Top-Ranked LABS Abstracts 2017

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. 51, No. 5, October 2018) and on our website. We are pleased to present below the top-ranked thesis abstracts of 2017, and we congratulate the authors of the theses.


Establishing a Critical Framework for the Appraisal of “Noise” in Contemporary Sound Art with Specific Reference to the Practices of Yasunao Tone, Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda

Adam Collis

Yasunao Tone, Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda are three practitioners representative of electronic music and sound-art practices that emerged in the 1990s where sound materials not normally considered musical, such as digital clicks, glitches and bursts of white noise, are prevalent. The origins of this body of work lie outside of the established music institutions of academia and the mainstream popular music industry and practitioners are often associated with particular record labels including Mille Plateaux or Raster-Noton. While attempts have been made to coalesce these practices into a single unified genre, these assessments tend to critique work mainly in technological terms.

In contrast, this thesis draws out deeper philosophical concerns relevant to these practices through a critical analysis of materials produced by and about these practitioners, including commercial releases, works, writings and interviews. What emerges from this is that Heidegger’s notion of truth as ‘revealing’ and Derrida’s critique of phonocentrism can provide a clearer philosophical framework for a consideration of this body of work. It is argued that these practices reflect a wider cultural shift away from the notion of “value” as something quantified, abstract and intrinsic, towards one concerned with the qualitative, contextual and extrinsic, and that these practices are forms of conceptual sound art that challenge both notions of “absolute” music and prevailing political-economic structures.

Adam Collis: a.collis@coventry.ac.uk. PhD Thesis, University of Surrey, United Kingdom, 2016.

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Duchamp Meets Turing: Art, Modernism, Posthuman

Gabriela Galati

This work proposes to consider that the actual overcoming of modernism comes along with the advent of the posthuman—tracing its origin to Marcel Duchamp and his invention of the readymade—and not with postmodernism, the theoretical consistency of which, at least in the artistic field, this research questions. 

Katherine Hayles analyzed the process through which the conception of the liberal humanist subject led the way to the posthuman subject, a subject who lives in complete entwinement with the digital. This process, however, was not innocuous: it made the (fallacious) perception that information could do without material instantiation pervasive within many fields of knowledge. This research identifies an analogous process within the artistic realm: when Clement Greenberg delineated the concepts of opticality and colour field as the main characteristics that defined Modernist painting, he conceived of these in a purely disembodied subject.
Understanding digitalisation processes not as representations of some material reality, but as ontological repetitions; and analysing the archive not only as an issue of memory, but also of conformation both of the future and subjectivities this work advances the emergence of a digital subject, and theorizes that its constitution happens by assuming a ‘point of view’ in the technological unconscious. 

These theorisations, which are part of the posthuman, are presented as the actual overcoming of modernism to show that the readymade as medium is, at the same time, both one of the points of rupture and the key link to bring back new media and art theory as art-at-large.

Gabriela Galati: gabrielagalati@gmail.com. PhD thesis, Plymouth University, United Kingdom, 2016.

​​​​​​Massimiliano Viel, Cluster_03, digital image, 2014. ( Massimiliano Viel)

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Microsound, Spectra, and Objectivity: Tracing Memetics in Organized Sound

Vincent Giles

This dissertation proposes a novel memetic framework and creative methodology to probe the mechanism underpinning the transmission of a composer’s intention to an audience, contending that cultural replicators – memes – drive our understanding of a composer’s intention. It is hypothesized that memes catalyze the creation of artefacts which, in turn, act as instigators for memetic replication in brains, and that microsound – sound at the edge of perception – may play a key role in instigation.

Thinking about these hypotheses yields creative deployment of microsound in primarily scored works. The creative process allows the researcher to arrive at a deeper understanding of memetics and formalize the conceptual memetic framework and hypotheses described herein. Thus, theory and practice become interlocked in the search for evidence of memes in the creation of works of organized sound, and the role memes play in an audience’s ability to (re)construct the intention of a composer.

Four notated/semi-notated musical compositions and one piece of software (made in MaxMSP) are included as support for the framework: Mozart Variations, silver as a catalyst in organic reactions, End to Reattain, It needs a big ‘ow’ sound; ow-nd… ground! and the Spectral Domain Microsound Amplification Software (SDMAS), along with a significant number of other works and projects not discussed in-text. Each of these works/projects contributed significant shifts in understanding of the role memes may play in intention/reception, and are reflected upon in-text.

Vincent Giles: vin@vgiles.net. PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, Australia, 2017.

Vincent Giles, excerpt from “it needs a big ‘ow’ sound; ow-nd… ground!” music score, 2017. (© Vincent Giles)

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Composing [De]Composition: Data Sonification for Sound Art and Music Composition

Jennifer no.e Parker

First presented at University of California Riverside’s Sweeney Art Gallery in 2015, Composing [De]Composition is a sonically-oriented BioArt research installation that recontexualizes compost as a rich site for creative exploration and expression via data sonification. Data sonification brings a perceivably silent physical/biochemical activity into the tangible range of human hearing, allowing the biota to be a source of vastly different sonic experiences. In this paper, the author reframes the composting process as artistic material and collaborator, deploying a DIY/maker's approach connecting organic waste disposal, data collection and visualization as grist for sound art and music composition.

The key observable driving C[D]C is the heat generated by the compost. Here, the author describes the evolution of a poly-temporal, multi-agential, and techno-ecological artistic praxis involving: development of a data audio display to sense, audify and collect real-time temperature data; parameter mapping; sound design; dataset-based digital music composition; and data musification strategies. The real-time audification of temperature using a custom interface routing sensor data to a multi-point audio display enables listeners to better apprehend the complex ecology of a heterogeneous mass simultaneously decomposing while supporting a myriad of life forms. Similarly, as music builds upon patterns of pitch, rhythm, and dynamics through time, sonification of temperature datasets clearly reveals inherent patterns occurring in the system. While creating fertile ground for exploration in the realm of music composition, this also enables the composer/sound artist to create works in partnership with her phenomenon of study.

Jennifer no.e Parker: Jno.eParker@gmail.com. PhD thesis, University of California, Riverside, 2016.

Composing [De]Composition Data Listening Session at U.C. Riverside’s Sweeney Art Gallery, October 2016. (© Jennifer no.e Parker. Photo: Nikoly Maslov.)

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When CRISPR Meets Art: The Experience of Relationality Through the Affective Agency of Matter

Lotte Pet

When CRISPR Meets Art deals with the value of art in relation to the human enhancement debate that is sparked by the genome editing technique CRISPR. This biotechnology allows for the alteration of DNA with much stronger precision and lower costs than previous methods, and is quickly and widely applied in the field of bioengineering. Consequently, we’re confronted with biotechnology’s socio-cultural impact and forced to formulate opinions on issues that touch upon notions of life, death and the future and meaning of humanity. A univocal opinion is absent and the debate on human enhancement shows many different and incommensurable positions. Therefore, alternative methods of engagement for experts and laypeople need to be developed, as well as a means to overcome the current stalemated position. Affect theory and concepts from posthumanism and new materialism show that these can be found in bioart: the field of art in which biotechnological techniques and materials are used in artistic practices to construct a better understanding of their ethical and societal implications. Bioartists are known for confronting people with intrinsic perceptions, using instances such as shock, fascination and confusion. The material nature of their art provides onto- epistemological frameworks that instigate an awareness of our relational existence that is always in process of becoming. It shows that the understanding of biotechnology’s significance cannot only be achieved through language and representations. Instead, it has to be known through the affective force of art.

Lotte Pet: lottepet@gmail.com. Masters thesis, Leiden University, Netherlands, 2016.

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Robotic Sculpture Development through Appropriated Choreographic Strategies, Facilitating Artistic Exploration of Visual Perception, Object-ness, and Symbiosis between Physical and Virtual Media

Marco Pinter

The domain of dance enjoys a centuries-long history of exploring movement through choreography.  This dissertation illustrates the appropriation of choreographic techniques from the domain of dance to the domain of kinetic sculpture through the use of robotic technologies and tools. 

The research draws upon a schema of 16 motif manipulations by Blom & Chaplin, as well as Laban effort actions, and techniques of chance and indeterminacy employed by John Cage and Merce Cunningham.  Software tools are presented which have been developed to enable these appropriations.

A review of literature is provided on motor cortex activity produced when observing dance and robotic systems.  The review informs a new linear model of motor brain activation in art, illustrating that the present research enables creation of “bio-kinematic sculpture,” a sculptural form facilitating viewer brain activation.

Choreographic manipulation is also shown to enable artistic exploration of visual perception and related philosophical concepts.  A classification is presented for visual artwork which exploits low-level visual perception, revealing an uncharted gap in visual art which explores perceptual constructs through choreographed robotic sculpture.  Examples are provided from the author’s practice, which exploits the phenomenon of object permanence through the cybernetic interaction of physical and virtual media within a shared ecosystem.

The research suggests that a formal system of choreographic development, with supporting tools and methodologies, allows the creative freedom to explore sculptural motion in an unencumbered process of experimentation and observation.

Marco Pinter: contact (at) fusion-artist.com. PhD thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, U.S.A.

Marco Pinter, “Object Permanence III: Non-Dual” with dancers Kaita Lepore and Tim Wood, 2014. (© Marco Pinter)

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Computer Art and Actor-Network Theory: Actants and Intersubjective Associations in Scene

Carlos C. Praude

The paper investigates how Actor-Network Theory contributes to the innovation of aesthetic states in artistic production and proposes a theoretical framework to the creative process in terms of Computer Art.

The paper is a result of a PhD thesis, which establishes associations between the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Computer Art. ANT originated from researches investigating the dynamics of knowledge production within laboratory with the use of technological artifacts where humans and non-humans, called actants, were analyzed with the same level of importance. Computer Art finds its roots in Information Theory and in the signs systems that are proposed as objects from the perspective of Informational Aesthetics, as stated by Abraham Moles and Max Bense.

The research articulated concepts known as actant, association, translation and inscription, from ANT, based on definitions presented by Bruno Latour, with the terms repertoire of elements, message, object and aesthetic states, from Informational Aesthetics.

Developing the analysis of interactive installations, of my own creation, most of them being applied in theatrical staging, the work investigated how ANT contributes to the innovation of aesthetic states in artistic production and built a theoretical framework that collaborates to the creative process in terms of Computer Art. Expanding Informational Aesthetics with ANT, the research proposes an Aesthetic of Associations, which takes a different view focusing on the connections established between the actants participating in the art object.

Carlos C. Praude: ccpraude@gmail.com. PhD thesis, Universidade de Brasília, Brazil, 2015.

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The Practices of Art and Science

Hannah Star Rogers

This dissertation explores the question of how art and science work as categories to circumscribe bodies of knowledge. People engage in rhetorical positioning through the creation of texts, style choices, making and unmaking the meanings of objects. Objects can be made to fit into the knowledge networks of art, science, or combinations of both. For different practitioners and audiences, what counts as art or science and their association vary in interesting ways.

The categories of art and science serve many purposes. They indicate the kind of attention people, objects, and ideas want to elicit from readers, viewers, and thinkers. They serve to demarcate resources, to delineate interests, and to separate social groups. This dissertation contains three core case studies: the story of the Blaschka’s 19th century glass scientific models, the story of the 1990s tactical media movement, and the story of bioarts as practiced in a wet biological lab in Australia.

By unpacking the ways actors have used these categories, I complicate the division between the realms of art and science, examine their relative power in differnt contexts, and show that science studies tools can be applied to artistic practice with fruitful results that offer new ways of thinking about people and objects that have often fallen outside the scope of science studies research. My analysis details the forms of knowledge produced by art and science in these contexts.

Hannah Star Rogers: hsr9@cornell.edu. PhD thesis, Cornell University, U.S.A., 2012.

SymbioticA Lab at the University of Western Australia, 2009. (© Hannah Star Rogers)

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Executing Liveness: An Examination of the Live Dimension of Code Inter-actions in Software (Art) Practice

Winnie Soon

With today’s prevalence of technology enormous quantities of data are generated and disseminated in real-time through a highly networked, programmable and distributed environment. Networks of machines and the circulation of data mediate our sense of time. The sensation of ‘liveness’ is deeply reconfigured by complex technological infrastructures behind ubiquitous screens and interfaces. This thesis explores how real-time computation reconfigures the immanent sense of liveness, examining the complexity of our current computational environment as evident in the increasing use of data queries, the instantaneous transmission of data streams and the seamless running of automated agents.

A materialist framework for liveness is presented with the use of three main vectors, namely: unpredictability, micro-temporality and automation. By drawing together the methods of reflexive practice, close reading, iterative trials and cold gazing in the fields of artistic research, critical code studies, software studies and media archaeology respectively, this thesis presents three artistic and experimental projects together with the written manuscript. Together they examine barely visible code operations and consider the cultural implications of the reading, writing, running and execution of code, which I refer to as ‘reflexive coding practice.’ This methodology provides an applied approach to computational processes, invisible architectures and a means to reflect on cultural issues through experimentation and practice. The analysis and discussion contributes to a widening of critical attention to software (art) studies and this includes a nuanced examination of liveness beyond immediate human reception.

Winnie Soon: wsoon@cc.au.dk. PhD thesis., Aarhus University, Denmark, 2016.

Winnie Soon, Hello Zombies networked installation, custom software, 2014. (© Winnie Soon)

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Contemporary Urban Media Art—Images of Urgency: A Curatorial Inquiry

Tanya Toft

The dissertation unfolds through an inquiry into human perceptual experience in media aesthetic conditions of our contemporary, communicative existence; namely in urban contexts of highly technologically developed environments. It examines overall, from a combined academic and curatorial perspective, how urban media art – media aesthetic art forms situated in the urban context – may be considered contemporary in the understanding of art that departs from, responds to and co-exists with ‘time’ and temporal experience; and as engaging with perceptual structures and mediated conditions in particular contemporaneities. In inquiring into three media aesthetic tendencies today: intensity, intelligence and immersion, the dissertation examines the art’s contingent relations with our technological contemporaneity. Contemporary conditions of ‘immersion’ are especially problematized in terms of a tendency of spectacularization of behavior (rather than conditioned by Spectacles) characterizing our ‘duration’ today; and in terms of images we live through rather than ‘images’ we look at, in light of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of images as sense-impressions. Toft suggests that urban media art – as images of urgency oscillating between presence effects and meaning effects – may be considered contemporary by way of its potential real-time interference with site-contextual, environmental-relational and future-virtual realms of distributed sensibility today, levels at which the art’s images potentially affects human perceptual experience and duration.

Tanya Toft: tanyatoft@gmail.com. PhD thesis, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 2017.

Lucas Bambozzi, Coisa Lida (2014), large-scale responsive video installation, SP Urban Digital Festival 2014, São Paulo. Courtesy of the artist and Verve Cultural. Photo by Bia Ferrer.

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Amplifying Ambiguities: Art on the Fringes of Biotechnology

Nora S. Vaage

Since the 1980s, “bioart” has emerged as an important artform alongside the transition to the 21st century, often described, both optimistically and ominously, as the “biotech century”. This doctoral dissertation studied artists’ engagements with wet biotechnologies, considering bioart in relation to the related approaches of DIYbio and biodesign. The thesis navigates the tension between bioart’s topical and methodological relationship to biotechnology, and its claims to some other, aesthetic quality defining it as art.

What is the specificity of bioart in relation to related phenomena on the topic of biotechnology? I contend that bioart is a heterogeneous field that is in important ways singular as an artistic approach to the biotechnosciences, while simultaneously being closely interlinked with DIYbio and biodesign, as well as biotechnology and the art world. The thesis is based on a case study performed at the SymbioticA Centre for Excellency in Biological Arts, supplemented by participant observation in numerous other contexts including community laboratories, workshops, visits to exhibitions, and conversations with practitioners of bioart, DIYbio and biology.

What ethical issues do bioartworks raise and address? How are these practices performed and perceived? Which possibilities and challenges do they carry? The results of the research show that art can give non-specialists increased understanding of biotechnosciences and their impact on society, but also that artists are uncomfortable with focus on the function of their art. There is a strong sense that art needs to convey something more than instrumentalist aims.

Nora S. Vaage: n.vaage@maastrichtuniversity.nl. PhD thesis, University of Bergen, Norway, 2016.

Laboratory work at SymbioticA. Artist Benjamin Forster doing tissue culture work. © Nora Vaage, 2013.

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Live Brain-Computer Cinema Performance

Polina Zioga

The majority of the applications of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) in the arts and entertainment use the brain-activity of a single participant, while an increasing number involves the interaction of more than one users.

This dissertation investigates the design and implementation of multi-brain Electroencephalography (EEG)-based BCIs in the context of live cinema and mixed-media performances. The aim is to identify the interdisciplinary challenges involved and develop an effective model for the simultaneous multi- brain interaction of performers and audiences.

By combining scientific and practice-based methodologies, a new passive multi-brain EEG-based BCI system was developed and implemented in Enheduanna―A Manifesto of Falling, the first demonstration of a live brain-computer cinema performance (CCA Glasgow, July 2015). This new work enabled for the first time the simultaneous real-time interaction with the use of EEG-based BCIs of more than two participants, including both a performer as well as members of the audience, in the context of a mixed-media performance. The analysis of the participants’ data has revealed a correlation between the elements of the performance, which they identified as most special, and their indicators of attention and emotional engagement, proving the efficiency of the interaction design, the importance of the directing strategy, dramaturgy and narrative structure. Accordingly, the original contributions of the research include the new passive multi-brain EEG-based BCI system, the live brain-computer cinema performance as a new format of performative work and as a complete combination of creative and scientific solutions.

Polina Zioga: info@polina-zioga.com. PhD Thesis, Glasgow School of Art, UK, 2017.

“Enheduanna―A Manifesto of Falling” Live Brain-Computer Cinema Performance at CCA Glasgow, 30–31 July 2015. (© Polina Zioga. Photo: Catherine M. Weir.)