and schedules of algorithms somehow mitigated my fear. In this way I gradually also eroded my desire for parental praise. My parents had no appreciation for my search algorithms so instead I sought praise from myself and lived in fear of my own disapproval. I was like a rat who had built a maze for himself from which I desperately needed to escape, by exhausting all sets of heuristic combinations….

This paper has aimed to elucidate how illness can ‘involve a restructuring of consciousness and perceptual experience leading to a profound alteration of how one exists in and experiences the world’ (Gallagher, 2005: 59), but it has also touched upon the notion that the body is epistemically embedded both with other bodies and with the outer world, such that, to quote Merleau-Ponty the body ‘is the source of spatiality’ (59). This remains a radical notion and is in direct conflict with the still prevalent Cartesian approach of the ‘brain in the vat’ propounded by Daniel C. Dennet (2010) and Hans Moravec (1990) (among others), An approach that is predicated on a mind-body split and the belief that the body is not epistemically implicated beyond the transmittal of raw data to the brain.

The insights gained from experiences of illness and also those that are supported by recent developments in neuroscience, have profound implications not only for human-computer-interactions and the logical frameworks of computation, but the logic of all knowledge generation and the multiplicity of our artistic practices. As Shaun Gallagher writes ’language transcends embodiment at the same time that it depends on it’ (Gallagher, 2005:127). But it is also inter-subjective, forming a logic which Merleau-Ponty describes as ‘shared by the body and the world’ (141). We are epistemically embedded with our environments in a dynamic process of continuous co-becoming from which the mind and the body, and hence our being in the world, cannot be separated.


Alcoff, Linda (Editor), Potter, Elizabeth (Editor) (1993), Feminist Epistemologies (Thinking Gender) Routledge.

Barad Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway, Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke Unversity Press.

Bergson, Henri (1896) Matter and Memory, Zone Books (1990 edition).
Bohm, D. (1996) Creativity, New York, Routledge.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row
Dennet, D. (2010) Content and Consciousness, Routledge.
Frank, A.F.(1997) The Wounded Storyteller, Body, Illness and Ethics, University Of Chicago Press

Gallagher, S. (2005) How the Body Shapes the Mind, Oxford University Press.

Haraway, Donna (1991) Situated Knowledges, from, Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York, Routledge.

Harding, Sandra (1993) Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology; “What Is String Objectivity?” in Alcoff, Linda, and Potter, Elizabeth (1993) Feminist Epistemologies (Thinking Gender), Routledge.

Henriques, Julian, Hollway, Wendy, Urwin, Cathy, Venn, Couze and Walkerdine, Valerie (1984) Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity Routledge, Reissued 1998.

Maturana, H, and Varela, F. J. (1992) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Shambala.

Moravec, H. (1990) Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, Harvard University Press.

Pope, R. (2005) Creativity, Theory, Practice, Routledge

Dare, Eleanor (2010) South, A psychometric Text Adventure, Lulu.
[1] Miwon Kwon’s (2002) ideas about site specificity and identity have been particularly useful in supporting my interpretation of sites and subjectivities as relational and non-linear.
[2] Tacit knowledge is summed up by the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi in his statement "We know more than we can tell." (Polyani, 2009: 4)Tacit knowledge implies a multi-layered background of subjective and unformalised skills and knowledge, including cultural and embodied forms of knowing.

Thursday 5 August 2010

DRHA rough draft:

Main introduction
Core questions
Structure of paper
Why and what (motivation)
Mini background and literature review
Specific interventions and tools offered by VAINS

The VAINS platform offers a range of tools to facilitate the exploration and interpretation of online art works. These tools have been constructed with a view to fulfilling the following objectives:

To deploy networked and subjectively situated software architectures in the context of recent interrogations upon the role of the curator in the online context (Krysa 2006).
To deploy subjectivity and embodiment as core resources for the curatorial practice.
To explore the validity and practicality of anti-representationalism (as delineated by Varela and Maturana among others) and its associated methodologies, including enactivism, situated and embodied cognition, within such software.

These goals have been validated by an analysis of relevant theoretical and methodological contributions to the areas of human-computer-interaction, embodiment, and situated cognition. We have researched both current and historical literature on these topics. As a result we have found valuable analyses in the works of Shaun Gallagher (2006, 2009), Donna Haraway (1991), Robbins and Aydede (2009), Bill Gaver and Gaver et al (1999, 2004, and 2008) and Phoebe Sengers (2006), Henri Bergson (1896, 1911), Hubert Dreyfus (1992), Julia Kristeva (1982), Elizabeth Grosz, Karen Barad (2007) and Lucy Suchman (1987, 2005, 2006). The analyses presented by these writers validate the proposition that human beings are entangled with their technologies and with complex, relational and temporally bound systems of agency. Hence, a core methodological commitment embedded in the VAINS project is the confrontation or re-framing of the body in online curation, this has been supported by an examination of the separation between computers and humans, and, indeed, the ready made separations that we project between subjects and objects (including visitors and online galleries). Another important aspect of this work has been to identify the significant material features of computational interaction while acknowledging that computers are not clearly separable from ourselves, but, like all human artefacts, are of us.

Enactivism, embodied and situated cognition

To clarify the relationship of the VAINS tools to enactivism, embodiment and situated cognition we would like to frame them within a historical context in which computation has been dominated by top-down, disembodied and propositionally based structures. Enactvism offered a radical break from this construction, emphasizing the way that organisms and human minds interact with their environments. These ideas are in many ways the precursors of situated cognition and embodied cognition, and are presented as an alternative, middle way or via media between extremes of relativist subjectivism, cognitivism, computationalism and Cartesian dualism.

The methodologies represented by enactivism and situated cognition offer the possibility of constructing an alternative form of digitally curated space, one that deploys embodied subjectivity and situatedness as valid and valuable resources in the generation of new creative insights and actions in the field of online arts.

The tools distributed by the VAINS platform enable, to quote Maturana and Varela, a means of understanding how ‘our world, as the world which we bring forth in our coexistence with others, will always have precisely that mixture of regularity and mutability, that combination of solidity and shifting sand, so typical of human experience when we look at it up close’ (Maturana, Varela, 1992:241). This position has been critiqued as potentially solipsistic (see Svenson, 1992) however, such a methodological standpoint should be seen as part of a wider move in computing towards a re-conceptualisation of the body and a move away from a rigid Cartesian split between mind and body, described as ‘a division of labor that was not simply theoretical and a problem for philosophers, but that was finding its way into the pragmatics of every day life’ (Gallagher in Robbins, Aydede, 2009:37). This reframing is an opportunity to integrate the body into new epistemologies and methodological approaches. As Grosz states in (1994), eschewing disembodied, computational models of cognition represents an opportunity to ‘displace the centrality of the mind, the psyche, interior or consciousness (and even the unconscious) in conceptions of the subject through a reconfiguration of the body’ (Grosz, 1994: v ii). But, in reconfiguring the body we might also seize an opportunity to reconfigure the inter-subjective and technological boundaries between bodies and computers.

The Abjection application

One of the first mobile applications we have offered VAINS visitors is called Abjection. This application encourages users (or user-researchers) to investigate the bodily traces they have left within their digital equipment. The identification of such visceral traces may be seen as an interrogation of the notion of the immateriality of our interaction with digital technology, and, perhaps even a challenge to the notion of a stable virtuality. More significantly still, and in keeping with Juia Kristeva’s framing of abjection, it is proffered by VAINS as a challenge to the stability and sovereignty of the self. Abjection, which we will define as the horror of the materials ejected by the body, (which we customarily consider to be unclean), is deployed within the VAINS mobile application to test the limits of the boundaries between ourselves and the technologies we use, between subjects and objects. The Abjection application takes its users through a series of investigative procedures; these involve analysing the various abject materials that we embed into the keypads and ear pieces of laptops and phones.

Offering mobile and other applications to VAINS visitors also tests the boundaries of the web, it acknowledges the fact that all websites are also part of a wider social and media ecology. VAINS offers both web-based and other tools, such as mobile applications that can be ‘taken away’ from the web and used in other contexts. These tools have the potential to include locative media such as GPS, messaging and haptic feedback (which we will describe in more detail in this section).
Above, a screen shot from the VAINS mobile application Abjection
Available here:

Collaborative filtering: abject traces and new conceptualisations of the interactive.

In addition to the visceral and bodily traces left by users of digital technology, we also invite visitors to consider the many other traces of themselves that they (often unwittingly) leave behind. Bruno Latour (2007) has framed these traces as representing a significant erosion of the differences between the private and the public:
The ancient divide between the social on the one hand and the psychological on the other was largely an artefact of an asymmetry between the traceability of various types of carriers: what Proust’s narrator was doing with his heroes, no one could say, thus it was said to be private and left to psychology; what Proust earned from his book was calculable, and thus was made part of the social or the economic sphere. But today the data bank of has simultaneous access to my most subtle preferences as well as to my Visa card. As soon as I purchase on the web, I erase the difference between the social, the economic and the psychological, just because of the range of traces I leave behind.
(Latour, 2007)

Collecting and instrumentalising data from users of web sites, whether covert or consensual, is now part of the materiality and medium specificity of the web. But the traces Bruno Latour writes of are arguably rarely made visible to the users who have left them. VAINS makes these traces part of the materiality and navigational structure of the platform.

Below, a screenshot from 3d interface that dynamically reacts to user evaluations of the VAINS content

The VAINS practice hinges around the tensions inherent in the construction of subjectivity, singularity and collectivism, but, as many of the writers we have referenced maintain, we cannot easily reach a consensus as to what a subject is or even if such an entity really exists. This ambiguity and fluidity is an instrumental presence within this practice, to quote Barbara Bolt, it is a practice in which ‘the materials are not just passive objects to be used instrumentally by the artist, but rather the materials and processes of production have their own intelligence that come into play’ (Bolt, 2006:1). This becomes a case in point in our deployment of collaborative filtering within the VAINS platform. In VAINS collaborative filtering assumes both non-instrumental and instrumental qualities according to the unpredictable materiality of the dynamic system at play. Non-Instrumentality is described by Lowgren as ‘aesthetic, ludic and social qualities’ (Lowgren, 2008)) and instrumentality as ‘usability’ and ‘usefulness’.

The VAINS platform gathers data online in order to create a user-based collaborative filtering system, using php and mysql. The algorithms we have constructed find closest matches, for mood, weather, gender, age, location and other specific and situating variables. They find what the closest co-users in the system liked as well as negative correlations, such as what users might not like. Such filtering may also be called opinion mining, or sentiment analysis, within VAINS it is framed as a complex means of investigating both subjective and collective responses to online artworks. The VAINS algorithms collect and generate multi-dimensional similarity metrics for VAINS visitors based on the data-set and probable interests of new visitors. These are dynamic and offer a constantly evolving picture of the content and how users react to and engage with it. However, in offering recommendations it is important to emphasise that the VAINS system is not framed as a truth making mechanism, rather it is framed as a provocation to contemplate the validity and putative neutrality of such data-mining processes. In this way visitors to VAINS are invited to look at works which the system might have assessed as of no interest to them, or works that might be considered as statistically more suited to a different age, gender or other social grouping.

Above and below, the VAINS platform works playfully with the notion of demographics and demographic targeting, it offers these practices as sites of exploration and provocation to its visitors.

Above, the rule of thirds applet – reveals compositional conventions in web pages and web based artworks.

Other tool offered by the VAINS platform create navigational paths and collaborative filters to artworks based on interfaces that are reflexive and game-like, deploying embodied feedback, such as reaction times and hand-to-eye coordination. These programs can dynamically impact on the overall structure of the VAINS navigation system and on each individual’s experience of the site. If visitors want to understand the mechanisms at play they are able to access the code we have written to generate these experiences. Examining the code will reveal the underlying computational logic as well as the logic of our methodologies.

Below, excerpt from the code for the Frustrater interface
Above, the frustrater interface, the links jump rapidly around the screen, confounding expectations of
usability and control, it is offered as a provocation to VAINS visitors.

Above VAINS reflex linking interface, visitors are taken to different links according to their physical reaction times to an on-screen stimulus. The prototype system collects reaction times and links them to user preferences so that it may make aesthetic or navigational predictions based on embodied reactions, such as the reflexes of visitors.

The forms of navigation and filtering we have discussed are often engaged with alternative computational epistemologies, these epistemologies challenge the propositional logic at the heart of what is called Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence – a narrow conception of human intelligence and being in the world that denies the body and certainly denies the political and cultural significance of its own logic. In the future we plan to evolve more subtly embodied and situated navigation and interpretation systems by developing software that reacts to bio-feedback and to more complex networks of embodied and situating factors.

Textural or haptic interfaces

In addition to the tools we have already constructed, in the future we envisage using haptic technology (derived from the Greek word haptesthai, pertaining to the sense of touch). Such emerging technology will make it possible to design haptic systems that provide users with physical feedback in the form of actuators from pager motors in mobile phones to high resolution three-dimensional force feedback systems that facilitate the haptic simulation of objects and textures. These systems may become more widespread as mobile technologies increasingly embed gaming and haptic technologies as core features. The VAINS platform proposes deploying more haptic means of navigating and exploring online works and of engaging the body directly in such experiences. For example the Anycall Haptic mobile phone features a large touch-screen display like the iPhone. But, to quote the manufacturer, Samsung, ‘It enables users to feel clicks, vibrations and other tactile input. In all, it provides the user with 22 kinds of touch sensations.’ These touch sensations may be deployed by artists, designers and programmers to investigate subtle forms of sensory navigation in digital platforms.

Above, the Samsung Anycall Haptic
Illustrating a mock up for a proposed haptic device
for interacting with digital artworks, this can deploy 22
forms of haptic feedback.


The tools we have produced are still in process, indeed it is our recommendation that such tools always be ‘in process’, and that a process-based orientation is brought to this practice. This recommendation is consistent with both our experimental deductions (evidenced in the following section) and our methodological commitment to a dynamic, inter-subjective and networked system of continuously evolving interactions. The next section will describe two experiments we conducted in order to evaluate and explore both sensory and overtly symbolic means of interaction with the VAINS platform, it will outline some of the problematic aspects of user evaluation, these aspects echo the themes we have raised already in this paper of instrumentality and non-instrumentality, navigating a delicate via media between extremes of subjectivism and positivist realism, embodiment and a priori representation.

Iconisation and sonicification: testing hypotheses
Sonicification: Sounds users to choose to represent experiential responses to works

The section will discuss our testing of hypotheses concerned with participation, iconography and curation, it will also evidence some of the difficulties inherent in imposing notions such as assessment and user evaluation in relation to an arts project, it will discuss how we have utilized but also destabilized these concepts in the service of multiple interpretation, provocation and play. And that establishing a via media between instrumentality and non-determination is in keeping with the logic of our research process.

Evaluation methods:

Structured depth interviews, also Lee’s discussion with participants
Questionnaires and more creative forms of participatory writing.
Feedback interview.

THE Evaluation of User experience
In writing about the evaluation of user experience we have found the work of Bill Gaver (2006), Gaver et al (1999, 2004, and 2008) and Phoebe Sengers, (2006) particularly relevant. Evaluation within an arts context is an ambivalent and often neglected concept, we have therefore drawn upon wider disciplines to investigate how we might evaluate our work with VAINS and the experience that it engenders in others. Gaver and Sengers (2006) frame evaluation within a methodological strategy, or logic of research generation, that is characterised by a commitment to multiplicity of interpretation. As this section will show, part of the logic of our evaluation of VAINS visitors and the solicitation of feedback from them, is to allow visitors to reconstruct the system according to their own epistemological perspectives.

As Sengers and Gaver (2006) observe, there are costly limitations inherit in judging user experience against the simplified expectations of the artist, programmer or designer who has produced the system in question. As alternatives to single interpretation we show how the VAINS system has solicited complex, multi-layered and often contradictory interpretations, characterising them not as problems in need of solutions, but as creative and welcome resources within the context of an arts computing based project. Gaver and Sengers (2006) have outlined useful evaluation strategies that can accommodate multiple and complex interpretation of human-computer-interactions, in which ‘potentially competing interpretations can fruitfully co-exist’ (Gaver and Sengers, 2006:1). They also document how ‘design and evaluation strategies shift when we abandon the presumption that a specific, authoritative interpretation of the systems we build is necessary, possible or desirable’ (1), stating that it is difficult ‘to conceive of interaction without interpretation’ (1). The multiple meanings that are assigned to computational systems by their users emphasize the importance of interpretation within HCI. Although the notion of single use and single interpretation may be appropriate in some cases, though Sengers and Gaver point out that even in issues of road safety it is sometimes better to stimulate drivers and pedestrians into making their own, non-passive interpretations of safe behaviour, rather than telling them what to do.

In the case of VAINS we are producing a system that is open to interpretation on many levels, from the interface itself, to the overarching significance of the entire system, summed up in the questions ‘what role can it play in my life’ (2) and ‘what does it mean about me, my social group, my society, my culture’? (2). These questions, among others, are ones that we have asked a range of people in relation to aspects of VAINS, confirming the assertion by Gaver and Sengers (2006) that multiple interpretations are almost inevitable in relation to computational systems.

Testing icons

Within the context of VAINS it has been engaging and productive to allow for ambivalence and multiplicity of interpretation. With this ambivalence of purpose in mind, notions of utility are also challenged, and as, Gaver and Sengers state, ‘alternative values, such as curiosity, play, exploration, and reflection are also important from this point of view’ (3). Gaver and Sengers emphasize the importance of generating new strategies and methods for creating systems that embody these alternative values, such as ‘purposely blocking’ (4) and, thwarting ‘any consistent interpretation’ (4). This, Gaver and Sengers are at pains to point out is not the same as deliberately generating confusion at the level of usability, stating that ‘what the system does and how it can be controlled is obvious – but the ultimate purpose meaning and usefulness of the device is left open for users to decide’ (4).

Above, a participant documenting
their reaction to VAINS icons

In addition to the feedback forms illustrated above, other methods we have used to solicit feedback and user evaluation are:

Usability testing
Depth interviews.
Participatory iconisation, sonicification and texturisation.

It has also been valuable to analyse our own unconscious projections and meanings in relation to this work. The complexity involved in this approach has arguably been more suited to an arts-computing project than paradigms of unitary interpretation and idealised conceptions of impenetrable scientific objectivity.

Common approaches to evaluation in HCI are based on developing and testing against a priori evaluation criteria corresponding to the designers’ anticipated interpretation of a system. But in taking multiple interpretations into account, systems can no longer be effectively evaluated in terms of criteria generated from a single, authoritative interpretation.
(Gaver and Sengers, 2006:7)

Notes for final Conclusion
strengths and weaknesses,
future research
Discussion of findings and analysis – relate to literature etc

Check in paper:
Explicitly stated aims for investigation
Answer a well defined broad question
Link existing knowledge (lit and examples) to our investigation.
Well structured and appropriate methodological approach and means of testing hypotheses


Problems Section in Conclusion
We have discussed some of the issues involved in evaluation
Problems of intervention and innovation
It is important to acknowledge the problems we face in offering alternative structures to the orthodox modes of online and, indeed, offline, interaction we have become habituated too. In light of their innovation the alternative devices we have constructed for VAINS may be perceived as ‘interventions’, in contrast to the arguably ‘naturalised’ structures that we customarily deal with. This is one of the difficulties of an interdisciplinary collaboration, in which an artist-programmer (Eleanor Dare) is collaborating with an artist-curator (Lee Weinberg. Our respective methodologies, though often compatible, are also in many ways at odds with each other. For example, the notion of intervention has been identified by Lee as potentially opposed to an ethical curatorial practice. However, one might equally observe that curation per se is a form of intervention, that the placing and interpretation of artworks always represents a view from somewhere (to cite both Haraway and Nagel), and that these actions can never be neutral.These are ongoing dialogues within the context of VAINS and the tools we have developed are offered as portals or provocations to engender further debate about appropriate mechanisms and contexts for the curation of digital artworks.

A criticality of perspective is also maintained in relation to the idea of user evaluation. The use of ambiguous methods such as participant iconisation, texturisation and sonicification emphasise some of the illusory aspects of such evaluation, serving to outweigh the idealisations that can arise in notions of ‘end-user’ assessment.



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