LABS 2016 | Leonardo

Top-Ranked LABS Abstracts 2016

The Leonardo Abstracts Service (LABS) is an evolving, comprehensive database of thesis abstracts (PhD, Masters and MFA) on topics at the intersections between art, science and technology. This English-language database is hosted by Pomona College (Claremont, CA), under the direction of editor-in-chief Sheila Pinkel.

Each year, in addition to being published in the database, a selection of abstracts chosen by a peer review panel for their special relevance are published annually in Leonardo (see Vol. 50, No. 5, October 2017) and on our website. We are pleased to present below the top-ranked thesis abstracts of 2016, and we congratulate the authors of the theses.

Other-Worlds: Encounters with the Visual Perception of Lungfishes Through Science and Art

Audrey Appudurai

This thesis explores the visual perception of the South American (Lepidosiren paradoxa), spotted African (Protopterus dolloi) and Australian (Neoceratodus forsteri) lungfishes through biological science, history and visual art. Lungfishes are vital to the evolutionary study of terrestrial animal vision because of their association with animals that made the remarkable transition from water onto land. To begin, a cultural history of nonhuman animal visual perception is investigated to understand and acknowledge the limitations of technologies and our anthropocentric perception of reality. Next, diverse cultural narratives are discussed, revealing a long history of lungfishes as “in-between” animals. This shows that human understandings of lungfishes are influenced by factors that include, but are not limited to, the evaluation of scientific data. Having established the limitations and complexities involved in “knowing” the perception of lungfishes, the biological “machinery” of the lungfishes’ vision is described by two scientific studies; one describing the visual machinery of L. paradoxa and P. dolloi and another unravelling the visual perception of a N. forsteri cohort born without external eyes. Lastly, a number of artworks generated through the interdisciplinary research are discussed. These creative outcomes reveal my shifting understandings of technological limitations, objectivity and human cognition/perception in the attempt to interpret the visual experience of nonhuman animals.

This unique interdisciplinary thesis unravels the intricacies of the lungfishes’ visual perception. The methodologies of three disparate disciplines—biological science, history and visual art—are integrated in an attempt to understand the complexity of how nonhuman animals perceive their environment, while recognizing the limitations of each discipline.

Audrey Appudurai: PhD thesis, the University of Western Australia, Australia, 2016.

Audrey Appudurai, Parts Per Animal and Untitled installation, biological tissue, ultraviolet paint, black light, 2015. (© Audrey Appudurai)

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A Machine that Dreams: An Artistic Enquiry Leading to an Integrative Theory and Computational Artwork

Benjamin David Robert Bogart

Arts and sciences are defined as practices that construct culturally relevant representations that function as tools exploited in our attempt to make sense of the world and ourselves. Through this research, novel contributions are made to both artistic practices and cognitive science as manifest in a computational system that serves as both a generative and site-specific artwork and as a computational model of dreaming—the Dreaming Machine.

Visual mentation is the experience of mental images and occurs during perception, mental imagery, mind wandering and dreaming. The Integrative Theory is the theoretical foundation of the model and artwork, unifies biopsychological theories and makes three major hypotheses where visual mentation: (1) involves the activation of perceptual representations, (2) is experienced due to these activations and (3) depends on shared mechanisms of simulation that exploit these representations.

The Dreaming Machine uses machine-learning methods to make sense of live images captured in the context of installation. Images are generated during external perception, mind wandering and dreaming and are constructed from shared perceptual representations learned during waking. These processes differ due to varying degrees of activation from external stimuli and feedback from a predictive model. The generative methods create a diversity of imagery ranging from abstraction to photorealism. The artwork facilitates the viewer’s sense of his/her own fabricated perceptions and considers the relationships between computation, cognitive models and scientific conceptions of mind and dreaming.

Benjamin David Robert Bogart: PhD diss., Simon Fraser University, Canada, 2014.

Benjamin David Robert Bogart, still image from video of mind wandering imagery generated by the Dreaming Machine, 2014. (© Benjamin David Robert Bogart)

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Bioart as a Space for Identity Conceptualization: Figuring the Human Body under the Scope of Biotechnologies

Marianne Cloutier

This thesis proposes an exploration of the conceptualization of identity through bioart. Like many previous artistic movements, bioart, particularly when focused on the question of the human being, uses the body as a creative material. As it is presented in its entirety or in fragments, it is regarded, questioned, processed, multiplied, hybridized, read and transcoded by those living manipulation tools of biotechnology. From the specific study of eight art projects produced since the early 2000s—Transfromers by Justine Cooper, Biopresence by BCL (Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara), Inner Cloud by Marta de Menezes, Suspect Inversion Center (SIC) by Paul Vanouse, May the Horse Live in Me by Art Orienté Objet, Unique by Polona Tratnik and The Anarchy Cell Line by Cynthia J. Verspaget—this thesis aims to highlight their specific contributions to contemporary problematization of identity. In general, these works allow a dialogue between scientific conceptions and identity factors, beyond biological considerations such as gender, culture and beliefs, memory and personal history, definition and sense of self. Because biotechnologies make uncertain the body’s limits and boundaries between individuals, between species and between the living and nonliving, they necessarily question our relationship to alterity. Whether by concrete manipulations, the use of metaphors or imagination, these projects question the way life sciences are transforming the understanding as the perception of the individual and offer plural identity experiences—from cultural hybridity to transpecies hybridity. Ultimately, these bioartistic projects participate fully in the contemporary problematization of the human being as to the bioethical, feminist, political and even economic questions related to it.

Marianne Cloutier: PhD thesis, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada, 2015.

Cynthia Verspaget, The Anarchy Cell Line (Regrowing Henrietta), 2004. (© Cynthia Verspaget)

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Postgenomic Identity: Art and Biopolitics

Heather Dewey-Hagborg

This dissertation is a tour through a series of biopolitical sites where the production of power and knowledge of and about bodies is viewed through a molecular lens. Biopolitics, as described by Michel Foucault, combines the surveillance, normalization and classification of individuals, with a view of bodies as instances of a species and constituents of a population governed so as to encourage health and productivity as defined by the truth discourses of biology and public health.

Framing DNA as a mode of translation from and ascription to the body it is extracted from, the author examines the ways in which genetic data is used as a form of visibility to segment, categorize and ultimately mitigate social, economic and political uncertainty through the production of knowable populations. This dissertation is primarily concerned with subjectification in what has been termed the “postgenomic” era, the time since the sequencing of the human genome. The particular nexus the author aims to investigate, in her artistic and scholarly work, concerns surveillance, forensics, race and social justice in relation to human genomics today.

Along the way the author has interwoven a narrative describing her own artistic practice, which attempts to reveal and problematize the often obscure and naturalized knowledge production characterizing these sites.

The author designates the term “biopolitical art” to describe work utilizing techniques of public amateurism, critical engineering and speculative design to pose a subversive epistemic challenge to the biopolitical status quo.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: PhD diss., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, U.S.A., 2016.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Stranger Visions, found genetic materials, custom software, 3D prints, documentation. (© Heather Dewey-Hagborg)

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Exploring the Cognitive Correlates of Artistic Practice Using a Parameterized Non-Photorealistic Toolkit

Steve DiPaola

Artists and scientists have different approaches to knowledge acquisition, usage and dissemination. This research is one attempt to bridge these different fields by the creation of a unique software toolkit for non-photorealistic rendering (NPR). The researchers are interested in elucidating the perceptual mechanisms or “cognitive correlates” that correspond and relate to artists’ techniques and conceptions regarding fine art painting. First, they analyze an extensive corpus of historical art-theory literature to identify broadly accepted art practice understandings and techniques, which might be relevant to human perception and cognition. They further condense this artistic knowledge into a concise set of heuristics, which are suitable for parameterization and algorithmic implementation and examine findings from psychology and neuroscience, which correlate to each heuristic. The researchers present their system design for a painterly NPR toolkit that is informed by these heuristics within an object-oriented, cognitively inspired architecture. By interpreting artistic and cognitive science knowledge into a well-defined computational framework, they gain opportunities to formalize and test new hypotheses. The productive power of such an approach is demonstrated by examining in depth two particular techniques—lost-and-found edges and varying fine detail level—used by a particular artist (Rembrandt). Four experiments based on eye tracking of human viewers are formulated, using their NPR toolkit to generate example artworks with manipulated generation parameters. Significant findings are obtained that suggest artists such as Rembrandt use techniques that leverage perceptual and cognitive function to exert control over viewer’s gaze patterns, which in turn influences the experienced artistic merit of a painting.

Steve DiPaola: PhD thesis, University of British Columbia, Canada, 2013.

Steve DiPaola, Computational Painterly Rendering 1, 2017. (© Steve DiPaola)

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Un-Natural Histories: The Specimen as Site of Knowledge Production in Contemporary Art

Helen Gregory

One of the primary functions of natural history museums is the preservation and deployment of knowledge through collections of preserved specimens. Although natural in origin, these specimens betray the marks of the human hand through the processes of preservation and display, transforming objects of nature into objects of material culture. Given the challenges that arise from shifting definitions of what constitutes a natural history specimen in an age when life is being redefined and living matter is treated as a mutable and expressive substance, the author analyzes how contemporary artists have questioned how our perception of the “order of life” has been impacted in light of recent developments in genetic manipulation, tissue engineering and DNA taxonomy. In this discussion of the human impact on natural artifacts, the author includes art practices that borrow from museum technologies including taxidermy, wet preservation, field research and scientific illustration, as well as practices that employ biotechnology to investigate the shifting relationship between living organisms and taxonomy. By focusing on the hierarchical nature of knowledge in art and science, the changing use of language in classification, systems of preservation and display, and mutations and hybrid organisms, the author argues that natural history as a discipline acts as a mediating factor between the museum, on the one hand, and both scientific and art practices on the other. The specimen consequently functions as a site of knowledge production that merges both the museological impulses of preservation and display with the scientific/laboratory/art-based impulses of experimentation and alteration.

Helen Gregory: PhD diss., University of Western Ontario, Canada, 2016.

Richard Pell, JAX lab mice at the Center for PostNatural History, taxidermy, 2012. (© Richard Pell. Photo: H. Gregory.)
Nils Jean, Digital Debris, an Installation, digital print, RCA SHOW, 2015. (© Nils Jean. Photo: Dominic Tschudin.)

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Affect and the Experimental Design of Domestic Products

Guy Keulemans

This research is concerned with the experimental design of furniture and homewares, and their affective relationships to issues of production, consumption and the environment. Most mass-produced domestic objects use standardized designs and materials, which, apart from their often-noted detrimental effects on the environment, also limit possibilities for expressivity and affective encounter. Experimental design practices can open up spaces for affective relations with domestic objects. This research proposes that a particular process, that of “repair,” can facilitate these encounters and resituate thinking about, and place within, production and consumption.

Three experimental design groups of the past 50 years—Italian radical design, Dutch conceptual design and critical design—are examined in this dissertation as the context in which practice-based research can be located. Their practices that implicitly resonate with concepts of affect from the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari are identified. These concepts are then developed and deployed to critique dominant industrial design techniques that emphasize the appeal of surfaces and reduce consumer awareness of their products’ material ecologies. The traditional Japanese craft of kintsugi is used to demonstrate the contrary propensity of repaired objects to expresses material ecologies and embody dual perceptions of environmental catastrophe and amelioration. The practice-based research, which forms the core of this thesis, discovers techniques of experimental design and repair to catalyze awareness of production and consumption processes and their environmental consequences, discussed via three of the author’s own works: Marble & Steel Room Divider, Archaeologic Vases and Copper Ice Cream Scoops.

Guy Keulemans: PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, Australia, 2015.

Guy Keulemans, Archaeologic Vase (series 3), ceramic and photoluminescent glue, 2015. (© Guy Keulemans) Thrown and fired to bisque by Kiyotaka Hashimoto.

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Quality of Aesthetic Experience and Implicit Modulating Factors

Wendy Ann Mansilla

Since the Dadaist refusal of conventional standards in art, followed by several movements rejecting art as a commodity and, recently, the popularity of Internet and digital art, artworks have become difficult to recognize as artworks in themselves. Modern works of art are no longer readily only seen today, more often fully experienced. The processing of an aesthetic experience needs a new understanding in terms of the changing context of art and the experiential perspective of art recipients. In the multimedia arena, the valid assumption is that evaluations of aesthetic experiences are mostly based on the accessible information on the surface of the medium. Several research groups in psychology, marketing and philosophy question the singularity of exterior-level assumptions, demonstrating that there are implicit variables that are contributing to an individual’s experiences.

The aesthetic evaluation of contemporary art or digital media presentation involves a complex interplay of various factors in any aesthetic encounter. Since the latter 1800s, empirical aesthetics has had a tradition of examining the influence of visual or surface features on aesthetic judgments. However, the influence of implicit variables and aesthetics on the perception of quality remains largely unexplored, especially in the fields of computer graphics and human computer interaction. This thesis is addressing this shortcoming. It investigates the effect of various implicit features and modulating factors, for instance the use of color in eliciting emotion, the presence of familiar characters or alter ego, prior experiences and mental concepts (food craving versus pleasure technologies) contributing to the final quality evaluations and formation of aesthetic experiences in digital media. The current work is multifaceted and examines several factors known to influence aesthetic quality evaluation. Several stimuli were produced to facilitate these studies, most of which were actual artistic digital installations exhibited in various art festivals and exhibitions (i.e. Chroma Space, Flick Flock and Candy).

The results of all studies in this dissertation extended the literature by showing that the level of vividness of the prior implicit experiences and oblivious mental concepts taking part in the experience of digital media does not produce a disqualifying effect; full attention (yet unconscious bias towards the presence of familiar characters) and vague awareness (e.g. subtle visual features, implicit experiences and mental concepts influenced by food craving) are parts of the experience’s aesthetic quality and are therefore significant in shaping the tenor of the aesthetic experience.

Wendy Ann Mansilla: PhD diss., Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway, 2013.

Wendy Ann Mansilla, Candy, exhibited at Meta.morf 2013. (© Wendy Ann Mansilla)

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The Strange Dance: 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering as Creative Collaboration

Robin Oppenheimer

This dissertation examines the historical case study of 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering, a 1966 series of technology-based performances created collaboratively by avant-garde artists and Bell Labs engineers in New York City. It inspired the formation of an international networked organization of artists collaborating with engineers called Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). The 9 Evenings artists and engineers were influenced by cybernetics and other new ideas emerging from 20th-century science, and they saw the value of experimenting with new communications technologies as part of their respective collaborative practices. The author argues that the 9 Evenings project helped pioneer creative collaboration as a key aspect of today’s digital culture. She also argues that technology has increasingly significant roles to play in the collaborative process, including as translator, or “boundary object” in an emerging “collaboration aesthetic” that foregrounds dialogic processes and new knowledge rather than creating art objects. The author reviews a large body of historical and contemporary literature about mid-20th-century art and examines recent writings about creative collaboration by business experts, social scientists and arts scholars. Through case study methodology, the artists’ and engineers’ writings are applied to a matrix of successful creative collaboration elements. The author concludes that the 9 Evenings project was both revolutionary and transformational as creative collaboration. It was revolutionary for its intentional focus on dialogic processes utilizing technology as both tools and boundary objects to generate new knowledge, and it was transformational emotionally, intellectually and professionally for many of the artists and engineers.

Robin Oppenheimer: PhD diss., Simon Fraser University, Canada, 2011.

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The Harmonic Pattern Function: A Mathematical Model Integrating Synthesis of Sound and Graphical Patterns

Lance Putnam

The current landscape of parametric techniques for synthesis of digital sound waveforms and graphical curves and shapes is vast, but it is largely an incongruous mixture of closed and highly specialized mathematical equations. While much of this can be attributed to the independent development of synthesis techniques within each field, upon closer examination it is clear that there exist common mathematical bases between the modalities. From a more general mathematical context, it is possible to develop a language of unified audio/visual synthesis principles so that many of the existing paradigms, regardless of modality, can be understood from a single vantage point.

This dissertation substantiates the thesis that a large portion of known sound and graphical synthesis techniques can be unified through a rational function of inverse discrete Fourier transforms and that symmetry, invariance under transformation, plays an important role in understanding the patterns that it produces. The author calls this newly proposed audio/visual synthesis model the harmonic pattern function. A survey of a wide assortment of historic mechanical and electronic devices and computational systems used for generating sonic and visual patterns in art and science reveals that their underlying mathematical descriptions are special cases of this synthesis function.

The contributions of this dissertation include the introduction of a simple mathematical function, the harmonic pattern function, that is capable of generating a wide assortment of both known and previously unknown patterns useful for sound and/or visual synthesis; a simplified notation for specifying the complex sinusoids composing such patterns; and a thorough analysis of general themes and specific instances of patterns producible from the harmonic pattern function.

Lance Putnam: Goldsmiths, University of London, U.K., 2016.

Lance Putnam, various curves generated from the harmonic pattern function, 2012–2016. (© Lance Putnam)

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Listening Art: Making Sonic Artworks that Critique Listening

Camille Robinson

Sonic artists and listeners to sonic artworks tend to take for granted that how a listener listens to a sonic artwork affects what that listener perceives that sonic artwork to be, through the listener’s inclusion, exclusion and interpretation of the sonic events that constitute a given artwork. This tendency leaves the act of perception largely un-theorized in the production of sonic artworks and unquestioned in their reception by listeners.

This project seeks to address this problem by making sonic artworks that take criticality of listening as their primary focus, on the part of both artists and listeners. Its aim is to explore structuring sonic artworks around critical discourses on listening and for those artworks to foster critical reflection on listening by their listeners, hinging on the question, “How can sonic artworks be made that form critiques of listening?”

Based on an integration of schema theory and immanent critique, the author devises a rationale for making sonic artworks structured as discourses on listening and applies it to the creation of a series of works. This creative method is complemented with an original adaptation of the Heuristic Research method, which is used to determine whether the artworks do indeed foster critical reflection on listening in audience experience, through the collection and appraisal of a group of listener’s descriptions of their experiences of the works.

Camille Robinson: PhD diss., University of Melbourne, Australia, 2016.

Camille Robinson, image from Listening Art exhibition, showing Over hear (foreground), I’m here to listen (background), 2015. (© Camille Robinson)

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VASTAL: The Vivoarts School for Transgenic Aesthetics, Ltd.

Adam Zaretsky

The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics, Ltd. (VASTAL), was formed in 2009 by Adam Zaretsky. The school was opened both as an artistic gesture and in order to make hands-on biotechnology labs more accessible to the public. VASTAL publically holds living-art performance labs with Unstill Life Studies (ULS) accompanying lectures in: 1. Ecology and EcoArt: Seed Bombing Lab; 2. Ethology and Art for Nonhumans: Enrichment Arts Lab; 3. Gastronomy and Edible Art: Hybrid DNA Isolation Lab; 4. Bioinformatics and DNA Literary Studies: (De)Mystified Genetic Code Lab; 5. Cell Biology and Tissue Culture Arts: Body Alterity Lab; 6. Developmental Biology and Mutagenic Art: Transgenic Embryology Lab; 7. Physiology and Body Art: Biotechnological Alterity Performance Lab. VASTAL public labs emulate the use of life as an artistic medium to analyze the aesthetics of transgenic technologies in both nonhumans and humans alike. VASTAL’s in-lab bioarts productions are also designed to increase the range of public perception about issues pertaining to transgenic technology. This includes the analysis of the ethical, legal, social and aesthetic differences and similarities between human Intentional Genetic Modification of the Human Genome (IGM) debates and nonhuman Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) debates. Video documentation of these science and art laboratories provides the data and extended theory, which the written dissertation supplements. This combination of investigation and practice shows how a variety of art and technology interfaces can explicate trans-species collage and bring the public closer to the resultant, actual beings of biotechnology, be they GMO or IGM.

Adam Zaretsky: PhD diss., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, U.S.A., 2012.

VASTAL living-art performance labs: (top) Ecology and EcoArt: Seed Bombing Lab; (bottom) Cell Biology and Tissue Culture Arts: Body Alterity Lab. (Photo: We Make Money Not Art)