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.

Crawling Preface


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)


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


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


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


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.

Standing Whimsey


I am continuing to work with the theme of time and representations of time, with an emphasis on the relativity of events. There is a quality of action and reaction — moving the mouse changes the cycling patterns of the time cones. I have left the background semi-transparent to add a persistent quality of transition. Each frame slightly blends into the other. The resulting animation is chaotic and angsty, though these qualities may still need to be adjusted. I almost find this one too difficult to watch due to its busy-ness. There is also the risk that the flashing quality limits access and excludes people with sensitivities to this type of imagery.

Firefly Burnout


The inspiration for this sketch comes from a number of sources. Artist Amelia Winger-Bearskin created a banner for the #2020 Awakening Project in the US that states “What is made bright by the loss of your light?” This statement, made in solidarity with mothers and femme caretakers, encapsulates the ongoing grind of this pandemic, the disruption of care networks, and isolation of the family during this period so well. I have spent much of the past year persistently trying to balance familial responsibilities with my job, research, and creative work, though now in August 2021, I find myself in an persistent state of lethargy, digging deep within my being to draw up the energy to keep going. Angst gives away to exhaustion.

The image of the fireflies is taken from the book Survival of the Fireflies by Georges Didi-Huberman. He appropriates this metaphor from filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who describes the how luminosity of creativity is being lost to the night. However, Didi-Huberman shifts the metaphor:

It’s not actually into the night that the fireflies have disappeared. When the night is darkest, we’re capable of seizing on the faintest glimmer, and even the expiration of light remains visible to us in its trace, however tenuous. No, the fireflies disappeared in the blinding glare of the “fierce” spotlights: spotlights from watchtowers, on political talk shows, in sports stadiums, on television screens (12).

These metaphors are merged in this sketch. While I am not fully satisfied with the aesthetic quality of this sketch — the timing and shifts are not quite right — it conceptually captures this particular type of pandemic fatigue.

Wandering Error


This sketch is based on code from Generative Design, which involves the creation of growing arrays. It involves growth structure of complex shapes from agents, reflecting the growth processes of plants and minerals (Generative Design 112). I modified the code to include interactive elements, where the user influence changes the process of growth — aspects of action and reaction.

Intriguing Relativity


I am continuing to work in 3D, with this sketch returning to representations and sensations of passing time. Inspired by Carlo Rovelli’s book The Order of Time, I am responding to the limited and inaccurate attempts to quantify time through visual representations, like the clock. Here I work with the hour glass shape that also resembles the light cones that Rovelli uses to illustrate the relativity of time. This perpetually creating and dissolving array of hour glass forms is contrasted with the accumulated traces of particle forms — a merger of metaphor and affective sensations of lived time. The array moves in relation to mouse position/placement of finger on touchscreen.

Beautiful Game


I have been working on variations of a theme as I continue to experiment with the form of the mobius strip, after receiving some feedback that the form of the strip tends to have a “science-y” quality to it. It is not surprising, since as a geometric form it is engages with such mathematical precision. The model evokes the double helix of DNA. How then to engage with the form without falling into such semiotic trappings? As I become more familiar with working in 3D space and becoming familiar with the trigonometry involved in modelling the mobius strip, I am trying to find ways to push its edges into less than perfection. The challenge is to maintain some semblance of aesthetic cohesion without falling into messy digital chaos. I am not quite there yet.