Digital Alchemy – transforming data into poetry
“The real nature of matter was unknown to the alchemist: he knew it only in hints. In seeking to explore it he projected the unconscious into the darkness of matter in order to illuminate it.”
Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
From the late Middle Ages alchemists were frequently depicted as seekers of eternal life and unending riches, a wholly materialist set of objectives that would be facilitated by discovering the philosopher’s stone and being able to transmute lead into gold. However, in the twentieth century, an entirely different interpretation of alchemy gained ascendance due, in large part, to the writings of the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung. Jung interpreted alchemy as a symbolic process that aimed at individuation, the psychological assimilation of opposites whilst retaining their separateness, leading to the psychological (or even spiritual) transformation of the alchemist. The use of symbols and materials in the alchemical process function as archetypes of mythological images that reside within an individual’s unconscious, triggering an internal transformation as they pursue the Work. This likening of alchemy to the esoteric and spiritual traditions of East Asia (such as yoga and meditation) as well as its own Western roots in Hermeticism places it clearly within a framework for reflection, revelation, transfiguration and enlightenment.
In January 2012 a team from Proboscis (Stefan Kueppers and Giles Lane) was invited to collaborate in a critical and creative dialogue with scientists (David Walker and Steffen Reymann) from Philips Research Laboratory in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise public art programme (commissioned by Andy Robinson of Futurecity with Dipak Mistry of Arts & Business Cambridge). Our collaboration was one of several initiated between artists and industry in Cambridge that were aimed at helping to communicate the benefits that could come from such partnerships. Philips proposed that the theme for our joint dialogue would focus on personal health monitoring. Specifically our colleagues at Philips were interested in exploring new ways to engage nominally healthy people in monitoring their own health and lifestyle as a preventative measure, rather than waiting for a medical condition to arise and then find themselves having to adopt biosensor monitoring as part of a recuperative regime. The aim would be to think of emerging biosensor systems as part of a continual, holistic process of healthy living and wellbeing, rather than just as technological aids for post hoc medical intervention. The problem was that the statistics concerning the use of commercial biosensor products and related smartphone apps demonstrated that the vast majority of users tended to abandon the devices and ignore the data visualisations within weeks of first using them, undermining any potential beneficial impact they could have.
Over the next six months through a series of intense monthly meetings, rapid conceptual development and iterative prototyping we developed an experimental response to the problem. Our project, Lifestreams, proposed a novel way of thinking about the nature of biosensor data and its relationship to how we live our lives. We sought to move beyond the simple graphs and number counting that pervades so much of the ‘quantified self’ meme towards the poetic and numinous; to capture something of the epic in everyday life. Our aim was to transform our relationships to digital data from the ephemeral of screens and interfaces into something that encompassed the tactile and material producing a more subconsciously emotive and emotional experience – an artefact or Lifecharm.
Having developed the basic concept we grappled with the form that such an artefact should take asking ourselves, “What physical form could be mathematically driven by data to create dynamic and interesting shapes that could also communicate some sense of the whole person?”. The answer was to reflect on and revisit nature for archetypal forms and generative principles. In listing the attributes that an artefact generated from information would likely have, we found ourselves describing the growth patterns and expressiveness of shells. The patterns in their growth are determined by the health of the creature (such as a mollusc or snail) making them; what they consume, stress factors and the environmental conditions they exist within. Shells have a near universal fascination so the idea took hold of using contemporary technologies to artificially allow a human to ‘grow’ their own shells from data generated by monitoring their own health and lifestyle patterns.
The lifecharms were created by capturing a range of personal biosensor data types (heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, step count, sleep pattern, exposure to air pollution) and applying the data to a workflow using algorithms to extend the principles of the helico-spiral with time-based rules. These allow us to ‘grow’ the shell in the Groimp 3D modelling environment producing the initial 3D model surface which we then post-processed using Meshlab software for export as a stereolithographic file. The file can then be sent to a 3D printer to generate the physical artefact in a variety of different materials such as plastic, metals, glass, resin and ceramic. What makes the lifecharms unique is that they are not just parametric or formulaic transmogrifications of the raw data but generative because time as a key element informs the variations in the growth grammar that evolves the shells. Each of the biosensors’ time-series data drives one of the parameters governing the shell’s growth form. The data points are iterated through time intervals and become parameters altering the shell’s growth rules as more data is fed into the model. This gives each shell a non-deterministic morphology somewhat akin to the way a shell would be grown by a living creature.
Our own research into and experiences of using more common screen-based interfaces for visualising biosensor data had left us feeling that they were somehow inadequate. Their frankly mechanistic approach to relaying the data back to the user seemed to lack the kind of poetry that would allow someone to weave the process into the daily narrative that people construct about themselves. Unlike data visualisations the lifecharms are generated through a process of non-deterministic spatial data transformation. It does not confine them to such an instrumental purpose as merely relaying the original data back to us as information in a simplified and easy to comprehend manner. Instead, they are embodiments of the data, transformed from the abstract and ephemeral into the concrete and present. They establish the potential for uncommon insights to be perceived into the health conditions and lifestyle patterns in which the data was collected. Such insights are prompted by tactile and intuitive reflection.
Over the past decade Proboscis has been exploring tactile interfaces and tangible souvenirs as a key part of our research into the way people create and share knowledge, stories and experiences – what we call public authoring. An element of the handmade often features in the outputs we design, but here the imprint of the person about whom the data being shared is directly embodied in the object itself. A Lifecharm shell synthesises the intrinsic qualities of the data within its morphology; visualisations, on the other hand, make extrinsic interpretations of such data. It is, at one and the same time, both an informational object – representing a state gleaned from sensor data – and also a philosophical thing triggering intuitive reflection. It unites different traditions of investigation and meaning making: the scientific and the mythic, or magical, both being and becoming. However, a lifecharm is neither an icon nor iconic, nor yet an implement or tool – it embodies a state without representing it banally. What it exemplifies is not knowledge in the form of a ‘transactable’ commodity or product but a path to knowing that arises from an ongoing process of continuous interaction with and intervention within everyday habits, in this case practiced daily through touch.
“Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art”. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness.”
The Lifecharms are not rational, functional objects, they are magical, irrational, indeed talismanic things by which, through tactile familiarity, we may come into knowledge or understanding by way of revelation. Like poetry, which is much more than the sum of words and their arrangement on a page, they are more than the sum of the data that drives their growth parameters.
Carrying a lifecharm and touching it everyday, both consciously and even as a displacement activity, causes you to develop a relationship with it over time. You become familiar with its materiality – the feel of the shape in your hand; the weight of the material it is made of, the textures of its surface. None of these reveal the patterns in the data that generated it directly, however this is precisely the point at which the lifecharm begins to operate in a mythic or magical capacity – as a performance of patterns of being and of behaviour embodied and reified into a talisman. Its magical power could be defined as the potential for revelation that it holds for you to come into an uncommon insight by handling it over time. In this way you might come to perceive new possibilities for change and adaptation in your own patterns and behaviours – triggering your own process of subjective transformation. The lifecharm is thus not just a thing of being but a thing of becoming. Their role in the personal narratives we construct around our daily lives is revealed as much through our continued interaction with them as by their thingness.
Like poetry, the lifecharms are also diachronic – meaning that we can experience and relate to them across time, whilst the meaning or data they embody is fixed in time (i.e. the shape of the shell or the words of the poem do not change). Dynamic data visualisations may often be synchronous – i.e. driven by live or recent data streams – but the way we experience and relate to them is likely to be mediated (through devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers) and determined by our behaviours and patterns of using those devices they are mediated through. This makes the lifecharms intrinsically different to screen-based visualisations of data. The information that we may glean from them is less to do with an instrumental replay in visual form and much more to do with how we begin to learn about the patterns they embody through a growing tactile familiarity with their physical form. This difference becomes an opportunity to augment our means of understanding the phenomena recorded in the biosensor data – an opportunity to explore meaning making through a relationship to complexity and intersubjectivity.
About six months after our initial three generations of shells were created and 3D fabbed I came into my own uncommon insight – that the shells were in fact, tactile poems. This happened partly as a result of my stay in Reite village in Papua New Guinea with anthropologist Professor James Leach (University of Western Australia/CNRS) during November 2012 and our conversations since, as well as those I have had about my experiences there with poet Hazem Tagiuri (a Proboscis associate). The villagers of Reite lead a traditional ‘kastom’ lifestyle in the jungle with a fairly minimal exposure to a ‘modern’ existence predicated on patterns of consumption and mediated sociality. (Although the modern world of industrially produced goods and telecommunications is slowly but surely encroaching and making an impact on their lives and culture). Reite people were traditionally non-literate and remain highly skilled makers, carving and weaving many of the things they use. Touch is a powerful sense through which they acquire information about their world, as indeed it could also be said to be with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople of our own society. However, the incredible sense of presentness in everyday Reite life and the intensity with which they conduct continuous social relations is vastly unlike our Western culture of discontinuous being, mediated as it is through patterns of dislocation, telecommunication and distraction. I felt that their physical knowledge of materials connects at a deeper level and is more attuned to detail and granularity than ours. Looking at our own society and culture, such physical, traditional knowledge has been debased as a lower form of skill and social standing – for instance in the negative way manual labour is contrasted with intellectual work, or how craft is ‘lesser’ than Art – for centuries.
Since returning from PNG my conversations with James have often focused on this intensity and presentness – a kind of radical continuity with being that life in the village feels like. This intensity has also been the subject of my many attempts to describe what life in the village feels like to others. An enduring memory I have, and which I described to Hazem, was watching a man ‘conjure’ fire from cold sticks in a firepit without using any form of tinder, or ember or fire-lighting materials. What seemed like magic or an illusion was an everyday demonstration of the uncanny power and knowledge this man possessed. He knew just how to feel for residual warmth within the sticks and arrange them in just the right way that would amplify the heat enough to stimulate combustion, a skill and power I have neither witnessed nor even previously heard of. The poem Hazem subsequently wrote helped me to connect the lifecharm’s talismanic nature to poetry. It helped kindle the spark of revelation that, like the way we come to know a thing through poetry, so the kind of knowing that resides within our hands and sense of touch is not just symbolic knowledge, but actual; that we may truly come to know something through touch alone. And that, like in poetry, the precise, elusive moment in which we come into the knowledge that the lifecharm offers us remains on the edge of conscious thought; a sensation we intuitively call revelation. Perhaps such a thing might also be described as the Work of digital alchemy.
Loch Ard, Scotland August 2013
This essay was first published in Tasting Notes, a book accompanying the exhibition, This New Nostalgia, curated and published by InspireConspireRetire, September 2013.