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Posts tagged ‘psychology’

Is there any poetic meaning in Baumgartner’s fall to Earth?

The feet of Felix Baumgartner, just before jumping. 14 October 2012

Yesterday, nearly 8 million of us watched another human being jump off a narrow ledge 24 miles above the Earth.

As Felix Baumgartner’s capsule rose into the air, attached to an astonishing piece of balloon engineering, viewing figures rose, those watching communicating the tension and excitement to others. Baumgartner’s face, perhaps, added to the tension. A professional daredevil, his greatest difficulty with the project was his claustrophobia within the spacesuit. Humans are so good at reading other humans’ faces that perhaps we picked up on this, without realizing its underlying cause. But as we watched Baumgartner ascend, go through his pre-jump checks, open the door, and tentatively step onto the narrow ledge above the void, the thrill that we experienced was rather a collective act of imagination: a perception of danger and uncertainty, embodied by Baumgartner, which triggered our brains to release a flood of stress hormones and emotion, despite ourselves being on solid ground.

It has been said that the Red Bull promotion – its endless logo display, the glossy animated video of the jump – removed any poetry from the occasion and any role for the imagination. But clearly our imaginations did kick in, and it is our ability to imagine, and for our bodies to react powerfully to the products of our imagination, that forms one part of the intense experience of art.

Simon Faithfull, Escape Vehicle No. 6, video still (2004)

When the Arts Catalyst commissioned Simon Faithfull’s Escape Vehicle No. 6, we had a demonstration of a similar act of imagination at work in the audience’s experience. Originally a live event in the first Artists’ Airshow, the audience witnessed the launch of a vast weather balloon with an office chair dangling beneath it. Once the apparatus had disappeared into the sky, they rushed indoors to watch, on a giant screen, a live video relay from the weather balloon as it journeyed from the ground to the edge of space (30km up). Watching the film of the chair rushing away from the fields, roads and buildings, it is impossible not to imagine yourself carried by it as it ascends through the clouds, twitching vulnerably, until it finally arrives in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where the curved horizon of the planet can be seen and the sky turns into the blackness of space, oxygen runs out and the temperature drops to minus 60 degrees. Suddenly there’s a violent spasm, a leg hurtles off into the void, and the chair disintegrates:

One could argue that it is modern telecommunications media – the ability to relay images from the event, whether Faithfull’s chair, Baumgartner’s capsule, or before this Joe Kittinger’s jump from space in 1960 or Neal Armstrong stepping onto the Moon – that is a requirement in this experience, that the medium is the essential component. But artists have for centuries sought to convey the aesthetic, emotion and meaning of the fall through more conventional media and means. This can be traced as far back as representations of myths of flying in ancient cultures, which almost always incorporated the fall, as a warning to those who aspired to join the gods (humanity’s place was on the earth).

Contemporary artists have often explored and expressed humankind’s dream of levitation, and its nemesis, falling. Yves Klein’s iconic photograph Saut dans le vide (Leap into the void) (1960) apparently shows him hurling himself off a high wall, arms outstretched, towards the pavement. This was the same year as Joe Kittinger’s original space jump, more than fifty years ago but just 25,000 feet lower than Baumgartner’s.

Yves Klein, Le Saut dans Le Vide (1960)

Joe Kittinger jumps from 103000 feet in 1960

As the space age dawned, artists joined the space dream. In 1959, the artist Takis organised an event in Paris entitled L’Impossible, Un Homme Dans L’Espace (The Impossible, A Man in Space). Wearing a ‘space suit’ designed by Takis, a man was “launched” across a gallery into a safety net.

Today, post ‘space age’, with its triumphs but also its disasters such as Columbia and Challenger, and post 9/11, the image of a falling person takes on new meanings and cultural resonances. Photographer Denis Darzacq’s 2006 series La Chute (The Fall) features impassive 20-year-olds seemingly about to hit the ground at high speed. It was in part a response to the horror of the twin towers attack, but mostly a depiction of the alienation of a generation of French young people. Darzacq felt that France was a place where someone could tumble from the sky and no one would bat an eyelid.

Denis Darzacq, La Chute N° 15 (2006)

For the Chinese artist Xu Zhen, his performance/installation In just a blink of an eye is a “manifestation” of the globalized market where Chinese workers are symbolically and literally suspended in a state of falling: frozen in a fragment of time. The models are recruited from the local Chinese population of the city in which the work is shown.

Xu Zhen, In Just a Blink of an Eye (2005-07)

Perhaps there is little poetry in Baumgartner’s action, although the team is keen to point out its potential usefulness for developing emergency escape procedures for returning astronauts, but it adds to the store of meaning that we construct around the falling body, and to our perceptions of space, fragility and risk.

The view of the Earth from above is familiar these days, from cameras sent up on satellites, balloons and other aerial vehicles. But the image of Baumgartner’s feet suspended above the Earth’s surface embodied for us the feelings expressed by Apollo astronauts when they looked back at their home planet from the Moon. As Baumgartner stood on his ledge, 128000 feet above the Earth, he recounted afterwards: “You don’t think about records any more, you don’t think about gaining scientific data, the only thing is you want to come back alive”. His last words before stepping into the vacuum were “I’m coming home”.

Bionic people: enhancement, bioethics and the politics of disability

Woman as half-cheetah half-human with prosthetics legs

Aimee Mullens in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER 3 (2002). Superhuman exhibition.

Two current exhibitions, a workshop we recently organised at DaDaFest, and the ongoing controversy around “bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius’ inclusion in the Olympics have got me thinking about developments in human enhancement technologies and the impact on disability politics.

The athletic success of double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius has propelled this discourse into the mainstream. Some say the blades he runs on give him an unfair advantage, allowing him to push off the ground more efficiently than a normal human ankle. This discussion of whether Pistorius, until now regarded as a “disabled” athlete, is in fact an “enhanced” athlete is an extraordinary development, and represents a major milestone in the development of prosthetics technology. Some writers, such as bioethicist Andy Miah, have pointed out that it has an even greater significance:  “… the rise of technological enhancements means that prosthetics can overtake the capacities of biological body parts and what we consider today to be optimal may, tomorrow, seem inefficient.” It is easily conceivable that different prosthetics and enhancements may give other Paralympics athletes advantages to the extent that they begin to produce faster, further, stronger, more accurate performances than athletes in the non-enhanced Olympics.

Athlete with prosthetic 'blade' legs

Oscar Pistorius, Olympic athlete

Some of the historical background to this type of speculation is explored in the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Superhuman’ exhibition, which opened in London recently and runs to October. It suggests that “scientific developments point to a future where cognitive enhancers and medical nanorobots will be widespread as we seek to augment our beauty, intelligence and health”, and does so through displaying medical, scientific and cultural artefacts which humans have used to make themselves better from early times, from an Egyptian prosthetic toe and a nose prosthetic for a 19th century syphilis victim, to modern cosmetic surgery, i-Limbs and futuristic promises of nano- and biotechnology.

Yet the vision of a bionic future jars with the reminder, in another part of the exhibition, of the artificial limbs used to “normalise” – but certainly not to enhance – thalidomide children. While there may be a gradual trend to more functional prosthetics adapted for the individual, in reality many disabled people’s experience of prosthetics is still uncomfortable, limiting and frustrating.

The notion of enhancement, of making ‘superhumans’ of disabled people, presents problems for what has been the prevailing discourse in disability politics in the English-speaking west, which centres on the social versus medical models of disability. In this discourse, there is a “medical model of disability” which sees the disabled person as a problem, to be adapted, cured or shut away. Against this, the “social model of disability” considers disablement to be created by the way that society and the physical environment have been structured, and to have little to do with impairment itself. Using this model, the ‘cure’ to the problem of disability lies in the restructuring of society. This position became increasingly rigid in the UK during the 80s and 90s, with corresponding suspicion – indeed hostility – directed at health and medical science professionals, who might wish to cure or prevent those impairments that are part of a person’s identity.

In 2006, sociologist and disability activist Tom Shakespeare suggested in his book ‘Disability Rights and Wrongs’ that the disabled people’s movement needed to move on from this polarised position. He proposed an alternative account of disability, which takes into account the interplay of individual and contextual factors. In other words, he argues that people are disabled by society and by their bodies, and therefore that it is important both to prevent impairment and to support the rights of disabled people.

A table with thousands of pills

Pharmacopoeia, Cradle to Grave II (2003). Niet Normaal.

An exhibition currently showing at Bluecoats Gallery, Liverpool, as part of DaDaFest, makes an interesting contribution to this more nuanced approach to disability, exploring themes of technological enhancement, conformity, and normality. ‘Niet Normaal’ is a new version of an international exhibition that explores the questions ‘What is normal?’ and ‘Who decides?’ through the work of contemporary artists. The Liverpool version, curated by Ine Gevers and Garry Robson, recognises that technology is generating new opportunities for people of all sorts, shapes and sizes, but sets this against the striving to become ever more uniform, ever more ‘perfect’.

Javier Tellez’s film Caligari und der Schlafwandler (Caligari and the Sleepwalker) is a delightful homage to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), a film that has been interpreted as a commentary on the German people’s somnambulist response to the rise of the Nazis. In Tellez’s version, psychiatric patients play the characters. The story of the doctor’s “discovery” of a sleepwalking alien is beautifully produced and raises questions about what we perceive as mental illness and how we communicate our complex internal worlds. Don’t we all hear voices some of the time?

Film still (black and white) of a man holding a blackboard on which some German words are chalked, the translation is "You have to sign this form"

Javier Tellez, Caligari und der Schlafwandler (2008). Niet Normaal.

In the next gallery, a vast glass-covered table holds a collection of 14,000 pills. Pharmacopoeia’s Cradle to Grave II is the outcome of a study into the use of medicines by the average Dutch person, but is bordered by photographs and objects from daily lives. If these are the “normal” relatively healthy people, what does this vast intake of powerful medication imply for how we understand our own wellness?

Imogen Stidworthy’s video installation focuses on the speech therapy of photographer Edward Woodward, who lost his voice in an accident. The strain of his production of words is felt through vibrations on a bench. The fact that the words he is struggling to pronounce are those in the title of the piece, I Hate, suggests his anger at his debilitating situation.

As someone with a fair amount of titanium in her body, I was entertained by Floris Kaayk’s video Metalosis Maligna, a mockumentary about a disease that affects patients with metal-based implants, eating away the human tissue as the metal takes over the body. The CGT work is impressive and there are some very comic moments. It’s also showing in the Superhuman exhibition.

A man in a hospital bed, his flesh being replaced by metai

Floris Kaayk, Metalosis Maligna (2006). Niet Normaal & Superhuman.

I was at DaDaFest for the fourth project of an Arts Catalyst programme strand, Specimens to Superhumans, a collaborative project with Shape, a disability-led arts organisation. Specimens to Superhumans aims to provide a series of creative spaces for disabled artists to engage with contemporary issues around biomedical science and ethics. The activities have included artists’ commissions, panel discussions and practical creative workshops.

At DaDaFest, we organised a 2-day film-making workshop for disabled artists and film-makers, led by writer/director John Williams. The intent of the workshop was to create short films that imaginatively addressed themes of disability, bioethics and prosthetics. John Williams’ films combine live action, animation and visual effects, engagingly dealing with highly sensitive subjects. His award-winning film Robots – The Animated Docu-Soap (2000) tells the story of three redundant robots who, having acquired disabilities or mental illness, attempt to reassert meaning to their lives, while in Paraphernalia (2009) a young boy gets annoyed with the little robot that follows him everywhere, but the robot is more than just a toy and turns out to be the object on which his life depends.

The two short films produced by the participants in less than two days – Side Effects and The Experiment – will be showcased at DaDaFest Film Shorts on 21 August 2012, at FACT, starting at 5pm. We also hope to put them online – so watch this space.

John Williams, Robots – The Animated Docu-Soap (2000)

John Williams, Paraphernalia (2009)

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family

Two screen image. On the right, a chimpanzee in a green area near a busy road. On the left, a chimp watches the same image on a TV screen in a zoo enclosure.

Rachel Mayeri's Primate Cinema: Apes as Family (2011). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

At The Arts Catalyst, the team is looking forward to the opening of our latest commission, Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema: Apes as Family, showing in our Clerkenwell space in London, from 19 Oct – 13 Nov 2011.

Mayeri’s two-screen video installation juxtaposes a drama enacted by humans in the guise of apes (of a female chimpanzee befriending a group of outsiders) with mesmerising footage of the reactions of its chimpanzee audience at Edinburgh Zoo. As the watchers of the watching chimps, we perceive – or we imagine – fascination, puzzlement, and flashes of anger in their responses. But chimps are not humans, and Mayeri’s artwork says far more about our own reactions and perceptions to what we are watching, than those of the chimps to the film.

To make Primate Cinema: Apes as Family, Rachel Mayeri collaborated with comparative psychologist Dr Sarah-Jane Vick, who studies chimpanzee cognition and behaviour, testing different styles and genres of film to gauge chimps’ responses. DNA sequencing has placed humans firmly within the great apes, so how do our cognitive abilities differ from those of chimpanzees? Do we share basic preferences for novelty and perhaps even form and content with our closest relations? In a symposium, Cinema as Primatology, (4-6pm, Tue 18 October), Rachel Mayeri and Sarah Jane Vick will explore similarities and differences in perception, cognition and socio-emotional behaviour between humans and chimpanzees.

In Mayeri’s film, the intriguing and amusing story-response structure contains dark undercurrents in its contemplation of the lives of our captive close relatives. The Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo is a state-of-the-art facility to provide the best possible conditions for chimpanzees within a zoo environment. But many people are uncomfortable with zoos in any form, and with the idea of making any animal captive.

A fascinating short documentary film about the making of the work will also be shown in the space, which sheds some fascinating light on the chimps’ ambiguous (to us) behaviour.

“Some stimuli do seem to provoke responses … Sex, food, violence – and drumming!” Rachel Mayeri

Truth – The Interrogation

The Arts Catalyst team spent a very cold day in a dilapidated, darkened office suite in Liverpool on Saturday, processing the volunteer ‘self-experimenters’ who came to take part in the Office of Experiments‘ art performance/experiment Truth Serum. It was interesting to observe the volunteers as they arrived and waited for processing – having first been whisked away from FACT in a car driven by a serious man in sunglasses to this secret location, accessed through an anonymous door in an indoor CCP car park. Some were white with nerves, others looked apprehensive but game, one approached the exercise with confrontational belligerence, one attempted to run away as soon as she stepped out of the car and had to be persuaded to come back, two towards the end of the day just grinned confidently – had they been briefed, or simply been in the FACT bar for a time? Guided from darkened room to room by shady persons calling themselves Randy, the volunteers were assigned a number, asked to sign a waiver, given a truth serum if so designated, and asked to wait for their interrogation.

Truth Serum was an artistic experiment in gentle disorientation and destablilisation and an exploration of truth, belief, responsibility and art.  It incorporated a number of mild interrogation techniques and psychological games.  In the event, all the participants – however nervous they looked beforehand – responded well to the interrogation and appeared to leave calm and thoughtful.

We are very grateful to all the brave souls who took part.

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