The artist takes aim at the heart of human communication.
"Can we use biometric sensors, such as heart rate and brain wave sensors, to create intimate environments and experiences that excavate hidden emotional states such as vulnerability, intimacy, and confrontation? While our digital, globalized world allows us to always stay connected, what is lost when our most meaningful relationships are mediated through screens?"
These are, among others, the questions artist Lisa Park poses, both in her practice as well as in her forthcoming group exhibition at Mana Contemporary, "Only Human." Her contribution to the show, which opens Sunday, April 29, is the culmination of her year-long residency at Nokia Bell Labs. Throughout the course of her tenure, Park collaborated with in-house engineers to advance her ideas and workshop her prototypes.
The following interview was conducted on Monday, February 26, 2018. From the day-to-day minutiae of working with the engineers, to imagining the future of human communication, the conversation that follows aims to enrich the dialogue surrounding the intersection of artistic production and technological innovation, and serves to document the unprecedented possibilities that fusions between these fields are able to yield.
Courtesy the artist.
Lindsay Howard: How would you describe your practice prior to starting the Experiments in Art and Technology residency?
Lisa Park: I’ve always had a fine art practice, and then five years ago I started exploring ways to include technology. I was initially drawn to technology, and particularly biometric sensors, because I wanted to better understand my inner emotional states. I saw the E.A.T. residency as an opportunity to collaborate with researchers who have had broader, deeper experiences with these materials, so we could build upon what I’ve created previously.
LH: Who have been your main collaborators at Bell Labs?
LP: I started by meeting researchers in Paul Wilford’s department, which is the Audiovisual Technologies Lab, and then focused on working with Jackie and Gang Huang. I connected with Jackie early on about using a heart rate sensor and she gave me a tour of Bell Lab’s Anomaly Room where they use the Apple Watch to analyze visitor’s heartbeats. I had been testing different sensors in order to find something that would be as minimally invasive as possible, using a cell phone or camera light to detect the pulses or something like that, and she had done some similar research. Later on, I partnered with Gang to create a resistive touch sensor that measures the audience member’s conductivity when they have skin-to-skin contact.
LH: How have you approached collaborating with Bell Labs engineers? What was the process like of meeting and working with them?
LP: When I needed more information about a certain technology, Domhnaill Hernon [Head of Innovation Incubation and Experiments in Arts and Technology at Bell Labs] would make an introduction to a researcher or research team and we’d take it from there. I came up with the concept for my commissioned project about two months into the residency based on some brainstorming sessions I’d had with the engineers. We tested a few different ideas together, looking at which technologies would be most viable, affordable, and conceptually sound with what I’m trying to accomplish. It’s been a mutually beneficial conversation and collaboration.
LH: What is the working environment like at Bell Labs? Do you have a traditional artist studio, or are you working in more of a science lab?
LP: They converted an abandoned office wing into artist studios, so that’s where I work on my prototypes and other research. It’s located in the same building as the Audiovisual Technologies Lab, so it’s easy to go from my studio to the engineer’s offices and share ideas. The studio is really nice because it’s so quiet and secluded; there aren’t distractions like when I’m working in the city. Sometimes I’ll host researchers in my studio if we’re making a big push on building a new prototype, otherwise I keep in touch with them over email or text. There are other opportunities to meet new engineers, too. I go to a weekly coffee meet-up for researchers who are working in different departments, where they catch-up and look for opportunities for multidisciplinary collaborations.
LH: How has your practice changed since starting the E.A.T. residency? Are you still interested in the same lines of inquiry or are you looking into other things now?
LP: I’m interested in the same ideas as before, but with newer technologies. I spent a lot of time exploring different options beyond measuring the biological data or physiological measurements of a person. I’m also now looking into behavior and micro-movements, and trying to see how that could all come together to create a more complete portrait of a person’s inner state.
LH: Why are inner states so compelling right now?
LP: It’s human nature to be curious about who we are, and to want to understand what motivates our behavior and decisions. Right now, I think everyone’s feeling this incredible strain on our visual sense because that’s our primary mode of communication. It’s pretty superficial. I’m using my practice to explore how we can deepen relationships and communicate our experiences more fully.
LH: How would you describe the project you’ve been commissioned to create at Bell Labs?
LP: Blooming is a metaphor for the importance of meaningful relationships in our lives, and specifically the importance of touch to create a deep sense of connection and overall sense of well-being. Touch is one of the first senses we develop as an infant; we begin receiving tactile signals from the vibrations of our mother’s heartbeat and it remains as the most prominent form of communications throughout our lives. Research shows that touch is fundamental for communication, emotional and physical health, bonding, and overall well-being. The installation will take the form of a life-size cherry blossom tree which responds to physical contact between audience members. When participants stand in front of the tree and touch each other, the tree will flourish in peak bloom; when they release, it will collapse into its pre-bloomed state.
LH: What’s the significance of the cherry blossom tree?
I chose to use the cherry blossom tree because cherry blossom tree viewing is a common tradition in East Asian cultures. The lavish, short-lived tree serves as a reminder of life’s transience and preciousness. The tree also symbolizes social ties, continuance, and spiritual beauty. Prior to cell phones, cherry blossom trees were often used as pre-determined meeting places. It was believed that when a couple held hands while walking down a road lined with cherry blossoms, they would grow old together and have an everlasting love. In 1912, three thousand cherry blossom trees were sent from Japan to United States as a gift to honor the enduring friendship between the two nations. Now thousands of visitors attend the annual cherry blossom festival in Washington DC, bringing along close friends, family, and loved ones. When a cherry blossom tree flourishes, as it does in Blooming, it’s a reminder of human relationships at their peak.
What types of touch are you hoping to facilitate between audience members?
In my user testing, holding hands has been the most common physical interaction. Some people will touch fingers, or maybe touch the other person’s face. It depends on their pre-existing level of intimacy. My goal is to make the experience as intuitive as possible, so that the touch feels natural. There will be a soundscape, special lighting, and a narrative told throughout, which will serve as subtle guides.
Ideally, how will someone feeling during and after having this experience?
When I was a child, I was so excited to go to the cherry blossom tree festival every year with my family. I remember running around and feeling a deep sense of joy. I felt connected to the trees and to the beautiful blossoms. I still feel some version of that as an adult, but it’s more desensitized. Ideally, I want people to have some semblance of that feeling, by experiencing the pleasure of closeness and beauty.
Editor: Rain Embuscado