Brighton Digital Festival: TENSE – a digital discourse on painful living

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Digital artists and producers, Sarah Pickthall and Genevieve Smith-Nunes, curated an evening of installations with Jon Adams and Rachel Bagshaw, and presentations by Genevieve Smith-Nunes, Howard Hardiman and Clare Plumley at the Lighthouse on 26 September. Review by Gaele Sobott

This was an evening of high-quality and thought-provoking work articulating the different guises of pain, and how pain can become an incentive, a play-fellow, or part of the process in engaging with technology to create politically motivated art.

Photo of a dancer with dancer's shoes with LED lights

Genevieve Smith-Nunes models her shoes. Image © James Turnbull

Genevieve Smith-Nunes is a ballet dancer and computer science educator, known for her work with ReadySaltedCode. She was born with pain and although her pain levels may fluctuate, she has never known anything else.

Genevieve has an electrode implanted on her spine, which sends out high frequency signals to disrupt the pain signals sent from her spinal cord to her brain. She perceives herself as Chief Cyborg, and has extended that identity combining a love of computer science and ballet to create dance projects that code signal processing and data from all kinds of sources to influence the choreography, sound and visuals of the performance.

Her dance piece, [data]storm, uses conductible thread to sew pressure-sensitive micro-controllers, a small lipo battery, and LED lights into the dancers’ ballet shoes so when they are ‘en pointe’ they trigger sensors, responding in sync with weather data from ocean storms to project visuals and trigger the lights with changing colours and patterns.

Her latest project, [pain]Byte, explores the similarities between pain flare ups and viral messages on social media. The choreography draws on data from social media networks, and biometric sensors – ECGs, muscle, sweat and pulse sensors.

Xray photo of Genevieve's spine with electrode implant

Photo of Genevieve Smith-Nune’s spine with electrode implant

Howard Hardiman started out hand-drawing the graphic novel Badger. He now publishes his books online using Twine software, for telling interactive, non-linear stories. His research-based arts practice began when he interviewed male escorts in London and created the comic, The Lengths. He initially did pen and ink drawings but as The Lengths developed, Howard shifted to drawing using Manga Studio software and a Wacom tablet.

People who experience chronic pain are advised to meditate, to bring awareness to the body, which Howard says would perhaps work “if my body was not so hostile to me.” He has developed the “wonderfully meditative practice” of drawing using thousands of tiny lines to create his images. Currently he uses Manga Studio and Surface Pro to do vector-based, mythology portraits for exhibition. Sometimes taking a week to work on the eye of one of his creatures, the process offers escape from otherwise constant pain.

A series of geometric shapes are positioned against a wood grain backdrop

Clare Plumley: ‘My Internal Shazam’

Clare Plumley is an illustrator and graphic designer. After 10 years of chronic pain she developed an interest in neuroplasticity, neuroscience and cognitive science, viewing her pain as systematic rather than symptomatic. She tried to figure out ways of using art to play with the system and disrupt the pain loop. She produces artwork based on her experience of re-processing pain signals, and diverting focus from pain to sensation.

In her work, My Internal Shazam, Clare explores her body as a resonating chamber, and a space for developing art. She substituted the moving graphic of the music recognition app, Shazam, with a series of patterns and textures developed from drawings of her physiological response to a piece of music. The geometric shapes represent the felt experience of pain, “for me, when processed through the filter of music, the shapes break up, dissolve, fade in and out as both pain and music amplifies or attenuates.”

The artists have different approaches to art as a coping mechanism for chronic pain; the way pain informs content, and how it determines artistic process. They all referred to experiences of feeling silenced, and the expectation that pain remains in the domain of the personal or private only to be discussed in medical contexts.

Pushing the boundaries of combined live and digital ballet performance to create an augmented reality Genevieve Smith-Nunes seeks to facilitate audience empathy with the chronic-pain body.
Clare Plumley creates art that represents and helps people deal with their felt experience of pain. She is at the same time acutely aware of the un-healthiness of analgesic culture as a response to chronic pain. She asks, “How within a society that does not tolerate pain, are we supposed to tolerate it?”

From one day to the next there is an element of forgetting involved in chronic pain, and then the pain repeats. Howard Hardiman points to cycles of pain, and the iterations of how this is reflected in art. The pain does not go away. It is not fleeting.

It is clear that these artists are not going to go away either. They are not going to shut up. Their art is political in that it uses technology to bring pain into the open where it is uncomfortable and disruptive. The work stimulates audience empathy and articulates pain in ways that challenge clinical contexts, and transform illness narratives.

The more I thought about the work presented in TENSE, the more I loved it. We need more discussions like this.