Blood-Sugar Roulette: A Case Study of Biogeometric Body Art

Eleanor Dare, Ph.D.

Lecturer, Goldsmiths, Skillset Media Academy

Blood-Sugar Roulette (Eleanor Dare, 2012) is an augmented reality body art performance that unfolded within the confines of Sydenham Hill Wood, South London, in the late summer of 2012.  The live performance script was defined and generated by software that dictated the movements and utterances of the protagonist, Krista, who was played by a software industry worker, Milica Janjić. The software developed by Eleanor Dare (referred to in this paper as “the author”) used biological data relating to her own blood-sugar levels and menstrual cycles to define core aspects of the performance. The core themes of the project are based on a true childhood event that occurred in the woods in 1976, when the author, aged eleven, was attacked and chased by an adult man. The author appears in this paper as an uncanny, not fully human, ‘depersonalized’ presence. The rationale for such an approach is embedded in this paper.

Prior to the performance, the author/artist collected data relating to her menstrual cycle over a nine-month period. This data, in combination with the author’s blood sugar levels, was used to obtain derivatives, or rates of change, in the cycle, in the same way that financial derivatives are obtained from market data. A derivative (numerical value) was generated for each month and used to define a walking route through Sydenham Hill Wood. The route took the form of a hypotrochoid, or ‘roulette.’ The hypotrochoid may be more familiar to readers as a ‘Spirograph’ pattern. Spirograph was a popular drawing toy invented in 1965, the year of the author’s birth. It is the first type of drawing the author vividly remembers, and, as a type of drawing machine, it has a genealogical relationship to the geometric ‘autonomous’ drawing system embedded in the project software and, therefore, to the under-theorized (or perhaps more accurately, politically neutralized) constructs of ‘autonomy’ and ‘intelligence.’

The purpose of this paper is to explore the significance of the project and to outline its methodology, which offers a critique of contemporary digital performance and evidence of alternatives to the disembodying heritage of mainstream digital culture. The paper acknowledges the significance of Donna Haraway’s [1] contribution to cyborg culture, while proposing a more economo-algorithmic notion of the post-human, one that is embedded in the mathematical software created by the author and is alert to the ‘mathematizing’ of all realms of human experience, particularly as mediated via digital technologies.

 

Changes of hormone concentrations in the blood during a 28-day menstrual cycle, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image, © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

Changes of hormone concentrations in the blood during a 28-day menstrual cycle, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image, © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

The paper will analyze the overlaps and, more significantly, the disconnects between the two domains of performance art and human-computer interaction (HCI), in particular the radical role of feminism and body art in performance and its apparent absence (with a few notable exceptions) within contemporary digital performance and within the symbolic structures and unchallenged assumptions of contemporary programming practice.

How the performance worked

The Blood-Sugar Roulette performance unfolded via the following processes:

  1. The author’s menstrual cycle data in conjunction with her blood-sugar levels was used to obtain a derivative, or rate of change, a value that defined the route and geometric form of the performance.
  2. Light readings taken at each point of the performance defined the behavior and spoken content of the performer. These behaviors were dictated by ‘intelligent agents’ with programmed needs for both safety and play.

An adult woman who is not an actress, but an employee of the technology industry, played the role of the author (“Krista”) as an eleven-year-old girl. The performance took place in the ancient Sydenham Hill Wood in South East London, a place where the author was attacked and chased by a serial child rapist in 1976. The performance consisted of Krista walking through the woods from one coordinate point to another (nine points in all) in hypotrochoid or ‘Spirographic’ patterns. These points were defined by the software and influenced by both the author’s blood-sugar levels and menstrual cycle.

The algorithms that defined Krista’s route between points in the woods were modeled on financial and probabilistic algorithms, particularly those that generate ‘derivatives’ (a way of commodifying the changes in market value of stocks and shares). Upon arrival at each point, the software took a light reading in the woods. The result of that light reading activated ‘intelligent’ software agents that instructed Krista what to do. Depending on the light reading, the software agents would either play or attempt to find safety. ‘Play’ and ‘safety’ were, in the context of AI or a multi-agent system, the ‘needs and desires’ of the  ‘intentional’ software agents. At times these desires would conflict and a deadlock ensue, and Krista (or rather the actress who played her) would have to throw a die to decide what to do next.

A mobile phone application written for the project by the author that displays an n-gram, a probabilistic language model that predicts the next item in a sequence, based on childhood texts, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

A mobile phone application written for the project by the author that displays an n-gram, a probabilistic language model that predicts the next item in a sequence, based on childhood texts, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

According to the computational instructions, Krista would sometimes read out loud from her favorite childhood books, jump over logs, hide or run, dictated to by the  ‘needs’ of the software. The performance was photographed and partly videoed, yet it was not preserved wholly in ‘real time,’ but in fragments. The fragmented nature of the documentation was a strategy in keeping with the artist’s methodology, one that recognizes the partiality and tension inherent in the notion of both ‘real-time’ documentation and objective vision. As the next section will attest, the embodied nature of the performance and software was a core methodological commitment of the project.

An embodied and situated performance

Embodiment and the agency of the body is central to the performance of Blood-Sugar Roulette and to the logical structures of the software that defined the performance parameters. The body is framed in the project not as a limitation or inconvenience, but as an epistemic agent. This position goes beyond the use of the body as a material, a framing deployed by performance/body artists such as Orlan [2] and Stelarc. [3] Instead the project presents the body as a co-agent within a system in which both the body and software are fully social and political artifacts.[4] But the body in Blood-Sugar Roulette is not quite the same body as the body found in body art; neither is it an essentialist or wholly ‘natural’ body. It is closer to Alva Noë [5] and Francisco Varela’s [6] ‘enactivist’ body.

In contrast to the mind-body split of the Cartesian Cogito as a model for human cognition, an enactivist approach posits “the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs” [7]. It is a theory of cognition that is inseparable from action and is therefore implicitly embodied.

The body in this project is, therefore, neither a material or a “living sculpture” in the tradition of feminist body art, although it is significantly autobiographical, deploying personal history and cultural references that are subject and site specific in the tradition of performance artists such as Laurie Anderson (1976), Julia Heyward (1976), Rebecca Horn (1971), Hannah Wilke (1974) and Adrian Piper (1976). The work is therefore ‘situated’ in both the senses that Haraway and Lucy Suchman have defined – that is, both ethically and computationally.[8] 

The situatedness of Blood-Sugar Roulette is in parts resonant of earlier autobiographical performance art, in which the self of the artist was a “means to focus on ‘objectifier’ – the maker – rather than on the object itself .” [9] This self-focus and interrogation, at least within the domain of programming practice, is still a novel and arguably subversive strategy. Digital art is still enamoured of  “god-tricks” [10], meaning delusions of omniscience and objectivity, and still often deploys, without criticality, the concepts of intelligence and ‘smartness’ that have been inherited from scientism and positivism.

In contrast to those technologists who do not question the assumptions of neutrality embedded in digital practice, Suchman [11] challenges orthodox notions of the boundaries between subjects and objects and writes of the “reconstructive engagement with received conceptions of the human, the technological and the relations between them.” [12] This has been a valuable point of reference for the Blood-Sugar Roulette project, in particular Suchman’s emphasis on sociality “in strong contrast to prevailing models of the individual cogniser as the origin point for rational action.” [13]

In the performance configuration of Blood-Sugar Roulette, it is not just the humanist ‘art object’ that is superfluous (the project generates nothing material, let alone anything of economic value) but the neoliberal constructs of choice, democracy, interaction and intelligence. This extends the concerns of an earlier generation, the so-called ‘media generation’ (1968-2000), which RoseLee Goldberg [14] defines as one in which the artist “engaged in a re-evaluation of his or her own intentions for making art” [15], in which “each action was to be seen as part of an overall investigation of art processes and not, paradoxically, as an appeal for popular acceptance.” [16]

However, the Utopian (or “leftist”) [17] ideals of the period Goldberg describes are also significantly challenged by this project. Blood Sugar Roulette frames itself as operating within an era in which participation and democracy are all but subsumed by commercial interests and market mechanisms. The humanist heritage of Boal [18], Brecht [19] and Marx [20], and of first- and second-wave feminism cannot answer the questions and concerns of a post-humanist era.

World monetary and energy crises

Possibilities for social change and social provision have been drastically curtailed by the requirements of global fiscal systems, systems that have coerced all but the so-called ‘rogue’ states into drastically diminishing their budgets for social and cultural provision (this is not to imply that such states are ‘better’ at social provision, or wholly immune to global influences). This leaves the author to ask, what sort of art is possible in such a climate? This climate is unlike that in which ‘second-wave’ feminism arose, but one in which “the enthusiasm for social change and emancipation – student’s, women’s, children’s – had been considerably dampened” and “[w]orld monetary and energy crises subtly altered both lifestyles and preoccupations.” [21]

Regardless of the financial constraints on our practice as artists and technologists, we cannot uncritically replicate the concerns or strategies of a previous era. Second-wave feminism arguably emerged from the same humanist, universalizing traditions of Marxism and capitalism. This has been critiqued by bell hooks [22] as culturally homogenous, assuming one goal for all people as an overarching monoculture. The form that a putative ‘feminist’ practice now takes must be significantly different from that critiqued by hooks and others. Such a practice should also be mindful of a cyberfeminist critique of idealized computational concepts such as autonomy, intelligence and Artificial Life. Sarah Kember [23] urges us to pursue a practice that is “affiliated to postcolonial and queer critiques through the demand for decolonized worlds and denaturalized relationships and identities,” and that “must recognize and work with such internal dissent by risking the renunciation of oppositional rhetorics” According to Kember, “These [oppositional rhetorics] serve only to reinstate the dichotomy of nature and culture problematized across a broad spectrum of technoscience.” [24]

Throughout the unfolding drama of Blood-Sugar Roulette, the limits and fantasies embedded in notions of autonomy and autonomous agents are exposed by both the dictated nature of Krista’s behavior and the agents embedded in the software, begging the questions, “Are humans autonomous, and is software in any sense autonomous or separable from the humans who create it?” Freud’s notion of the uncanny [25] has been useful in de-neutralizing the notion of the uncanny, which has been explored by Masahiro Mori [26], but in such a way that the notion becomes gender neutral, or apolitical. Freud, unlike Mori, was alert to the ambivalent role of the ‘barely human’ female, to her uncanny, never-fully-human status in a patriarchal culture. Krista’s automaton-like procession through the woods is resonant of the uncanny female figure who never quite makes it as a Cartesian, rational human subject. However, the performance should not be framed as wholly emanating from cyborg culture.

Hypotrochoid pathways generated by the software and followed during the performance, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

Hypotrochoid pathways generated by the software and followed during the performance, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

Blood glucose testing technology used during the performance, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

Blood glucose testing technology used during the performance, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

The project recognizes the significance of Haraway’s theoretical contribution, particularly in relation to theorizing vision, but it is not in thrall to a cyborg culture. Rather, if there is a ‘post-human’ presence in the project, it is one that is mathematical and uncanny, the presence of financial algorithms that are simultaneously human and non-human, industro-military artifacts which are also culturally and historically loaded protagonists.

Haraway’s influence on the project emanates not so much from her cyborg theories but from her ethical and epistemic notions, her contribution towards the reformulation of epistemology, in which we need to exercise a complex mobility of meaning. As she notes, “It is not enough to show radical historical contingency and modes of construction for everything.” [27] Haraway argues that what is needed is a “successor science project that offers a more adequate, richer, better account of a world, in order to live in it well and in critical, reflexive relation to our own as well as others’ practices of domination and the unequal parts of privilege and oppression that make up all positions.” [28]

Haraway urges us to ground a successor science in an embodied form of objectivity, but it is a form of grounding that is not about “fixed location in a reified body, female or otherwise, but about nodes in fields, inflections in orientations, and responsibility for difference in material-semiotic fields of meaning. Embodiment is significant prosthesis; objectivity cannot be about fixed vision when what counts as an object is precisely what history turns out to be about.” [29]  We cannot assume a universal conception of what it is to be human or to have a body. Our objectivity is in itself inevitably situated, always located, and always partial. The Blood-Sugar Roulette project advocates politics and epistemologies of location and situation, where partiality and not universality is, in the words of Haraway, “the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.” [30]

Conclusion

The aim of this project is to find ways of constructing situated computational processes, avoiding the structural failings that Phoebe Sengers [31] touches upon, while developing and deploying a form of software that is grounded in epistemologies of embodiment and location. Sengers presents a coherent critique of so-called ‘divide and conquer’ software design practices, explaining how they can contribute to the creation of fragmented and systemically constrained agents. The divide-and-conquer approach is a way of dealing with complexity in computer programs by abstracting problems into smaller and smaller units or sub-problems. One could argue (as Sengers does) that both detail and larger meaning is lost in this methodology, that the gestalt of divide-and-conquer design is actually a series of fractured black boxes, often produced by people who have no knowledge of how the other parts, the sub and sub-sub problems, in the overall design work. Sengers’s argument is that these types of structure when applied to agent design result in depersonalized fragmented behaviors, and that the modularity of such designs is a systemic limitation. Using augmented reality and bio-sensing technology, the Blood-Sugar Roulette project explores human and digital subjectivity, asking whether a human performance defined by software can be framed as a type of uncanny robot performance, one that inverts Philip Auslander’s argument about robot actors, [32] and whether, conversely, a computer can be a meaningful agent within a body art performance. Auslander investigates the ability of robots, and by implication, software, to interpret and subjectively ‘express’ dramatic material in the tradition of human actors. Such interpretative ability is Auslander’s criteria for the status of ‘performance’ as opposed to installation or sculpture. However, Auslander asserts that the appearance or simulation of interpretative agency can create a performance. One might argue that the performance of Blood-Sugar Roulette is actually an installation or sculpture, by dint of the compromised status of Krista’s uncanny female and infant subjectivity, and her manipulation by software agents.

The project draws significantly upon Sigmund Freud’s notion of the uncanny, relating it to both the performance software and to the female body, in which, as Freud writes, the female is doomed by patriarchal culture to an uncanny, robot-like, not-fully-human subjectivity. The project is embedded with a criticality of perspective towards orthodox trajectories of HCI, asking why the radical lessons of twentieth-century performance have not been extensively adopted by digital practitioners. In particular, the project has asked why the feminist reframing of the body (by such theorists and practitioners as, for example, Elizabeth Grosz (1994), Judith Butler (1990), Linda Montano (1970, 1974, 1984-1991), Laurie Anderson (1974-1975, 1976),  Adrian Piper (1976), Susan Bordo (1993), Trish Brown (1975), Joan Jonas (1974) and Bobby Baker (1995)) has not been significantly taken up within mainstream HCI, other than as apolitical or idealized neo-liberal constructs such as ‘immersion’ and ‘real-world interaction.’

The project asserts that the software we create is not separate from ourselves; it represents our desires, from a wish for moderate control over the flow of our own data to fantasies of omniscience, invulnerability or immortality. Andrew Leonard writes:

The dichotomy between “us” and “them” is false. We’re in this together. Software tools – whether we call them bots or agents, whether they are believable characters or not –are extensions of ourselves, prostheses that we use to manipulate objects outside our flesh-and-blood day-to-day life. [33]

The performance of Blood-Sugar Roulette necessitated the invention of non-reactive strategies to explore both the significant differences and inevitable human projections embedded in software agents and wider technological systems. Blood-Sugar Roulette deployed agents that are concerned with embodied epistemologies and situated relationships while avoiding neoliberal idealizations that unhelpfully characterize such technology as democratic, omniscient or somehow neutral. This methodology still represents an unorthodox approach within a domain that is hungry for surface novelty but less committed to exploring possibilities for significant political change and the examination of its own reified assumptions.

Krista, the protagonist of Blood-Sugar Roulette, following actions defined by biogeometric software, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

Krista, the protagonist of Blood-Sugar Roulette, following actions defined by biogeometric software, 2012, Eleanor Dare, digital image © Eleanor Dare. (Used with permission.)

References

1. Donna Haraway, Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1997).

2. Orlan, Le Gueuloir (Les Marches au ralenti), Hotel de ville, Saint-Etienne, France, 1964; Orlan, Bigeard-bise-art (with Gérard Deschamps), Galerie Lara Vincy, Paris, 1978; Orlan, Art charnel, first surgical operation-performance, Paris, 1990.

3. Stelarc, Parasite: Event for Invaded and Involuntary Body, Ars Electronica Festival, Linz, Austria, 1997.

4. Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers, eds., Narrative Intelligence (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2003).

5. Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

6. Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive

Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

7. Varela, Thompson and Rosch, The Embodied Mind.

8. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99; Lucy Suchman, Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

9. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011), 157.

10. Donna Haraway, Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.

11. Lucy Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design: Feminist Reconfigurations,” Lucy Suchman’s University of Lancaster website, accessed January 4, 2013, http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/papers/suchman-agenciestechnodesign.pdf.

12. Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design: Feminist Reconfigurations,” 1.

13. Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design: Feminist Reconfigurations,” 3.

14. Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, 152.

15. Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, 152.

16. Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, 152.

17. Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, 152.

18. Augusto Boal, Theatre of The Oppressed (London: Pluto Press, 1974).

19. Bertolt Brecht, “The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre,” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1964).

20. Karl Marx, Das Kapital (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1867).

21. Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, 154.

22. bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Cambridge, MA: Southend Press, 2000).

23. Sarah Kember, Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life (London: Routledge, 2003).

24. Kember, Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life,  82.

25. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, 1919 (London: Penguin Classics, 2003).

26. Masahiro Mori, “Bukimi no tani (The Uncanny Valley),” Energy 7, no. 4 (1970): 33–35.

27. Haraway, Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 187.

28. Haraway, Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 187.

29. Haraway, Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 195.

30. Haraway, Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 195.

31. Phoebe Sengers, “Designing Comprehensible Agents,”  Proceedings of the Sixteenth

International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (1999): 1227-32.

32. Philip Auslander, “Humanoid Boogie: Reflections on Robotic Performance,” in Staging Philosophy: New Approaches to Theater and Performance, ed. David Krasner and David Saltz, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).

33. Andrew Leonard, Bots, The Origin of New Species (San Francisco: Hardwired, 1997), 82.

Bio

Dr. Eleanor Dare is a fine artist and lecturer in programming at the Goldsmiths Skillset Media Academy, London.