Ipseity

noun, sometimes capitalized

ip·​se·​ity | \ ipˈsēətē \

individual identity : SELFHOOD

2020 and (so far) 2021 have brought their lot of crisis, from the more obvious global health concerns to the more secretive, and more neglected question of mental health. Mental wellness apps are now common, usually free and easy to access. Physical health apps will allow you to track your feelings and emotions on a daily basis, and more intimate apps such as How Mental or Feelmo do a wonderful job at identifying and sharing your emotional status with loved and trusted ones.

The issue, however, is that between stress, anxiety, smartphone addiction and over use,  or neurological differences, more and more people are at a loss when it comes to knowing how they feel. Once considered a rare condition, alexithymia (or dyslexithymia), the absence of words or misuse of words to identify and express one’s feelings and emotions, are becoming widespread. And in return, this impacts the way we perceive ourselves: the loss of words for emotions becomes a loss of identity (René J. Muller, 2000).

But occasionally, patients who clearly have problems and are in great emotional pain tell noncongruent stories. They will insist that they have no problems, that life is fine and that they have no idea what is wrong. Their story is that they have no story

If a patient has no story to tell a clinician, even at a time when emotions are stirred high enough to prompt an ER visit, it seems a good bet that person has no story to tell themselves either. Having no story almost certainly implies an impaired identity: Who we know ourselves to be depends heavily on the story we tell ourselves about who we are.   To have no words for one’s inner experience is to live marginally, for oneself and for others.


This also means that wellness apps cannot be efficient as they solely rely on words or facial expressions to express feelings, methods that are not only impossible to use for people aforementioned, but also do not take into account the fact that not all facial expressions are universal, as some vary depending on the cultural and social context.

Therefore, the topic I would like to explore is how generative art could become a tool of introspection, allowing an individual to reconnect with their own self, recovering their unique individuality or ipseity. By playing with colours, rhythms, and shapes, one could create a truly unique work of art that would reflect their internal turmoils, allowing them not only to express their feelings but also to self-regulate their emotions.

ANXIETY AS A VECTOR OF CREATION: THE ARTEFACT(S)

As stated above, 2021 was not as smooth of a year as I had hoped it to be. All dreams of accomplishments quickly turned sour, and in the summer I found myself going home to rest, stressed and defeated. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with any satisfactory idea for this project I cared about, and kept pressuring myself to come up with something grand, something that would be a feat of technical prowess – even though very few people with only a few months of programming behing them could start a small computational revolution in that way.

The theory, however, was building itself in the back of my mind. Even as I stood idle, unable to work in any productive way, I was over/analysing, spectating my own inability to cope, taking all sorts of mental notes of what I would say once I had the technical side sorted. I procrastinated. And it clicked. I started observing the ways I procrastinated, what art I would create, what I would inevitably come back to. It quickly tuned into an autoethnographic exercise, from which two major things stood out: I liked circles, closed shapes with no beginning and no end; I liked repetitive movements, expected yet always different; and I liked spirographs. I had just found what I wanted to create, and why.

Pulsating Perlin-noise circle and spirograph

I wanted to offer the soothing gesture of expected actions, I wanted to move and be an active agent of the creation, and I wanted to see the self – myself, yourself, themselves, but concealed within a barely, if at all, decipherable image.

I first decided to play with slit-scans, drawing the image from the video one line of pixels at a time, resulting in grotesque avatars of the Self. Too readable. I added glitches, played with values, destructured my image. It was better, but too obvious still, too literal, barring any chance of having the visuals be shareable; no one would identify that well with a white woman having a bad hair day.

I added a touch of computer vision. Not too much, partly due to my own lack of literacy when it comes to computer science, partly because I wanted to keep a balance of the inputs of the Self and of the Machine. Using openFrameworks and ofOpenCV, I had the program keep tracks of my movements, of its intensity and its activity, and transcribe it in rotations. I made a spirograph of the slit-scan, controlled by the movements perceived, offering an intimate performance of my anxiety only to the eye of my camera. I made a few arbitrary aestheric choices, such as the width of the line and the rotation’s steps, because language is, in a way, also made of a few arbitrary choices. The Machine drew the defformed vision of myself, choreographed in real time by my own agitation, and I felt more grounded – a new mirror, showing me a new Self. I became a direct agent of creation; I controlled the narrative, my narrative.

I felt better, and I liked what I saw.

The jumps in the rotation come from my own movements

After running for too long, most glyphs started looking alike, so I decided to have them be created in the span of one to two minutes, to ensure an easier differentiation of the various states I was in. It became a ritual: I would run the application whenever I felt some sort of way during the day, after an upsetting work call, relaxing in a bath, playing with a dog, feeling defeated in my room. I found myself focusing on the glyph appearing before my eyes, becoming more conscious of my movements and feelings, coming back to the visuals hours later to re-read what had come out of these states of being. Some had an uncomfortable texture, some reminded me of the soft inside of a shell, and all had a coherence to them that came from the set shapes and the fact that they spawned from what I see as my cultural context.

I shared a few glyphs with my family; they would see similar things in some, and had different perceptions of others. They wanted to create theirs. I found myself trying to control the way they were using the app, and realised I was getting in the way of what this language meant and was for. It is a tool for introspection, an intimate face-to-face with the Self, and my own set of rules, my code, would make no sense in the context of another user.

Not mine: becoming spectator of someone else’s emotions

I had to rethink my approach to the communication and readability of the glyphs; I had to accept that what I perceived as true meant something entirely different for another person; a language isn’t less true than another, and different languages have different names for the same perceived object. I added a note regarding linguistic theories, and thought about the future of the project.

Once cleaned up and optimised, the code would be freely shared as an open source project, with only a few key concepts needed to understand what it is about. I am excited to see what might come of this.

I would need to add a more textural, sensorial element to it. Sounds can be unpleasant to some, so that addition would come later if needed. Giving it a physicality could emphasise the ritualistic impact it has, becoming either tokens or amulets, and understandable not to the eyes only. It comes from physical movements, so re-entering the physical realm seemed to make sense. A full circle, so to speak.

A sample of a week of glyphs

A THEORY OF COMPUTATION OF MOODS AND FEELINGS: CODING, ENCODING, DECODING… RECODING?

THE CIRCLE

This project is, in a way, a defense of artistic creation and expression of anxiety as research praxis. Starting from the making of an artefact means I had to retrace all the steps that led to it, inducing cognition of (my)self as well as turning into a regrounding experience, thus becoming part of the artefact itself.

Discovering these means of expression, and being my own ethnograph, also brought about the understanding of the states I found myself in, which appears reminiscent of the linguistic theory of relativity (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, see bibliography). This process also underlined an attachment to the Circle as a shape, and as a way to remove the glyphs from linguistic biases.

Linearity is a very Western concept, especially tied to time, lived experience and written language. Things flow from left to right, strictly defined, and clashes with numerous non-Western structures (Boroditsky, L., & Gaby, A., 2010). Circular shapes flow continuously, with no beginning nor ends. This removal of rules and landmarks challenges its legibility to the Perceiver, forcing them to focus instead on their immediate perception, then allowing for a second lecture to observe the details.

The more agitated or active the Creator is, the more we lose the human structure of the information, as well as the literal, videographic representation of the Self. But the cohesion of the shapes and principles, the core structure of the glyphs, invites the Spectator to compare, juxtapose and draw meaning from the neutral anonymity. The need to self-regulate emotions is repackaged as vectors of creation, and shares with Strangers glimpses of an unseen artistic performance.

CODE, ENCODE. DECODE

These terms offer multi-layered interpretations, tied to computational practices as well as linguistic theories.

Code can refer to the one of the core actions of computational actions, as programming code, a language that is a means of (albeit one-sided) communication with a Machine. But a code is also the structural guidelines and rules that go with the rite of creation of these glyphs, to reach the liminal stage between the disconnection of the Self and the understanding of the Self. Through these rules, we in turn become Witness, Creator, Vector and Spectator of the birthing of these glyphs  

Encode can also refer to a computational action, a “conversion to a specific form”, in this case converting movement and image of the Self to an irregular circle. Encode, in its biology or genetics meaning of “producing a substance or a behaviour”, ties back to this experiment. The Creator, through an undefined choreography, impacts the behaviour of the Program, as well as the behaviour of the Self, as movement soothes anxiety (Zhu, X., Haegele, J. A., & Healy, S., 2019). The Program, as generator of the glyphs, opens a dialogue between the Self and the Perceptions, also producing a new behaviour.

Decoding is the one I prefer. With it comes the notion of removing the code, changint the structure of both the rite and the C++ that makes up the Program. Decoding the glyphs, however, implies three main levels of understanding.

  • The first level is the intimate reading from the Self to the Self. As Actor, Vector and Spectator of the creation of the glyph, we have access to all the cultural keys to understanding what we see. We know the context, the place, the time, and can access the state we were in through revisiting the experience. We get to confront our “Self” armed with these new ways of understanding, and create meaning from it. This somewhat relates to the linguistic theory of relativity (Kay, P., & Kempton, W., 1984).
  • The second level is the decoding by individuals who have some understanding of the creator’s cultural and, to an extent, behavioural context. These would be friends, family, acquaintances that can somewhat perceive information from the intimate level, while still injecting perceptions from their own, personal cultural context of understanding.
  • The third level is the decoding by Strangers, people fully removed from the creator of the glyph they are observing. This level, in terms of philosophy and linguistics, would be closest to the theory of representation of meaning (Speaks, J., 2021): the shapes, colours and sensory qualities of the glyph become a reference to the Stranger’s propositional attitude. Its meaning is born from the Spectator’s own representation of what it is.

These three layers have no impact on the veritas inherent to the glyphs. The code, the C++ used to shape the app as a tool, uses a lot of for loops, and similarly each iteration of perception by a new Spectator brings a new meaning, a new shift of veritas, as the introspective nature of the glyph not only welcomes, but necessitates mutations and interchangeability. 

for (human spectator=0; spectator<∞; spectator++){

veritas.push_back(spectator);

}

The communication and connexion happens via the Other’s perceptions of the artefact. The creator couldchoose to rectify any interpretation thought to be wrong, find similarities with different visions and lectures of the glyphs, or listen and learn about the Other’s own lived experience that shaped their cultural context. The language recreates itself and evolves because of these interactions.

if you gaze long enough into the program, the program will gaze back into you.

The Program created is at the core of this entire experience. It gives access to the intimacy of a language known only by, and made by, the Self, expressed as a solitary performance, with the option of then being shared and re-read as an aesthetic and sensorial experience.

The glyphs themselves are the produce of an esoteric dialogue between the Performer and the Machine, the computer standing as a confident of the people struggling to express themselves and be heard, coming close to a biographer of our inner turmoils. Once launched, a simple process of computer vision assesses the movements created, their intensity, and transcribes it as a deformation of the live video. The exchange means this is an active choice, as opposed to a passive observation.

LINE

Polar opposite of the circle, the line, finite and directional primary shape, also plays an important role in the creative process. Used as a spirograph, it adds sensory qualities to the glyphs. When undisturbed, the addition of lines becomes smooth, presenting more readable hints of the creator’s context. Agitated, all visual landmarks are erased, anonymising the glyph, showing a harsher texture – adding to the visuals a near-synesthetic feeling of physicality.

This use of lines and rotation, finally, means that in future stages of this project, the glyphs could easily be 3D printed, mutating into physical tokens, accessible to all, seeing and non-seeing alike.

AND THEN?

This project keeps coming back to itself, and each cycle brings about a new problematic. The current media used to share it means it cannot yet be seen as a universal language, self-contained and ready to use. But it opened an important discussion that I wish to continue, and involve others in. While the combinations of shapes and colours are seemingly infinite, the three main subsets of glyphs (smooth, mixed and chaotic) tend to remain similar, meaning that I have learned to guess roughly what actions in what settings might produce which subset. As I cannot remove myself fully from my testing phases, I would like to give more autonomy to the Program, and keep learning as the language emerges.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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