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Workshops at Body Controlled #4 — Bio Interfacing

Body Controlled #4 — Bio Interfacing
11–15 July 2012
Berlin, Germany: LEAP

Download the programme to consult information about the artists and their works here [PDF].

It is not novel for multimedia performances to have a strong corporeal profile primarily using gestures or actions coming from outside of the performer’s body. However, the inside of the body can also be a very vital and diverse source of material for artistic purposes. This approach changes the paradigm of the gestural expression, bringing the processes going on under one’s skin to the fore. Presented at LEAP in Berlin, “BodyControlled #4 — Bio Interfacing” presented three performances using data collected from inside the human body: the EEG waves-based audio-visual performance INsideOUT by Claudia Robles Angel, Seas of Tranquility by Peter Kirn and Marco Donnarumma’s Music for Flesh II, where sounds are produced — and controlled — by his muscles. A keynote presented by Hasso Plattner Institute’s researcher Pedro Lopes discussed ‘’Human-Computer Interaction: Artistic and Scientific perspectives on augmenting our bodies’’. In conjunction with the events of the performance night, workshops were given by Claudia Robles Angel and Marco Donnarumma. During the two evenings after the performance night, the audience members were invited to try out the instruments on display at the Open Stage.

This past July in a performance venue in Berlin called LEAP — Lab For Electronic Arts And Performance, artists who specialize in amplifying and distorting the inner workings of their body led workshops about relaying biological information into audio and visual performances. 1[1. Recordings of the performances from Friday’s programme can be heard on LEAP’s Soundcloud site: Marco Donnarumma — Music for Flesh II (10:27), Peter Kirn — Seas of Tranquillity (21:58), Claudia Robles Angel — INsideOUT (21:43).] Two of the performing artists for the event, Claudia Robles Angel and Marco Donnarumma, were invited to share their practice and theories to a small group of students in a pair of two-day workshops.

As part of the event, a night of performances was held on the Friday before the second workshop. The performance night was a unique opportunity to see a cross-section of leading figures working in this niche field. Alongside Robles Angel and Donnarumma, Peter Kirn presented an audio-visual piece using galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors that were attached to his fingers, while a keynote presentation by Pedro Lopes introduced the curious and amusing history of pioneering bio-interface artists. 2[2. See the last issue, eContact! 14.2 — Biotechnological Performance Practice / Pratiques de performance biotechnologique(August 2012), for more information on the field, with Guest Editor Marco Donnarumma. The issue also features a conversation with these three artists led by Lopes and jef chippewa.]

EEG Meditative Performance

Claudia Robles Angel, originally from Colombia and living in Cologne (Germany), has been integrating aspects of biological information into her performances for several years. In an early piece entitled Seed / Tree (2005), she incorporated Butoh dancers’ muscle contractions into accompanying multimedia. More recently, she has used her own body as the central point of her performance work. She magnifies her own electroencephalogram (EEG) brain frequencies into a meditative performance called INsideOUT. This work incorporates an open source EEG interface from Olimex, and the rubber cap and the contact electrodes she uses are those typically used in medical applications. 3[3. Robles actually received the cap and electrodes as a gift from the EEG department at the university clinic in Cologne.] A specialized hardware system attached to a computer that brings the invisible world of her mind to the forefront of an audio-visual performance. She states that “the aim of [her] research in this field is mainly focused on raising awareness of the artistic possibilities of consciously controlling brain activity on stage to steer multimedia events and, at the same time, to allow feelings to flow freely” (Robles 2011).

Mapping Gestures to Sound

Marco Donnarumma, an artist from Italy who currently resides in Edinburgh, has built his practice around an open source technology system called the Xth Sense (XS) which is a biophysical interactive system based on free, open source tools he developed himself. 4[4. See eContact! 14.2 for an in-depth article by Donnarumma about a recent project featuring the Xth Sense: “Proprioception, Effort and Strain in ‘Hypo Chrysos’.”] The system is available on his website for other artists and musicians to use. He describes XS as a new musical instrument that “is not designed around the human body, but explicitly for the human body” (Donnarumma, 2012).

Approaching Performance with Biological Information

While the performers both use their personal data within a live performance setting, their approach is quite different. Robles Angel’s body remains static and the performance is focused on amplifying the constant activity happening within her brain. Her performance is controlled by meditation and breathing, leaving the direction of the performance in large part up to her imagination. Donnarumma, on the other hand, emphasizes the meaning of physical gestures through sound; his performance is controlled by the contortions of his body. Through the visible relationship of gesture to sound, the audience can see the meaningful intention of his activity. What is interesting in comparison is that both performers attempt to translate their feelings into something auditory.

Introduction to Interactive Art

The first weekend of workshops introduced students to the software Max/MSP and Jitter. Claudia Robles Angel brought in various sensors for the students to try, which got them focused on mapping human touch into data. For many of the students, this was the first time they had worked with these tools, which are frequently used by interactive media artists. Robles Angel led them through the basics and placed an emphasis on using external devices to sense their body. Many of the sensors she brought are readily available for purchase, making it easy to construct sensor-based artwork today. In the recent past, this type of artwork involved much more hacking and technical finesse on the artists’ part. However, students got set up very quickly and in many cases could use the equipment without any pre-programming. By showing them a variety of ways touch can be used, some of the technical and creative possibilities for interactive art were made clear. They were busy tapping away at various sensors when I entered the session, looking for midi responses to these gestures in Max/MSP.

Claudia also brought her personal sensor of choice to show the students, the headpiece she uses to measure EEG signals. While many sensors today are built for the express purpose of artistic investigation both workshop leaders use alternative tools that they developed to relay their biological information. In Robles Angel’s case she was inspired by medical equipment and repurposed something a doctor would use.

The XS Experience

Some of the students attended both workshops, and in the second workshop, Donnarumma introduced his own system, called the Xth Sense (XS), that students were able to build, use and take home with them after the workshop. Donnarumma brought his workshop back to an important point about performance. While technologies enable us to work with media easily, performers must also begin with a strong concept. He spoke about how long it takes him to find the perfect sounds for his gesture-based performance. In the end, the connections he makes seem natural but during the workshop he told us that behind the scenes building the appropriate sounds for each gesture is a difficult but crucial part of the process.

In the first day he focused on building the XS framework, focusing on the gear and technology behind his work. In the second day he emphasized the more poetic side of performance. Having this tool in hand anyone can build complex gestural control for audio and video sampling, but getting the technology to relay the feeling of one’s body takes work, more work than a two-day workshop can offer, at least. 5[5. See the Create Digital Media website for the recently launched Xth Sense forum, which has discussions and technical help around the instrument.]

Students in the class stretched and clenched their fists as they generated sounds from the tiny microphones that perpetually listened to their kinetic energy flowing under their skin. In the final hours of the open lab, students exhibited their work, with a little bit of nervousness. However, several were able to come up with some unique sounds and the XS system seemed to be doing its job as intense sounds filled the space and magnified even the subtlest motion.


Robles Angel, Claudia. “EEG Data in Interactive Art.” ISEA 2011. Proceedings of the 17th International Symposium of Electronic Arts (Istanbul, Turkey: 14–21 September 2011). Available on the ISEA 2011 website at [last accessed 17 August 2012]

Marco Donnarumma. “Xth Sense: Recoding visceral embodiment.” CHI’12 (Austin, Texas: 5–10 May 2012). Available on the author’s website at [last accessed 17 August 2012]

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