Fish-brain-machine / Radiona workshop

After constructing the Fish-brain-machine PCB circuits we spent some time experimenting and describing the hallucinogenic visuals created by the stroboscopic light. The ping pong balls over the eyes diffuse the LED light, making for a more intense effect – and enabling use with eyes open. Here they describe some of the effects including seeing colours and ‘a strange experience’ of seeing with only one eye – I get this exact same feeling when using it. It is also hard to know if your eyes are open or closed. [See also Re-mapping the senses workshop ]



Spontaneous sensations

Here are the outcomes from a simple experiment, superimposed from 8 participants. The experiment is described in the paper “the tickly homunculus and the origins of spontaneous sensations arising on the hands”  in which you focus on your hand while staring at it (convergent focusing) or divergent focusing (staring at red marker next to the hand you are focussing on) for just 10 seconds and report the sensations…

IMG_2184 (1)
In this experiment, many of the bemused participants described a tingling where the hand made contact with the table. They were bemused because I did this experiment in the context of our methods and methodologies discussion group – where I was attempting to present my project. I thought it would be interesting to experience, ‘first hand’ the type of phenomenological experiments I’m looking at, and ‘practising’…

Strange face illusion with two-way Mirror feedback


A version of the Strange Face illusion with video feedback and face tracking through a two-way mirror

“… a quiet room dimly lit by a 25 W incandescent light. The lamp was placed on the floor behind the observer so that it was not visible either directly or in the mirror. A relatively large mirror (0.5 m60.5 m) was placed about 0.4 m in front of the observer. The luminance of the reflected face image within the mirror was about 0.2 cd mÿ2 and this level allowed detailed perception of fine face traits but attenuated colour perception…The task of the observer was to gaze at his/her reflected face within the mirror. Usually, after less than a minute, the observer began to perceive the strange-face illusion…”  Giovanni B Caputo, Perception, 2010, volume 39, pages 1007 – 1008 2010


Mechanically Augmented Reality

When I first learned about the Rubber hand illusion [RHI] I immediately began to think about ways in which the process could be automated to create an artwork, in which the experimenter’s presence was removed. This could be done using sensors and a microcontroller to articulate solenoids to tap fingers for example. That thought train was on a back burner until discovered the work of fellow MMU PGR Lin Charlston. As part of her PhD research [See her profile here ‘The Multimodal book as organism, artefact and assemblage: non-human agency in processes of growing and making’] She invented a beautifully simple, entirely mechanical device just to do exactly this.

Drawing of Lin Charlstons device ‘Meshy’

Your hand is placed inside a box, while the other hand turns a crank. On top of the box, another rubber hand is placed. This is where Lin’s experiment takes on its own twist; on top of the rubber hand is a piece of moss. Fixating on this, and turning the crank, a copper disk rotates.  A delicate metal bead curtain brushes over the moss, and over the fingers of the false hand. Simultaneously the hidden real hand receives the same treatment. If the illusion works for you, ownership begins to drift from your real hand to the fake hand. Specifically, the moss begins to feel like it is part of your own hand. [if you are not familiar with the Rubber Hand Illusion check this post]


Although Lin has not settled on a name for the device yet, I couldn’t help trying to think of what one might call such a device and came up with the term ‘Propriosope’ [or Propioscope as I noted] a device for shifting bodily ownership from a body to another body or object [see my post on Unfeaseable objects here…] One could imagine autonomous devices made based on any number of experiments related to the RHI [See my post on Illusions of Invisible, alien hands, 3 arms, and shrinking bodies ]

Experiments with cranks


This has made me reflect on the use of the crank as a convenient mechanism of ‘interaction’. For example; In the RHI synchronous tapping and stroking is essential to generate the illusion. A direct and tangible relationship between what is seen and felt.

Its difficult for the experimenter to replicate this manually, thus a system that can deliver this automatically could useful. It could also be useful in terms of ‘Augmented Virtuality’ interacting with real-world objects in virtual space.
The crank ensures the participant has their hands arm and body in a certain position. And they probably know how to operate the crank intuitively. img_1811                    

The above sketch shows an idea for an experiment: A version of Lin Charlstons device scaled up to resemble a version of body swap illusion [ Henrik Ehrsson and Olaf Blanke]. In which a VR headset was linked to a live camera feed whereby the participant can view their own body, but from a few meters behind themselves. The experimenter taps their back with a stick. In this crank operated version:

  • A person turns a crank.
  • In front of them is a box with an eyepiece into which they look.
  • As they turn the crank, an articulated human model inside the box also turns a crank in synchronisation.
  • The crank turns a ball on a post gently taps both model and participant on the back.

We could try the same arrangement as a physical model, a virtual model viewed in VR. Or linked video, in which the playback is synced exactly with the movement of the crank. How powerful would the effect be? What other Stimuli could be incorporated instead of a tapping ball.

I have experienced something similar in action through an artwork by painter Iain Nicholls and creative technologist Tom Szirtes. ‘Veil’ is a virtual reality work that references early filmmaking, fairgrounds, and the paintings of Velazquez, David Fredrick and Holbein.  The site-specific installation includes a cardboard model house sitting on a plinth and a virtual reality headset which the visitor is invited to wear.

But there is a handle to turn as well, therefore, I would say this verges on Augmented virtuality. I found it to be a powerful effect. I will be writing about this installation and others for the next post…


On the embodiment of unfeasible objects

Further to my last post detailing experiments relating embodiment of invisible and even third hands, here are some notes on my first ‘Clay hand Illusion’ experiments…

The ‘Rubber hand illusion’ shows it is possible to convince participants that a rubber hand is their own by placing it in front of them while stroking it in the same way as their hidden real hand. The use of self-made clay hands, or objects [see below] in place of the rubber hand raises several interesting possibilities for exploration, which move away from the embodiment of replica body parts, and towards the possible embodiment of modified body parts, or completely ‘unfeasible’ objects.tactile_object3.jpgThe clay allows for the gradual and immediate morphing of forms and for the participant to build a sensory connection with the object through its creation. As an artist [who has worked with clay] I feel a sense of deep connection with the objects I make, especially during making them. For example, I feel my face move and contort when I am trying to draw a face. I wonder if this is true of others? This is why for my first participants I am choosing those who work with clay.

In regard to the embodiment of ‘unfeasible’ objects, the possibility of such a thing has been loosely disproven in several studies [See ‘The Invisible Hand Illusion’]. Whereby a plank of wood and a spoon were substituted in place of the embodied hand. Therefore I am keen to explore this further. So far I have had encouraging results which build on the results from the first workshop session [See image below]. Is it easier to achieve a connection with self-made objects, rather than an irrelevant object, such as the plank of wood?
hands03In my first ‘beta’ study, I worked with a participant who is a maker and uses clay in their work. After making a good connection with their self-made clay hand, I asked if they could make a non-hand like an object, or a modification to the clay hand, for a further experiment. They immediately opted to make a roundish blob. Followed by a further iteration; a doughnut shape. They were able to make a strong feeling of connection with the blob and the Doughnut, though not as strong as to the hand, and the connection took longer to achieve. The connection was patchy, in parts, and mapped over the surface.

I found that the fingers could be mapped around the object by using a combination of synchronous tapping and swapping over the embodied finger with other digits, and the moving the already embodied finger over to a new location on the object. For example, the index finger feels fully connected to the clay object but, the ring finger does not. So I tap on the real ring finger and say I’m tapping on the index finger. They then seem to believe that this finger is now connected, when I return to the index finger – they now believe the finger next to the index finger is now newly connected to the clay. It’s not easy to explain! Mor on this later. The main part of the hand did not feel fully embodied.

It seemed like that with time, and combinations of synchronous and non-synchronous tapping, the hand could be mapped in two dimensions over the surface of the object.

I also found an interesting ‘compression’ in the perceived length of the fingers! When I tapped on the knuckle where the finger joins the hand, the participant thought this was the middle of their finger.

Working with the clay has an interesting effect of leaving traces of the tapping and stroking process so over time a textural surface is built up. When experimenting with the clay blob the participant made the following comment…

IMG_1640Unfeasible Object #1 Participant 1

 “I fully believe that’s my hand, but like there’s an obstacle, like you cant push past it…it feels like my hand is made out of this clay, but there is only so far you can push into it…it feels like a barrier”

The barrier seemed to be just under the surface of the clay. Perhaps this suggests a  surface-deep sensation of the perceived embodiment? Another interesting comment…

“Its like when I’m making something, I can feel my hand moulding something, and it feels like I’m on the opposite side of that”

The significance of this comment hit home when my supervisor picked up on the idea of ‘actions’ ie how we might hold an object, or how the object was made. Could embodiment of these objects be stronger if I considered them from the point of view of how they might be handled? This makes me think of ways in which the underside of the hand could be used in the illusion, rather than the back of the hand as is traditionally used. An upside down or inside out version of the Rubber hand Illusion? My experiment continues to evolve…

Mixing object actions and context

This research looked at how we respond to the observation of actions and how the context affects our neural processing of that action. I was fascinated to learn simply by observing an action with an object that can be potentially used for an action – such as a potato peeler – the brain seems to simulate this action.

But what happens when we observe an object being used for an action in an unusual context? Or what happens if we see an object being used for an unusual action, perhaps even in an unusual space.

The experiments used videos of a person performing a task with specific objects in specific contexts such as cracking and egg into a bowl in the kitchen. and was then repeated in a different context or with a different tool. such as cracking an egg into a shoe in a garage for example. The experiments yielded interesting results [see links below]

For me, this reminded me of the mechanisms artists use all the time. Mixing of materials that would otherwise rarely come together – or simply mixing contexts actions and labels.

“The influence of contextual information on action observation and anticipation
“In order to properly interact with each other it is of utter importance to understand what people around us are doing: that is, to be able to derive intentions, to predict and anticipate future steps of an unfolding action and hence to capture overarching action goals. As actions are highly complex stimuli, action recognition and more specifically goal inference involve not only the readout of core information (manipulation movements, manipulated objects) but also the integration of contextual information, i.e. the scene (including actor, room and contextual object information) in which an action takes place. The latter may be especially important for the inference of action goals. Hence, information that is not necessary for the recognition of an on-going action (e.g. cutting a carrot) might be crucial for higher-level inferences of goals (preparing a salad) and the prediction of forthcoming action steps (e.g. cutting more vegetables, preparing dressing)”
Nadiya El-Sourani, University of Muenster, Germany

Link to related paper:
Making sense of objects lying around: How contextual objects shape brain activity during action observation

Is it art if no one can see it?

As an art student, I became interested in the transformative power of the gallery and the simple mechanism of the plinth, literally elevating an object placed upon it to the status of art. I wanted to explore how these mechanisms affect the way people look at things and behave in the gallery. Artists are in a unique position, being able to play with assumptions and expectations, a certain state of perception, one assumes on entering the gallery space, a readiness to look closely and absorb. Potentially reading meaning into things they would otherwise consider banal.

Antony Hall – Plinth with unseeable object 1998

‘Plinth [with unseeable object]’ 1998 is probably my oldest if not the first, conceptual work I made at art school, but the ideas around it still resonate deeply with my practice. ‘Plinth [with unseeable object]’  was a  paradoxical device that was able to display an object, whilst also being able to automatically conceal it if anyone entered the room or approached the plinth. 

I found this idea amusing, but the more I thought about it, and the more people said it would be too difficult to do, the more appealing the idea became. At the time I was studying sculpture and making kinetic work with mechanical and motorised elements. Enjoying this new found access to electrical and mechanical parts and metal working tools, this became my first real engineering problem. It was also my first plinth, made on a budget from cheap chipboard. It took days of sanding and repainting to get it perfectly smooth. [To this day I still spend hours making the most perfect plinths possible, the idea being, that ultimately the plinth becomes invisible, highlighting the work on-top, while in reality, the plinth is as important to the work, as the object placed upon it]

I devised a mechanism with a motor, a series of sensors, relays, and timing mechanisms, to open a hatch, through which an object could emerge. A movement sensor ensured that when anyone entered the space the object would rapidly retract, only to emerge later when no one was in the space. Perhaps on entering the space, one might catch a glimpse of movement, something retracting, or hear mechanical click and whine as the mechanism concealed itself.

I took dark pleasure in watching from a distance, people standing next to the plinth motionlessly waiting for something to happen, to see if it was possible to trick the movement sensors. The mechanism ensured that you would not see the object unless you waited motionless for 15 minutes, and no one else entered the room. The hidden object; a shiny abstract aluminium form chosen purely to gleam and capture attention from a distance.

Obviously many people walked past the work, perhaps perceiving only in a peripheral sense, the absence of a thing, or a space unoccupied.  I took away an important lesson from this work; what began as a simple investigation into the dynamics of the gallery environment and a technical challenge, led to a realisation of the subtle power of what is not shown. And how the viewer can unwittingly interact with a system and become part of the work, becoming an active participant.

What seemed like a rebellious act for me at the time, is a recurrent theme in art history; the archetypical void of nothingness, the absence of material objects; a powerful undercurrent in conceptual art, making the viewer reflect on their own role in the experience and perception of the work of art.

In making this work I developed an interest in working with the environment of the art gallery, using this more like a laboratory of experience. Currently, in my research, I want to investigate this area and explore this notion of ‘perceptual art’, artists working with pure experience, and illusion; work that is activated through human behaviour and interaction. A discussion I hope to elaborate on through this blog.

Below I have listed some key works, early predecessors which built foundations for a movement towards more intangible, immaterial and sensory artworks:

See also posts on Somaesthetics
See post on ‘Unseen by the artist’ [Lost work] 1999

Key historical works on the theme of nothingness:

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Air de Paris’ [1919] ‘Ampoule of Parisian ether’, Robert
Rauschenberg’s White Paintings
John Cage’s silent music piece 4′33″ [1952]
Yves Klein’s aura-infused gallery space [1958].

Chris Burden concealed himself within a gallery space on several occasions for durational performances. The simple suggestion of a creative presence, substituting for the work of art itself.

Andy Warhol’s ‘Invisible sculpture’ [an empty plinth]  joke on the commercial art world perhaps?

Other artists/works:

Marina Abramovich, James Turrel’s light works, Tom Friedman’s ‘1000 Hours of Staring’

Notes and references:
The eloquence of absence: omission, extraction and invisibility in contemporary art

“Null Object: Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing” in which an object was created from his brainwaves whilst trying to think about nothing.

Life is an illusion. I am held together in the nothingness by art