Touching the Invisible, Art from Stockholm’s Smart Studio

EEG electroencephalophone used during a music ...
Musical brainwave performance at Deconism Gallery. This picture illustrates the use of a brainwave interface, using the Thought Technology system. Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been taking in some of the Open Studios which are part of Brighton’s Digital Festival. On Friday afternoon at Cogapp, Gavin Mallory and Joshua Routh gave a presentation about their work creating interactive maps.  In particular, a Magic Magnifying Glass they developed for Magnificent Maps at the British Library. They asked if anyone in the audience had experience of any interesting use of digital media in museums, and I was reminded of this exhibition I saw in Budapest in November 2004.  I think they were curious about other interactive technology that helps museum visitors appreciate the exhibition, rather than  the technology being the exhibition. Nonetheless, this exhibition was  interesting to view in Budapest in 2004.

The Power of Thought

becomes visible with art you must touch from Stockholm’s Smart Studio

Originally published in the Budapest Times, November 2004.

Alison Boston

Brain Ball, a game that tests how relaxed you are, is currently open for matches at Budapest’s Ludwig Museum. A little ball – telekinetically controlled by each player’s brainwaves – sits on a table between players, and rolls towards the most up tight competitor. The most laid back person wins the game!

I lost the first three matches, then won every game after that. It took a willingness to lose. Exhale slowly and repeat: “It’s okay for her to win. Relax. Be cool.”

Brain Ball has been shown at medical fairs as well as art galleries, and is one of the Smart Studio’s most successful hybrid projects. It is one of six pieces in Touching the Invisible, an art exhibition that seeks to bring the unseen into the physical realm, and challenge our preconceived notions on time, space, et all.

Unlike most art in today’s galleries, Touching the Invisible is art you must touch, and manipulate. Audience participation is necessary to make it work. Brain Ball needs players and Brain Bar – a computer programme that mixes drinks according to a person’s brainwaves – needs someone to wear the biosensor equipped head band.

A brightly coloured selection of herbal mixes and juices lines the bar. After reading your brain activity for thirty seconds, a small glass – propelled by an unseen force – slides along the sparkling stainless steel surface to arrive beneath a plastic hose, which dispenses the computer selected beverage.

Brain Bar mixed me a cranberry cocktail with Triple Sec (aroma only) and lemon, three out of four times, and each time it gave me more Triple Sec! The fourth time, it skipped the cranberry and went straight for the booze! Does this mean that my brainwaves emit a craving for alcohol? Not at all! Rather, the bar mixes the drink according to the mix of people using its services.

Hell Hunt, a computer program that tracks down Satanic images on the Internet and sends an email message to each guilty web site asking them to remove the offensive pictures, is the only item in the exhibition that doesn’t need the viewer to do anything but observe. It’s fascinating to stand and watch the program download and scan web pages. Whenever it finds the suggestion of an inverted pentagram, it beeps and flashes and makes a scary movie noise. It labels Camp Kid at as satanic, while at all images pass as innocent. At a poster for Friday the 13th fails, while Evil Dead 2 passes.

Hell Hunt entertains with a never-ending supply of images, and strives to reveal the idiosyncratic nature of human perception. The computer programme has been told that all inverted pentagrams are a sign of the devil, so when it finds invisible lines that form such a symbol, it labels the image as satanic. The programme shows that what you see is what you want to see, and not necessarily what is there.

Smart Studio – one of eleven studios within the Interactive Institute, a wholly owned subsidiary company of the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research – uses research methods from both design and behavioral science, while attempting to establish art driven research. A successful project goes beyond the aesthetics of design or the practicality of function and seeks to serve as a catalyst for issues and ideas. It certainly has me thinking about the power of thought. Buy the catalogue. For 500 huf, it gives a good explanation of the goals of each piece.

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