Silent Barrage: Interaction & Cognition

Be still my cybernetically pulsing heart! Silent Barrage was easily my favourite element of the Visceral exhibit in the Science Gallery.

It encompasses so much of what engages me RE interactive computational culture. It’s an interactive installation where users movements are tracked via MAX/MSP camera:motion tracking. The grid through which users can pass is sectioned into 32 squares. These 32 squares are then relayed to 64 electrical stimulation points which are wired into a culture of neuron cells, which is located in Georgia Tech Atlanta. Still with me? The neurons respond to this stimulus and send a charge back. This charge is translated into the movement of a stylus on a vertical pole.

This work does so much right. Neuron activity is translated into simple but beautiful data visualisations. This is the kind of data visualisation which conveys some information, but is incredibly rich in relaying a lot of contextual information by virtue of the ecology within which it is situated. In cybernetic information age parlance you don’t get a more touted metaphor than the internet as a nervous system. Here the internet becomes just that, relaying electrical stimulus to and from the neuron cells in a remote culture. And it’s rat neuron cells, a nice shot across the bows of anthropomorphic conceptions of the internet as distributed human nervous systems (and nicely evocative of Blue Brain’s successful simulation of the neocortical column of a rat). Furthermore it’s linking two systems in a truly cybernetic manner: what a contraption this artwork is! We have human interaction impacting upon a culture of neurons.

And this is where the work most succeeds. This is not merely an interesting contraption for the sake of it, though if it were just that it would still be impressive. However this installation can lay claim to ‘scientific merit’. These neurons, some 50000 of them, if left alone and unstimulated will descend into electrical spasms, not dissimilar to the type of electrical activities witnessed in epliptic seizures (important to note that this is purely on a level of electrical similarity). But through getting regular stimulation these seizures become less frequent. Furthermore the scientists value the input generated by human movement. The human movement within the MAX webcam system provides a truly random feed of information. This is an instance of human behaviour being coupled to a computational system in a manner beneficial to the latter: true randomness is impossible to achieve within the confines of a computer (though it can be accurately simulated). This may be treading near philosophical hair splitting but it is an important point to stress: the human element of this cybernetic circuit is crucial for the random data it can provide, something oppositional to the original conception of cybernetics as a science of control and a means for reducing error by coupling computation to human capacity. This human generated random data is used by the scientists alongside computer generated random data.

More metaphorically I found that this project resonated with the idea that movement/activity really cannot be divorced from our gray matters purely cognitive indulgence. I am no doubt hopelessly gutting the actual science of the process for the sake of a metaphor, but it’s one which I want to make as I find it personally resonant. Left alone in the dishes, without some form of external stimulation the neurons go into spasm, effectively paralysed by cogntive (or the bedrock activity of cognition) over – exertion. Recently I have been forced to concede, day after day, that cognitive exertion in the absence of exercise or active stimulation will result in a spiral, a negative feedback loop in which your cognitive apparatus becomes exponentially less useful to you.

Silent Barrage: Neurotica, Philip Gamblen, Guy Ben-Ary, Peter Gee, Dr. Nathan Scott, Brett Murray in collaboration with Dr Steve Potter’s lab, Georgia Tech, Atlanta.

~ by Stephen Fortune on May 10, 2011.

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