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Journal

A reflective journal of my practice, process, and thoughts.

‘A Man Digging’ / Research Paper - Tutorial 1 (Gareth Polmeer - 01/08/19)

‘The Mutability of Memory as Identity in the Digital Present’

Working Abstract:
This paper intends to ask a series of questions relating to the utilisation of memory as the ‘medium of experience’ rather than a tool for exploring the past, as described by artist Jon Rafman in the film ‘A Man Digging’, in contemporary art-making. In the cacophony of the collective digital present, a time in which we might perceive the boundaries between reality and simulation to have begun collapsing in terms of our exposure to an overwhelming range of media and burgeoning virtual influence, does human memory still glow in the midst of our everyday experience in holding the narratives of our lives together? Key terms which will be considered here include neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer’s positing that ’Digital Dementia’ is a way in which to describe an overuse of digital technology resulting in the breakdown of memory pathways. If there is an aspect of digitality which seeks to protect loss (loss of information, data, loss of connection), in which ways does this pursuit of protection, and the virtual interlacing of our human experience affect memory in the rewriting of histories? Artists such as Rafman (‘where is the human being in all of this?’), and Mathilde Lavenne, investigate these interplays through the organisation of dislocated fragments, online and offline, through sequences utilising digital technologies (combinations of live action film, laser scanning, CGI and animation sequences), in order to ‘make perceptible the strata of memory’; to present new narratives commenting on relationships between personal and collective memory, the buried and the excavated, that will be examined through this paper’s investigation.

Key Words: Strata, Identity, Temporality, Archaeology, Consciousness, Reconstruction

A Man Digging, Jon Rafman. 2013.

Viewing Jon Rafman’s ‘A Man Digging’ was one of those moments for me when it feels genuinely exciting to have found something that resonates, and I knew that, after writing and re-writing a draft abstract and working to a clearing of the core interests of my research, this piece and Rafman’s practice would form part of my examination. I discussed this in my research paper tutorial with Gareth Polmeer, a conversation which was very constructive in beginning to build a skeleton framework for the paper. Gareth provided many suggestions which would help to convene a coherent structure, and provide a theoretical backdrop of approaches to memory within certain historical ontologies stretching from natural philosophy through modernism and futurism - a lineage of concerns and anxieties which must be carefully described and reviewed so as not to be exhaustive: this should take the form of around 1/3 of the essay and provide context for a case study of two chosen contemporary works. Subsequent to the tutorial, I discovered the work of Mathilde Lavenne, by way of the work ‘TROPICS’ and it’s ghostly sprawling network of suggested history which won the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica of Computer Animation 2018. Though the work is not available to view online other than short teaser clips, I have contacted the artist directly and Lavenne has been very generous in giving me access to a copy of the film to further inform my examination.

tutorial notes

framework: 1000 words - historical context + theoretical backdrop >> new materialism/ontologies - then move into case studies - Rafman / Lavenne - territories (the mind, the in/visible - perception (Lavenne), the digital (Rafman), the hidden)

reframing temporality re: memory and the ‘feed’ for example: contradiction in contemporary terms that on one hand we forget so much and on another we forget nothing.
chris marker - time travel // consciousness (oliver sacks - the river/the stream), recurrence, elusion and frailty

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different ontologies - ‘the time of nature’, jane bennett ‘vibrant matter’ etc new materialism and objectivity, different conception of time which runs against some of the course of technological modernity

  • lineage/connection to romanticism, natural philosophy > C20th : going out into nature (to write, to ‘discover’) - blue flower in land of technology - connection to Rafman (‘digging’ for identity, pursuit to resolve absences)

  • early C20th writers, forgetting was becoming a profound problem (the ‘memory crisis’) / that technology might lead to a kind of ‘forgetting what it is to be human’ - link to AI, deepmind, mapping neural networks and extrapolating containers of/encoded experience as predictable patterns

walter benjamin, futurists - preservation technologies and digital avatar services - contrast


‘Human beings will turn cyberspace into a projection of the material world, which is a place of continuous conflict’ - john gray

Key Research Material (identified to date)

- When We Are No More, Abby Smith Rumsey, 2016. [Book]
- Searching For Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, Daniel L. Schacter, 1997. [Book]
- A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, Manuel DeLanda, 2000. [Book]
- The River of Consciousness, Oliver Sacks, 2017. [Book]
- Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, 2015. [Book]
- Memory Practices in the Sciences, Geoffrey C. Bowker, 2008. [Book]
- Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett, 2010. [Book]
- Philosophy and Memory Traces: Descartes to Connectionism, John Sutton, 1998. [Book]
- You Are Here: Art After the Internet, Omar Kholeif, 2014. [Book]
- Beyond the Archive: Memory, Narrative, and the Autobiographical Process, Jens Brockmeier, 2015. [Journal]
- Digital Memory and the Problem of Identity, Christopher N. Chapman, 2008. [Paper]
- Embodiments of Memory: Toward an Existential Approach to the Culture of Connectivity, Amanda Lagerkvist. [Paper]
- The Netlore of the Infinite: Death (and Beyond) in the Digital Memory Ecology, Amanda Lagerkvist, 2015. [Journal]
- A Saunter Down Memory Lane: Digital Reflection on Personal Mementos, Steve Whittaker. [Paper]
- Autobiographical Memory and the Art of Storytelling and Narrative Identity, Willow Mindich, 2017. [Journal]
- Immaterial Archives: New Media and the Memory of Representation, Timothy Murray, 2000. [Journal]
- Beyond Metaphor: Archaeology as a Social and Artistic Practice, Christopher Smith, 2016. [Journal]

Tutorial 3 - 21/06/19 + Process May-July

In my recent tutorial with Jonathan I shared some of the practical experiments I’ve undertaken in the past couple of months which had not been published here - for that reason I have developed a short video to summarise my activity. I find documenting my process in this way to be advantageous in that it demands reflection in even the piecing together of the bare material (scans, screenshots, photographs), clarifying progress made and action to be taken. Through questioning the ways in which I see the project developing in relation to the lenses I am applying to my research and building a vocabulary through which to communicate, our discussion helped clarify the skeleton of my intention as to form methods of communicating a narrative rooted in identity and personal experience utilising multiple languages (written, material, digital); informed but essentially speculative rather than didactic. This is a continuous exploration through metaphor and poetic association between specific fields (neurology, geology, technology) that pivot around the ‘fixed’ point of home, represented by the ‘shed’ (a basic symbolic reference to Aristotle’s storehouse theory) a place which all of these explorations which are represented in different forms (text, manipulations of text as visual form, rendering, contact prints, video, 360° AR/VR) return to and fold into. I am taking the opportunity this week at the beginning of my summer break from work to consolidate and reflect, to update my project proposal, and to identify key action points for development moving forward.

 
 
Paste By Numbers / 'Inseparate' / MA Summer Shows
 
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I am delighted to be featured in Round 1 of Paste by Numbers - an exhibition in Hull of large-format poster-printed interpretations of the number 1. My piece draws from the pivot point of my ongoing project - the question of ‘home’, and consists of a halftone-processed cut-out of a Native American tipi. Beneath the tipi is the iOS share icon.

The short video piece I submitted for the 1st Years Interim Show, ‘Inseparate’ began as a series of manipulations of old family photographs cut in half and mirrored to become symmetrical. The first of these I made to accompany the recent write-up of my conversation with Naiara Demnitz. On a basic level here I had Rorschach tests in mind, the internal and the external, using the ‘shed’/home symbol I produced in connection to the CG rendering project and had laser-cut and printed, as a frame around the photographs which fade very slowly into one another over the 6 minutes of the animation. Over the photographs I placed a dark sphere which hovers and dissolves almost imperceptibly and obscures the already elusive detail of the image - a kind of ‘blind spot’ - the opposite of a spotlight, the pursuit of information with a function inverted, a struggle to reconcile fragments of image and memory together and a small analogy for dementia. The blurry rotating circles at the beginning of the video are manipulations of glass lantern slides showing x-rays from a human skull.

I am very grateful to those that installed the piece in the space at Camberwell, and was excited to see how it had been presented when I visited at the weekend - I did not expect the loop across 3 screens and this is actually something that I think holds potential for exhibiting similar works in the future - in terms of my piece it seemed to make a kind of sense, the blue light which Janet described as reading like a reference to the digital in itself (additive, processing), glowing and fading, slow firings, ahead and behind, drew attention to the time-bound nature of the work.

I found the MA Summer Shows to have been full of strong work and sensitively curated. I have since been thinking about practicalities of installation and logistics - what exactly might be possible, and as I push forward practically bearing in mind the advice Alejandro reiterated at the VR workshop in February - keep your work concise physically and practically, particularly in terms of technology, in order for it to be received most effectively - important in terms of AR/VR or film.

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London Trip - 15-06-19 - AI and The Invisible / Semiconductor Revisited
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A couple of weekends ago I went back down to London for a day to check out some shows I’d been eager to see for a while, particularly ‘AI: More than Human’ at the Barbican.

As an examination of how AI is increasingly permeating our lives, at a glance and if at least through the cacophonous curation of show, I think it worked reasonably well as an introduction to the development of technologies driven by an insatiable human pursuit of pattern, measurement and ‘progress’. However, by the time I had squeezed my body a third of the way through the show it was hard not to feel completely overwhelmed by the unbelievable volume of work and display in a narrow tunnel-like space in The Curve, on top of the sheer volume of people jostling to be able to focus for more than ten seconds on one piece. Truthfully, maybe worst of all, I simply didn’t even find much in the exhibition very interesting (which to be honest is a feeling I very rarely encounter or feel weighed down by). I spent the visit wading through and elbowing people ‘playing’ with pieces that barely seemed to offer space for meaning or a question beyond a gimmick. Another factor which did affect my navigation of the show was having felt personally quite low for a few weeks due to several work-related issues - not in and of itself relevant or of interest, but in terms of the context of the show and some of the words that came to mind - power/powerlessness, control, prediction, removal - my interaction with the work suffered from a lack of focus in curation and design which might have provided more space for a critical human reading… most of the people around me seemed to be at the very least excited by the interactive quality of each zone but I question how much collectively was taken away in terms of a reflection of the place of creativity in an AI driven social landscape. Scattered throughout were subjects which I intend to explore further and would have liked to have been able to hone in on, for example neural networks and bioengineering (Organ-Chips in the form of tiny devices lined with responsive living human cells and tissue designed by Emulate Inc. - which sounds like the name of a corporation straight out of a sci-fi movie - to ‘better predict’ human responses to drugs, I read as being at once hopeful and disquieting). I don’t typically find Jonathan Jones’ writing to be constructive and balanced, but I understand the central questions he asks of the show in reflecting on my experience; ‘The question I’m left with is why so much is being invested in talking up the creativity of AI.’ My frustration I think gravitated not towards a feeling that creativity was not to be found in AI technologies - at least not the undercurrent - but the talking-up and hype did not allow for a critical analysis of how an AI can become creative. This perhaps was not a central concern of the premise but the premise itself to me also seemed slightly muddled.

An element that did interest me was some of the focus on written language - one piece in particular tucked away amongst the noise presented extracts of text and asked the viewer whether it was written by a human or an AI, and revealed the answers (one extract for example, pictured above, was a film script generated by ‘Benjamin’, written by a neural network trained on dozens of sci-fi screenplays), which were interesting I think in terms of the way we process poetry or word association… botpoet.com offers a similar ‘test’, and an article from New Scientist (‘Neural network poetry is so bad we think it’s written by humans’) perhaps rightly argues that while an AI could be programmed to write about Brexit in the style of a Greek epic, the emotive drivers of creative intent are missing. This is perhaps not entirely unrelated to Austin Kleon’s reflections on his own ‘newspaper blackout’ work which we discussed in our group Skype chat (18 June) - questioning intent in relation to the ways in which we develop ideas, and maybe some of our hang-ups about originality. I find these convolutions in itself compelling rather than ineffective or purely pointless; the origin of the algorithm itself contains human intent, which has to emit an undercurrent of meaning, especially if we stop to reconsider that AI again is ‘artificial’ - designed, and is not an infallible non-human species. Anxieties abound. The podcast ‘The End of the World’ with Josh Clark effectively explores such considerations of the limits to which AI might influence and shape the future of civilisation outside of our control and the degree to which AI could be, or already represents, an existential threat, and is presented in a way which introduces subjects and issues in an accessible, scaffolded manner. Language, and the use of multiple forms of language is something Jonathan and I discussed in my last tutorial which will be detailed in a post to follow, and building on a suggestion I received in the Mid-Point Review, an exploration of written work and the incorporation of text in visual sequences is something I am focusing on now in making. Memory, as the container of meaning, perhaps still lies buried at the roots of the mechanised plant, and in this I will be researching more on neural networks and deep learning, and the ‘mining’ of natural neurological systems, in order to inform the potency of my project. This will also feed into my research paper which will examine the work of Jon Rafman - again, more to follow.

Today those who peer into the future want only relief from anxiety. Unable to face the prospect that the cycles of war will continue, they are desperate to find a pattern of improvement in history. It is only natural that believers in reason... should turn to the sorcery of numbers... Just as the Elizabethan magus transcribed tables shown to him by angels, the modern scientific scryer deciphers numerical auguries of angels hidden in ourselves.
— John Gray (The Soul of the Marionette, 2015)

Unsound:Undead by AUDINT at arebyte Gallery was not immune to the swamp of future-collapse anxiety either; toxic-green projections and percolating sound (crickets chirping, robotic corporate-style narration of animations describing how the brain processes auditory signals, meandering interviews with White House employees) bounce the viewers’ attention around a media frenzy, over the unravelling of a situation involving alleged sonic attacks on US embassies in Cuba and South China, and speculation on the source of the recorded signal leading to reports of ‘mild-traumatic brain injury’ among US diplomats.

‘The air is crammed and not a moment goes by that doesn’t presage the demise of an eleven billion strong species. Volatile weather systems, environmental warfare, and insect-machine hybrids that infect humans via targeted DNA sequencing, all meld this ecology of collapse. The hierarchy of Earth’s species is about to enter an irreversible flux.’ - Ghostcode, AUDINT

One of the main things I’ve taken away from the two shows I’ve seen at arebyte is that the curation in itself I’ve found very sensitive and effective in enabling the work to engage and not collectively overwhelm. Visiting RE-FIGURE-GROUND was an important moment for me in February, encouraging me to explore intricacies of new technologies and methods of presentation - I appreciate the currentness of the gallery’s programming and Unsound:Undead continued to make me reflect back on my intentions in those terms. How and in what ways do I intend for my project to be immersive? While Unsound:Undead was visually compelling and curated in a way which conveyed a sense of urgency and the battle for persuasion taking place beneath the hum of the swarming media broadcasts and in the rapid-fire twitterbot monitor, I did also consider the penetrability of the work and how, despite being installed in a cohesive way, possibly lacked cohesion in message and effectively suggesting relationships between the video work and the physical cabinet-style assemblage containing 3D printed symbols that seemed to be associated with weaponised sound. The ambiguity and offset focus of the work, the dim but frenetic buzz of the panicked communications, substantially reflected what I read as being an examination of an imminent thread-bare social order, but across the show sound seemed to come secondary to the visual narrative somehow, which I was not expecting. This serves as a reminder for me to continually consider clarity and the specific properties of how my work communicates so that the project engages and reaches as many viewers as possible in offering a space for meaning and reflection.


SEMICONDUCTOR REVISITED

Through the AEgIS, semiconductor, 2017

Through the AEgIS, semiconductor, 2017

In contrast to the Barbican show, the Dark Matter show at Science Gallery London presented a collection of fragile and captivating work which effectively communicated complex principles, questions and introductions to contexts in contemporary physics, in a manner which did not seek to provide an exhaustive history or review. A piece from artist duo semiconductor seemed central to the investigation - their intentions of ‘putting the human back into the data’, working often in residency with research facilities such as CERN, the Smithsonian and the British Geological Survey, serves to draw our attention to the ways in which we rely upon the scientific lens in our understanding of the natural world and forces that shape our environment. The piece ‘Through the AEgIS’ (2017), in which isolated particles nervously scratch and burn across a photographic plate, has a magnetic visual simplicity, and the sensitivity of the formats chosen to examine and translate information into visual sequences throughout their work, which often include obsolete domestic technologies that might have promised the future of recording or display, stitches together narratives of change; growth and recession, activity and disappearance, knowing and unknowing.

There is a great flexibility and versatility in their approach which I admire, and specifically influential on my thought process over the past year has been the use of multiple languages, as previously described, sequenced together to form stories or constructs that question time and our perceptions of environment. I will be exploring their practice and methodology more extensively this week, in order to consolidate and evaluate the relevance and impact on my thought and practice as I move forward.

 
 
 
Conversation with Naiara Demnitz (University of Oxford), Skype 10-06-19

I’m very thankful to have shared a conversation last Monday with Naiara Demnitz, Post-Doc Researcher, Department of Psychiatry at University of Oxford. Naiara coordinated workshops held at Oxford as a component of the Shared Language project, a collaboration between Camberwell and Oxford in 2017, and in a tutorial earlier this year Jonathan suggested I might make contact regarding areas of my research concerning memory and neuroscience. We discussed some of the concerns of my project, and Naiara graciously helped answer some of my questions on neurobiological processes, with an objectivity and subject-specialist knowledge which will undoubtedly be valuable for my research, and in particular an effect on shaping the language of my project, in both written and visual form. Language is where we started.

N: Tell me a little bit about what you’ve got in mind?

M: I was talking to Jonathan about the Shared Language project in relation to my research; neuroscience, cognition, memory, and he recommended that maybe I get in touch with you regarding my project because a conversation might reveal some cross-overs and shared ground. So my project is very broad and roaming and I’m trying to tighten up my research now, but at the root of my work is loss, at its most basic, and looking at potential poetic relationships between neurological and geological processes. There are lots of shared terms and examples of vocabulary between the two subject areas on a very basic level for example ‘trace decay’ in memory and recall processes and ‘trace fossil’ in geology describing things that hold some similarity – a snapshot of something in action. Or this idea of the churning of the earth and fragmentation – the archaeology of that as the pursuit of stitching the missing pieces together as an analogy for struggling with memory.

N: This is interesting – I was thinking about what those relationships you described could possibly be - when I think of association I think of a correlation and – of course, this is a language connection – that seems so obvious now. There are definitely some overlaps between those uses but I’ve never heard of anyone make that comparison before. So are you working towards representing that in a spoken form or a language comparison, or visually?

M: Initially I was thinking of it being purely visual but the more research I’ve done the more I have begun to consider the project to be interdisciplinary with the scope for development into experiments with language in spoken or written form as well. The course itself is Fine Art Digital, and I’ve begun to explore CG and 3D rendering and animation – trying to learn how to use those processes to recreate scenes of memories – or fragments of those memories. It is still very broad at this point. The personal basis for the entire research project is that three of my grandparents had neurological issues – Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Brain Cancer, so as a young person I witnessed these transformations and was fascinated by them and remain so – I’m also very interested in what’s happening to the earth at the moment, and so there is an element of microcosm-macro/’as above-so below’ kind of thing going on… I was talking to Jonathan about reframing those negative experiences of witnessing neurological change as being more transformative rather than just negative/traumatic. One of the pieces I’ve been working on is a 3D extrusion from a scan of something I made when I was about 6 years old maybe – cuttings from seed packets stuck down on a sheet of paper and a description of how ‘these are some of the vegetables my Grandad and I have planted in our allotment’. It kind of looks like a landmass because of the way the highlights of the image have been extruded outwards, though obviously it is just a piece of paper. It makes something really ephemeral look much more ‘active’ and living. Representation of the absence of memory – the gaps in-between, etc… I was imagining that access to information, or trying to piece information together, in neurological process, is a facet of neuroplasticity?

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N: Neuroplasticity is usually reserved as a term that describes a neural adaptation; this could be from learn something new or a new skill, so it’s both change but you’re talking perhaps about negative change in exploring loss of matter – these have different underlying processes. What would bring you to neuroplasticity - what would be the interest there?

M: Again I think for me at this level it still is rooted in language and getting to grips with what these terms mean – and could mean. It’s this idea I think of adaptation and how we respond to change - I know that some of your research concerns lifestyle factors and in relation to that I also wonder how environmental factors might affect our neurological health?

N: So it’s an idea coming from a plasticity point of view. Although a lot of the variability in our brains is determined by genetics, so there is not a lot we can do about it, there is still some variability that is a reflection of everything you do and this includes lifestyle choices. So I think a very easy example here is alcohol consumption – even what we consider to be moderate amount of drinking actually has a really strong effect on – in your case, memory, which is interesting, on the hippocampus* – this is a really important area for memory. When looking at people from their 30’s onwards, even moderate amounts of drinking throughout middle age would affect the volume of the hippocampus later on in life. Personally, my research looks at exercise, and I get older adults to exercise for a long time and look at then look at their brains using MRI. In this case encouraging older adults to exercise – the result is that the brain is more wired up to create connections or to form new neurons, so we’re looking into that. Using lifestyle factors that might be able to hone in on those bits of change that help protect the brain and that is something appealing to us because it’s something we can change. So far there’s very little we know about how to change the genetics of someone to improve their brain but these are small things which we would hope might make a difference, and these examples are quite easy for example most of us know about the effects of alcohol but I still drink! It’s why I pick this example out because it’s interesting in terms of behaviour.

M: That’s interesting though because it hits on the engagement and activity aspect of research, and you’re right – I mean, as you were explaining that there I was immediately thinking ‘Wow, I’m about to turn 30 – how much alcohol am I drinking?!’. In terms of my research as well – the geological change – there are some fascinating behavioural aspects in responses to what is happening right now – and this is another tangent, but we generally all have this idea of climate change as ‘happening’ in the air and in the invisible atmosphere, but actually some of the more dramatic effects of global warming are trembling right beneath our feet, inside of the earth – but engaging people to act positively on things that we cannot ‘see’ or feel as if are out of our control, is difficult.

N: Yes, and on the practical side, a really positive thing that I think would come of your project that’s gearing up to be is a change in language. Dementia Friends is a movement by the Alzheimer’s Society and their idea is to spread awareness about what dementia is, and trying to make people a bit more conscious about how they can help others living with dementia. One key point is just to change the language around dementia, and they want to completely eradicate the term ‘dementia sufferer’ and change that to a person ‘living with’ dementia. It’s a really small change but the idea is that you put the person first and you don’t simply characterise them through the disease. I do see it happening. A friend was recently at a conference and a politician giving a talk used the term dementia sufferer, and there were dementia patients in the audience, and one of them challenged him saying ‘do not describe me like that’ – certainly a lot of people still use that. It’s not that we’re trying to make everything sound positive – of course not – but just to try and change the focus of that. It doesn’t all have to be about loss – it can be about what is still there. 

M: I was thinking about those experiences of not only witnessing but maybe living with dementia as being transformative and how this works, possibly those experiences open up different spaces I guess of cognition, and maybe there is so much there that can be affected or ‘drowned’ by our responses formed around those negative connotations of ‘this is a bad thing’. I suppose as a personal example, witnessing a loved one that has suffered as a result of disease at an ‘end point’, but in a very peaceful state, you might say ‘free’ or removed of a type of concern, the same kind of anxiety that the person’s family might have had around them is something powerful.

N: I see what you mean – It could be a fine line though and I think you would have to be careful as there are some other considerations such as is it actually that the person is at a point where they cannot express themselves in the same way, rather than a case of not wanting to – we might perceive something as peaceful but to them it might actually be something physically difficult, which is obviously very hard to see. There is something called the ‘compensation hypothesis’, by Cabeza**, and he looked at how, let’s say a function in your brain tends to be very lateralised, when you get older it tends to become bilateral – recruiting from areas that it would not recruit before – and this is an example of a way that we can see our brain is adapting to change.

M: It’s that objectivity that I really appreciate. There are so many fine lines and so much of what I’m doing isspeculation really – so to have that insight is really helpful in terms of working towards making arts engaging and accessible, especially when those projects concern areas such as health or environment. 

N: Maybe this is something that might be relevant to your research - in my area, often if you are working with a new group of patients but you don’t necessarily know so much about their experience you would do a Public Patient Involvement (PPI), and make arrangements for a focus group – bringing people in to ask questions, say ‘what do you think about these ideas and do they resonate with you’…

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M:I think that’s a great idea actually – thank you! Going back to the Shared Language project and thinking about the visual language of medical imaging, I was wondering about vulnerability in relation to memory… what does ‘vulnerability’ look like in the brain? I guess this is a question about indicators in neuroimaging – can you ‘see’ a vulnerability through an MRI scan? 

N: Vulnerability is such a sort of complex system, right? What you get in an FMRI scanner is a bold response - essentially the theory behind it is that the parts of the brain that are working the hardest are where the parts the blood gets pumped to, and it changes from oxygenated to deoxygenated blood and that difference you see highlighted in an FMRI scanner. It is a proxy of neuronal activity – we don’t see neurons firing – what we see is an indirect mark of what we think is a sign of a certain area of the brain working. So you have to think of clever experiments where you can isolate a certain function, for example I could get people who are very socially isolated and scan their brains when they are looking at things which remind them of social cues, and you can sort of subtract that to see the difference – but on the other side of that you have to think of the confounds of that – people who are socially isolated might have behavioural problems, they might be going through other mental health issues or diseases – so to get to a complex behaviour it is way too hard for us to say [in a scan] that this is the function of someone looking isolated or vulnerable.

M: Again this goes back to subjects of absence and the invisible or the unseen, and makes me think of those subjects that we don’t quite have a grasp on in relation to how we feel about our environment, and environmental change – if we can’t feel it or see it then is it there… the fact that you can’t pinpoint a ‘vulnerability’ or say that ‘I have seen this therefore it will result in this type of process’, is really interesting in itself. Back to neuroimaging, I imagine that the digital is really important in clinical research?

N: Definitely. To give you an idea of the department that I’m based at, it consists of a third neuroscientists, a third physicists and a third engineers – our engineers design all of the software we use in-house which is constantly being redesigned and updated for the latest experiments we are doing and we just could not work without them. I studied psychology in undergrad and I had never coded anything in my life, and I remember arriving and absolutely panicking because everything was in script – it is so crucial. The physicists are the ones who design all of the sequences that we use and make sure the scanners are serviced. It’s different maybe in a way that a generation and a half ago clinical researchers wouldn’t have needed this sort of involvement with engineering and computing but nowadays it’s just indispensable. I think a really good example is UK Biobank – I think it currently be the biggest studies in the world. Half a million people are being studied in the UK – full medical works: blood, saliva, some of them get a full body scan, and 10,000 of them are getting brain scans. The idea is that this is a massive cohort – the definition of big data, and the idea is that now you will be able to get the full biomass of people who might be susceptible to certain types of disease and things like this… Just the sheer number of that, we could not do that without the incredible software, I mean all of the software which is designed specifically for this. A big part of future medical science I think will be intertwined with that.

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M: Do you think that will translate into engagement as well, and also for example the use of digital technologies, applications and more interactive methods for testing patients?

N: That’s a really good question and one I’m not sure I have an answer for but I have seen more of a big move towards it in the last few years – a lot of people are developing those apps and technologies, and trying to validate them against the traditional methods. The traditional method of testing somebody would usually be to sit-down with a pen and paper memory test. Most neuropsychologists will agree that there are huge limitations with these methods but we still do them because they are the most validated ones, those are the ones that we have normative values for etc. So more and more people are trying to develop their own. The big barrier to that is then having to show that these are meaningful. This will be easier now we have these studies with such big numbers – perhaps if you have half a million people doing it it’s validated against what came before because you will have your own normative values. So we’re sort of able to slowly move forward. I can see how this would change things. There are lots of other concerns which I’m less familiar with such as some ethical concerns, the state having so much of this data. Another example is that my friend is working with something called Game Changer, which is an app, and they are looking at memory testing -  I think you can actually try it at home.

M: There is something more sensory about using an app as well rather than responding to a question. I know that a single question in itself can put a surprising amount of stress on the brain. It’s a completely different process, if you are physically engaging in something in order to negotiate a kind of self-assessment rather than sitting before somebody and responding to questioning. 

What does the future look like?

N: My perception of what I think will happen is that there will be a huge change in relation to the area I have worked in which has not always received an awful lot of attention, which is neurological diseases and mental health especially – I think there has already been a massive change with that, and particularly in a public-led way – the increased awareness around Alzheimer’s Disease in the UK is a good example. I’d like to think that in the future, or at least a really small part of the future, is that we’ll see a lot of progress in the treatment and research of mental health and psychiatric diseases.

* Topiwala et al., 2017, BMJ
** Cabeza et al., 2002, Neuroimage

Matt Fratson
Low Residency

The low residency last month was a wonderfully enriching experience in a number of ways, and prepared me for moving forward in my project contextually and practically. Meeting everyone in person felt very seamless, and I think it is a strength of the course format that after having only communicated online to that point, as a group we are close in being knowledgable of the rhythms of each of our concerns and processes.

I felt this strongly in the group tutorial session on day 2. Our group was led by the MA Designer Maker course leader Maiko Tsutsumi, and I shared my work with Michelle, Chris, Lyu, and Omer (IG @omerder) from the Designer Maker course, who showed us around his ‘work in progress’ show installation - something which I think we were all very grateful for. There is a tenderness to Omer’s use of materials in his sculptural work - an echo of the inner subjects which reveal themselves on closer inspection - relationships between gender, place and expectation, identity and geological activity. I found the installation cohesive and the work itself seductive, and this has since made me pause to think more about exhibition and presentation of my project and how that might work. The gallery visits, tutorials and workshops on 3D printing and Virtual Reality work, have pushed those considerations forward as discussed within my Mid-Point Review material and evaluation in my last blog post.

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Gillian and George in the 3D workshop guided me through the practical refinement of the extruded model from my primary school achievement binder scans I’d been struggling with in Fusion, and printed a sample of the model for me which demonstrated how the properties of what I had produced in Fusion would result in a brittle, spiky surface. Part way through the print, the sample looked much closer to what I had hoped for, with a more ‘readable’ topography than the finished piece in which the detail had been pulled out from the base of the mesh to such an extent that it resembled more of a forest, which I felt overshadowed the subject and lost clarity. George shared an alternative method of producing height maps in Blender which seemed much more appropriate than Fusion - much faster and easier to configure, and more intuitive to me, and he explained to me how I could use a plane to cut through and achieve a surface that did not taper into the tall spines that the original produced.

Our visit to areByte gallery fed into the VR workshop I attended, led by Fine Art Digital alumni Alejandro Escobar, and both experiences were thoroughly constructive and informative. Alejandro showed us how to animate scenes and export as 360 video in Blender, as well as explaining the context of contemporary VR work in art-making, and an introduction to the vast array of technical considerations or variables that related processes involve. Both the workshop and the ‘RE-FIGURE-GROUND’ show at areByte were incredibly engaging, (I found Lorna Mills animated GIF work and Eva Papamargariti’s sequencing of CGI, text components and live-action film especially compelling) and, building on the tutorials I had with Gillian and George, the week coalesced to a great learning experience in which the vitality of the media and processes at the base of interdisciplinary VR, CGI, simulation, and print gripped my attention and gave me many ideas. These have informed the second version of my Project Proposal.

Installation shots credit: Christopher MacInnes https://www.arebyte.com/installation-shots-refigureground

Yellowhirlaway, Lorna Mills. 4-channel GIF animation, 2017.

But for now all i can promise is that things will become weirder (Trailer) - Eva Papamargariti

The stream of human knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality. The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of this realm.
— Sir James Jeans (1930)

Alejandro Escobar, 2018 www.alejandroescobar.com

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Thanks to Danni (thank you again!) I had the opportunity to attend a performance of WHIST at the Watermans Arts Centre, which again was so motivating and tied into the same considerations and concerns. One of the most immediately clear benefits of attending Alejandro’s workshop was to be able to interpret and analyse WHIST in the context of it’s design and also functionality as a VR piece, and to be able to apply questioning which has begun to inform ideas for ways forward in my own project. The problems I experienced with the object identification element (the Augmented Reality component) during the performance hindered the immersive continuity of the narrative, and this, while being maybe my only substantial criticism of the piece, which was otherwise wildly compelling and pretty much unlike anything I’ve experienced before, did make me think about applying focus and a thorough process to ideas that might run the risk of being interpreted as over-reaching or unintentionally disparate. This specifically is something which I try to be mindful of as I map out what I referred to as the kind of ‘borderless geography’ of the narrative I’m developing. Certain pieces in the areByte exhibition also highlighted the technology not ‘being quite there yet’ in different ways - a few of us actually hit the gallery wall in the corner where Claudia Hart’s VR stage piece was shown as we attempted to physically navigate her maze of capitalist symbolism wearing the headset, and the joystick seemed to over-complicate the accessibility of the piece. Alejandro’s workshop generated a lot of very valuable questioning and discussion on issues from health and safety considerations to simply utilising the technology you have to it’s most effective potential rather than pushing for something that weakens an idea. I intend to begin forming sequences of animated scenes to work into larger pieces, and the experiences of the low residency week will certainly help guide me in making informed practical decisions.

 
 
Mid-Point Review

FEEDBACK

The feedback I received during the crit session has already proved tremendously helpful and I’m grateful for everyone’s comments and insights - it’s so important to share work, and to ‘test’ it - is the work doing what you expected it to? This is one of the aspects I’m most enjoying about the course, being back in a shared environment with the framework in which that is an objective.

To a large extent and overall I feel as if the recurring themes throughout my crit align very strongly with my own feelings about where I am at right now, and some of the questions that would be constructive to consider. This is very encouraging.

The question of the extent to which my project is rooted in and weighted by personal history and identity, and how effective it might be in communicating something relatable on a wider scale is something I think is central for me to address, and it one of those continuous considerations that I am working to unravel. It was very valuable to hear how, for example, Betty read the project as being more concerned with a search for identity than an investigation into geography and change, and in response to this Ed said that he felt that identity was one of several subjects tied in together, being expressed through metaphor, and that the tricky part will be to communicate all of that in a way that each subject gives meaning to another. This is definitely a key objective for me now and something which I will focus on more as I work my way through the project - Aristotle describes what I am handling as a ‘phenomenal amount of data’ - and I do feel this. Identity is definitely a concern, and the way I have been approaching the project is from a point of this forming the basis, or the roots, of it and everything that follows or is overlaid or extruded from personal narrative, into something that I intend to speak more of our collective experiences in today’s geological context, and something that works outside of the confines of my own geography, or my home. More and more I am treating this project as something which is so multi-faceted that I do not, in one way, want to impose borders on it, but rather begin to focus in on one metaphor or ‘dimension’ at a time. I will be revisiting and reworking the globe-shaped project map, in order to begin working into it - the project - now, rather than reading around it. I hope to develop something compelling in that multi-faceted way, in which connections that at the moment feel like hints or confusions might emerge more thoroughly as the result of working on this for years to come.

Action Points / Development

Consider the potential of both writing, and verbal description, as a branch of methodology in the communicative behaviour of the project

Pav commented that he felt the quality of the spoken narrative in the video was more important and effective than the visual communication. This is one of a few comments that surprise me - it is intriguing and I am very eager to engage with this. I did not write a script for the video presentation. I made the video piece in a way that was possibly much less efficient than I could have, and I think that this is actually an example of my continuous approach and nature to labor over something, which often results in research dominating time I could be utilising more carefully in making. I developed the video in a very linear way, beginning to end, adding visuals and making mental notes for what I might say as I worked my way along the timeline, then made two sound recordings for the narration - a hiccupy and stumbling rough edit and then something a little better. However, I did greatly enjoy this and this is important actually in a couple of ways - I love writing and research and I have often gravitated towards those modes over visual communication. In this case, I spent much longer processing the visual work I had made and images I had collected along the way via the research than the text. This feedback is helpful also because it suggests to me that the text or the ‘non-visual’ research is at a point where I have something I can begin to articulate and make sense of in terms of a basic framework, so now I can really push forward with that framework more into visual/aural. Having said that, there is something about the spoken element which I, though I do not necessarily in any way enjoy listening to own my monotone drone, think might be worth pushing or at least reminding myself of as I work because it could inform part of the communicative behaviour of the project. Alexis provided a connection to the work of Stephen Jay Gould, explaining how “his essays sweep ideas together in classic form taking one through a disclosure of idea that eventually settles as a sedimentary bed in ones mind, creating a geology of thought”. In response to Alexis’ question, I have considered writing previously, and the feedback he has offered encourages me to revisit it in this context, and indeed how writing could form a dimension of the project in itself, in relation to the thread of historical constructs and reconstruction.

Explore the soundscape, and evaluate it’s potential relationship to the aesthetic of the project

For the Mid-Point Review video piece I wanted to record a very simple soundscape, and something that echoed the time-bound aspect in connection to the research; deep time, memory, life-span. I slowed down and amplified a recording I made of ice cubes cracking in warm water, and this together with one piano chord formed the basis of it. I did enjoy this, and I am thankful for the feedback I received as regards how the sound worked; Aristotle commented that it was significant in his reading of the project, and this seemed to be a shared interpretation amongst others in the group. The development of soundscapes in correlation to the environments that I am imagining each of those metaphorical dimensions within my project to ‘look’ like is definitely something I intend to pursue - I will continue experimentation, and I plan to make field recordings to enrich the process moving forward.

Continue to investigate: extrusion, depth maps, interaction

As I state in the video, testing and trialling methods and techniques of making the project immersive and experiential is a key objective of the project. Christopher suggested the concept of being able to navigate through the embossed landscapes in real-time, which certainly speaks to the thoughts I have regarding experimentation I plan to begin this week in connection to perceptions of the past. On the subject of the embossed landscapes, I’m grateful to Ed for pointing out that those I included in my presentation look very similar to satellite recordings of the breaking up of ice sheets in the Antarctic - this is a useful reference point. Kelda spoke about the way in which I’m currently switching between digital and physical and how that is intriguing and this is something which I have thought about quite a lot; generally I imagine this as actually being a comment within the work somewhere about the two, and about formats - I’m thinking back here a little bit to Daria Martin’s show at the Barbican which I discussed in my previous blog post, and also I am always quite mindful of, for example, the fluency of Joseph Beuys’ interdisciplinary process. I’m also very interested in Kelda’s reading that my work “has a gritty monotone approach a bit like a black and white documentary, which looks real but is a representation of the real.” Documentary is very important to me… there are a few very distinct qualities concerning direction, narrative, and truth (Werner Herzog’s pursuit of the ‘ecstatic truth’ comes to mind) which I have always been fascinated by in that field that deals with negotiating representations of the real - and persuasion. I’d like to pay some more attention to this. Dannii and Jonathan referred back to the concept of extrusion as a device which should be investigated further, and core samples as frozen records of previous events and environments, lifeforms, being literally pulled from within the earth, the question of how our behaviours will be defined in future samples - layers of plastics, the ‘unnatural’… These are certainly reflective of, and valuable extensions of, my thought process. All of the feedback I have received is beginning to inform my planning and direction, and the weight of the focus I give to certain questions that directly affect the experience of viewer.

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