Solace in the sensorium

George Poonkhin Khut: Interactive & Participatory Art and Research

George Poonkhin Khut

George Poonkhin Khut

George Poonkhin Khut

I’ve been making body-focused artworks combining biofeedback interaction and audience participation for the past 10 years. I started working in this area, excited by the potential to create work that combined the evocative worlds of electronic art with the visceral, moment-to-moment directness of a participant’s own physiology.

I continue to be motivated by a deeply felt desire to address what many have identified as a serious disconnect in our culture between how we experience, represent, use and treat our bodies, and what we are learning about our embodiment from the disciplines of psycho-physiology, neuroscience and contemporary somaesthetic philosophy.

Inspired by fleeting glimpses into the sublime and richly embodied subjective spaces made available through meditation, Tai-chi and Feldenkrais somatic bodywork, I’ve been searching for ways to incorporate these sensibilities into seductive interactive artworks that can help make these elusive ways-of-being and knowing accessible to a wider audience that is less likely to have the patience to adopt them.

My works provide conditions and instruments for audiences to observe and experiment with how they can influence their bodies through changing breathing and stress/relaxation via real time analysis, primarily via heart rate variability, and more recently—in the ThetaLab project (see next page)—through modes of meditative focus used to modulate electronic soundscapes controlled by brainwave rhythms.

A participant’s role is to bring the work into their consciousness—as a collection of experiential reference points—making them capable of reframing subsequent experiences of self and then body-mind connection, and then in the realm of social interaction. In this way we can ‘practice’ a more holistic concept of self that acknowledges the strengths and limitations of our embodiment and circumstances.

Experimentation and research into the experiences these works produce in the participants have always been central to my work (begun as a Doctoral research project at University of Western Sydney in 2002), but since 2008 I’ve been focusing particularly on how the works can involve audiences as researchers. In doing so the work has evolved new social practices that re-frame our experience of, and attitude to, the self and its embodiment. I’m interested in art’s capacity to inspire people from a wide cross-section of society—to create shared reference points for how we can be and relate to the word around us, here and now. I’ve presented these works in art galleries, science museums and hospitals.

In 2011 I began the BrightHearts research project—a collaboration with Dr Angie Morrow, a brain-injury specialist at Kids Rehab in the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney. The aim is to research, design and evaluate the potential of my heart rate-controlled artworks for managing the pain and anxiety experienced by children undergoing painful procedures, with needles for example. With support from the James N Kirby Foundation and a residency grant from the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) I was able to research clinical practices and prototype a new tablet-based work suitable for use during clinical procedures.

A version of this work went on to receive the 2012 National New Media Art Award at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). A pilot study with children at Westmead is scheduled for late 2013, to be followed by a randomised clinical trial in 2014, pending further research funding. The clinical trial will assess the efficacy of our heart rate-controlled biofeedback relaxation training ‘app’ compared with standard distraction-only tablet-based games that are increasingly used in clinics during painful or distressing procedures.

Beyond its application in pediatric clinical settings I’ve been working on a version of the work for general release, with the establishment of Sensorium Health Pty Ltd, a partnership with fellow interaction designer Jason McDermott (formerly of ARUP Urban Informatics). We’re excited about the possibility that mobile apps present for reaching new audiences with this creative relaxation training tool.

Our vision is for an interaction experience that combines electronic art, wellness coaching and social media technologies. The decision to market the work as an app for relaxation training—rather than as a creative app to be appreciated in its own right—has been taken for entirely pragmatic reasons. It’s based on a large, clearly identifiable market capable of financially supporting the development of specialised wireless sensing technologies able to provide accurate heart rate data.

The question often arises, ‘Is this art or science?’ It’s a good question in that it can help us to re-assess the range of conditions and expectations we place on both art and science: what is it that these practices need to do (or not do) for these terms to be useful? It’s essential to recognise that these works are primarily focused on mediated experiences of self—not just technology. The participant is an essential part of the compositional system, one designed to re-route neural connections, through the provision of new or unusual forms of action and sensation.

This is what drives and inspires me to continue working with interactive and participatory systems. It’s the sensual, first-person way of knowing, learning, sharing and interpreting that places this work firmly within art traditions—as we understand them in Western culture. For me these works are all deeply connected to how the arts and art-like practices have functioned across many cultures (particularly pre-scientific ones). It’s about a way of knowing and reflecting on experience—through our senses, in ways that go beyond abstract, analytical interpretations.

As a citizen and artist committed to the principles of a rational, secular society, I see art’s role as helping us to evolve shared meanings and values in relation to what we learn about the world and ourselves through scientific methods: what meaningful contributions can we offer to ‘our’ sense of what it can mean to be human in the Anthropocene age [a term from geology relating to the human impact on Earth’s ecosystems. Eds]? What are the values and ways of living and knowing that we want to bring with us into immediate and longer-term futures?

A related question, “Is it art or therapy?,” is particularly relevant for a project like the BrightHearts app. If we begin by prioritising the creation, facilitation and critique of innovations in actual, living social practice—the regulation of body-mind interactions—then a more important question is, “What is potentially lost or gained in the movement from one domain of practice to another? While it’s obviously not an either-or situation, for a work like BrightHearts the risk is that the experience of the interaction simply becomes a means to an end (lowered anxiety) and that its capacity to evoke more nuanced reflections on mediated experiences of embodiment becomes diminished with repeated use. The strong inter-subjective focus of exhibition-based works like ThetaLab and the Heart Library Project—presented in public locations as laboratory-style exhibitions where people experiment and share experiences—differentiates these works from strictly therapeutic practices. A participant’s motivation is guided by a more open-ended curiosity, in contrast to the sense of personal urgency or pain that motivates people to undertake a therapy.

This is a significant point of difference: we shouldn’t have to wait until we are unwell to justify an exploration of these connections. We need to develop practices around health and wellness that contrast with our prevailing fixation with ‘treatments.’ Conversely, the informal, more impersonal and uncommitted nature of most people’s engagement with contemporary art—and works like The Heart Library and Theta Lab—presents real barriers for the realisation of its transformative potential when compared with what can be accomplished in a more formal therapeutic context.

In this age of information overload, hyper-stimulation and proliferation of digital content, perhaps it’s not more art that is needed, but an improved capacity to pay attention in careful, deliberate and sustained ways to the situations around and within us. This is about culture more generally, not as a collection of isolated artefacts and gestures, but the ways we bring ourselves to bear on the situations we enter into.

See Urszula Dawkin’s review of ThetaLab, part of ISEA2013

You can read many reviews of George Poonkhin Khut’s work in RealTime’s Media Arts Archive.

George Poonkhin Khut graduated from the University of Tasmania Centre for Arts in 1994, holds a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Western Sydney and has taught interaction and human-centred design methods at the University of Technology Sydney. Distillery: Waveforming was awarded the 2012 National New Media Art Award at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). His work has been exhibited in Australia, Taiwan and the UK. georgekhut.com

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 6-7

© George Poonkhin Khut; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 October 2013