Interrogating the Computable Self : The Biomapping Project

The Biomapping project, funded by a SSHRC grant (2009), engaged user-centered design to confront the biomaterialist turn evident in consumer technologies and scholarship idealizing the computational self. With an intentionally ironic premise, the project exposed the impossibility of predicting cognitive state or mood via data from modular systems (Hayles) and revealed the faulty outcomes produced by consumer tools that visualize and interpret activity data. The project rendered an art exhibition (Proofofproofofconcept 2013) and conference presentations, demos, and published research (Body and Society 2015), arguing that subjects are not ‘duped’ by consumer grade (heart and brain) sensors, but, given time, will intra-actively (Barad) tangle with machinic visual renderings and probe reductive readings of their sensory and cognitive data. 

Our research creation process: The project engaged researchers and participants in exploring a range of consumer grade heart and brain wave sensors, to understand how users interpret the machine’s data collection and interpretation, and visual presentations of their data and produced ethnographic interviews and staged photos of users producing data to reflexively comment on this normally automated process to which we assume users are supplicant.  We also played with various mediums for aestheticizing this data in the form of animations, 3d graphics, and deliberately fetishized these data in 3d forms printed via rapid prototyping. In one version, we fetishized the 3d printer itself, repurposing it to drew the algorithmic form of my brain waves (captured during meditation) on my hand in, which I then printed on paper, restoring my body data to a surface on my body for consideration.  

In later iterations we devised our own biometric capture devices, a transparent case users wore exposing the chip on which the data was stored, user-friendly algorithm for processing data. Users were asked to take full control of their data capture, choosing to capture data while walking through the city, recording context that might impact the data, removing the chip and uploading it to the computer, and engaging the algorithm to process their data in visual form.  We present these live research experiments as living art installations, where users experiences of these tools and reflections on their data, themselves, constitute the art. 

Working with artist Stephen Surlin on the biometric walks project, we captured heart rate data on a walk through downtown Toronto, and aestheticized in musically to reflect the context of the heart rhythm responding to the walk. 

Research Team

Principle Investigator, Team Lead: Paula Gardner 
Team members/Artists: Bohan Anderson, Patricio Davila, Barbara Jenkins, Rob King, Hyein Lee, Ken Leung, Symon Oliver, Leigh Ann Pahapill, Yifat Shaik, Stephen Surlin, Andrei Vassilev, Amber Whitenburg, Britt Wray

The exhibition features live research experiments, and documentation, staged photos and videos of users experimenting with brain and heart rate data capture. A wormhole (offered via an Ipad) offers a peek into a side room, exposing our research process and biometric objects produced by users, exposing the messy and experimental work of research creation with participants. Early modern biometric measuring tools, made of bronze, (borrowed from University of Toronto) are displayed as fetish science devices representing a commitment to knowing human perception and cognition via quantifying machine tools.  Oversized sculptural elements replicate the coils and weaves of body data that we probe and process with algorithms. 

Writing

Gardner, P. & Jenkins, B. (2015). Bodily intra–actions with biometric devices. Body and Society, 22(1), 1–28. doi:10.1177/1357034X15604030.

(2010). Space, becoming, and dislocation: Politicizing mobile art. In L. Poissant & P. Tremblay (Eds.), Together, E2018lsewhere : Ensemble ailleurs (pp. 213–237). Presses de l’Université du
Québec.

Other dissemination: Various Biomapping Symposia and Conference presentations (see CV)