Emergent: Performing with Code (2021, in process)

The body is the database of lived experience. Body-based performance art functions as a means of considering this “data,” drawing upon it through actions and gestures that investigate, play with, and share the accumulation of experience in flesh. How then can biometric data function as performance art? Emergent involves the production of generative animations that are produced using biometric data (such as heart rate and oxygen levels) and movement trackers as a means of conveying body-based performance. My intention is to engage with the memories of the flesh, as the data of the body is used as the impetus for aesthetic encounters.

As a performance artist working with digital media, I have long been interested in how technology opens up different means of engaging with performed actions. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted the production of performance art, which generally relies upon live and physically in-person presentations of work. While video and livestreaming have introduced possibilities for productions, these depend on cameras to capture and communicate action through moving image and sound. However, performance art encapsulates other sensory qualities of the body that do not always translate through lens-based media. These limits introduce creative challenges that invite new ways of producing performance art.

At the moment I am producing generative design sketches using p5.js, where code is my collaborator as I develop new means of tracing performance with digital tech. I am trying to create one a day, posting them on social media and on GitHub pages. Shifting away from lens-based media, such as video and photography, these works are the expressions and artifacts of performance. This is my sketchbook, where I present works in process(ing) and create an archive of the work as it develops.

This project is being produced with technical support from Gerald Glynn and financial support from an Arts Council Ireland Agility Award.

Oblivious Network

https://elputnam.github.io/ObliviousNetwork/

Just a simple geometric sketch — contrasting colours of cyan and deep red, a randomly rotating cluster of cones to create a digital ruby. I am continuing to develop Ferocious Patience as a presentation of movement data, but in the meantime I continue to have a urge and need to sketch.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines to sketch as: “1. To describe briefly, generally, or in outline; to give the essential facts or points of, without going into details; to outline. 2. To draw the outline or prominent features of (a picture, figure, etc.), esp. as preliminary or preparatory to further development; to make a sketch or rough draught of (something); to draw or paint in this manner. 3. a. intransitive or absol. To practise sketching; to draw or paint sketches. b. To proceed in a sketchy manner.”

Sketching is useful for working out ideas, to bring a concept into being through gestural form. Sketching is a practice that enables the development of skills, but also the capacity to escape the isolation of mental confines as some thing takes on sensorial qualities as shared phenomenon. Treated as a rough process at the early stages of creative production, sketching can initiate a process of crystalization — a germ instigating a physical reaction. The manifestation of the sketch can vary — pencil drawing, jotted notes, sonic hum, or even a few lines of computer code. What matters is the emphasis that is placed on action — on the act of doing. Shifting attention from a final output, sketching functions as a practice of maintenance.

Indeterminate System

https://elputnam.github.io/IndeterminateSystem/

For this sketch, I returned to a generative play with images that I have used in previous works (Milk Drunk), where a series of still images are animated in a random order to create a never ending looping animation that does not repeat. I pulled one image per second from a video I shot with my daughter, where I moved in response to her movements as I held her hands. The final version through the Github link has 90 images (testing the limits of how many the sketch can handle without breaking), though the embedded version here only has 30 due to size limits of the p5.js editor. Please be patient as it takes time to load the full array, with each image about 1 mb.

Conceptually, this piece connects to the aesthetics of interruption that I have made art, written, and theorized about extensively for the past few years, including my forthcoming book with Bloomsbury, The Maternal, Digital Subjectivity, and the Aesthetics of Interruption. I also wanted to create a simple generative piece (compared to other pieces, the code is minimal), as I having been feeling quite worn down lately in my capacity to think — the grinding burnout of this pandemic.

Sedentary Productivity

https://elputnam.github.io/SedentaryProductivity/

I am continuing to work with FitBit data, focusing on how to convey inactivity. For this sketch I just incorporate the sedentary minutes and the step data, though also including a live video stream from the Webcam (it seems this does not work in the embedded version, only the full page version at the link). An image is taken every 30 frames (every 2 seconds at current framerate of 15 fps). These form a temporary grid, evocative of Eadward Muybridge’s motion studies. Muybridge’s image captured animals in motion, though the web cam feed captures a person using their phone or computer, resulting in images where not much seems to change. I wanted to incorporate this feature, since I noticed that my activity minutes decrease when I work more, and due the to the pandemic, any time I could have to work is severely restricted. Thus, my time for productivity becomes my time of being sedentary.

Ferocious Patience

https://elputnam.github.io/FerociousPatience/

This sketch is an adaptation of Recumbent Steam. I replaced the circles with squares in four quadrants of the canvas, again with motions and hue correlating with number of minutes. I found myself unsatisfied with the design of the first iteration and wanted to try a different approach. The presentation of steps is the same. In both Recumbent Steam and this version, I incorporate an interactive element with the yellow circle. I am still unsure if interactivity is necessary, but I use it to draw attention to the presence of the viewer/user, enabling it to highlight their relation to the interface. I am still playing with the rules and limits of User experience design, while in both these sketches, challenge the reductionist interpretations that Data Visualisation promises.

Recumbent Steam

https://elputnam.github.io/RecumbentSteam/

For this sketch, I am working with the activity levels collected by my FitBit, which break down quality of activity to sedentary, lightly active, moderately active, and very active. In particular, I am interested in drawing attention not to the rigor of my activities, which tends to be the case with the FitBit, but instead the moments of inaction. I started by using the values of activity levels, which are all drawn from the same random month from May 2020 to October 2021, to influence the hue and movements of the circles. I then incorporated the step values for the corresponding month. Again, to draw attention to inactivity, the design of the steps visualisation became more compressed as the value increased. The circular motion of the squares correlating to step counts reference the cyclical nature of collecting FitBit data, which is broken down into daily and hourly units. Time as calculated by the FitBit is presented through activity.

I used a random title generator when developing the title, Recumbent Steam. It was originally Recumbent Stem, which I felt worked well with the interest in conveying inactivity. I altered Stem, which brought to mind the popular acronym for Science Technology Engineering, and Mathematics, to Steam to reflect the popular adaption that incorporates Art.

Crawling Preface

https://elputnam.github.io/CrawlingPreface/

It has been a while since I focused on the visual qualities of a sketch. This piece is an adaptation of an example from Generative Design. In addition to altering the colors and qualities of the shapes, I added the circular forms and played with the timings between different elements. After what has been quite a challenging year-and-a-half of pandemic context collapse, I am still trying to come to grips in functioning within what is pretty impossible circumstances. These circumstances, which have restricted physical interactions and increased reliance on digital technologies for connectivity, have also emphasised the affective impact of these networks. This sketch is simply a self-portrait of networked angst — the incessant buzz of anxiety tied to a need to connect and stay connected combined with a sensation of just being out-of-tune, out-of-step, out-of-synchronicity. The technologies that were meant to smooth over the mess of reality through algorithmic ordering are replacing this reality with increased anxieties through inabilities to match such parameters.

Android Dream (new iteration)

https://elputnam.github.io/SleepAnalysis/

I have continued tuning the Android Dream sketch, where I work with sleep data from my FitBit. With some support from the Processing Forum, I managed to debug the night cycling issue, so now the code cycles through the entire month of data, as opposed to getting stuck in a loop of the first night. This type of problem solving pushes up against the limits of my understanding of Javascript and programming. The person who assisted me in resolving this issue commented on the unconventional task it was performing, using nested loops through the draw loop as proxy. I guess that it where my interests as an artist come in. I am not so interested in making the computer perform specific tasks, but instead, figuring out how to come to particular outcome using computer code. This outcome is informed through the capacities and constraints of code, usually meaning that I am working on the limits.

I am also attempting to refine the style of the design. I replaced the random placement of squares with the “grid” from Pixel Flare, though I changed the interactive hue shift to just black and white. I am still considering adding an interactive element to the sketch, though there is already quite a bit going on — I fear to do so will just overdo it.

I still experience hesitance at adding text. Generally it is not something I do in my work, since to add text provides a literal meaning and influences interpretation. However, since I created Displacement, I have been more conscientious of the browser as medium, which means such works are generally experienced outside the gallery context. The challenge becomes how to introduce traction through text without over influencing the interpretation. Here, I find myself turning to poetry, thinking specifically of Jeneen Naji’s recent book Digital Poetry. As a performance artist, I have been drawn to metaphor and the distillation of ideas to certain symbolic actions, gestures, or objects. I am now engaging with text as another such means of expression. The short poem, “Sleep Between Disrupted Dreams” cycles through fully once, and then begins at random points. I appreciate the capacities of code to produce a dynamic presentation of the text, which combined with the cycling of data produces a experience of viewing that differs with each engagement.

Android Dream

https://elputnam.github.io/SleepAnalysis/

I am starting to pay more attention to how I can incorporate biometric data into my sketches, drawing it back to the deferred performance that has been this past year of the pandemic. So far I have focused on heart rate data. As data, it has a nice range of variance. Conceptually it appeals to me as a means of presenting embodied-ness. The Fitbit collects different types of data, including steps and activity rates, but also sleep. Sleep is measured in levels (wake, light, rem, and deep) and durations of seconds. For this sketch, sleep data from one month of the past year is selected at random. The background hue responds to sleep level. Saturation and alpha channel is influenced by duration. I was hoping to use the measure of duration to inform passage of time in the animation, though it is proving to be tricky figuring out how to do that in the code. I also need to do some debugging as it is stuck reading one night of the month.

This has me reflecting on sleep of this past year and how the increased stress and anxiety has influenced these nightly slips into oblivion. This work is an early sketch, but I am working on developing it out more as a performance piece.

I got the FitBit in April 2020 while we in our first lockdown in Ireland. I did not have much interest in one prior to that, in part because I had not been very active in terms of exercise but also because I was disturbed by the collection of my biometric data but private companies. There is something quite invasive about tracking movements, heart rate, and sleep pattern. I attempted to build a pedometer using an Adafruit circuit playground, though it was not accurate and I was unable to store the data with the type of microcontroller that I had. After a few weeks of lack of success, I ended up getting the Fitbit.

At that time I also began running daily as a means of coping with the stress of lockdown and as part of my grieving process after losing my dad suddenly in October 2019. I admit, the Fitbit did initially get me to run more and farther then I have ever before. The gamification of exercise had its appeal, though this wore of when the 2020-21 academic year began, which was one of the most challenging of my career (including when I was adjunct at multiple institutions). Every free moment went into work, and there was less time to do so due to lack of appropriate childcare.

As we are set begin another academic year in the time of COVID-19, I, like numerous others, am still trying to process the past 18 months. Working with this data is one way of doing so. Working with the biometric statistics of my everyday actions, my body just making it through each moment to moment, perhaps I hope to gain some insight of whatever this was and whatever this still is. It is a deferred performance of just doing.

Brash Phone

https://elputnam.github.io/BrashPhone/

I am continuing my play with different visual elements and interactions with the screen. Here I contrast the circular form with the flickering pixelated square, with the concentrentic circles bringing to mind the traces of a finger print. The circles are repelled by the square, which move in correlation with the mouse/finger on touchscreen, while the squares also generate the circles, presenting actions with reactions.

I keep coming back to this sketch. Though not intended, the hues and shades have started reminding me of an abstraction of a smouldering fire. I like playing in the luminal space between abstraction and representation. Since much about computer use and digital tech leans towards the use of images, words, numbers, and other symbols to stand in for something, what happens when it is not so clear as to what is being represented? The datafied self is merely a numerical shadow, yet is treated more human than the organic body. I am not calling for a rejection of tech, but an acknowledgment of our entanglements with tech and recognition of the impact that this tech has on our bodies.

Past Mars

https://elputnam.github.io/PastMars/

For this sketch I appropriated code from Generative Design. I ended up not modifying it much — just making the dotted line non-visible — but I added a new element that interferes with the generative drawing. The dot patterns that respond to the movement of the mouse/finger on touch pad disrupt the placement of the lines, which move in new directions after intersecting with dot, altering the growth of the pattern. I am interested in the impacts of interference over time. Also, for some reason this sketch crashes my Smartphone browser (not computer), expect when I link to it through a social media platform.