Mark Farid wearing a virtual reality headset (Images by Freel & Gorse)
This article originally appeared on VICE
For 28 days, Mark Farid will remain in one room, experiencing his every waking moment through the eyes of another human being—a real-life "avatar," who, through some kind of Google Glass-like apparatus, will be streaming everything he sees into a virtual reality headset worn by Mark. Stuck in a doctor's waiting room for hours on end? Mark will see it, too. Out getting hammered until 7 AM on a Sunday? Mark will be your unseen wingman. Grunting your way through an especially gruelling bowel movement? Mark will be right there with you. The only real human contact Mark will have during the entire month-long project—dubbed Seeing-I—is one hour per day with a psychologist, who will observe and listen to him in silence. The project could potentially leave him mentally altered for the rest of his life.
The obvious question to ask here is "Why the fuck would anyone put themselves through that?" Well, Mark—a British conceptual artist, working with project curator Nimrod Vardi and documentary maker John Ingle—is hoping to help untangle a debate that has raged on throughout human history, from Descartes and John Locke, to the Westboro Baptist Church and Josie Cunningham. Nature or nurture? The question of whether humans are pre-programmed by their genes or moulded by their environment still inspires many of the big arguments that shape our societies today, from Evangelicals insisting that being gay is just a product of bad parenting and disco music, to scientists insisting that you inherited your gormlessness from your dad.
Mark, Nimrod, and John are firmly in the nurture camp. The trio plan to outdo all those dead philosophers and homophobes by using this project to analyse how far our innate sense of self extends until we start to become a direct product of our surroundings and experiences. Cantechnology influence our mind to the extent that we forget who we really are? Or, in other words, will Mark slowly start to believe that he is his avatar?
To help them come to their conclusion, Mark will only be allowed to shower, shit, sleep, piss and eat when his counterpart does. He will consume the exact same food and drink as him. Other than that, he'll be able to move around the room as he wishes, but his only outlet for independent physical pleasure will be his penis.
"Never say never," Mark laughed, when I asked him whether he's going to exploit this finite luxury. "In theory, I could constantly masturbate, and this could reveal something fundamental about the human psyche. But no, [I don't think I will]."
The avatar—or "Other," as the human who'll be beaming his life into Mark's mind for 28 days has been described by the project—has yet to be chosen. The criteria are that he must be a heterosexual male living with his partner, because Mark himself is straight and in a relationship. It also works for logistical purposes: "When you live with a partner, you narrate your own life," said Mark. "If you're going to the shop, you say, 'I'm going to the shop—do you want anything?' You verbalize your actions and, to a certain extent, your thoughts."
(You can apply to be the Other here, just as long as you don't mind Mark potentially falling in love with your girlfriend or learning all your passwords for everything.)
Of course, inhabiting someone else's body for an entire month won't come without its possible psychological pitfalls. So, for the past year, a psychologist has been digging into Mark's brain to assess who he currently is. The same psychologist will assess Mark post-experiment, but will be impartial throughout its duration, when another psychologist—who specializes in neuroscience—will observe Mark's verbalized thoughts for that one hour each day.
I was refused permission to speak to either of Mark's psychologists because he's determined to keep some level of confidentiality, so instead I asked psychologist Dr. Lara Frumkin about her thoughts and predictions for his future.
"I'm concerned for Mark's wellbeing," she said. "I don't think it will have an impact on his personality, as I feel that's very much ingrained. But his behaviors—the way these thoughts manifest—are bound to be affected, and Mark will be forever changed by this, the same way we're all changed by our experiences. I don't think we ever go back to what we were, as we're constantly changing in relation to our environment and our experiences. The same will apply to Mark.
"For 28 days, Mark will only have the Other's life to live through, and that will change how he thinks about everyone around him. He will certainly interact differently with others, but I can't predict how he will act. I think he will need time to interact with his friends and family again to return to a 'normal' basis. He may not even want to revert back to his normal self—some days he might, some days not. My sense is that people look backward and forward, and Mark will be no different."
Mark's roommate Jade has different views.
"Mark is a stubborn fucker—what you see is what you get," she told me. "It differs slightly, depending on what mood he's in, but he has a strong mind. Someone who knows themselves less well would potentially be affected more, but I think he'll go back to being Mark. I think for some time after he won't have the same confidence, and it'll be about getting his confidence back and knowing who he is again. People do drug trials and scientific tests all the time—this is a similar thing."
Another concern is for Mark's eyes. However, all of the opticians I spoke to for this story confirmed that his sight will go unharmed (though they're unable to put their names to this in writing for legal reasons). One of Mark's closest friends, Hamish, is unconvinced.
"I'm most scared for his vision," he said. "I told him he shouldn't just see a psychologist for his mental health, but also a neuroscientist—someone who could tell whether his perception of light is going to change. He's going to acclimatize to seeing pixels all the time—even if they are HD pixels."
Earlier this year, Mark, Nimrod, and John conducted a 24-hour trial to look into the feasibility and logistics of the experiment.
"During one part [of the footage recorded during the trial], the Other was playing Grand Theft Auto. As I was watching him play the game, I started mimicking his shooting with my hands, but didn't realize until I watched the footage afterward," said Mark.
Currently, this is the only tangible piece of evidence as to how the experiment could affect its subject.
For those of you who aren't so concerned with the outcome and just want to witness Mark's hands twitching in person, the good news is that the project will take place in a yet-to-be-confirmed public space, open to visitors for 23 hours a day (the other hour will be dedicated to Mark's private session with a psychologist).
"In an ideal world, this would be in The Shard—an icon of man, the great feat of the Western world. Living in a glass box in a multimillion-pound complex with the best views of London, cocooned in and above everyone living below," Mark explained. "Conceptually, it works well. But then so does living in a derelict warehouse in Bradford for exactly the opposite reason."
As long as the exhibition is in Mark's hands, it will be free, and there may be a membership scheme in place for those wanting to study or follow the project. I asked Mark's friends whether they plan to visit him during the experiment.
"I'll visit him as often as I can," said Jade. "I'm excited to see the whole process from the other side, and feel that being able to talk to him about how I felt [when I saw] him will be an important part of his rehabilitation."
Hamish told me: "I'm based in Norfolk, but I might come down and see him once, and then might go again depending on how weird I find it. I might take people to see him, like, 'Look—that's my friend.' I could take a girl on a date. I think that would be good."
Mark, Nimrod, and John are adamant that this isn't an endurance test. "If my eyesight or brain starts to deteriorate beyond repair, this project will end early," said Mark. "If I feel I need to take the headset off, it will be discussed with my impartial psychologist, my personal psychologist, and Nimrod, all of whom have my best interests and health as their primary concerns. A majority vote will then be taken between the three of them."
I had my own question around the validity of the experiment. We all act differently when we know we're being watched. Subconsciously, we can't help but change our behaviour to suit those around us. I wondered, in this case, if this might work both ways—whether or not the Other will find it difficult to go about his life normally, and if Mark might start to tire of the project and show increased feedback in order to make the process more worthwhile.
Mark, however, is convinced that he'll become so immersed in the experiment that, after a couple of days, the observer-effect argument will be forgotten. As yet, it's impossible to tell whether the same reasoning applies to his avatar, because nobody knows who it's going to be.
There are hardly any definitives when it comes to Seeing-I, and plenty of variables that can't really be mitigated until the project begins. However, two things are certain: nobody else is going to be rushing into an experiment like this, and the exhibition is going to be a unique—if not slightly unsettling—place to take a date.
To find out more about the project and apply to be the Other, visit here.
Seeing-I will take place in the autumn of 2015. VICE will be giving weekly updates on Mark's progression before, during and after the experiment, when a documentary produced by John Ingle will also be released.
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