An Interview with Lisa Park
Throughout her career, artist Lisa Park has investigated the relationship between emotional states and the subconscious. Towards this goal she has explored and experimented with technology such as Max as a vehicle for manifesting and visualizing these invisible states and forces.
Employing biofeedback sensors, her recent work examines the nexus between organic functions, such as brain waves and heart rate, and technology. The resulting effect is a beautiful rendering of emotions, biological energies and frequencies in synesthetic sonic sculptures. By taking “invisible” energy and emotions and giving them tangible, physical properties, Park metaphorically gives her inner faculties an external presence.
Park has collaborated with artists such as the Marina Abramovic Institute and she is a current member of NEW INC, New Museum’s first museum-led incubator in art, technology, and design. She was recently awarded the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for 2014 in the category of Digital/Electronic Arts. Hailing from Korea, Park presently lives and works in New York City.
In this interview Park and I discuss the course her work has taken over the last few years and how technology, such as MAX, has facilitated her creative process.
So, you were American born but raised in Korea?
Yes, I was born in Boston, but was raised in Seoul, South Korea. My parents were studying their Master’s in Boston and when they finished their education, we all went back to Korea. So I barely have any memories living here in the States. I first came back to America when I was 18 to study at Art Center College of Design in California for a Fine Art major. After graduation, I went back to Korea for a couple years, before deciding to pursue my Master’s degree at NYU in the Interactive Telecommunications Program.
Did you have a creative childhood?
I think I did. It may have to do with me being an only child. I spent a lot of time being with myself. I had my own distinctive world and the way I communicated was through drawings and making things.
Now that I really think about it, I can see where my environment and background has really formed and shaped who I am. It is interesting that none of my family from either my mother or father’s side ever studied or practiced the Arts. I guess I am not the norm in my family. But luckily, my parents support my career and have been truly great mentors to me.
The school was very open, and encouraged us to explore many different kinds of arts, and genres there.
Are art and music taught in Korean schools?
Yes, there are professional high schools and elementary schools focusing on the Arts. I had some training in drawing and painting when I was about 11 to 13 years old, to prepare for one of the most prestigious private art middle schools in Korea, but then decided not to go. I think it turned out to be better for me, because all my other friends who were extensively trained to draw and paint from a young age, ended up not even wanting to become artists. They felt that the intensity of the training could really take away from your creativity.
So you came back to the US to further your studies?
Yes, I attended the Art Center College of Design for my undergrad program.
Oh, in Pasadena?
Right, in Southern California, near Los Angeles. ACCD is a design oriented school and well known for industrial design and graphic design programs. During my education there, I was able to expand my practice to experiment with photography, silkscreen, film, and performance beside the traditional genres of art like painting.
That must have been somewhat of a culture shock?
Not much. I went to an International High School when I was in Seoul, Korea. Since I was getting an American education, I really didn’t have much of a culture shock when I first went to California. But, I definitely had some trouble with speaking and understanding English.
So, you knew you wanted to be an artist by the time you were 18, and deciding where to go.
Yes, it was obvious for me to apply for art schools. Now that I think of it, I never thought of studying any other majors beside arts.
However, my perception of being an artist has shifted since I was young. When I was young, I wanted to become an artist because I felt that I was being true to myself while drawing and painting. I just enjoyed it. But after going to art school for an undergrad, I realized that the practice of art is not just about the relationship between you and the work. It is also about the relations between your work and the audience, and how the artwork will be viewed and critiqued by art professionals and the public. After graduating, sustaining yourself as an artist is a whole different aspect as well!
I was very attracted to use technology because it was something very new for me.
Did you have a specialty going in?
I had been exploring different kinds of arts, when I was at Art Center College of Design. I did some installation works, and paintings, because I was so used to doing paintings and making sculptures when I was a kid. I also explored film and photography. The school was very open, and encouraged us to explore many different kinds of arts, and genres there.
What attracted you to then go to the interactive program at NYU?
Over the past few years, my interest in New Media Art and Interactive Art has influenced my art practice. Unlike traditional art such as painting, sculpture, and photography, what I liked about Media Art is that there is a direct relationship between the public and an artwork.
When I first went to NYU, I realized that my background in Fine Art was a very different field compared to Interactive Digital Art. I tried to find a bridge between programming and my Fine Art background and knowledge. During the process of creating my works, I questioned “how can I bring technology into art so that it can communicate with the public on an intimate level?” It’s an exploration for me to answer this question when creating artworks.
Were you very code savvy before you entered the Interactive Technology Program?
Oh no, not at all! No, I had never used a programming language before. It was my first time learning it.
I was very attracted to use technology because it was something very new for me. But at the same time, when I first went to ITP, I think that was actually the time I had culture shock. It was shocking to me, because it was such a different world for me that I hadn’t really prepared myself for prior to my study at NYU.
Is that where you were first exposed to Max?
Yes, I started learning Max by the end of first year at ITP. My friend who was an expert at Max helped me with my project and I had a great impression of it, so I still use Max for my artworks. I also took a class from Luke DuBois, who is a well-known media artist and programmer based here in New York.
I’ve been interested in investigating emotional states in order to better understand my subconscious and myself.
Ah, learning from a master!
Yes! What I like about Max compared to other processing languages such as C ++, is that it has the visual component. I find that easier to work with and it makes more sense to me. Since I was trained in visuals since I was kid, I feel more comfortable using Max compared to any other coding program. You can play with the text and with the visuals. It is just more approachable to me, in my case.
Let’s discuss one of your latest projects, the EUNOIA II piece. Maybe you can give our readers a quick description of this project?
“Eunoia II” is an iteration of “Eunoia”, which was my first performance using a commercial EEG brainwave sensor headset to obtain real-time feedback of my brainwaves and emotional reactions.
For Eunoia II, I use 48 speakers in a circular set up that is inspired by a Korean Buddhism symbol that represents “balance.” I sit in the middle, wearing my EEG headset and begin my meditation. The data from the headset is then interpreted through Max to output sound to the individual speakers, which are covered with metal dishes filled with water. The changing modulation of different parameters of the sound waves presents itself as varying patterns of vibration onto the water.
This was done in an attempt to mediate and control my feelings using this visual feedback from the EEG data so that I could achieve emotional stability and become composed during the performance. In Eunoia, the ultimate goal was to reach a moment of emotional silence, of complete stillness so that no sound could be heard and no vibrations could be seen on the water.
Does the title “Eunoia” have a specific meaning or reference?
Yes, “Eunoia” means ‘beautiful thinking’ in Greek. I had first heard of this term from a book of poetry called “Eunoia” by Christian Bök. The word “Eunoia” is the shortest English word that contains all five vowels, and each of the five chapters of Bok’s “Eunoia” is written using words limited to a single vowel as well.
But, the main reason why I decided to name my work “Eunoia” is because it is a term that was used by Aristotle to refer to a state of “well mind.”
What inspired the original concept of this series?
My work revolves around trying to understand and reveal my inner self, to express who I am on the inside as well as what’s on the outside. Throughout my artistic practice, I’ve been interested in investigating emotional states in order to better understand my subconscious and myself.
In the past few years, I’ve started experimenting with various technological tools as a vehicle for manifesting these invisible states and forces. I began to use biosensors, which measure things like brainwaves and heart rate, to monitor my own physical and psychological states.
How does an elevated heart rate signal my anxiety or discomfort? Does my brain activity reflect my thoughts and feelings? I became fascinated with using a brainwave sensor as a self-monitoring tool for measuring, analyzing and understanding our invisible energies.
How did you come to using the speakers activating water to represent your data feedback?
For inspiration, I read several Western and Buddhist philosophical books such as Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and “Non-possession” written by a notable Buddhist monk, Boep-Jung. Aesthetically, I wanted to maintain zen-like qualities. With that in mind, I decided to work with circular shapes to symbolize unity and infinity.
When I was about 18, I read a book called “The Hidden Messages in Water” written by Masaru Emoto. Emoto explored his belief that water could react to positive thoughts and words. Since I have always believed that human emotions come with corresponding waves of energy that we carry within, I wanted to make a connection between our inner body-energy, our brain-frequency and sound-frequency.
Our body contains more than 60% water and since I wanted to create an external representation of myself, I thought of using water for that reason, as well as because it’s a neutral form.
Had you experimented previously with the water speakers?
No, I hadn’t. But, I took a class for my Master’s degree at NYU called “Cooking with Sound” and one of my classmates did a study on Cymatics. So, I knew about how sound could be visualized but hadn’t experimented with that until these pieces.
How is the data analyzed then distributed to the 48 different speakers representing the range of emotions?
Here’s the part where a lot of people misinterpret. The work “Eunoia II” is comprised of 48 speakers with metal plates in various sizes, all containing pools of water. The number 48 symbolizes philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s definitions of the 48 different human emotions.
In his book “Ethics”, he describes emotions as states of mind and body related to feelings and says that all emotions are derived from three primary emotions: joy, pain, and desire. He lists 48 different forms of emotion, which include things like: hope, fear, confidence, despair, hatred, remorse, overestimation, contempt, compassion, humility, pride, despondency, shame, benevolence, anger, etc.
But, the number 48 is just an inspirational source and motif for my piece. Currently available commercial brainwave headset like the Emotiv EEG sensor, cannot detect all 48 emotions. Emotiv is an advanced commercial EEG headset and it could detect emotional states such as excitement, engagement, meditation, frustration, boredom, and long-term excitement. So I am using certain emotional values that are picked up by this EEG headset, which then gets translated into sound waves that create vibrations in the pools of water.
For instance, the more frustrated I am, as detected by the headset, the sound gets louder and vice versa. I think it is fascinating to think about how this invisible form of emotion is being translated into numerical forms, and then through Max to be translated into tangible and visual objects as water vibrations from sound.
How do you determine the different emotions from the data you produce?
The company Emotiv has their own algorithm for detecting different states of emotional responses. Based on the values given from 0 – 1, representing emotional levels, I am translating this data to modulate the sound in different ways.
Maybe you can help us understand how an EEG actually works?
Electroencephalography, known as EEG, is the recording of electrical activity along the scalp. There were many studies aimed to understand the correlation between brain signals and emotional stages. The EEG device detects and measures the tiny electrical charges on the skin, in this case the scalp. This is caused when the heart muscle depolarizes during each heartbeat. Using electrical impulses, neurons send messages to and through each other. When millions of these neurons are activated the signal becomes strong enough that EEG devices can detect it.
Our brain doesn’t emit just one kind of wave at one time; it emits multiple kinds of waves simultaneously. Depending on the user, the patterns of brainwaves are different in conjunction with particular emotions and thoughts. Brain waves are measured in cycles per second. The lower the number of Hertz, the slower the brain activity or the frequency of the activity. It then depends on the model of EEG device, as to how it picks up and interprets the various data.
So, the different models of EEG actually function differently?
In terms of integration into EEG studies, Emotiv and Neurosky are the most popular devices.
The Neurosky sensor is able to measure frequencies in the rage of 0.5 – 50 Hz. It has 2 sensors that analyze Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Theta waves, as well as the user’s mental state, which would be Attention or Meditation.
Emotiv sensors measure frequencies in the rage of 0.2 – 43 Hz. They have 14 sensors and use the 10-20 system, which is an internationally recognized method to describe and apply the location of scalp electrodes.
How are the sounds manipulated by the various emotional states?
For “Eunoia”, I used Reaktor in conjunction with Max to modulate the sound in real time. So, for that project, the Neurosky EEG headset’s ‘Attention’ and ‘Meditation’ levels modulated the volume and panning of the sound.
For “Eunoia II”, the input data of emotional values — excitement, engagement, meditation, frustration, boredom, and long-term excitement — are being transmitted from the Emtoiv EEG headset while monitoring my brain activity. Then this data is sent to Max as OSC data to modulate volume, panning, and playback speed of the pre-recorded composed sound.
The sound in the video is the actual sound of the performance.
Since my work is performance based, it is critical to document the work in a way to best narrate my own story.
Your video documentation of Eunoia II is gorgeous, really well done. Did you produce that yourself?
Oh, thank you. I did, yes. I created a storyboard to direct the cameraperson to shoot in certain ways. Then, I edited the video footage myself.
Was documentation emphasized in your schoolwork?
No, not at all actually. Even though NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program is under the Tisch School of the Arts, people from our class rarely had a visual background. Because I have been exposed to many visuals since I was young and practiced drawing and painting, I’m very selective in terms of creating an artwork with certain aesthetics. That has influenced me when shooting in video as well.
Good documentation seems important, especially with non-permanent work.
It is critical to have a great documentation of your work; especially performance based works because as you said, it’s not permanent. Since my work is performance based, it is critical to document the work in a way to best narrate my own story.
Do you think that documentation can become artwork on its own?
I think that documentation, video in this case, is just a tool to spread my work to a larger audience. Documentation cannot capture the actual experience, so I don’t necessarily think that it is artwork on its own, but I think it is an important portion of the artwork.
I see you are also involved with New Inc as well as the Marina Abramovic Institute?
I was collaborating with the Marina Abramovic Institute as a volunteer, specifically helping with its digital platform, IMMATERIAL, in the past. I was filming interviews and workshops, and also helped design visuals such as MAI’s Kickstarter design packages, DVDs including “MAI/OMA”, “Abramovic Method DVD Exclusive”, “Founders Circle”, and “Career Interview Set” packages.
Currently, I’m involved in New Inc, which is the New Museum’s first incubator program. As a member I have access to a shared workspace and a professional development program designed to support creative practitioners working in the areas of art, technology, and design.
It’s important for a young artist like myself to be in a community driven space for inspiration and to foster possible collaborations between other creative people. So, New Inc turns out to be an ideal community and space for me to further develop my work, both artistically as well as personally.
Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
As a continuation of the Eunoia series, I plan to use the same biofeedback technology to create a participatory installation that explores how this might extend to multiple people or even small groups. It will be a collaborative experiment that seeks to create public engagement through the use of EEG technology.
The project aims to show the potential of seeing the actual synchronization of brain activity among the participants who are responding to neurofeedback. It will be an installation that explores themes of harmony and collaboration by using EEG headsets to create an audiovisual representation of the participants’ brain activity and emotional connectedness.