Brain Art: Brain-Computer Interfaces for Artistic Expression

Brain Art: Brain-Computer Interfaces for Artistic Expression
by Anton Nijholt, Editor

Springer, Cham, Switzerland, 2019
473 pp., illus. 211 b/w, 162 col. Trade, €139,14
ISBN: 978-3-030-14322-0.

Reviewed by
Cristina Albu
October 2019

Brain Art offers a pivotal overview of the state of research at the intersection of art and neurofeedback. Envisioned as a tool for artists, designers, and scientists working with EEG technology to enable creative expression, it provides a comprehensive picture of aesthetic concerns and technological advances that have shaped interaction with brain-computer interfaces (BCI). The edited volume also includes thorough documentation of recent artworks, experiments, and therapies based on neurofeedback. It can constitute an essential resource for historians and media theorists examining the development of this genre.

Starting from the premise that “brain art” can open new research questions for science, editor Anton Nijholt suggests that artists have anticipated current experimentation with neurofeedback in increasingly complex scenarios which account for the social dimension of experience. Hyperscanning techniques and increasingly portable EEG devices have enabled inquiries into invisible connections established across bodily thresholds and the correlations between interpersonal awareness, agency, and motion. The growing affordability of neurofeedback media starting with the 1990s has also facilitated such investigations. The volume is subdivided into five parts focused on the historical framework of “brain art”, the use of BCI for enhancing self-exploration, its function in decoding brain functioning, its role in rehabilitation therapy, and its integration with other technological media which pose new design challenges. The book is prefaced by a statement written by biofeedback art pioneer Nina Sobell who draws attention to the affective and democratic potential of technology.

While easily relatable, the term “brain art” is problematic since it implies that the expressive potential of such art lies solely in the dynamic transformation of neural oscillations. In fact, this art genre usually highlights the interdependence between embodied experience, consciousness, and the context of mental processes. Some works are participatory in nature and cannot be enacted unless multiple visitors are present. The role of the artist is not limited to designing the interface for registering neural signals and transferring them to sounds or visual stimuli. He or she can serve as guide, demystifying the technological apparatus, as performer modelling the neural data, or as interpreter of the reception of the work. Most contributors to the volume tend to focus on delineating the technological devices and the experimental setup and are less inclined to discussing how art participants have responded to the works. Laura Jade and Sam Gentle signal this issue and call for more reflection on how audiences create meaning in relation to the neural patterns they observe.

The volume offers key perspectives on how lab scenarios compare to art contexts in which neural oscillations are measured. It outlines the crucial need for establishing reciprocal relationships between artistic and scientific inquiries. In musical composer David Rosenboom’s words, seemingly disparate disciplines can form a “virtuous circle” that generates mutual gains. Transdisciplinary endeavors such as the ones initiated by neuroscientist Suzanne Dikker and neuroengineer Jesus G. Cruz-Garza show how collaborative projects using BCI can have both aesthetic and scientific significance. They make a case for involving artists in the decision-making process about experiments from the very beginning. Another seminal contribution of the volume is the presentation of multiple taxonomies of “brain art,” which can help art critics develop better criteria for assessing this genre. Mirjana Prpa and Philippe Pasquier’s meticulous classification shows how diverse such works have become as artists consider a whole range of variables of neurofeedback. Flora Lysen’s historical account of the shifting stakes of experimentation with EEG further expands the conceptual understanding of this aesthetic medium by underscoring its development in conjunction with changes in cybernetic theories and the growing interest in the introspective experience it generates. Lysen is the only contributor who touches on the politics of neurofeedback, a topic that could have occupied a more prominent place in this volume. Several other contributors address themes of agency, autonomy, and control but their observations are not paired with a critical outlook on potentially nefarious uses of this medium. The ethics of publicly presenting and using neural data, even in art contexts, is worthy of more scrutiny.

Nijholt’s book aptly extends the scope of aesthetic expression beyond the realm of fine art and music. Chapters focusing on the use of BCI for therapies targeted at patients suffering from neuromuscular diseases or cognitive behavioral problems underscore the need for developing user-centered designs and enabling creative expression beyond the scope of the laboratory. User friendliness and accessibility also underlie interactive film projects and environments based on augmented reality. In the arts, as well as in therapy and entertainment media based on BCI, it is important to anticipate the expectations of the audience while concomitantly considering unpredictable scenarios.

Brain Art establishes a solid foundation for the study of aesthetic expression via BCI. It points out the tenuous balance between exerting influence over brain patterns and observing their fluctuations with detachment as one engages in creative acts of modelling sounds or images. Contributors from the fields of art, media studies, neuroscience, neuro-engineering, and social work offer multiple vantage points on the creative possibilities of BCI and show how deeply interconnected their interests are while tackling the complexities of conscious and unconscious modulations of mental processes.