Sensory Familiar, dOCUMENTA (13)
Kassel, Germany, 2012

The Worldly House is an archive inspired by Donna Haraway's writings on multi-species co-evolution compiled and presented by Tue Greenfort

The Sensory Familiar project traces the boundary between living and non-living systems and the migration of human and animal consciousness. The ´Sensory Familiar´ project is an evolving investigation into the conditions that bridge the synthetic to the natural world. I am using a heart rate monitor which transmits my emotional state to a robotic drawing and painting device (a hacked roomba) as I interact with reptiles and insects.

dOCUMENTA (13), a cultural event of world standing opens to the public in Kassel on June 9, 2012. For 100 days, over 150 artists from 55 countries and other participants from around the world will gather and present artworks, including sculpture, performance, installation, research, archiving and curatorial projects, painting, photography, film and video, text and audio works as well as other objects and experiments in the fields of art, politics, literature, philosophy, and science.

thanks to Richard Whitney his programming.
Related Text
The rhythmanalysis of flesh:
Kristupas Sabolius on Marcos Lutyens´s Sensory Familiar
An investigation on the boundaries of human, animal & machine.

It was Deleuze who first linked communication and control. He elaborated Foucault´s idea of 19th century´s disciplinary society, which was based on confinement: on the establishment of prisons, schools, workshops and hospitals, and which exercised its power through the distribution and segmentation of individuals, by attributing a ´right place´ to every one.

The society of control, according to Deleuze, is somewhat different. It seems that nowadays we can glorify all possible liberties and witness how the old-school boundaries have been extinguished. However, all these magic words – globalization, Internet, market economy, advertising, independent media, new technologies – tend to conceal a very dangerous ambivalence. They provide us with an illusion of freedom. Although a human being is free to move and to choose with no limitations, her/his actions can be accomplished only in a pre-constituted orbit, within a continuous and constantly supervised network. “You do not confine people with a highway. But by making highways, you multiply the means of control” (Deleuze 2007: 327).

The society of control exploits the "digital resources" of language: it codifies its members. "The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become "dividuals," and masses, samples, data, markets, or "banks." (Deleuze 1992: 6) In this way the control functions by exercising the system of communication, which is the transmission and propagation of information: a set of imperatives, slogans, directions – order-words. And since informing means circulating an order-word, according to Deleuze, information is exactly the system of control.

Being a part of this system, we are also used to treating the animal world in the same way by downplaying and simplifying their modes of existence. Nature does not speak – or at least it doesn´t do it in a comprehensible way. Communication with other living creatures often implies the reduction of sensing processes into representational forms. We try to teach animals our language whenever it is possible. A clever dog, they say, obeys the commands of its owner. One gives a name to a cat or a hamster, even though they frequently resist responding while hearing it. And almost every clownfish in the eyes of an observing tourist is called after a Hollywood cartoon star Nemo. In a way, to make animals "speak" means to anthropomorphize their patterns of behavior; to make them responsive; to domesticate them; or, to put it in Deleuze´s words, to install them into the system of our control.

Conversely, Marcos Lutyens´s project tends to disclose the act of counter-communication. It is an experiment, which involves threefold poles of interaction: a man, a robot, and a reptile. Without any pre-constituted order which should be introduced for converting the patterns of behavior into linguistic signs, it focuses on mapping the emotionalresponse between himself and such creatures as pythons and lizards, that have very little in common with human beings, not just genetically but also behaviorally.

Technical tools are used here to trace the spontaneity of interaction as well as the states of emotional intensity. The robots are linked to Lutyens´s heart rate, and when he gets excited or nervous the lines become jagged and disconnected and when calm and relaxed the strokes and lines are fluid and continuous. "Sensory familiar" is neither about speaking with animals, nor about understanding the hidden meaning of their language. This project aims to concentrate on being with animals, i.e. intensifying the situation of co-existence and exploring what Jakob von Uexküll called an ´umwelt´ – a particular ´environment-world´ constituted from the perspective of every living creature.

As Giorgio Agamben puts it, too often "we imagine that the relations a certain animal subject has to the things in its environment take place in the same space and in the same time as those which bind us to the objects in our human world. This illusion rests on the belief in a single world in which all living beings are situated. Uexküll shows that such a unitary world does not exist, just as a space and a time that are equal for all living things do not exist. The fly, the dragonfly, and the bee that we observe flying next to us on a sunny day do not move in the same world as the one in which we observe them, nor do they share with us – or with each other – the same time and the same space" (Agamben 2004: 40).

The idea of a single world that surrounds us, as a shared field of given experience, needs to undergo some radical corrections. This unity should not be constituted from ´above´, as an ontological or linguistic architecture, which implies the codifying structure of control. A belief that we can understand nature (if understanding here still remains a proper word) should stem from the premises of individual characteristics and the incomprehensible modality of existence that we are going to encounter. Or, to speak in Heidegger´s manner, understanding could occur only as un-understanding: the escape, the rupture, and the negation of our perceptual categories.

However, it should be emphasized, that the exploration of ´umwelt´ is far from the romantic clichés of ´Noble Savage´ and ´Back to Nature´, as, in Uexküll´s view, there is no objectively fixed environment we are to return to. The instinctive and natural behavior cannot reduce the difference among ´umwelts´, rather representing the man´s conflict with himself – a discontent of social and cultural repression. It is not about re-discovering one´s self-identity, but about losing one; or, as another Romantic poet Rimbaud suggested, it is about dérèglement de tous les sens (liberation of all of the senses): an exposure to the danger of the unknown.

Along these lines ´Sensory Familiar´ could be considered as a project of perceptual re-orientation. It seems that Marcos Lutyens´s aim to discover "how our senses may overlap" and "what happens when the umwelts coincide" leads to the opening of an unexpected field of correlation, requiring the intensification and sharpening of one´s own sensory capacities. Turning towards the ´umwelt´ of a lizard, a snake, or a bird implies the destabilizing of the conceptual schemata of human perception as well.

Perhaps it might be pertinent to draw a parallel with the celebrated story of John Hull. This highly educated and religious man lost his vision completely, but soon after gradually became a so-called "whole-body seer". By shifting his attention to the other senses, he managed to enhance their powers in such a striking manner that this even changed his mode of being-in-the-world. As one reads in his book "Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness", Hull could, for instance, conceive the surroundings only by listening to the sound of rain, delineating the contours and throwing a colored blanket over previously invisible things:

"I think that this experience of opening the door on a rainy garden must be similar to that which a sighted person feels when opening the curtains and seeing the world outside. Usually, when I open my front door, there are various broken sounds spread across a nothingness. I know that when I take the next step I will encounter the path, and that to the right my shoe will meet the lawn. As I walk down the path, my head will be brushed by fronds of the overhanging shrub on the left and I will then come to the steps, the front gate, the footpath, the culvert and the road. I know all these things are there but I know them from memory. They give no immediate evidence of their presence, I know them in the form of prediction. They will be what I will be experiencing in the next few seconds. The rain presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once, not merely remembered, not in anticipation, but actually and now. The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another"(Hull 1990: 23-24).

Oliver Sacks pointed out that Hull represents an outstanding example of an individual who, deprived of one form of perception, could totally reshape himself to a new identity and disclose a particular "sense of intimacy with nature" (Sacks: 150). The same intimacy could be recognized in Merleau-Ponty´s understanding of "flesh" (chair), which is an expression of the intertwining of both "subjective experience and objective existence", both "touching" and "tangible". This relationship of kinship, which exists in principle, not only shows the ambiguous status of human bodies already interlaced in their perceptual surrounding (i.e. always bringing about a reciprocal circulation to their umwelt), but works also as the initiation to and the opening upon a tactile world. Thus the sensate body foreruns any intellectualization and linguistic interpretation, melting into "prepossession of the visible" and performs an art of interrogating as well as inspired exegesis of the environment. "Through this crisscrossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves into the universe they interrogate, are recorded on the same map as it; the two systems are applied upon one another, as the two halves of an orange" (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 133).

Kaja Silverman´s research, emphasizing likeness or resemblance as an organizing principle of the universe, brings about the same concept. She notices, although without referring to Merleau-Ponty, that everything emerges out of the ´same flesh´. Even her book is named exactly after this fundamental concept of internal unity with the world. In "Flesh of My Flesh" she reminds us about the "older story":

"In Ovid´s Metamorphoses, every phenomenal form rhymes with many others. These rhymes also teach us that we should "revere" all creatures and "keep [them] safe," because everything emerges from the same "flesh" and has the same ontological weight. We also relate to ourselves analogically. We do not have "identity" because we are constantly changing, but we also do not break into a million pieces because each of our "shapes" resembles the others. Analogy works differently in The Metamorphosesthan it does in Christianity or Platonism because Ovid makes rooms for death. "Nature, ever renewing the world, creates new forms from old ones endlessly," he writes in Book XV (258)." (Silverman 2009: 2).

It seems that it is through the reorientation of sensing processes that one might disclose a deeper and more intense homogeneity which, paradoxically, plays upon the experience of difference without eliminating its constituent power. It is as if the difference, as a divergence and decentering of identities, allows one to attune the "two halves of an orange" in rather a tonal way. The fundamentality of flesh is based on its non-objectifying character, as well as the way it is contained within its own process and has a kind of temporal ´thickness´ – duration through the flow of time, almost in a Bergsonian way. The relationship we come across here is neither a correspondence, nor a representation, but a musical composition of nature – the idea that stems from Uexküll´s theory of Umwelt. Performing the supratemporal and extraspatial symphony of signification, nature exceeds the laws of mechanics and functions according to musical harmonics. Perception does not require an explanation or a meaning, but the sensing attunement of the two notes.

Thus the musicality of the perception within the intertwining of Umwelts provides us with a feeling of being a sound of the same cosmological symphony. This is confirmed by Lutyens´s discoveries while carrying out the "Sensory Familiar" experiment. "When I conceived of the project", he said, "I thought I was going to hold a snake, and it would make me really anxious, and the robot would go crazy, and it would make an amazing and bizarre drawing. But as I worked more on the project, it became less about my dramatic reaction to animals, and more about how my heart rate ebbed and flowed in a rhythmic way to the animal. I felt, that by holding an animal and working with an animal, we were responding more to what was going around us. It was not so much a question of me against the animal, it was more of uswithin a given surrounding".

The musical nature of every Umwelt allows us to think of the sensing processes between humans and animals as a kind of interchange of rhythmical constellations, which at the same time could resonate to the movements of a greater musical harmony around us. In the world of astronomical, climatic or circadian repetitions, the coordination of frequencies binds us into the system of shared experience. Analogically, Hull´s living body is in tune with the sound of rain, which "presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once" and turns into a unifying factor of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another, not because it penetrates into spatial forms or provides one with their complete overview, but because everything sounds simultaneously as it attains an interrelationship of frequencies. It is as if the rain reveals the vibrations of things that have always been there in a hidden manner.

Henri Lefebvre, in his "Rhythmanalysis", describes how this ambiguous nature of things functions behind the systematic order of reification: "Our sensations and perceptions, in full continuous appearances, contain repetitive figures, concealing them. Thus, sounds, lights, colors and objects. We containourselves by concealing the diversity of our rhythms: to ourselves, body and flesh, we are almost objects. Not completely, however. But what does a midge perceive, whose body has almost nothing in common with ours, and whose wings beat to the rhythm of a thousand times per second? This insect makes us hear a high-pitched sound, we perceive a threatening, little winged cloud that seeks our blood. In short, rhythms escape logic, and nevertheless contain a logic, a possible calculus of numbers and numerical relations" (Lefebvre 2004: 10-11).

Although there is a limited chance to develop the same kind of smelling capacity as a lizard possesses, or a vision analogous to the one of an eagle, the overlapping Umwelts bring about the discovery of the plasticity of our sensing consciousness. If bodies are forces, as Deleuze claimed, their reciprocal interaction in the world enhances the limits of experience. One could recall here neuroplasticity – the capacity of undamaged brain areas to take over some of the functions of the damaged ones or even to change the structure of the healthy brain enhancing its sensitivity or even exposure to happiness (as it was shown in the celebrated case studied by neuroscientist Richard Davidson, whose MFRI scans of meditating Buddhist monks showed that activity in the left cortex associated with happiness swamped the activity of the right cortex, related to negative moods).

The plasticity of the brain, in a broader sense, leads to the discovery of plasticity of matter itself, to the self-molding experience, meaning that "my body is made of the same flesh as the world (it is perceived), and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world" (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 248). Hence the whole set of five senses cannot be conceived of as the reality of transmitting sensors, reacting to stimuli, similar to locators or intermediating tunnels, but is enrooted in a deeper unity, prior to any function-distribution among the organs. Sensation of the world precedes the localization of concrete empirical data.

It is curious that numerous cases of sensorial deprivation coincide with the increasing intensification of overall sensitivity. Besides the mentioned example of John Hull, Oliver Sacks refers to the research, led by Lotfi Merabet, Alvaro Pascual-Leone and others, who demonstrated that even sighted adults, after five days of being blindfolded, underwent the physiological changes in the brain that went along with this (Sacks: 151-152). It might be added, that this human flexibility to fuse within one´s surroundings distorts the concept of what could be called a ´normal perception´. With these discoveries one might acknowledge that a fully functioning body is often much more deprived of an actual experience than a person who is deaf or blind. It is as if possessing the normal sensory capacities we tend not to make use of them, blocking and taking away the primordial sensitivity or, by conceptualizing and verbalizing the experience, reducing it to the controlled system (in Deleuze´s sense), which turns out to be a form of perceptual anesthesia. The tendency to objectify the perceptual processes of our bodies leads to a disconnection from the circulation of intensities within the flesh-world. This kind of ´unplugged experience´ preserves the formal overview of the surroundings, though rendering the body insensate by blocking its attention of perceptual musicality.

Moreover, the experience of unity itself may be considered as being in tune with one´s internal vibrations – the so-called ´binding problem´, which plays upon various patterns of neural oscillation found in humans. Brain activity, whilst related to the variation of moods, states and approaches, is tracked through the shifting modulation of frequencies. The phenomenon of Beta, Alpha, Theta, Delta, Gamma and Mu waves shows that, depending on how we vibrate in our experienced situations, our Umwelt may change its configuration.

Although there is no clear agreement, it is thought that Gamma wave activity is related to the unity of conscious perception: the synchronization of oscillating cellular potentials is sometimes invoked as a solution to the problem of combining sensorial elements into a single scene. The implication is that empirical data are "experienced together" by a "person as a whole" which is processed in a coordinated system of brain frequency. But what is even more important, Gamma brain waves are responsible for boosting the activity of the five senses: increasing visual acuity as well as enhancing the power to smell, taste, touch and hear.

As already mentioned, the logic of oscillations came to represent a unique role in "rhythmanalysis", a concept borrowed from the writings by Gaston Bachelard, who speaks of l´heure de la fraise, l´heure de la pêche et du raisin which are the occasions of psychic renewal following a change of seasons (Bachelard, 1936: 147). We have to re-organize our psychic activity according to a vitalizing process of the sometimes hidden constellation of rhythms. Rhythmanalysis, consequently, looks everywhere for the occasions of rhythms and confides in their natural correspondence between each other. In collaboration with poetry it elaborates a very intense sensitivity to one´s surroundings as well as providing one with an active and vibrant feeling, or, in the words of M. Pinheiro dos Santos, a Brazilian philosopher to whom Bachelard refers in the last part of the "The Dialectic of Duration", l´état lyrique [a lyric state of mind].

According to Lefebvre, who conveys this principle to its extreme, the rhythmanalyst has to be prepared to listen to the world, and "above all to what are disdainfully called noises, which are said to be without meaning, and to murmurs [rumeurs], full of meaning – and finally he will listen to silences." (Lefebvre 2004: 19) While his body serves him as a metronome, the rhythmanalyst must pay particular attention to his five senses, without allowing any one of them to dominate any of them. He doesn´t have to "jump from the inside to the outside of observed bodies; he should come to listen to them as a whole and unify them by taking his own rhythms as a reference: by integrating the outside with the inside and vice versa" (Lefebvre 2004: 20).

Likewise, "Sensory Familiar" uses robots as metronomes which track the process of rhythmanalytic interchange between an artist and an animal, disclosing what was always present: our bodies themselves are the metronomes which, by changing their frequency modulation, may stimulate and energize shared experiences. Marcos Lutyens´s heart beating, blood circulation, systolic and diastolic fluctuation does not represent the reaction to an animal, but overcomes it by opening the world of all the possible interactions and intertwinings of rhythms. Thus the overlapping of Umwelts occurs through the combination of a bundle of rhythms – different, but in tune. "Sensory Familiar", in a way, could be conceived of as a eurhythmia of perceptions, the polyphonic, but harmonic interchange of temporalities between a human being and an animal.

This new kind of sensory dialectic might show that rhythms reinforce each other over time to create strong tendencies, so the exploration of these subtle and intimate moments between person and animal may reveal the broader workings of interspecies coexistence. These are also the moments in which the phenomenological doublet of resonances and repercussions must be sensitized. As Bachelard claims in his description of poetic experience, reverberation enters subjectivity as a repetitive echo, overcomes the conventional border-lines and dissipates the subject-object distinction. We are possessed by external rhythms; the so-called depth of our interiority is affected by alien energy; we vibrate in tune with alien rhythms. In a way, this could be considered to be a process of depersonalization that opens a possibility of transformation in our experience. "The resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life in the world, while the repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our own existence. In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own. The reverberations bring about a change of being. It is as though the poet´s being were our being. The multiplicity of resonances then issues from the reverberations´ unity of being" (Bachelard 1964: xxii).

What is "penetration" in space is marked by resonance and reverberation in time. Henri Lefebvre´s insight seems to give us a broader explanation in which way rhythms function on the intersection of space and time. "Rhythm is easily grasped whenever the body makes a sign; but it is conceived with difficulty. Why? It is neither a substance, nor a matter, nor a thing" (Lefebvre 2004: 64). According to Lefebvre, although the rhythm has all these aspects, it can´t be reduced to them, as it implies something more. This "something more" is energy, which "unfolds in a time and a space (a space-time)" (Lefebvre 2004: 65). It is as if rhythm would mark the junction of time and space which occurs only through energetic flow and which constitutes the third unifying dimension of the world. Energy is what time and space have in common.

To interpret "Sensory Familiar" along the lines of rhythmanalysis is to claim that it performs a liberating gesture of self-metamorphosis and escapes from the imprisonment of the numerical language of control. In this sense rhythmanalytic experiment by Marcos Lutyens is an act of counter-communication: an opening to the world of constantly tacit nature, an attempt to fuse with the silence of a living creature. Perceptual incompatibility between a human and an animal is transformed here into the experience of vibrating presence – the interchange of energies performed through the rhythms of cosmological symphony.

Or, perhaps, "Sensory Familiar" might turn into the reverberation of what was once said in the teaching of Tao: "Love is no other than the rhythm of Tao. I have told you: you are come out of Tao, and to Tao you will return. Whilst you are young with your soul still enveloped in darkness in the shock of the first impulse within you, you do not know yet whither you are trending" (Lao-tzu 1919: 101).

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