How Lia Chavez Makes Art Out Of Brain Waves

Art and science collide in Chavez's collaboration with the creative technologists at Rehab Studio.

By Ainsley O'Connell

Strobe lights flash in the dark gallery space in Dundee, Scotland, as artist Lia Chavez sits motionless for eight hours, a wireless brainwave sensor pressing lightly on her temple. Riotous storm systems, lightning bolts: the staccato light is an external representation of the visions she sees while deep in meditation.

"It’s like watching storms of consciousness develop and dissipate over time," Chavez says. "It’s incredibly intense. It’s incredibly violent. The closer I get to this quiet place, the more intense these visions become."

The resulting performance, Poiesis/ Tumult, is a snapshot of the artist's interior world at a singular moment in time, much like a photograph captures the external world. "I believe consciousness itself is emerging as the primary art material of the 21st century," says Chavez, who cites inspirations as varied as images from the Hubble Telescope and the stop-motion photographs of film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. "We’re living in this time of convergence, and technology is a kind of ambassador between very different modes of exploring the universe."

Poiesis/ Tumult is in good company, as technology is finally giving artists the "palette" to externalize the inner workings of the mind. "Every single one of these maps is like a fingerprint of the individual," artist Ion Popian, who translated brainwaves into 3D models for his series "Mental Fabrications," told ABC News. In a more analog way, artist Angela Palmer etches CT and MRI scans of her brain into glass, creating self-portraits that function as a "topography" of her mind.

Chavez, based in New York, has been focused for years on exploring the concept and medium of light in relation to consciousness through performance, photography, and other media. With this project, her interests took on a high-tech dimension with help from a team of creative technologists at Rehab Studio in London. They rigged up a system that uses data generated by a commercially available brainwave headset, transmitted via Bluetooth and processed on an Arduino, to control the strength and frequency of a strobe light.

After weeks of long-distance calls, the first in-person test was a revelation. Rehab Studio's team had been prototyping as best they could, measuring their own beginner-level attempts to enter a state of deep meditation, but they were unsure of what would happen when their system met with Chavez's 10 years worth of experience exploring the recesses of her subconscious. "When Lia put the headset on, it was an amazing moment," says Rehab Studio's Sam Cox, a creative technologist. "In 20 or 30 seconds she was in deep meditation, and it all seamlessly worked."

At the moment, Chavez is further exploring similar themes through a collaboration with Joydeep Bhattacharya and Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, cognitive neuroscientists at Goldsmiths College in London. "We are trying to gain insight into what transpires in the brain at the inception of the creative spark," says Chavez, who meditated for hours at a time this past spring while Goldsmiths researchers monitored her brainwaves using an electroencephalograph (EEG). She plans to present findings from the research at Tate's annual Urban Encounters symposium this fall.

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