Technology and Our Emotional Selves

Abstract: 

My studio practice investigates relationships between technology and our emotional selves, focusing on the ways technology is shifting from assisting our experience of intimacy to defining and being central to it. Of particular interest is how our ability to control our emotional selves and determine the nature and experience of intimacy depends on our ability to control the progress and development of technology at large and in regard to the ways we engage directly with it. In this project, I created three interactive art installations in which I introduced familiar technologies that, over time, developed a connection with our emotional selves. Then, by modifying the ways in which the viewer was able to interact with the technologies, I endeavored to briefly redefine their relationship with each mechanism. By removing the familiar relationship, I intended to draw attention to it and create a situation where each viewer could become aware of and redress how technology informs our emotional selves. 

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Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    As a form of expression, a work of art is meant to communicate. It is through a variety of mediums, that the maker develops a unique language with which they are able to describe their own experience (Jung 1933). Often, an artist’s clarity through a work is dependent upon the degree to which the maker understands his or her own language, and its relationship to pathways of communication at large. The more encompassing a relationship an artist has with his or her materials, the more succinct a work can be. For me, as a practicing new media artist, I feel it paramount to investigate the implications of the technologies I use in my work. My intention is to deepen the understanding of my own language, so that I may be able to communicate more clearly. This has required a critical investigation into the ways in which technology itself is able to define, alter, and affect how a viewer experiences my work. This process of observation has culminated in a series of three interactive art installations in which I explore certain dynamics between technology and what I consider to be the nature of human experience. While the installations can be considered separate works, I refer to the entire piece under which they are umbrellaed as, Technology and Our Emotional Selves.

    Technology and Our Emotional Selves

    I would like to define “technology” as the things we construct, make, or design in order to navigate the world around us. Technology is at its essence, a tool that aids us in our process of interaction, becoming part of our experience (Hughes 2004). A hammer, for instance, informs our relationship to a nail, the wood, and to the process of building a house, just as a cellphone becomes part of the relationship we have with a long distance friend. And while we engage with these technological tools on a purely physical level, the interactions they generate and participate in, are more complex. At the very least, it would seem that in addition to discussing the physical aspects of an experience, we can also consider an experience’s emotive qualities. Surely the experience of talking with a lover on a telephone feels differently than looking into those same eyes from the opposite side of a bed. In this case, and in all others, the process of interaction becomes inseparable from the experience itself. Technology then, by being able to determine our physical modes of interaction, also determines the ways in which we are able to manifest our emotional self or the aspects of our experience that are not physical. Therefore, our ability to control our emotional selves and determine the nature of experience depends, at least in part, on our ability to control the progress and development of technology at large and in regard to the ways we engage directly with it. My ambition is that the interactive artworks that are part of Technology and Our Emotional Selves are able to make this dynamic observable (Einstein 1954). Within the works, I introduced familiar devices that I believed had over time, developed a connection with our emotional selves. Then, through the incorporation of a previously unassociated technology, I modified the ways in which the viewer was able to interact with the objects. In removing the familiar relationship, I intended to draw attention to it and create a situation where each viewer could become aware of and redress how technology informs our emotional self, and, thusly, our larger experience.

    As mentioned above, the works created for, Technology and Our Emotional Selves are interactive. An “interactive” artwork is an artwork that requires the physical participation of the viewer in order for the work to be completed (Lovejoy 2004). This can be accomplished by incorporating a haptic device, or physical interface, that the viewer operates in order to manipulate some aspect of the work itself. The control the viewer has within the artwork is often mediated electronically, containing a computer that is able to translate the viewer’s actions and behavior into usable data. By incorporating the presence, behavior and awareness of the viewer into the work, interactive art often moves beyond the “object” usually associated with art, and into a realm where phenomena such as human perception and representation become the focal point. Works like Miroslaw Rogala’s Lover’s Leap, first installed in 1995 and made up of two opposing interactive video screens, question the validity of the viewer’s perception by continuously changing form as the viewer moves about the space, attempting to observe a single thing, which does not exist. David Rokeby in his work, The Giver of Names, explores perception by inviting viewers to set their choice of object on an interactive pedestal. Once an object is placed on the pedestal, a computer system digitally analyzes it in terms of color, texture, and outline while its findings are simultaneously projected for the viewer to watch. The viewer’s process of observing the computer as virtual entity analyzing a physical object, abstracts the object by modifying the way in which the viewer understands it. The viewer’s perception of the object moves away from solely their own, and becomes associated with the computer’s (Lovejoy 2004)). Like Rogala and Rokeby, I am very much interested in human perception and its impressionable nature. However, within Technology and Our Emotional Selves, I am more concerned with investigating the things that influence our perception rather than our perception itself. Instead of altering perception in an attempt to bring a viewer to a new place, I hope the works remind the viewer of where they have been so as to be able to choose for themselves where they would like to go next.

    Virtual Music Boxes

    The first work to become part of Technology and Our Emotional Selves was Virtual Music Boxes. While it is difficult to prove, or somehow quantify the emotional qualities of a music box, I believe as a result of my own experience and through the observation of others, that the emotional experience a music box is able to generate is evident. For me, it is a sort of intrinsic nostalgia. It is delicate, and forlorn. The unsophisticated mechanism methodically cycles, its only job, to produce a simple tune. But as demonstrated earlier, it is not only the music produced that generates our experience with the music box, but also the process of operation. Our process of interaction, our relationship, with the music box becomes inseparable from any emotion it may convey. To draw attention to this, I created a virtual representation of a music box that could still be “played,” but was removed from the tactile, direct relationship it has with the turning of a traditional music box’s play-wheel. In its place were a digital interface and a series of video projections. Built as a digital animation in a virtual 3D modeling environment, the music box I created was sleek in design and overly lustrous, evoking the ultramodern environment from which it was born. The music box was then projected onto three screens, each framing a different view of the music box as it floated in black space. Across the room on a simple pedestal was a small box with a turn crank protruding from its side. Inside the box, the crank was connected to a small digital rotary control wired to an Arduino micro-controller and, depending on how fast the crank was turned, the Arduino would send a relational number of signals to a custom built piece of software. The software would advance the music box animation one frame per signal it received, thereby controlling the playback of the three projections simultaneously, and simulating the experience of operating a music box for whoever was turning the crank. In considering the simulative characteristics of Virtual Music Boxes, it becomes tempting to relate the work to discourse on virtuality, digital existence, and synthetic environments. My intention however, is to speak about technology as a tool incorporated into physical reality, and not as the environments it generates. Furthermore, it is not my intention necessarily to draw conclusions about the quality of technologically altered experiences, but to focus on the alteration itself.

    In Virtual Music Box, the interface maintains the music box’s physicality of operation but changes the relationship the gesture has with the music. The familiar relationship has been removed, and we are left with a different type of experience. As an artwork, it is not meant to be an experiment, but to become a visual, maneuverable metaphor that references the relationship our emotional self, as embodied by the music box, has with developing technology. This relationship, as stated earlier, is one of control not just in a physical sense, but in an emotional one as well. The implications of this dynamic need not be explicitly apparent within the work, because they are personal to each viewer, as each viewer’s sense of emotional self is unique. And while there is little point in assessing people’s emotions while engaging the work as a sort of proof (Benjamin 1969), it is worth noting that I overheard several viewers refer to the process of interaction as, “like a video game.” I find it hard to believe that certain viewers relate emotionally to my “video game music box” the same they would the iconic one. Perhaps for younger viewers whose processes are already saturated with haptic interfaces and screen based interactions, the experience was like operating a music box, but for those of us whose experiences are substantiated by certain processes, we are faced with a different type of experience (Capra 1996).

    Television Teacher

    The second installation that became part of Technology and Our Emotional Selves was entitled, Television Teacher. Whereas Virtual Music Box investigated technologically altered processes between ourselves and physical objects, Television Teacher is about our relationship to one another. More specifically, it concerns the experiential dynamic between teacher and student, wherein cultural values are passed on to a younger generation.

    The process of value-learning for a student, if it is to be enriching, requires more than their physical capacity to be quiet, sit still, and listen. Cultural values are not physical entities, and to grasp them, understand them, and believe them to be righteous to the degree that one decides to practice them, necessitates a type of emotional investment. Because values often manifest themselves as behavior in terms of a larger community, to be invested in certain values is to say that one is capable of maintaining an awareness of the needs and feelings of a greater community. This awareness can be appropriately described as empathy. Thus, empathy, as an emotion, must be somehow conveyed in the process of effectively teaching and sharing values. If a teacher is invested in the students and empathy is present in his or her process, than empathy becomes observable.  Alternatively, if a teacher in his or her process is clearly not invested in the students, it is logical to assume that this idea of “empathy,” becoming a sort of abstraction, is more difficult to understand. To put it another way, a good teacher knows the material, and in the case of values, this material is made available through the very process of teaching it. Given the scope of the work presented here, the question becomes, what happens to the experience of learning when technology alters this process?

    In a time when we increasingly use technology, and television especially, to teach our younger generation, it is of great interest to me to assess how this new process of learning might be affecting the material itself. I have put forth the idea that in order to teach empathy and values, a teacher must be able to embody those types of things. Is a television set, as teacher, capable then of embodying a genuine concern for its viewer?   And if so, who, or what, has instilled those principles into the very wiring of the television in the first place? While these may seem like absurd questions, I do not feel it absurd to ask if your own child’s teacher is effective, and perhaps inquire about where they received their own learning. So, by changing the process of learning, we are changing the resulting relationship to the point of our previous dynamic becoming absurd. Again, it is not my intention to qualify certain technologically influenced experiences, and though I may have my suspicions, I cannot definitively say whether or not television is slowly eradicating our notion of values, and that is not the point.  Television Teacher is only meant to try and make a dynamic between technology and changing processes of value sharing observable.

    The focal point of Television Teacher is a television that appears to be capable of tuning itself in. At its core is a custom built piece of software that selects randomly from a predetermined bank of video clips. The video clips are selections from early broadcasts having to do with sharing, cooperation, family, and community dynamics; in essence, they are programs about the important function of values. The video is then transmitted to the television as though it were a signal, giving the illusion of temporality. As the software transitions between clips, it sends a video feed of static to the television. During this transitional period, the software also controls the automatization of two motorized antennae on top of the set. When the television displays static, the motors turn on, randomly changing direction as if the television were sifting through the airwaves, searching for the next lesson. By appearing autonomous in regard to the selection of its broadcasts, the television can convey intention, and therefore investment in the material it presents. This material of course, if we are to attempt to pose the television as a kind of autonomous teacher, needs an audience. That being so, arranged around the kinetic television, is a group of smaller, much newer monitors all facing towards the older television and outfitted with their own live video feed. The live feed frames the older television, and gives the impression that the newer monitors are indeed, “watching” and “learning” from it the importance of community values. Perhaps it is the Television Teacher’s hope that these lessons will be made available to viewers of television’s future generation. And while that would be admirably selfless of the television, is a television set actually capable of functioning on the humanistic level necessary to teach values effectively? This question is not in jest. As a new media artist, the screen becomes an integral part of my language. The implications of it being fundamentally incapable of adequately conveying values, concern, and genuine empathy towards viewers of my work make it a poor vessel for meaningful ideas. Television Teacher is a testament to an ongoing creative investigation into those implications, and I hope it inspires others to consider for themselves their own origin of value.

    Pinwheels 2.0

    The third, and last work to become part of Technology and Our Emotional Selves, is called Pinwheels 2.0. Pinwheels 2.0 addresses another type of experiential relationship we develop, our relationship with the natural world. Nature itself is an uncontrollable force, and if we are to remove technology entirely from our lifestyle, our relationship becomes very much about being at the mercy of its whim. It is through technology that our relationship with the natural world can be mediated, and allow us a degree of control. On a macro level, we can consider a thing like shelter as an example of a basic technological measure taken as an intervention between nature and ourselves. On smaller levels we can consider technologies like air conditioning, bio-engineered foods, and life support as ways we are able to circumvent the restrictions nature imposes on us. So prevalent is this function of technology, that for many people, the act of coping with nature is no longer a necessity, but a sort of privileged hobby (Hughes 2004). Being “outdoors” is an activity; camping, hiking, and hunting are all things we can do in our free time, away from our lives as contemporary humans. So, as a result of changing our ways of interaction, it appears we may have changed the meaning of the experience itself. In accordance with the other works, Pinwheels 2.0 creates a situation where this dynamic becomes explicit.

    Physically, Pinwheels 2.0 is an array of motion sensitive pinwheels. Each pinwheel is attached to a computer controlled servo motor, and integrated into a piece of custom built motion tracking software. The viewer(s), rather unintentionally, control the rate at which the pinwheels spin, by their frequency of movement in the space surrounding the pinwheels. Additionally, their presence triggers an audio sample of wind. The wind’s energy, in terms of simulated strength and loudness, is also relational to the frequency of movement in the room. Through this simulation, Pinwheels 2.0 makes the traditional function of a pinwheel become meaningless. Its behavior is no longer related to a natural force, and so our experience with the pinwheel becomes subject to change. By observing a pinwheel spin in the wind, our process becomes one of bearing witness to nature and its affects. In the case of Pinwheel 2.0, because the object’s behavior is only referential to our own, our process ceases to be one of observation, and more about control. So, what is lost?

    The innate emotivity of natural phenomena, I believe, is evident. Although each individual’s experience may be unique, the process of observing a wind storm, crashing wave, setting sun, or a lightning strike, for the vast majority, carries with it a type of emotion. To the degree that our interaction with these things is mediated and/or prevented, our opportunity to experience certain emotional dynamics between the natural world and ourselves becomes limited. This does of course include the fear of becoming prey, the sorrow from losing everything to a flood, and the helplessness from an incessant drought. But it may also include the exhilaration of being perched on a mountaintop, the serenity while sitting beside a river, and the solace in walking through a forest. As part of Technology and Our Emotional Selves, Pinwheels 2.0 is about looking past the physical function of technology and the event it generates. It is about becoming aware of the processes that are dear to us within an experience and ensuring their relevance as we are made to evolve with technology.

    Conclusion

    As stated in the introduction, Technology and Our Emotional Selves is part of an ongoing investigation into the tools I use as a new media artist and communicator. It seeks to address how those tools function, their limitations, and strengths. And while I have learned a tremendous amount about technology and its communicative abilities through these works, there is one observation in particular I would like to share. In doing so, it is convenient for me that my field of practice incorporates the word, “new,” for this word suggests what I believe to be one of the most salient aspects of new media art and the review of my work−Its novelty. While technology may be, in effect, replacing our emotional experiences with something else, it is doing so with something unfamiliar. This can result in a situation where the willing user engages in a technologically modified activity with no expectations or assumptions of what the activity actually is because it is new and unknown. The reference to what it is replacing becomes shadowed by the originality of the process, and the focal point becomes the technology itself. In this sense, my intention with, Technology and Our Emotional Selves as a communicative artwork becomes problematic. Virtual Music Boxes, for example, becomes more about a new type physical interaction with the screen, as opposed to the emotive qualities of a traditional music box. Similarly, Pinwheels 2.0 becomes about the experience of engaging a motion sensitive system, rather than previously considered dynamics between human and nature.

    I have substantiated my intent with the above works by concluding that it is the process of interaction that defines for us the nature of experience. With this logic, I would have to say that the novel interactive processes I chose to incorporate in my work generated a new, and to a degree, unfounded experience for the viewer. In this case, it would be imprudent of me to assume that within the works there were observable relationships between traditional processes and technologically modified ones; for, if these relationships were in fact present at all, they became shadowed by the novel technology from which the works were made. But while the pieces themselves may be considered poor examples of communicative art, my endeavor was not without significant reward. Through the process of making the installations and observing the results of their exhibition, I was able to understand to a much a greater degree certain functions of technology, not only within my own creative practice, but within my larger community as well. As a contemporary artist and communicator, these results are invaluable.

    References

    • Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken Books.
    • Capra, Fritjof. 1996. The Web of Life. New York: Anchor Books.
    • Einstein, Albert. 1954, 1982. Ideas and Opinions. Translated by Sonja Bargmann. New York: Three Rivers Press.
    • Hughes, Thomas P. 2004. Human Built World. Chicago: University of Chicago.
    • Jung, C.G. 1933. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. Orlando: Harcourt.
    • Lovejoy, Margaret. 2004. Art in the Electronic Age. New York: Routledge.