Biohacker Lisa Park Has Art on the Brain
Putting your brain waves on display makes for intimate, engrossing artwork.
Lisa Park, Eunoia II, 2014. Images courtesy the artist
Lisa Park can move water with her mind. She channels experiments with biometrics and body sensors into visual, emotional spectacles. She converts her voice into light, remixes her emotions into music.
The South Korean artist, NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program graduate, New York Foundation for the Arts recipient, and NEW INC member orchestrates brain waves and biometric charts into great visuals and sonic spectacles. Her latest is a psycho-audiovisual performance called NUE, premiering exclusively on The Creators Project today.
In the video, Park wears a white silk dress many times the length of her own body. It’s intertwined like a web between column-like speakers towering over her at the Hague, Netherlands' TodaysArt Festival. Crowned with a brainwave-reading MUSE electroencephalogram (EEG) headset, she slowly untangles herself from the web. Visually, the artist discovers herself through performance, “hatching” from nue—the Korean word for silkworm—into a free and mobile moth.
The traditionally joyous experience of transformation is itself transmogrified by an eerie soundtrack generated in real time by fluctuating readings of concentration, mellow, and alpha, beta, delta, theta, and gamma waves from Park’s own brain. She is stone-faced, in a state of meditation, but the brainwave-based soundtrack lays her emotions bare to the judgement of the audience.
“When I do a performance in front of the audience, they also become active participants,” Park explains to The Creators Project. A smile or grimace from an onlooker can break her concentration, which in turn affects the music. “Both the audience and I are influencing each other.
NUE’s greatest triumph lies in Park’s expert navigation of the gray area around brainwave technology. It’s important to understand that all EEG-reliant art, from Aiste Noreikaite's Experience Helmet to Scott Chasserot’s Original/Ideal and Marina Abramovic’s Mutual Wave Machine, deals with a grainy, low-resolution picture of what’s happening in a person’s synapses. Like an early photographer finding the beauty in gelatin and silver, Park is an expert at salvaging meaning from swaths of biometric data.
Park was doing volunteer web design for The Marina Abramovic Institute when she met NYU cognitive neuroscience Ph.D Suzanne Dikker, who was helping the performer behind The Artist Is Present to plan Mutual Wave Machine. Dikker moonlights as the go-to guide for artists looking to get into the brainwave business. Chasserot, and Abramovic are just a few of her collaborators. Park and Dikker traded ideas about brainwaves throughout her exploration of the medium.
Dikker breaks down the science behind brain waves. ”EEGs aren’t 100% reliable; they measure tiny movements on the scalp caused by synaptic rhythms, but can be thrown off by blinking or exaggerated facial expressions." The devices offer a partial glimpse into the complex system of our consciousness. Even the best headsets, like the $400 MUSE Park uses in NUE, will pick up background noise from smiling, blinking, and all stripes of facial contortions.
For NUE, Park rigged the the computer to received brainwave data from her headset and modulate the sound. Whether it senses theta waves or a fleeting frown, every single feeling is woven back into the show, infinitely.
The result is like a blurry picture of the performer’s feelings. To return to the photography metaphor, there’s a face there, but the details render it unrecognisable. “The beauty is that she keeps it a mystery,” says Dikker. “She doesn’t give us any insight into her head, she gives us one possible, very beautiful translation of data that is generated by her body.”
In her first interactive artwork, Park encased her head in a plastic orb filled with live (terrifying) butterflies, then modulated the pitch of a recorded speed depending on the speed of her heart rate. She later flipped Man Ray’s Le Violin d’Ingres by creating a bow that responds to human touch, then letting herself be played like the violin. She first donned an EEG in 2013 while doing research for her thesis project and first virally popular artwork, Eunoia.
As far as Park is concerned, she’s exploring uncharted territory. “When people think of new media art, they instantly think of screen-based work,” she observes. “But in New York, when you say 'interactive art,' there’s a lot of mediums to consider.”
In 2010 when Park was 23, she returned to Seoul from her studies as a fine artist in California. She went to an interactive art bacchanal that would change her life—The Creators Project’s South Korea event at the now-defunct Kring Culture Space. She swiftly applied to ITP in New York. “Creators Project inspired me to do what I am doing now,” she says. “I had been doing very traditional work, and suddenly I was doing very different stuff.”
Park's 2013 Eunoia installation uses brainwave sensors to create the impression that Park is moving water in five metal plates with her mind. Shortly after Eunoia’s release, Julia Kaganskiy—then editor-in-chief of The Creators Project—became aware of her work. “I had seen a lot of people using brain wave data in ways that felt gimmicky, but this project seemed like such an appropriate and poetic use of the device,” Kaganskiy says. “It had to do with meditation and trying to make her emotional state visible, while at the same time quieting her mind. It doesn’t privilege the technology, the technology is in service of making the invisible visible.”
Later in 2014, Kaganskiy—now the director of NEW INC, the New Museum’s incubator for arts and technology—accepted Park into the program's first class of promising young artists. During the program Park met light installation artist Kevin Siwoff, with whom she would go on to create glowing vocal visualiser Luma. Meanwhile, she continued to expand the premise of Eunoia with Eunoia II, where she scaled the performance up from five metal plates to 48, honed her algorithms, and strengthened her philosophy.
Sonic vibrations in shallow pools of water, she asserts, aren’t so different from brainwaves rippling through water-filled human bodies. Park’s brainwave art offers insight into our own individual experience. “My performances let the audiences know that there are invisible waves of energies (brainwave, sound wave, feelings as frequencies) are interconnected,” she says. “People understand more about themselves through using a brainwave headset.”
See more of Lisa Park's work on her website.