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Heart Sense: Experiments in Design as a Catalyst for Feminist Reflections on Embodiment

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This paper presents the design of a series of experimental data visualizations aimed at reflection and conversation about embodied interactions and physiological data. Taking heart rate as the point of entry, these visualization challenge binaries such as matter/meaning, subjectivity/objectivity, and self/other. More specifically, we present three visualizations. The first one illustrates physiological interaction with emotionally engaging material. The second one explores the experience of time by centring the rate of heartbeats. The third one foregrounds the impact of the environment on physiology and its role in creating a kind of embodied social connection. Together, these three visualizations open up space for new problem formulations and design explorations in and around the themes of data, embodiment, and visualization that are distinctly feminist in their orientation.
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JAFARINAIMI Nassim* and POLLOCK Anne
Georgia Institute of Technology
* Corresponding author e-mail: nassim@gatech.edu
doi: 10.21606/dma.2018.409
This paper presents the design of a series of experimental data visualizations aimed at
reflection and conversation about embodied interactions and physiological data.
Taking heart rate as the point of entry, these visualization challenge binaries such as
matter/meaning, subjectivity/objectivity, and self/other. More specifically, we
present three visualizations. The first one illustrates physiological interaction with
emotionally engaging material. The second one explores the experience of time by
centring the rate of heartbeats. The third one foregrounds the impact of the
environment on physiology and its role in creating a kind of embodied social
connection. Together, these three visualizations open up space for new problem
formulations and design explorations in and around the themes of data, embodiment,
and visualization that are distinctly feminist in their orientation.
feminist science and technology studies; physiological data; data visualization;
interaction design
1Introduction
How can the very creation, rendering, and experiencing of biological data be distinctly feminist? For
example 1 break down
binaries such as objectivity/subjectivity2 and science/feminism,3 and contribute to a more nuanced
understanding of our bodies a kind of knowing that is in and of the world?
Heart rate data may seem like a counterintuitive choice as an entry point into these questions. The
monitored heart rate can be very mechanistic and even disciplinary: the persistent mechanical
beeping during surgery (Kneebone, 2017), the fetal heartbeat of anti-choice politics (Edgar, 2017),
monitors that can spur excessive intervention in childbirth (Cartwright, 1998), and even fitness
monitors that incite increased intensity in exercise (Pirkko and Pringle, 2006: 59). Heart rate can be a
site of pl
ambiguous and undisciplined. In times of emotional intensity, a racing heart rate can feel very much
1 A complex but worthwhile undertaking see, for example, Harding (1993).
2 This has been canonically explored in foundational texts of feminist STS, including by Keller (1985) and Rose (1983).
3 As inspired by Subramaniam and Willey (2017).
498
out of control. At the same time, we can feel our own heartbeat and that of others with whom we
are intimate. In this manner, heart rate offers an accessible route into engaging with our bodies. This
mundaneness and accessibility, in turn, makes it less likely that data about the heart could
mechanize subjectivity the way tha
most intimate and personal, while simultaneously deeply connected to others and the outside
world. Creatively engaged, heart rate can offer an intriguing point of departure for feminist
engagement with the entangled nature of data, matter, and meaning both in theory and practice.
In this paper, we present ongoing work that draws together scholars from science and technology
studies, physiology, and design to seek speculative ways in which heart rate and other physiological
data might facilitate new explorations of embodiment. We do not take biological data as a given and
theorize from there. Rather, we engage with both the generation and analysis of data in ways that
foreground the inextricability of matter and meaning. And, unlike what is common in discourses
around data in recent years, what we seek is not the kind of data collection that might produce
patterns for scientific discovery. Neither do we seek to provide a precise and comprehensive
representation. Rather, we seek to direct the physiological data that we gather to more open-ended
uses by striving to make the visualizations spur reflection, build awareness, and open up a space for
conversation for those who participate in our installations, and for ourselves and designers and
theorists. This paper thus serves an illustration of how feminist theory could be a point of departure
for problem making and questioning in design (Forlano et. al, 2016), as well as for feminist theory.
By creating, visualizing, and encouraging reflection on circumscribed datasets, we strive to approach
physiological data for its capacity to inspire an alternative epistemological and experiential
engagement from either standard scientific visualization or the quantified self. Ours is an object-
4
2Feminist Data Visualizations
This project is aligned with recent calls for femini
even as its starting point is different engaging not only with representation, but also with creation
and experience of data.
Our approach toward biological data takes its starting point from the humanistic perspective that
troubles the concept of data as a given, restoring it to its original sense as taken or what Johanna
Drucker (2011) characterizes as capta: taken and constructed (Drucker, 2011).5 As Drucker notes,
this is a key distinction between natu
acknowledges the situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production, the
recognition that knowledge is constructed, taken, not simply given as a natural representation of
preexisti given
and taken. Our visualizations are created in circumstances that are blatantly artificial and arguably
perhaps even arbitrary: installations that provoke physiological response that gauge states that are
neither normal (as, for example, 24-hour readings would create) nor optimal (as, for example, while
running or engaging in a target activity of rehabilitation). For us, biological data is simultaneously
given and taken, a flow of sorts. This idea of flow is relevant both for an understanding of the
creation of data mediated by instruments of science, and the experience and interpretation of data
mediated by visualizations.
Moreover, we seek to foster open-ended interpretations, and in so doing highlight the
obvious are the ways in which the final term in this sequence interpretation haunts its
4 For further discussion, see Behar (2016).
5 For more on the constructed and local nature of data see also, Loukissas (2017)
499
function as such, and the imagination of data entails an interpretive base
2013, 6). In doing so, our visualizations of biological data are designed to expand the interpretive
base.
The visualizations that our team is creating broadly seek to bring to fore the intra-actions of bodies
and environments (Bar -oriented feminist writing on
democratic exchange or domination (Pollock, 2015). We build on this evocative argument and
employ visual media to ask more capacious questions. More specifically, we use the tools of
for creative exploration. We have found, in turn, that this material engagement opens up new
theoretical spaces for feminist theory. In this paper, we present three visualizations. In the first,
visualizations foreground embodied responses to emotionally engaging materials such as short
videos, challenging the taken for granted duality of affect and viscera (Wilson, 2004). Another
explores the experience of time as marked by the beating of the heart, breaking down binaries
between objectivity and subjectivity. A third engages how the heartbeat resonates with music,
foregrounding the way that the outside world may serve as a starting point for a kind of embodied
social connection and resisting the arbitrary boundary of self and other. From a design perspective,
these visualizations also serve as a point of reflection on the rhetorical dimensions (Buchanan, 1985;
Jun, 2011) of the creation, visualization, and experience of data.
Here, it is also important to note that other artists and designers have engaged biological data in
ways that are resonant. While these visualizations are not necessarily explicitly labeled feminist, they
have characteristics that are aligned with its ethos. For example, artist Kelly Dobson (2007) has
such as
breathing), foregrounding autonomic connections between ourselves and machines. Biomorphic
Typography by Diane Gromala (2002) introduces a conception of writing driven by biofeedback, thus
enabling users to become aware of their autonomic physiological functions during typing. Other
artists have also drawn attention to heartbeat in large public installations. For example, Pulse Park is
an installation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that uses pulse readings of 200 individuals to light up
Madison Square Park. According to Lozano-Hemmer, drawing on heartrate is not meant to be
communal dimension of heartbeats, challenging its dominantly individualistic framing. Heart of the
City by Anaisa Franco is an interactive public art sculpture that is designed for people to sit on it and
interact with it with their pulse. The sculpture pulses light according to the heartbeat of the people
sitting on it (Franco, 2015). What these visual presentations have in common is that they take
biological data as their materials yet present it in ways that challenge its mainstream interpretations.
Creating and expressing data differently is particularly important if we consider how dominant
imagery limit imagination and engagement and thus our understanding of phenomena. An example
is illustrative here. In an ethnographic study of the London Underground Map arguably one of the
most important communication design achievements of the 20th century Janet Vertesi asked
Londoners to draw a map of London. She noted that they draw maps that look more like the
distorted map designed for navigating the tube system as opposed to other features and
characteristics of the landscape (Vertesi 2008). In this way, the map limits and confines the
imagination about the city: the most important that I need to know is how to traverse it.
500
Figure 1. Fit
through exercise and weight loss
In a similar manner, images produced by medical imaging devices and self-tracking tools limit
imagination and understanding of our bodies: we are encouraged to see the body in disaggregated
bits, and the most important thing that we need to know is how to improve its metrics (See Figure
1). Those who engage with this data are meant to take these images as given. These kinds of
renderings are what we are used to, and they dominate our imagination of what heartbeat is and
does and how to attend to it.
of the bodily information implies an associated responsibility to act, and more specifically to act
within intensified regimes of self-
seek to create opportunities not to act toward more efficiency and control, as if to save time or to
win against time. The experiments described in this paper seek to provide alternative ways of seeing
and understanding the heartbeat and biological data more broadly.
2.1 Embodied Emotional Engagement
The first project that is fully realized takes heart rate, galvanic skin response, and breathing as input
to produce flower-like visualizations that illustrate physiological responses to a short emotionally
engaging video (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The graph generated for each participant is unique to their experience
at a distinct point in time, with the circles growing outward as time progresses. The quality of the
line, that is how smooth or spiky each circular line is, represents how fast the heart is beating. In
other words, when the heart beats faster, the graph renders a wave line of higher frequency. The
amplitude of the wave line represents how deep the breath is. Shallow breaths produce a shallow
wave line while deep breaths are rendered as steeper ones. We also measure the electrical
501
conductance of the
excitement or fear. The colour intensity changes from blue to red to indicate this variable associated
with intensity of emotions (Figure 3). Our choices of color are rather conservative (blue: calm; red:
excited). This was the most practical way to render the data, since it was the default spectrum in
MATLAB, and we decided that following this established convention makes it easier for our
audiences to interpret the data. Moreover, since the drawings are rendered in time, the emphasis is
more on the transitions and changes in color as opposed to their absolute values. Participants watch
the line of the visualization as it is being drawn over the course of about ten seconds in a way that
evokes drawing with a Spirograph toy, and encourages a mindset of wonder and creative exploration
rather than assessment and control. We render the x-axis of time in a circular rather than linear way,
producing a flower-like drawing that grows with the passage of time. Each drawing is unique to the
experience and the individual (Figure 2).
Figure 3. Interpreting the Graph
The way that the installation is set up is this: the viewer sits at a desk in front of a computer that
equipped with the sensors. We use a Xethru breathing sensor measures the depth of breath by
capturing the chest movement. Both heartrate and galvanic skin response are recorded using
sensors that the participant wears on their fingers. One of multiple short movies is selected
randomly. After they are done viewing the movie, the sensors are removed and the participant is
invited to watch the visualization being rendered on a large screen. The final image is also printed on
a card that the participant can keep as a souvenir of the experience (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Installation Setup
Studies of Science meeting in Boston in August 2017, and the responses that it generated were
502
extraordinary. People were intrigued by their visualizations
People claimed their visualizations in interesting ways. For example, when one of us commented to
these prints telling stories about what they were experiencing and what the visualization suggested
about how they felt.
Whereas data visualization as a field tends to take data about the body for granted, self-tracking
discourses tend to take data about the body as a tool of control. This installation, however,
manifests one of the ways in which methods and tools drawn from medical imaging and self-tracking
devices can be rendered in ways that seek to challenge dominant modes of visualization as a means
of optimization
We were
struck by how participants were intrigued by their visualizations as opposed to being confronted
with a lack or shortcoming as often happens with self-
In this manner, the presentation was successful capturing biological
data in ways that are whole evocative rather than authoritative.
The other two visualizations are as yet less realized as fully implemented installations but exist as
conceptual companions to the above.
2.2 Time
Clock time is set by inorganic means, specifically, the elapsed time of a specified number of cycles of
radiation of a Caesium 133 atom. In real life, our time is generally set by our smartphones, which in
turn draw their time data from satellites with atomic clocks. But what if we were to use more
organic senses of time? What if the heart rather than the Caesium atom could provide a
metronome? Could this be a new way of knowing time that takes its starting point from the lives of
women and other living things?
Variations in heartrate are of course often due to changes in physical activity, but they can also be
due to changes in emotional state. When we are experiencing emotional intensity, our heart rate
elevates, and we experience time slowing down. Seconds can feel like minutes, as if we are
experiencing life in cinematic slow motion. When we are emotionally disengaged, our heart rate
slows down to a baseline, and unless boredom itself provokes its own state of emotional elevation,
aggravation we become less aware of the passage of time.
In this visualization, we seek to create an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, as reoriented
through attention to the pace of the heart. The animation on the left traces time and heart rate
relative to one another while the one on the right keeps track of the numeric value of heart rate. The
intensity of the red colour indicates faster heart rate and thus an expanded experience of time.
More specifically, on the left we see two lines sweeping the circle. One of the lines represents time
the circles except this one represents heart rate. When time and heart rate get closer together, as
would happen in a fleeting neutral state between engagement and disengagement, the colour
changes to purple and we also see the two sweeping lines aligned. When heart rate increases, we
see the heart rate line falling behind the time one to indicate the appearance of time slowing down.
Conversely, when heart rate slows down, we notice heart time speeding up thus indicating that one
is experiencing time as if it is going more quickly. In both of these circles, heart time is represented
in red, and clock time is represented in blue. In the circle on the left, the relative pace of heart time
and clock time moves clockwise, such that sometimes one races ahead of the other. In the circle on
the right, when the heartrate exceeds clock time, the number is depicted in red, and when heartrate
goes below clock time, the number is depicted in blue.
503
Figure 5. The image pair on the left shows the state of the visualization when heart time is faster than Caesium time,
indicating an experience of time feeling exp anded. The image pair on the right shows heart rate line moving below that of
the Caesium time, indicating diminished subjective experience of time.
All of the visualizations that we have created engage with temporality, since rates are at the core,
but this is the visualization that engages most directly with time itself. Feminist scholarship has
pr
more open-ended? Even as the very assessment of heartrate relies on an x-axis of Caesium-based
time, foregrounding the pace of the heart offers gestures toward an ever-emergent organic
alternative basis of measure. For both participants in the installation and for ourselves as theorists,
we seek to evoke a mode of rel
scientist Evelyn Fox Keller (1983) characterizes following biologist Barbara McClintock
ve a different
kind of time and place than humans do. But humans ourselves have plural ways of sensing time.
Awareness of diverse human experiences of time can be obscured as our smartphones constantly
privilege Caesium time. Bringing heart time to our attention through visualization provides an
opportunity to empathetically engage with ourselves as organisms, our own pace never quite
reducible to Caesium time.
2.3 Embodied Social Engagement
The third visualization engages embodied aspect of social connection through the mediation of the
physical environment. Although we are not generally aware of it, our heart rate syncs with our
its rhythm will come into relation.
Imagine a round table with four chairs and four headphones. A projector positioned on top of a table
renders the visualization, which, in the initial state, represents the beat of the music in purple
(Figure 6). Participants sit at the table, put on the headphones, and hold a small object that allows
their heart rate to be recorded. Each individual heart rate is then rendered in a different colour.
Brighter colours such as orange or red signify heart rates that are faster than the beat of the music.
Da
closer to the beat of the music, the colours gradually change to different shades of purple. In this
manner, the visualization captures the ways that the heart adapts in tune with the rhythms of space
as well as a kind of non-communicative social connection that is otherwise invisible.
504
Figure 6. Music Installation
ne, and that
social connection is also physiological connection. In doing so, it foregrounds the arbitrary binaries of
inside and outside, self and other, illustrating social and material entanglements. This installation
provides a novel route into the classic question raised by Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto:
(Haraway, 1991: 178). The installation illustrates that our bodies are always already in relation, at
the same time that it provokes curiosity about how this might be so.
3Conclusion
To close with a reprise of our opening question: How can the very creation, rendering, and
experiencing of biological data be distinctly feminist? Taking heart rate as a point of entry and the
above approaches to engaging with biological data gesture toward some ways that we might
respond. We seek, for example, to elicit experiences of the body that are not readily available or
visible otherwise. These visualizations create and illustrate data produced by instruments of science
(cf. Barad, 2017), but prioritize the evocative over the precise in the rendering. These installations
gestures toward what feminist STS scholar Angie Willey (2016, 555) has articulated as
6 In this way, our visualizations intervene on
prominent non-feminist discourse of data about the body such as the research and discourses
around self-tracking.
Our approaches to visualizing physiological data are broadly aligned with the idea of a cyborg
feminism (Haraway, 1991), in which neither bodily integrity, nor control over the body, are the goal.
While draw on these feminist ethos, however, it is important to caution against a set interpretation
of feminist values that unquestionably produce feminist visualizations. We do not see the task of
design as identifying a set of values to then be applied to design problems (JafariNaimi, 2015).
Rather, we have employed values in feminist theory such as awareness, reflection, and conversation
to open up the processes of selection, creation, and visualization of biological data as well as its
experiences as generative places for asking new questions, new modes of knowledge making,
alternative intra-active engagements. In these engagements, we do not see the biological and the
social, or the ontological and the epistemological, as separate but rather as deeply entangled.
Even as we provide an opportunity for feminist engagement with numerical facts about the body,
we do not want to cede too much epistemic authority to those numbers and are careful about
making totalizing claims of our own. Thus, a broad goal of this project is to serve as an illustration of
how feminist theory allows us a more inclusive definition of science as a postcolonial, queer,
6 Although -data-driven ways of knowing the body, such as the
erotic, we believe that our imprecise and expressive engagement with biological data is sympathetic with her approach.
505
feminist enterprise as called for by Banu Subramaniam and Angie Willey (2017). We view our
contribution as one provisional response to this call and an invitation to future conversation and
inquiry in this space by designers and theorists alike.
Acknowledgements: Seed funding for this project was provided by GVU/IPAT at Georgia
Tech, through a collaborative grant awarded to the two co-authors together with our
faculty collaborator in Biological Sciences, Lewis Wheaton. We would like to specially thank
the graduate students who worked on the project: Regan Lawson, Shruti Dalvi, and Udaya
Lakshmi. Samsung Visiting Scholar Tae Eun Kim made significant contributions to design and
research, and undergraduate student Dillon Weeks provided assistance with animation.
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About the Authors:
Nassim JafariNaim i is an assistant professor of Digital Media in the School of
Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Her research interest is in
the ethical and political dimensions of design and technology especially as related to
feminist articulations of democracy and justice.
Anne Pollock is an Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the
School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Her research
focuses on biomedicine and culture, theories of race and gender, and science and
social justice.
... And this is one reason why soma design proved to be a suitable method to explore biosensing, as it opened our design space to account for a more holistic understanding of sensing, in addition to making sense of bodily data. In future work, we would like to explore engagements with somadata also from a feminist perspective [26], building on our previous work on the politics of the body [22]. ...
... Dualist approaches to designing self-tracking technologies employ behavioural and cognitive understandings of the user [64]. This is an attitude that states that it is possible and beneficial to control the unruly body through making it transparent and malleable through collecting and acting upon self-tracked data [11,40,56]. Control is enforced through the collection of increasing amounts of increasingly granular data on the body [77]. ...
Article
Full-text available
This introduction to the Special Section “Self-Tracking, Embodied Differences, and the Politics and Ethics of Health” situates self-tracking technologies and practices within the contexts of neoliberalism, gendered and racialized health inequalities, and questions of social justice. It argues that intersectional STS analyses are needed to address the complex ways in which self-tracking technologies draw on, and may reinforce, colonial and racialized hierarchies, gendered histories of surveillance, and normative assumptions of ability and embodiment. The introduction outlines the four key areas of concern that the Special Section articles address: tracking mental health, tracking moving bodies, tracking reproductive health, and art interventions.
Making, Mending and Growing in Feminist Research Society conference
  • L Forlano
  • Å Ståhl
  • K Lindström
  • L Jonsson
  • M Mazé
Quarterly Journal of Speech 103(4): 350-371. y 2015, Anaisa Franco Artist Homepage, Accessed Nov. 10, 2017. http://www.anaisafranco.com/heartofthecity/ Forlano, L., Ståhl, Å., Lindström, K., Jonsson, L., Mazé, M. (2016). Making, Mending and Growing in Feminist Research Society conference, Brighton, UK. Gitelman Introduction Raw data oxymoron (L. Gitelman, Ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 1 14.
BioMorphic typography
  • D Gromala
Gromala, D. (2002). "BioMorphic typography." In ACM SIGGRAPH 2002 conference abstracts and applications, pp. 151-151.
Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature
  • Simians
Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Feminist Studies eds., Feminist Epistemologies. New York: Routledge, 49-82.
Foucault, Sport and Exercise: Power, Knowledge and Transforming the Self
  • P Markula-Denison
  • R Pringle
Markula-Denison, P., and Pringle, R. (2006). Foucault, Sport and Exercise: Power, Knowledge and Transforming the Self. New York: Routledge. Theory Culture Society 31.6: 29-56. sdisciplinary Phenomena: Strategic Encounters Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience
  • Accessed
Accessed November 2, 2017. http://catalystjournal.org/ojs/index.php/catalyst/article/view/116 Pollock, Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, and Technoscience 1 (1). Accessed April 2, 2016. http://catalystjournal.org/ojs/index.php/ catalyst/article/view/pollock/98. Signs 9(1): 73-90.