Wednesday 18 May 2011

Marcos Lutyens: a sensory story

Absolut FlavourCollider. Photo by courtesy of FutureEverything

The world loves stories of space exploration. The infinity of space is a challenge for humanity, in how we explore, map and experience it. However, it's nothing compared to the challenges of mind exploration. The rolling expanses of the mind – a perceptual entity based on the physical organ of the brain – is a place that we all like to explore: in dreams, in memories, and in alternate realities.

The mind sometimes plays tricks on us. With some, it can play tricks at every move. The study of synesthesia, neurological responses to environmental stimuli, is not without its difficulties. Both personal and deep, synesthesia is the mechanism by which something in our physical environment occurs, but we understand it to be something else.

As an artist, Marcos Lutyens' work with synesthesia and related "trickery" such as hypnosis, is based on years of work with neuroscientists. His interest is to use the mind as a forum for exploring art, with the culmination of this research and work being the FlavourCollider, a work with Absolut Vodka.

FlavourCollider involves the wearing of a special headset, which transposes the taste of a flavoured vodka into dizzying visuals. While the headset undertakes the computational work in terms of the visualisation, it's fundamentally the mind that is the enabler here. As Lutyens himself observes, in recent years "...I have investigated a number of approaches as to what's going on with the mind, and have come to the realisation that there are so many different, fragmented things going on in our lives: phones, the Internet... all of these other ways of perceiving our reality. They all so fragmented that the only convergence point is in the mind."

Lutyens' research has involved deep and close working with synesthesia – people that have a pre-disposition to associate different sensory modalities (in basic terms, interpreting things differently). synesthetes do not have control over how they interpret the world around them. "It's rather poetic, metaphorical creativity. It happens to them, whether they want it or not." The research featured work with a group of synesthetes in San Francsico, where Lutyens sent them to a McDonalds, and asked them to describe it. One participant understood words as having different colours, so their view was that the golden arches were wrong, because they should have been "red". Another interpreted all of the sounds within McDonalds as sensational body movement. A third, who had been working with pioneering neuroscientist Richard Cytowic, interpreted the numerical factors such as prices and dates in terms of physical factors around her. Although these interpretations and processes are different, Lutyens has yet to meet a synesthesia that turns taste into visuals, the purpose of the FlavourCollider.

The result, according to Lutyens, implies that global advertising is effectively non-existent, as our reaction to environmental stimuli is deeply personal. "If McDonalds produced a worldwide campaign called 'I'm Loving It' and launched that campaign globally, however homogenous McDonalds is from a synesthetic point of view, everyone's experience - from a synesthetic point of view – of a McDonalds is very singular."

The FlavourCollider project was developed after FutureEverything connected Lutyens with Absolut, a vodka brand that has a rich heritage of working with artists, including Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. The resulting work was presented at FutureEverything 2011, inviting delegates to visualise Absolut's flavoured products for themselves.

NeuroSky MindWave headsets are used in the installation, displaying the resulting visuals across four screens in a letterbox format. The MindWave headsets are a recent development, allowing for many more possibilities of working with brain activity than with electroencepahlographic machines in a lab.

Lutyens sees such developments as being critical to developing a greater understanding of the mind, as well as helping to "unlock" its space and mechanics. "We have been prisoners to the feeling of objective reality. We have to go further into the subjective self." The artist cites the discovery during the Renaissance that everything in an artwork converges on a point on the horizon." From Lutyens' perspective, we need to "flip" this point of convergence from the horizon, back into our mind. "The point of convergence in reality is there. To cope with the very complex world of reality that we live in, one needs to study, create, investigate the brain.

"We are in an age where external data need to be connected to the mind in some way. Likewise, our internal thoughts and feelings need to be connected to exterior space. Our environment has been so degraded. If we connect our inner selves with our outer reality, our world will be a better place: socially, environmentally, and at every level."


FlavourCollider. Photo by courtesy of FutureEverything


The visuals from each headset result from the changes in brainwave patterns as an effect of drinking the flavoured vodka. They start at the edges of the screen, converging in the middle and remaining in constant flux throughout the experience. The visuals are deliberately abstracted and arranged according to density; like the Freggo installation from Ogilvy and Greyworld, Lutyens decided to move away from the simple association of taste with colour.

Further to the brain, a common thread running through much of Lutyens' work is the visualisation of data. His approach is open: that the commercialisation, the commodification of data, is barking up the wrong tree. Like others involved with data visualisation, he wants data to be free, and has made the code for FlavourCollider Open Source as an indication of his beliefs.

Lutyens' most recent project has been for BritWeek in Los Angeles. Speed Dreaming, produced in collaboration with the LA arm of visual effects company The Mill, maps travel patterns from Segways, to stunning effect.

It's a great time to be part of new techniques in visualisation. The effects are made all the more stunning, all the more real, when you become the data source yourself.


Marcos Lutyens' website is Mind Browser.

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