Staalhemel (‘steel sky’) is an interactive installation with 80 steel segments suspended over the visitor’s head as he walks through the space. Tiny hammers tap rhythmical patterns on the steel plates, activated by the brainwaves of the visitor who wears a portable EEG scanner.
This responsive environment confronts the viewer with an acoustic representation of the electrical brain activities that govern his being at that very moment. All our mental and physiological processes are controlled by myriads of transitory circuits in an invisible, obscure place in the crown of our head. That intimate topography is mirrored in this sky of steel as hammers hit the plates in shifting rhythms and combinations, transforming parts of your consciousness into macroscopic dimensions. This environment offers a walk through a sheltered space that is also the space of one’s own mind.
The division of space serves as an analogy to the human anatomy, with a controlling apparatus hidden behind a fortified structure in the top region. A visibly empty room is in fact filled with presence by means of so many reflections of acoustic energy bouncing off walls and surfaces.
Based on brain activity dynamics a unique rhythm is attributed to each visitor. This pattern evolves into more complex forms as the subject employs more of his cognitive powers. The pattern in its purest form can only be heard if the subject manages to empty his mind for a significant amount of time.
The interactive experience is based on neurological feedback which complicates the default (transparent) mode of interaction. Visitors feel naturally challenged to exercise control over the machine and will try either to relax the workings of their mind (alphawaves) or to devote themselves to cognitive processing tasks. The response, however, is obscured by what Daniel Dennett calls ‘the serial virtual machine of our consciousness built on the parallel architecture of our brains’ (Consciousness Explained). The speed of events occurring in our cortex will always outmatch our awareness of that operation. Several impredictable streams of sensory input coupled with feedback mechanisms will intervene in the process of the subject steering his or her cognitive focus. Presence of other people in the room, self-consciousness, emotional effects and many other will affect the visitor’s mind course.
Some individuals do succeed in sustaining certain concentration levels; others get acquainted with their own idiosyncratic response and arrive there by training the machine of which they become part. In those moments visitors seem to perform the act of thinking which is curiously a spectacle of exclusively internal events.
The work plays with the contradictions inherent to its operation – it creates a space of reflection both on and by the operation of your mind. This double bind could then be described as a thinking that is trying to catch the moment of its own generation. The impossibility of this absolute transparency leaves the visitor chasing his focus and the machine stealing it from him.
Concept, programming and design: Christoph De Boeck
Brainwave research prototype: Wolfgang Eberle / IMEC, Lindsay Brown / IMEC-NL
Construction and light design: Hans Meijer
Electronics: Olivier Leirs
Management: Annelies Van den Berghe
Thanks to: Dirk De Ridder, Fabrice Moinet, Serge Vandenhove, Marcel Daniëls, Hendrik Leper, Elias Heuninck
Produced by deepblue and coproduced by:
IMEC (Leuven), Concertgebouw (Brugge), Festival van Vlaanderen (Kortrijk), Dommelhof (Neerpelt), Prado/DG Artes (Lissabon, Portugal), STUK (Leuven), Netwerk (Aalst)
deepblue is structurally supported by the Flemish Community