"The Unbearable Lightness of Mixed Signals" by Owen Planchart
“There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and non humanity”
Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter.
A note to the reader:
This was originally intended as a practice-based research project that involved interviews, physical computing experiments and user-testing. At the time of writing, London is still in full quarantine. I am without access to technical facilities, and have limited access to materials. I have included, where I could, video documentation of the initial attempt to build the artefact (namely a balloon-drone dressed as a chandelier). Instead of showing the making of it in physical space I have shown the modelling of the object in Cad software, the context of the gallery space and some rendering of potential behaviour patterns in relation to multiple viewers. When render times became too long and computationally expensive I used the View Port Render mode in Blender. Please take into consideration that the dynamic between the object and the audience was supposed to be the result of user-testing and feedback. It was always my intention to have a Virtual Reality version running alongside the physical system to help track and modify the behaviour. In spite of the difficulties, this has been a useful exercise which forced me to translate theory into a digital rather than physical artefact and put me to work outside of my comfort zone. I have opted for a longform essay-style approach to discuss some of the ideas behind the piece, nevertheless, this is still very much a work in progress.
This research is an exploration of the difficult terrain found in the triangular mesh defined by art, computation and affect theory, as it pertains to my practice. It may at times seem divergent and refractive, whilst at other times zoomed-in and granular; this is not done for effect, it is just a reflection of my investigative process which I felt would be best left unpolished. Picture a triangular pool table with no pockets where the player is perpetually breaking, observing, then breaking again. Once some of the prevailing ideas on the subject are surveyed, I will attempt to add to this discussion by way of an affectively-disobedient object in the form of a balloon-drone-chandelier which will float towards and increase its height in response to audience behaviour, as a performative rendition of the intricate dance between the human and the non-human.
Affect is not only a difficult thing to measure but it is also a difficult thing to measure with. I believe this might be because affect defies the juxtaposition of grids; the numbers are not whole - they might not even be numbers. Quantifying affect may have its uses when the purpose is to translate it into another dimension where measurements are part of the infrastructure (monetarily, politically, etc.), but it will remain just that -a translation. This numerical data will never convey the qualia carried by the original feelings it attempts to describe and will have no fidelity by default. To paraphrase Jane Bennet: the underlying grammar of the language of computation is simply organised against emotion. This is not to say that affect will forever escape measurement, simply that we have yet to develop a sufficiently nuanced instrument to do so.
From a computational perspective, affects are still relatively invisible processes. The framework of coding languages does not seem to rhyme with the ethereal nature of affect. Not only is the repetitive, boolean-logic driven and high-speed performance of computers completely out of step with the delicate, radiation-like quality of emotional states but they also seem to warp the human agency surrounding it. Andrew Pickering (The Mangle of Practice) describes this as "the performativity of machines...requires adherence to a standardized sequence of gestures and manipulations; around machines, we act like machines". One of the clearest examples of this distortion caused by the "computational grid" is the use of the emoji as a proxy for sentiment -in order to keep up with our robotic means of communication, our feelings have been reduced to perfectly homogenized units and pictograms. Although the research is still inconclusive, there appears to be a difficult challenge in the fields of psychology and sociology around how this proto-language is shifting the emotional patterns of both individuals and society. There appears to be a distinct feedback noise in this loop, a toxic warping of the derivative relationship between humans and computers where the expression of sentiment is concerned .
Henri Bergson, the french philosopher, argued that language in general is a technology that has "impaired and diminished the values of the collective mind". Without language, it follows, human intelligence would have remained completely engaged with the objects of its attention. Marshall McLuhan reminds us: there are not many ways of writing "tonight" but Stanislavsky used to ask his young actors to pronounce and stress it fifty different ways while the audience wrote down the different shades of feeling and meaning expressed.
Whilst a great deal of energy is spent on the politics of affect, the economy of affect and the phenomenology of affect, artists have been experimenting with the topology of affect since the dawn of human expression. Perhaps because of the aforementioned grid-aversion, the arts have often treated feelings and emotions as a sequence of peaks and valleys where the most observable quality is the place where the transitions between positive and negative affects take place. It is on these borders, these emotional conflict zones, where we find Homer’s flawed heroes and heroines, where the edgy comedienne tap-dances across the laser beams of a taboo subject, and where we fall in love with the deranged but likeable criminal of our favourite TV show. Like a school of flying fish, affects can only really be seen when they leap out of the murky waters of consciousness and crash back down again. Once documented, these gradient-changes get choreographed into the softer grids of character, stories, poems, song, etc., and are often spread across time to create a sense of tension and release. Alfred Hitchcock is reported to have said to his co-writer of North by NorthWest, Ernie Lehman: "The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. And someday we won't even have to make a movie, there'll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we'll press different buttons and they'll go ooh and aaah and we'll frighten them and make them laugh won't that be wonderful!". The phrase “being moved” may well refer to this journey from one emotional state to another. It is the aim of this work to help illustrate how the framing of these affective transitions by the artist helps provide the underlying cohesion between us and their work.
One of the most interesting concepts of affect within the field of psychiatry comes from the phenomenologist Hubertus Tellenbach who describes them as "atmospheres that operate through preverbal and prereflective contact". In his analysis, Chris Salter adds that affects function like resonances that grow and weaken in strength: "actuated and excited as they come into sympathetic vibration with one another". I would further expand this point to say that affects function like overlapping, largely untraceable, weather systems -swelling and shrinking in size, and whose most visible properties occur at the perimeters where they encounter other affects.
At this juncture, we would benefit from looking at one of the clearest physical manifestations of affect. Research has shown evidence that the physical act of laughter may be a response to a conflict between negative and positive affects, such as fear and enjoyment, resulting in irregular breathing patterns, increased dopamine levels in the brain, and spasmodic contractions of the upper cheek muscles. Laughter is a reflex designed to diffuse tension and signify that all is well. We laugh after accidents when we have escaped unscathed. We laugh when someone falls down, if they did not seriously injure themselves. We laugh when play-fighting, because we are not being seriously aggressive. We laugh on roller coasters, because although terrifying, we remain unharmed. We laugh after the scary moments in a movie, because nothing bad has happened to us even though the character on screen just met their demise. In all these situations, the symptoms of laughter are preceded by fear and a sense of safety or joy (in that order).
Laughing in fear: audience reaction during the viewing of Paranormal Activity 2.
Built-in Sensitivity to Affective Change
In the case of laughter it would appear that biology and evolution have created a signalling system for these emotional transitions. In their article 'Too Close for Comfort, or Too Far to Care? Finding Humour in Distant Tragedies and Close Mishaps', A.P. McGraw discusses in detail the neuroscience that belies the Mark Twain quote "Humour is tragedy plus time" and argues that there is a sweet-spot between the severity of the incident and the psychological distance from it: "This suggests that distance facilitates humour in the case of tragedies by reducing threat, but that closeness facilitates humour in the case of mishaps by maintaining some sense of threat." In the same vein, comedians often play the role of sherpas, delivering us safe passage through difficult and controversial subjects. Here is an extract from a conversation between comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais on Talking Funny:
R.G: A great thing about comedy is being able to take people to a place where they have fear and foreboding.
J.S: We deal with fear more viscerally than any other artform. You feel your own fear, you feel the audience's fear. The whole show is about quelling fear. When you have a bit that you're really sure about and is really strong the audience feels your fear levels go down and they relax and they say oh he seems to be confident in this one - and then they laugh.
In contrast, drawing on insights from three months of ethnographic research in nursing care homes, Phil Emmerson (Thinking Laughter Beyond Humour), argues that laughter should not be reduced to its humorous intentions; that it has its own transpersonal and atmospheric consequences "capable of affecting beyond its relationship with humour". Laughter begets laughter as we bathe in its unusual and unintelligible sound without the need for recognising what caused it. However, if scrutinised, this simply solidifies the point that laughter evolved as a signalling system that precedes language -an affective telegram to the tribe that we are safe and the cause of threat is no longer there. Christina Albu writes about collective affect as something that can dissolve just as easily as it emerges, creating a feeling of collaboration rather than community.
The Intricate Space of Maybe:
On the diametrically opposed side of the spectrum, another analysis of how artists exploit clashing affects to tap directly into their audience, is written about in detail in the essay 'Black Mirror, mediated affect and the political' by Donovan Conley and Benjamin Burroughs: "To watch any given episode of Black Mirror is to encounter the seeming paradox of tightly disciplined narration combined with fugitive affects; a combination that ends up producing an array of possible responses from arousal, to disturbance, repulsion, enthralment, paralysis, rage, euphoria or giddiness ". The technique employed by the show, Conley and Burroughs argue, is to weave the viewers into an affective web that complicates the easy 'yes' or 'no' responses, leaving them to sort through the intricate space of 'maybe'. By omitting elements from the story at the outset and creating empathy with what appear to be victims of a bleak technological dystopia, Black Mirror's key episodes drive its audience into a state of complicitness, causing a "traumatic twist" when it is revealed that our main character is, in fact, more sinister than we imagined. This type of misdirection causes a kind of involuntary reaction that will vary from pity to revulsion, and tests the tolerance for moral dilemmas of even the most hardened: "Viewers may find themselves confounded in their oscillation from sympathy to condemnation and back again, and this confounding opens up ways of saying neither 'yes' nor 'no' to the shows gruelling spectacle". Suspended in a very sophisticated affective maneuver the viewer is simultaneously compelled to feel against and in favour of the protagonist, with no room for apathy.
Another unpalatable example and, arguably, one of the most traumatising scenes in the history of cinema, comes from Stanley Kubrick's The Clockwork Orange, where the protagonist whistles "Singing in the Rain" whilst he commits horrible acts of violence. The juxtaposition of one of the most upbeat songs ever recorded and an intense sequence of negative images has an almost paralysing effect, and is reported to have caused the director to eventually hold back on releasing the film.
Artists use these emotional pivot points to capture audiences because having a compounded affective response happens at a pre-subjective stage; before the brain has the ability to process the incoming feed, we have an overwhelming cognitive interruption which results in physical symptoms like laughter or repulsion. We could argue that, as a species, humans are programmed with certain mechanisms to physically respond to affective conflicts. Unfortunately, this programming does not seem to fit onto the blue print of computer programming too easily, but this is the type of enclosed affective space that I feel has yet to be exploited to its full potential by computational artists. These transitional moments have the ability to seize attention and drive focus towards the artwork before our brain is capable of dissecting why.
Affective, Vibrant Materialism
In response to this difficulty, in the computational art practices, of not being able to use affective tension in order to help connect the work with its audience, I look to the writings of Jane Bennet, and other Vibrant Materialists before her, for inspiration. 'Thing-power' is the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle( Robert Sullivan ); subsequently, human agency is the resulting interplay between the human and the vitality of the non-human. Objects are throbbing, living assemblages that "have uneven topographies because some of the points at which the various affects cross paths are more heavily trafficked than others, and so power is not distributed equally across their surface." This framework invites us to perceive things not as passive recipients of our utility but as lively intensities composed of further internal, sometimes conflicting, confederations of smaller things that interlock with human agency horizontally and without hierarchy. Spinoza's 'conatus', the desire to seek alliance with other bodies to enhance vitality, the Vibrant Materialist recognises, is present in both the human and the non-human.
It is here that I would like to bring attention to the work of the Creative Design duo Studio Drift. Their piece 'Materialism', whilst not exactly computational, perfectly illustrates the affective vibrancy of objects by reverse engineering them into their most basic constituents. We are thrown into a space of contemplation as the familiarity with these common objects gets obliterated without physically adding or subtracting anything. The work rearranges our affective response to the everyday artefact and ilicits a complex cognitive process similar to a timelapse of someone piecing a puzzle together.
Objects communicate affect more clearly by virtue of their silence. They carry multiple affects simultaneously much better than most narrative forms, they can be paradoxical and perfectly consistent with themselves simultaneously. Jane Bennet also speaks of the "porosity" of things and their ability to trespass the membrane of otherness, enabling a dynamic flow of forces: they are "susceptible to infusion, invasion and collaboration by and with other bodies". Accentuating, elevating and animating this intercorporeal dissonance embedded in objects is a space where computational artists can explore affective transitions.
Witness the Chandelier: to the Vibrant Materialist the Chandelier is better understood as a volatile mix of sand, sweat, gravity, fire, electron streams, optical illusion, refraction, status symbolism, heat, suspension, profit motives, string, fantasies of mastery, static, luxury, cabling, economic theory, and leverage -to name but some of the participating actants. This cacophony of affective emission transforms the space in which it lives without creating noise. It seizes our attention with all its contradictory splendour and transcribes its unique signature onto our hearts and minds. The élan inherent to its specific arrangement is almost dictatorial in nature as it reconfigures our emotional landscape.
Whilst reading the Odyssey's myth of the Sirens (the tale of mythological creatures that lure you with beautiful song only to tear you to pieces on their island made out of the skulls and bones of sailors) it occured to me that the assemblage we call the Chandelier had the same net affective connotations as this epic poem: it is both beautiful and potentially lethal, fragile yet imposing, it seduces us with all its opulent charm but instills fear at the sheer impossibility of its suspension from a great height. The narrative tool which Homer uses to connect us to Odysseus' plight is to combine seduction with threat, he uses this tension to latch onto our awareness and steer it into the heart of his story. The Chandelier is a compressed affective space that distills the array of its properties into a similar emotionally incongruous experience to the Greek poem, but without spreading it across time. I would like to use physical computing techniques to break this material silence and lean into the vibrant qualities of its assemblage. The purpose of The Unbearable Lightness of Mixed Signals is to animate the affective disobedience of the Chandelier in relation to its audience; to enunciate the non-linguistic expressivity of its thingness as it plays out the friction of its built-in luxury and violence.
From a technical perspective, the idea is to unhinge the chandelier from its static coordinates (in space and history) without letting it precipitate to the ground, by using a helium balloon with motors. From a conceptual stand-point the aim is to let its full affective spectrum play against the cultural, social and scientific expectations of falling, and welcome a new kind of reading - a new kind of "thing-poetry". To explore the hauntological chasm of a medieval ornament performing a new pattern of movement in relation to an audience, with the help of modern technologies. The chandelier's trajectory will be programmed around the number of people that cluster together to observe its behaviour - the more people beneath it, the higher it will rise (there will also be a correspondence between the light emitted and the crowd that gathers around it) . Allowing the chandelier to shine the inherent vitality within its materials by releasing it from the shackles of history and physics is, I predict, a surefire way to convert the tension between the beauty and the fear that it inspires into an 'interesting space of maybe' for the audience.
There can be no doubt that this complex affective radiation contained within the chandelier is the reason behind its constant reappearance across cultures worldwide as both a dramatic and comedic tool. When the incongruence of affect is stacked within an object, it can be exploited bidirectionally: negative affects followed by positive affects will likely cause laughter or smiling, positive affects followed by negative affects will likely cause cause repulsion or sadness (examples of this are scattered across the video documentation at the top of this page.)
(In)Conclusions and Discussion:
Where artists often dwell on the blurry line between affects, computational artists face the challenge that their native language (excepting quantum computing) do not allow for a zero to simultaneously be a one -there is little room for ambiguity in code. Another distinct difference is that affect precedes cognitive processing; where inputs in a computational system always require a processor to extract the data, affects operate as data, process and output before they even reach the brain.
This being said, physical computing techniques that have been democratised in recent years with the advent of micro-controllers and sensor technology are in a way the perfect emotive interface between thing-power and human-power. I would venture to say that they may well be the ideal stage for computational artists to explore the elaborate dance between the human and the vibrancy of materials. The task at hand is to examine thing-power closely and look for these affective conflicts within the material in order to create an artistic connection with a world that, by enlarge, tends to ignore it. In her book Mirror Affect, Cristina Albu discusses the possibilities within responsive and reflective artworks to create a type of transpersonal co-subjectivity. Exploring this all-important aspect of affect is the deeper objective of the physical computing side of this essay.
It is, however, important to state that not all art must have pronounced, clashing affects in order to engage with its audience, this is simply a filter through which I feel it is relevant to evaluate the mechanical nature of computation in order to expand its reach. An artistic experience could very well be intended to cause a sense of calm or meditative contemplation. Paul Roquet relates this to what he calls the ‘aesthetics of subtraction’, where the value is in anonymity and neutrality to allow objects to fall into the background and no longer compete to be the focus of our attention, best exemplified by Japanese Minimalism which creates objects for use in daily life within a "low-affect" style.
Jane Bennet might object that my approach is perhaps further instrumentalisation of the assemblages, that I am suggesting some kind of "thing-farming" for artistic purposes, but I would counter that the underlying goal is to to sharpen our perception of the vitality within the material and create a theatre-space for the Thing-Waltz to unfold. She may also accuse me of inflecting human emotion onto objects in some new order of techno-animism. However, using her example of an object found in an archeological site without people or culture to tell its story, I would speculate that if a Chandelier were to be unearthed without context, future archeologists would still deduce from its vibrancy that it was once an inverted pyramid of light that lived at great height (or maybe even floated!). The political theorist might also accuse this approach of stripping Vibrant Materialism from its political intentions, but again, I stand by the notion that increasing the emotional connection between us and the things that surround us can only improve this discussion.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is believed to occur when an individual holds two or more conflicting beliefs, resulting in mental stress, and which they will do anything in their power to change. If we think of emotions as the front lines of the autonomic nervous system, it follows that holding two or more feelings at the same time may cause "affective dissonance", and that laughing, crying and other physical reactions evolved as fast-acting, coping mechanisms designed to release this tension.
On another plane, we might say that laughter is to joy and fear what rainbows are to the sun and rain, a prism like equal sign that makes the total more than the sum of its parts...
.....To be continued.
1. Jane Bennet. Vibrant Matter (2010). Duke University Press. NC 27708-0660.
"Why speak of the agency of assemblages, and not, more modestly of their capacity to form a “culture”, or to “self organise”, or to “participate” in effects? Because the rubric of material is likely to be a stronger counter to human exceptionalism, to, that is, the human tendency to understate the degree to which people, animals, artefacts, technologies, and elemental forces share powers and operate in dissonant conjunction with each other."
In this groundbreaking and relentless attempt at questioning the natural bias of human perception towards the instrumentalisation of things, Jane Bennet explores the world of human agency as a distributed network between humans and non-humans. She travels through modern phenomena like Blackouts and Obesity whilst summoning the work of Spinoza, Nietzche, Deleuze, Dewey, Thoreau, Foucault, Latour and many others to make a poignant indictment of mankind's relationship with the world around it.
2. Noel Caroll. Humour (2014). Oxford University Press. 978-0-19-955222-1
"We are starting to learn a lot about emotions (and their relation to cognition). Comic amusement is still very mysterious. Thus, by contemplating comic amusement in terms of current thinking about emotions, we have been able to put ourselves in a position where we can organise the phenomena and parse the structures of comic amusement as well as ask questions about them with greater clarity..."
In the chapter Humour, Emotion and Cognition, Caroll argues all the arguments in favour and against the notion that Humour is an emotional state. This marries perfectly with his strongest assertion througout the book that humour relies on incongruity to perform a kind of cognitive cleansing, alerting us to the presence of cognitive bugs.
Whilst examining multiple ways in which humour has been dissected, the author tries to distill all the research into the most basic evolutionary components for comic amusement, paying close attention to why we would develop this pleasure response to something that has no clear survival advantage.
3. Karen Simek. Affect Theory (2016). Critical and Cultural Theory, 25. 10.1093.
"What can be seen in the developments in affect theory in 2016 is a significant development of themes such as phenomenology of affect, especially in terms of developing deep analysis of individual affective states and revealing their potential utility; a politics of affect in terms of developing understanding of the influence of affect in intersubjectivity and cosubjectivity; and the nature of affect in bodily movement and action, further strengthening the connection between politics, ethics and affect."
The author discusses new ideas in the world of psychology, sociology and music surrounding subjects such as environmental affect, affective obstructions, gesture, ambient sounds and reflections. She gives a critical review of all the development of affect theory of the past few years. She makes a strong case for the field of neuroscience fully recognising that cognitive functions of the brain do not work in isolation, that they work in conjunction with affects and that they simultaneously shape and respond to each other.
- Albu, Cristina. Mirror Affect: Seeing Self, Observing Others in Contemporary Art. UMinnesotaP.  pp. 272. ISBN 9 7815 1790 0069.
- Donovan Conley & Benjamin Burroughs (2019) Black Mirror, mediated affect and the political, Culture, Theory and Critique, 60:2, 139-153, DOI: 10.1080/14735784.2019.1583116
- Phil Emmerson. Thinking Abou Laughter Beyond Humour (2017). Envirnonment And Planning. 49(9) 2082-2098.
- Roquet, Paul. Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self. UMinnesotaP.  pp. 248. ISBN 9 7808 1669 2460.
- Manning, Erin. The Minor Gesture (Thought in the Act). DukeUP.  pp. 288. ISBN 9 7808 2236 1213.
- Jane Bennet. Powers of the Hoard (2012): Artistry and Agency in A World of Vibrant Matter : https://vimeo.com/29535247
- Marshal McLuhan. Understanding Media (1964): Routledge Classics 0-415-25549-X.
- Too Close for Comfort, or Too Far to Care? Finding Humour in Distant Tragedies and close Mishaps. by A.Peter McGraw, Caleb Warren, Lawrerence. E. Williams, Bridget Leonard.
- Andrew Pickering. The Mangle Of Practice. 1995. The mangle of practice : time, agency, and science: University of Chicago Press
- Deleuze Gilles, and Félix Guattari. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. London: Athlone Press.