Listening to the mind at play: sonified biofeedback as generative art practice and theory

Reiser, Michaela (2009) Listening to the mind at play: sonified biofeedback as generative art practice and theory. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


Explorative play affects the root of our being, as it is generative. Often experienced as a thrill, explorative play gradually lures its players beyond their mental or physical limits. While doing so, it affects players well before they can perform intentional actions. To understand explorative play therefore means to understand what happens before intention sets in. But this is problematic: by the time this becomes experienceable it is already clouded by habit and memory. However, thought processes outlined in Deleuze’s philosophy of difference reveal important clues as to how habitual thinking patterns may be exceeded, and why explorative play might cause thrilling and vertiginous experiences: when our awareness of the present is intensified, the potential to disturb habitual patterns arises; within this there is a chance to arrive at an ‘intuitive understanding’ of events where intensities express themselves as non-intentional movement or poetic language. This notion was investigated through generative art practice. An experimental setting was prepared that allowed for explorative play with a complex system – a biofeedback instrument that sonified its wearer’s physiological data in real-time. This instrument was explored in performances as well as participative action research sessions. The insight emerging from the performances was that introspection and stillness can enhance practice. The connections to Eastern practices this suggests were followed up and, by investigating the role of stillness in performance practices like Butoh, methods that may radicalise a biofeedback performance came to light. Extending these to biofeedback composition then made listening a central focus of this research and consequently, listeners’ responses to sonified biofeedback, the disruption of habitual musical expectations and increased immersed listening became paramount aspects of the practice. Conversely, the insight emerging from the participative sessions was that explorative playing with a complex system can allow for a more intuitive understanding of the generative because the emerging play experiences can be internally transformative; producing new ideas and forms, for instance poetic language or improvised movement. Thus overall, the research underlined the benefits of a greater propagation of explorative play.

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