ArticlePDF Available

“Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal:” Art, Neuroscience, and Radio Astronomy

Authors:

Abstract

«Cogito in Space» is an interdisciplinary art project that sends «thoughts» to outer space. The project, led by artist Daniela de Paulis, involves neuroscientists, radio operators and radio astronomers. They use brain waves collected by the neuroscientists in an electroencephalogram (EEG) scan while the person being scanned watches images of the Universe and Earth from space with a virtual reality headset. This data is converted into a stream of sound, and then transmitted by the radio operators to non-targeted points in the sky using the Dwingeloo radio telescope in the Netherlands. This article examines the dialogue that Cogito crafted between art, radio astronomy and neuroscience. From a sociology of science perspective, I argue that this dialogue is a poetic reinterpretation of scientific instruments used by neuroscientists and radio astronomers. With poetic, I refer broadly to the process of creating a set of symbols that weave connections between social worlds. These symbols’ interpretations remain open-ended, and exist in the interstices between the empirical and the speculative. Thus, while becoming vehicles of artistic expression, scientific instruments are re-interrogated in a new framework of meaning. I characterise the central ideas of the project, its process of design and its performance based on interviews with the members of the collaboration; participant observation during an academic presentation and a performance at the Dwingeloo radio telescope in November, 2018; and documentary analysis of reports and publications from the project.
artnodes
E-JOURNAL ON ART, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
1
A UOC scientific e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
Article
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s
signal:»
Art, Neuroscience, and Radio Astronomy
Date of submission: October 2019
Accepted in: December 2019
Published in: January 2020
Abstract
Cogito in Space is an interdisciplinary art project that sends «thoughts» to outer space. The
project, led by artist Daniela de Paulis, involves neuroscientists, radio operators and radio
astronomers. They use brain waves collected by the neuroscientists in an electroencephalogram
(EEG) scan while the person being scanned watches images of the Universe and Earth from
space with a virtual reality headset. This data is converted into a stream of sound, and then
transmitted by the radio operators to non-targeted points in the sky using the Dwingeloo radio
telescope in the Netherlands. This article examines the dialogue that Cogito crafted between
art, radio astronomy and neuroscience. From a sociology of science perspective, I argue that
this dialogue is a poetic reinterpretation of scientific instruments used by neuroscientists and
radio astronomers. With poetic, I refer broadly to the process of creating a set of symbols that
weave connections between social worlds. These symbols’ interpretations remain open-ended,
and exist in the interstices between the empirical and the speculative. Thus, while becoming
Recommended citation
Castaño, Paola. 2020. «“Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal:” Art, Neuroscien-
ce, and Radio Astronomy Artnodes, Nº.25: xx-xx. UOC. [Consulta: dd/mm/yy]. http://doi.
org/10.7238/a.v0i25.3318
The texts published in this journal are – unless otherwise indicated – covered by the Creative
Commons Spain Attribution 4.0 International license. The full text of the license can be consulted here:
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Paola Castaño
Cardiff University
artnodes
E-JOURNAL ON ART, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
CC
NODO «DIALOGS BETWEEN ART AND FUNDAMENTAL SCIENCE»
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
artnodes
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal»:
2
A UOC scientific e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
«As you come in, we bring this machine to life.»With those words,
artist Daniela de Paulis welcomed our group as we entered the control
room of the Dwingeloo radio telescope on November 5th, 2018 for a
unique event that aimed to send brain waves into space.
The event marked the first on-site live performance Cogito in
Space, an interdisciplinary art project and «experiential narrative
sending thoughts into outer space as radio waves» (de Paulis 2019,
197). The project, led by the artist, involves neuroscientists, radio
operators and radio astronomers and began in 2014 (de Paulis 2014
and 2017). They use brain waves collected by the neuroscientists in
an electroencephalogram (EEG) scan while the person being scanned
watches images of the Universe and Earth from space with a virtual
reality headset. This data is converted into a stream of sound, and
then transmitted by the radio operators to non-targeted points in the
sky using the radio telescope.
This article examines the dialogue that Cogito crafted between
art, radio astronomy and neuroscience. From a sociology of science
perspective, I argue that this dialogue is a poetic reinterpretation of
scientific instruments used by neuroscientists and radio astronomers.
With poetic, I refer broadly to the process of creating a set of symbols
that weave connections between social worlds. These symbols’ in-
terpretations remain open-ended and exist in the interstices between
the empirical and the speculative. Thus, when operating as vehicles
of artistic expression, scientific instruments become «epistemically
problematic again» (Rheinberger 2013, 202).
I will characterise the central ideas of the project, its process
of design and its performance based largely on interviews with the
protagonists: artist Daniela de Paulis; neuroscientists Robert Oost-
enveld, Stephen Whitmarsh and Guillaume Dumas; radio operator
Michael Sanders; radio astronomer Roy Smits; and space writer Frank
vehicles of artistic expression, scientific instruments are re-interrogated in a new framework of meaning. I characterise
the central ideas of the project, its process of design and its performance based on interviews with the members
of the collaboration; participant observation during an academic presentation and a performance at the Dwingeloo
radio telescope in November, 2018; and documentary analysis of reports and publications from the project.
Keywords
Art, radio astronomy, neuroscience, sociology of science, instruments, experiment
«Lo que para una persona es ruido, para otra es señal»
Arte, neurociencia y radioastronomía
Resumen
Cogito in Space es un proyecto artístico interdisciplinario que envía «pensamientos» al espacio exterior. En el proyecto,
dirigido por la artista Daniela de Paulis, participan neurocientíficos, operadores de radio y radioastrónomos. Utilizan
ondas cerebrales recogidas por los neurocientíficos en un electroencefalograma (EEG) mientras la persona escaneada
observa imágenes del Universo y la Tierra tomadas desde el espacio con un visor de realidad virtual. Estos datos se
convierten en una corriente de sonido y, a continuación, los operadores de radio los transmiten a puntos del cielo no
marcados utilizando el radiotelescopio Dwingeloo en los Países Bajos. Este artículo explora el diálogo que Cogito ha
creado entre arte, radioastronomía y neurociencia. Desde una perspectiva de la sociología de la ciencia, sostengo
que este diálogo es una reinterpretación poética de los instrumentos científicos utilizados por los neurocientíficos
y los radioastrónomos. Con poética me refiero principalmente al proceso de crear un conjunto de símbolos que
establecen conexiones entre mundos sociales. Las interpretaciones de estos símbolos están abiertas y permanecen
en los intersticios entre lo empírico y lo especulativo. Así, mientras se convierten en vehículos de expresión artística,
los instrumentos científicos vuelven a interrogarse en un nuevo marco de significado. Caracterizo las ideas centrales
del proyecto, su proceso de diseño y su ejecución basándome en entrevistas con los colaboradores del proyecto;
observación participante durante una presentación académica y una presentación en el radiotelescopio Dwingeloo
en noviembre de 2018; y análisis documental de informes y publicaciones del proyecto.
Palabras clave
Arte, radioastronomía, neurociencia, sociología de la ciencia, instrumentos, experimento
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
artnodes
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal»:
3
A UOC scientific e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
White.1
1
The article is also based on documentary analysis of reports
and publications from the project, observations during a presentation
by de Paulis at the International Astronautical Congress of 2018, and
participation in the November 2018 performance in ASTRON, the
Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Sociological Research on Art and Science
Art is an increasingly important field of interest for Science and Te-
chnology Studies (Salter, Buri and Dumit 2017). In this article, I focus
my analysis on four crucial areas for sociological research.
First, the diverse meanings of experimentation. Hans-Jörg
Rheinberger’s work on experimental systems in science provides
a framework to study research practices and knowledge claims in
art (2013). As experiments are «essential tools of both science and
art» (Aloi 2019, 10), an examination of collaborations needs to be
attentive to the varying contents that artists and scientist adjudicate
to this practice.
Second, the uses of technologies and instruments. Following
Rheinberger again, some things «become silenced as objects of re-
search and live their lives as unquestioned technicalities» (1997, 226).
There is a fruitful line of inquiry in examining how artistic practices
re-interrogate scientific instruments as unquestioned technicalities.
In artistic contexts, instruments retain their capacities to stabilise
and measure, but also enter in new contexts more comfortable with
complexities and speculations. Additionally, artists create links bet-
ween instruments that rarely interact with each other. While there is
a body of research about art and neuroscience (Supper 2013, Wilkes
and Scott 2016, King 2018), there are no precedents at the time
of writing this article about an artistic project that brings together
neuroscience and radio astronomy.
Third, the perspectival nature of interdisciplinarity. Within and
across fields, collaborations are heterogeneous (Fitzgerald and Callard
2015) and involve different visions «stemming from the intersection of
participating social worlds» (Star and Griesemer 1989, 396). In con-
sequence, sociological studies need to ask how artists and scientists
can dialogue with varying degrees of consensus. Another question
worth pursuing is what happens to scientists’ practices once they
go back to their «day jobs» after working with artists.
Fourth, space as a special theme for collaborations. A matter to
interrogate here is if and how scientists and artists working together
in space-related themes are more open to dealing with uncertainty
and even speculation. In my observations of Cogito, and also as a
result of my own research with space scientists in other contexts,
1. Unless otherwise stated, all quotes from the collaborators are taken from the interviews conducted in August, 2019.
2. For a history of the Dwingeloo radio telescope and its role in the development of radio astronomy, see Woerden and Strom, 2007.
I am puzzled by the notion of «virtual cosmonautics.» Even in the
most solemnly respected forms of planetary science and astronomy
– fields frequently critical of human spaceflight (Van Allen 2014) – I
have found a longing to create a physical connection with space like
the one for which Cogito aims. Just before we climbed the stairs
towards the control room in Dwingeloo, we were directed to a plaque
with the name of pioneer radio astronomer Grote Reber.2 Behind the
plaque laid a part of his ashes that were distributed over the big radio
observatories in the world. This instantly reminded me of astronomer
Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes that are on NASA’s New Horizons probe that
flew by Pluto, the planet he discovered. More than assuming that this
longing is an innate drive, a sociological question here is about the
institutional settings that provide licences for these quests.
«Exploring the Cosmos with the Mind»
A foundational idea of Cogito, in the words of the artist, is that space
exploration is not only about the «outer unknown,» but it is about
«exploring ourselves in this bigger dimension that is also part of
ourselves» (de Paulis 2018a). She references three main influences
that converged in the project: what she calls the «Dualistic Problem
in Contemporary Cosmology,» Frank White’s The Overview Effect,
and Solaris (the novel by Stanislaw Lem and the film by Andrei
Tarkovsky).
De Paulis frames the following concern as the «Dualistic Problem»:
«As cosmology progresses in further discovery of the universe, the
role of the mind in the interpretation of the picture of ‘reality’ remains
largely unknown» (de Paulis 2019, 199). The existential effects that
confronting the immense scales of the universe, since humans cannot
have direct sensory experience, are an open question. The artist uses
that question to make the leap towards virtual space travel: «Radio
waves allow us to travel with our thoughts much farther and faster
than our senses, through a realm of abstract cosmological spaces»
(Ibid).
The Overview Effect, in turn, is a term coined by White in the
1980s. He uses it to characterise «the cognitive shift happening in
the mind of the astronauts after witnessing the sight of the Earth from
outer space» (de Paulis 2019, 200). White became a consultant and
collaborator and de Paulis draws on his notion to explore how «the
way we understand Earth is extremely subjective.»
And, finally, regarding Solaris, the artist chose it as the first
fictional reference of someone transmitting brain activity towards
a planet and undergoing a complex psychological experience as a
result (de Paulis 2019, 203).
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
artnodes
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal»:
4
A UOC scientific e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
Considering this breadth of influences and ideas, the project also
needed some demarcations. First, de Paulis took distance from space
outreach. As she states it, her interest was not to be an advocate, but
to pose questions about the suitability of humans for space travel.
Second, although she is involved with the Search for Extraterrestrial
Life (SETI) community, she took distance from them in this project.
Two stances are at stake in this distancing. One is a critique of the
rational and mathematical representation of humans in SETI and a
move towards a more complex and contradictory portrayal (de Paulis
2018b). The second stance also entailed a technical decision in the
design phase. There is controversy within SETI and METI (Messaging
Extraterrestrial Intelligence) about sending messages because this
entails potentially becoming detectable. Thus, the team decided not to
target a particular celestial object in the transmission of brain waves.
They agreed to keep the transmitting antenna still and spread the
signal across the sky (de Paulis 2019, 204). However unlikely, there
is a will in Cogito about «a potential extraterrestrial intelligence»
decoding and reconstructing the signal. And, third, though not denying
its speculative nature, the project was eager to differentiate itself
from «pseudoscience.» The understanding of this aspect among the
collaborators deserves a closer look, as it was essential for their
interaction.
Ideas about Scientific Rigour
De Paulis states that, as an artist, she values «scientific accurac
(2019, 203). The neuroscientists appreciated the fact that Cogito was
not about what they call «pseudoscience,» and she let them guide
her on crucial choices:
They were very clear with me: they wished to avoid any reference to
quantum consciousness or any other hot topics, simply because it
is very speculative (…) I went along because I wanted the scientific
aspect of the project to be very solid, very accurate. And this why
I decided to use this lab grade EEG device as opposed to other
commercial devices.
From the side of the neuroscientists, all three praised the artist’s
interest in engaging seriously with their field. They knew each other
before as colleagues and collaborators in other art projects, parti-
cularly in work combining neurophysiological recordings with music
and visuals (Whitmarsh 2017).
As a result of these experiences, Dumas developed a critical view
on the use of neuroscience as «a fancy way of adding something to
media art.» He does not see himself playing the role of the neuros-
cientist that puts brain stuff in their art without questioning narratives
about it. «Of course,» he adds, this is not just a problem of the artists,
and many neuroscientists «also play the game because it is fun.»
In his words,
To me, there is a level of rigor that has to be reached and Stephen
[Whitmarsh] was in line with me on that. Although I think he also
plays with the performativity aspect (…) I was motivated to join the
Cogito project with the aim of making it as rigorous as possible, and
really pushing what science and technology are able to do right now
and trying to reach the limits of that.
Oostenveld, with a background in physics, was also intrigued by
the opportunity to work with an instrument outside his field: a radio
telescope. He refers to the moment when they started discussing
de Paulis’ ideas:
There was a serious neuroscientific twist to Cogito. Not using EEG as
a gadget but sending high quality EEG data into space. I think that
was what strongly motivated me to start collaborating with Daniela
on this project. There are a lot of people who think EEG is cool, but
they basically only think of it as a gadget, whereas I am doing EEG
professionally, for my work, as one of the research methodologies.
As for the collaborators in Dwingeloo, they also identified oppor-
tunities in the project. Smits, a radio astronomer by training, saw it
as a way to expand his outreach work with the radio telescope and
as a unique possibility to bring together fields of science:
Science has gone to such great depths now, our knowledge has
extended so far, that it is almost impossible to have people unders-
tanding the complete overview and having scientists talking about
it. Because it is so detailed, so specific, it is even difficult to get all
the astronomers of different disciplines together to talk about optical
things along radio astronomers.
Radio operator Sanders (PC4M) recalls de Paulis presenting
her project in one of the quarterly meetings with the volunteers at
CAMRAS (C.A.Muller Radioastronomie Station), the organization in
charge of maintaining and operating the radio telescope. «The big
work she did was winning them over,» he said. Before Cogito, she
had already conducted research in the radio telescope, trained as an
amateur radio operator (IU0IDY), and worked with the «Moonbounce»
technique (de Paulis 2016). According to Sanders, they agreed that
the project involved an interesting new concept, and, above all, it
was not threatening: «You know people are scared that they do not
get bad press, that it, that they are not seen in a negative way on the
9 o‘clock news (…) They didn’t see that as a threat; it was serious
art.» When I asked in our interview what they meant by «serious
art,» he answered:
99% of the volunteers come from a scientific or technical back-
ground. They perceived «this is serious, the people involved have
a good reputation.» And they said «Ok, it makes sense, it has a
message.» But they did not seem really interested in the art. They
find it interesting, but for most it was just «Ok, it’s there, and we
facilitate it.»During the performance, CAMRAS board members and
volunteers signed up to assist the artist for tasks and some attended
the performance.
According to these accounts, the institutional support and the
collaborators’ involvement initially centred on criteria they could
recognise and value in their own terms. The spotlight was on the
instruments, the credentials of those involved, and the outreach
possibilities. While generating curiosity among collaborators, their
evaluative gaze was not mainly towards the philosophical framing and
the larger hypothetical ideas of the project. However, these distinctions
would prove to be more flexible once the collective work began.
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
artnodes
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal»:
5
A UOC scientific e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
What to transmit? In which circumstances?
How to capture it? How to transmit it?
Cogito’s central ideas are about «thoughts traveling to space» and
«exploring the cosmos with the mind.» While many natural and social
scientists would agree that the complexity of human thought cannot
be reduced to or even contained by brain waves (Vidal and Ortega
2017), the choice of brain waves is precisely the recognition of the
unique complexities of the mind as revealed by the engagement with
the scales of space. Thoughts and mind are conceived as unprocessed
non-verbal «stream of consciousness» as understood by William Ja-
mes: flow of «multitudinous thoughts and feeling which pass through
the mind» (de Paulis 2019, 203). This stream, in her view, is what
could be captured by the EEG as the unarticulated activity of the brain
without need for interpretation.
Operationally, the idea of representing the entire dynamics of
the brain (de Paulis 2019, 202) entailed placing 32 electrodes that
record electrical signals with the EEG scan on the participants’ heads.
The artist and the neuroscientists agreed on the need to capture
«good quality data,» but also in transmitting that which they could
not interpret or fully understand. According to Whitmarsh:
We abandoned this whole extracting idea and found a way to transmit
raw signal. Everything. If it’s noisy, it’s noisy. If you blink your eyes
and it creates noise, so be it. Somebody else can take care of that.
I think Daniela found a nice line where the project is more about
what we don’t know (…) And I was very comfortable at that point
to not do any pre-processing. Signal and noise.
The VR visuals that participants would watch while being scanned
were also crucial to the design. The images were created by filmmaker
Sandro Bocci and combine experimental footage – using «special
effects with physical processes (non-CGI)» (de Paulis 2018a) – with
actual images of Earth. One is the Blue Marble image taken by Apollo
astronauts from the Moon, and the rest is footage of Earth from the
International Space Station. The 8-minute piece was created around
The Overview Effect. The images also aim to induce «the sensation
of being one with the universe and the source of all spiritual energy,»
and «a more introspective journey into the perception of our place in
the cosmos» (de Paulis 2019, 202).
The critical technical challenge was the compression of the brain
waves into a mono sound that could be converted to a radio signal
and transmitted in real time to space. According to Dumas:
We could have done a gimmick sonification and broadcast it in
a poetic way. But for me it was about how we can make it both
interesting from an aesthetic point of view and relevant from a
scientific and technical point of view.
For the neuroscientists, transmitting brain signals to space was
entirely new. Their work had to incorporate decisions about the
frequency encoding of the EEG, but also the constraints of another
scientific instrument outside their world. As recalled by Sanders:
They did not know what a radio telescope could transmit, so I had
to disappoint them. They wanted the whole spectrum. I said, well,
this is the part you get, and you have to figure out how to squeeze
in the EEG signals. We had big discussions on what to take and
what to leave out. It’s very technical, but it means that in real life
you have to make choices.
Encoding the EEG into a single audio channel was a complex task
according to Whitmarsh:
We found this really smart way of doing it. There is amplitude
modulation of the EEG and then there is frequency modulation in
between to map the 3D coordinates of the electrodes. If you record
this signal in some kind of fidelity, you can plot the spectrum and see
there are these clear lines that happen exactly every so many hertz
and create a slight sort of change. The pattern, which is artificial,
intersperses with a clearly natural brain signal. It is a very beautiful
sort of combination using two different ways of encoding information
by frequency and amplitude (…) I think the question was both about
engineering and neuroscientific. An engineer could have done this
if you tell them exactly what to do. But we had to figure out what to
do, and that was a scientific question.
The result was what they called «Code for Interstellar Transmis-
sion.» Details of this development, as well as its antecedents, are
described by Whitmarsh in his blog (2017). Throughout this deve-
lopment, the team decided that the project would be open source
(Whitmarsh 2019), and constantly had to decide where to aim for
precision and where to accept ambiguities.
The entire process involved several weekends working on site in
Dwingeloo. Dumas remembers that these weekends were «not only
about geeking and playing with computers and brain waves, but
also discussing the broad scope of the project.» Along those lines,
Whitmarsh states:
We could connect personally because otherwise you are there just
to solve a problem, but at the end of the day it happens in this
interaction between people who get to know each other.
All members highlight the technical challenges of Cogito and
how each one contributed, from their expertise, in collectively finding
«creative solutions.» Collaborations like this one create a community
of practice that renders the boundaries between forms of expertise
porous. Cogito is an example of the great deal of permeability in terms
of modes of thinking and practical engagements among the team.
However, porosity also has limits. While the artist could become an
amateur radio operator, and Dwingeloo has an institutional space for
this form of practice, there is no single antecedent to my knowledge
of an artist becoming an «amateur neuroscientist» and participating
in the life of a laboratory under that label. And, if we think of expertise
as the capacity to tinker inside technical objects of one’s own field,
only the neuroscientists could sonify the brain waves in cooperation
with radio engineers.
Performing Cogito
The live performance of November 5th, 2018 comprised an entire day
of activities for the 40 attendees, structured in a way that we moved
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
artnodes
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal»:
6
A UOC scientific e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
from the broad ideas of the project towards its actual presentation.
The first half of the day involved a symposium in the ASTRON
auditorium moderated by art critic Josephine Bosma, with interven-
tions by Frank White, historian and anthropologist Fred Spier, retired
NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, the artist, and the three neuroscientists.
White opened the day with his current perspective on The Over-
view Effect. For him, the act of sending our brain waves to space
is part of «becoming citizens of the universe.» In our interview, he
mentioned that he initially saw the project as two parts: the brain
scans as «the science part,» and the transmission into outer space
as «the art part.» His interest focused on the first, considering that
he would like to complement his studies of astronauts’ testimonies
after their spaceflights with measurement of brain activity in response
to images of the Earth from outer space. However, since attending
the performance, he has become more interested in the second part
and with the ideas of «communicating with extraterrestrials and with
the universe.»
Spier, proponent of Big History, discussed the different cultural
impact of the Earthrise photo taken by astronauts in the Apollo 8 mis-
sion in the US and Europe. In a conversation with the artist, recorded
as part of the documentary being filmed that day, White and Spier
agreed in the unique connection that humans feel to the image of
Earth and space when it is taken by another human. In this context,
White referred to astronauts as «the sensing organs of humanity.»
Afterwards, Stott took part via Skype. She talked about her spa-
ceflight experience saying that the most important implication was
that «space brought me back to Earth.» And over the years, as there
have been uncrewed missions sending pictures of space, «our favorite
pictures are the ones that allow us to see ourselves in there, to make
a connection to home.»
In the afternoon there was a walk through the heath around
Dwingeloo under the guidance of planetary scientist and filmmaker
Maarten Roos. The walk, mixed with discussions of cosmology and
Big History, «aimed to inspire a sense of belonging to Earth before
«virtually» leaving the planet» (de Paulis 2009, 206-207).
As we entered the control room in the radio telescope, the volun-
teer selected by the artist was sitting on what de Paulis calls a «gravity
chair.» As the neuroscientists adjusted the EEG cap and the VR set, the
artist described what was to follow. Pointing at a screen, she showed
how the radio telescope was directed towards the Betelgeuse star
and that, with the Earth’s rotation, the signals about to be collected
would start «drifting into space.» Once the equipment was in place,
she pronounced the identifier code of the radio station and thus began
the collection/transmission.
Neuroscientists normally work with scans in controlled experimental
settings. They also focus on specific areas of the brain, involve many
subjects, and look for averages to make statistical models. In Cogito,
while relying on the instrument’s accurate performance, the aim is the
complete opposite: to create an irreproducible instance. Each perfor-
mance is meant to be unique and the focus lies on the idiosyncrasies
of each person’s response to the experience and visuals, not in their
similarities. In addition, the actual EEG data is not recorded or stored,
but simply transmitted and not subject to further analyses.
According to the team, each person has very different brain activity
in response to the VR imagery. However, there is a perceived con-
vergence as signals become quite loud and active when the images
begin to show the curvature of the Earth. The neuroscientists refuse
to make considerations about this perceived pattern since the process
precisely does not take place in an experimental setting. The artist
describes the transmission in the following words:
The sound produced by brain activity created hypnotic and repetitive
patterns that generated a meditative mood inside the cabin: people
experiencing the event seemed to draw their attention inwards and
join the participant in her intimate journey with the mind in outer
space (de Paulis 2019, 207).
Sitting next to the person being scanned, my thoughts were less
meditative. I kept wondering about this particular ritual that, enabled
by technology, ultimately manifests varieties of spiritual longings like
those of space instruments carrying remains of astronomers.
Regarding the sound, it was imbued with decisions and was produced
to enable a sensory experience. For the writing of this article I consulted
sound engineer María Elisa Ayerbe and musician Andrés Gualdrón who
described it as a «metallic machine-like mid frequency drone,» and the
loudest moment (apparently when the person begins to see images of Earth)
as a «high-pitched strident glitch.» Gualdrón highlighted how «if you vary
any of those frequencies, the whole thing would sound entirely different.»
Soon after the performance, Whitmarsh wrote on his blog that
he moved his Cogito folder to «finished projects.» Although the co-
llaboration has not ended, he says:
It’s important to have this moment where we can pat ourselves
on our backs, and realize that we did it! In the end, it was quite
a smooth operation, especially given the mix of people, places,
thoughts, technology and art (Whitmarsh 2018).
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
artnodes
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal»:
7
A UOC scientific e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
After Cogito
Starting from the premise that this is not the aim of art, I would
like to pose here the question about the effects that collaborating
with artists brings to the practice of scientists. A full examination of
those effects is beyond the scope of this article, but here I follow the
reflections of the collaborators.
A first step in getting a sense on the matter is the characterization
of their work environments and concerns about credibility. Along these
lines, I asked how they talked about Cogito with their colleagues.
For Oostenveld:
Initially, I wasn’t sure how to present this to my colleagues because
it was so unusual. Weird in a way. But I started mentioning it and
getting really positive responses. People got interested in different
aspects, technical but also artistic. Over the years I have learned
to be more open about it, not expecting my colleagues to have a
negative attitude towards art, because it is very uncommon for
neuroscientists in my setting to discuss their hobbies or what they
do outside their regular work.
Dumas categorizes the responses he usually gets from his collea-
gues when he discusses his collaborations with artists in four groups:
Some just they say «Oh, that’s cool.» It resonates with movies like
Contact and Arrival and pop culture. There are other people who think
it is a way of exploring new ideas without the constraint of academia,
but those people are a minority. There are some people who just
say «it is crazy,» and don’t understand the point. And there are also
people interested in the message we want to convey.
However, considering the breath of the project, there remains a
question about which aspect scientists communicate to their collea-
gues. According to Whitmarsh:
With Cogito there is so much going on. When I talk about it, I talk
about the radio telescope, that we are able to transform the brain
activity into radio waves. They ask «why?» and «where are you
targeting?» People always presume that it is for someone else,
that it is for extraterrestrials to measure and to decode. That is a
really strange conversation. Putting it in terms of poetry when it is
more about transmitting our minds and it is more about us traveling
through, this how Daniela writes about it. I never got it. Linguistically,
I get it. But I really cannot wrap my head around it. The idea of our
mind expanding into the universe is beautiful poetry, but I can’t
communicate that. I cannot communicate the poetry.
For radio astronomer Smits, the project is always about outreach
and, in fact, it is «a nice way to distinguish whether an astronomer
has a mindset of outreach or not.» And the radio operator said that
he usually does not talk about his hobbies with his colleagues.
When I asked the neuroscientists directly if participating in this
project had any impact on their research practices, there was a
convergence among them that this was a good way to explore new
ideas and interdisciplinary connections. Dumas sees his engagement
with art as part of a broader philosophical reflection about his work,
and as a way to have a more critical approach to his object of study.
Whitmarsh mentioned that he will write a grant proposal with scien-
tists working on making music with EEG. He now uses his synthesizer
and music to teach neuroscience. «So, things are starting to become
potentially more intermixed.» Oostenveld is currently using VR and
biofeedback in a project about training police officers to deal with
stressful situations. In his words:
These are things that I had been working on with Daniela. That is
when you realize that you are using part of the skills and techniques
that we developed in Cogito in a scientific setting rather than the
other way around. That increased the appreciation of my colleague
researchers for this project.
They all mentioned rediscovering a sense of respect for other
fields of knowledge. In Oostenveld’s words:
I am now much more awed by radio astronomers and by the artists,
and how they do they work. Other people are doing their work just
as seriously. The seriousness with which all parties approached
the project makes me humbler: realizing that neuroscience is not
everything and there are lots of disciplines that are as serious and
perhaps more serious and more important.
Conclusion
The intangibility of space exploration that Cogito evokes entailed
technical and scientific expertise for its materialisation; the willing-
ness of all sides to tinker with the poetics and the procedures; and
the resourceful ability to bring together worlds, fields of knowledge,
infrastructures, and instruments. The project, an experiment in itself,
was based on hundreds of «micro experiments» performed throug-
hout the process. Every step had moments of openness and closure
regarding jurisdictions of expertise, and moments of plasticity and
recalcitrance of the techniques and instruments.
Working with artists gives scientists an institutionally accepted
licence to cross certain speculative thresholds. This project summo-
ned all the involved to what they could not confirm nor discard: virtual
human space travel, the vastness of the universe as an experience,
and the existence of some interpreters of unarticulated human sig-
nals «out there.» While exploring these territories unconstrained (in
principle) by the standards of their disciplines, the scientists also
retained their grounds as experts to participate with the precision
and rigor of their knowledge and instruments.
In each step of the process, those instruments were imbued
with human decisions which entailed relying on their capabilities
as scientific tools, but also stretching them as vehicles of artistic
expression. In consequence, and borrowing Rheinberger’s words
again, this is what experimentation ultimately is about: «the digres-
sions and transgressions of smaller research units below the level
of disciplines, in which knowledge has not yet become labelled and
classified, and in which new forms of knowledge can take shape at
any time» (2011, 315).
As we walked into the radio telescope’s control room for the
performance, the machine indeed came to life. It was both instrument
and place, brain lab and stage, a kind of spaceship and a protective
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
artnodes
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal»:
8
A UOC scientific e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
Earth cradle. And, perhaps more importantly, the machine came to life
in the unspoken agreement between the creators and the participants
to not settle for a single interpretation of the event. I see this article as
part of the social life of the work of art. And just like in art, in the natural
and social sciences – as eloquently put by Whitmarsh – «somebody’s
noises are another person’s signal.»
References
Aloi, Giovanni. 2019. «Editorial.» Antennae. The Journal of Nature in
Visual Culture, Issue 47 (Spring): 10–11.
De Paulis, Daniela. 2014. Cogito in Space 2014. Film. Accessed
December 8, 2019 https://vimeo.com/133392862.
De Paulis, Daniela. 2017. «Cartesian Dualism in Contemporary Cosmo-
logy: a thought experiment in virtual reality.» Presentation inSonic
2017 Symposium. December 8, 2017. Accessed December 8,
2019. https://zkm.de/en/person/daniela-de-paulis.
De Paulis, Daniela. 2016. «Opticksand Visual Moonbounce in Live
Performance.» Leonardo 49 (5): 438–439.
De Paulis, Daniela. 2018a. Cogito in Space. Film by Mirjam Somers.
Accessed December 8, 2019. https://vimeo.com/294114110.
De Paulis, Daniela. 2018b. Interview with Pamela Gay Cogito in
Space. Accessed December 8, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=0bpeBuSmU_U&t=2508s.
De Paulis, Daniela. 2019. «Cogito in Space.» Antennae. The Journal
of Nature in Visual Culture, Issue 47 (Spring): 197–209.
King, Juliet. 2018. «Summary of Twenty-First Century Great Conver-
sations in Art, Neuroscience and Related Therapeutics.» Frontiers
in Psychology 9 (1428): 1-7.
Salter, Chris, RegulaValérieBurri, andJoseph Dumit. 2017. «Art,
Design, and Performance.» In The Handbook of Science and Tech-
nology Studies, edited by Ulrike Felt, Rayvon Fouché, Clark A. Miller
and Laurel Smith-Doerr, 139-167. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 1997. Toward a History of Epistemic Things.
Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford: Stanford Univesity
Press.
Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 2011. «Consistency from the perspective
of an experimental systems approach to the sciences and their
epistemic objects.» Manuscrito 34 (1): 307–321.
Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg in conversation with Michael Schwab. 2013.
«Forming and Being Informed» In: Experimental Systems. Future
Knowledge in Artistic Research, edited by Michael Schwab, 198-
219. Leuven: Leuven University Press.
Supper, Alexandra. 2013. «Sublime frequencies: The construction
of sublime listening experiences in the sonification of scientific
data.» Social Studies of Science 44 (1): 34-58.
Fitzgerald, Des and Felicity Callard. 2015. «Social Science and Neuros-
cience beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements.»
Theory, Culture & Society 32 (1): 3–32.
Star, Susan Leigh and James R. Griesemer. 1989. «Institutional Eco-
logy, `Translations› and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Profes-
sionals in Berkeley›s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.»
Social Studies of Science 19(3): 387-420.
Wilkes, James and Sophie K. Scott. 2016. «Poetry and Neuroscien-
ce: An Interdisciplinary Conversation.» Configurations 24 (3):
331–350.
Van Allen, James. 2014. «Is Human Spaceflight Now Obsolete?»
Science 304 (5672): 822.
Vidal, Fernando and Francisco Ortega. 2017. Being Brains. Making the
Cerebral Subject. Oxfordshire: Fordham University Press.
Whitmarsh, Stephen. 2017. «With COGITO at ASTRON.» Blog post. April
7-9, 2017. Accessed December 8 2019. https://www.eegsynth.
org/?p=751.
Whitmarsh, Stephen. 2018. «COGITO in space: Public performance
of EEG radio-transmission at Dwingeloo Radiotelescoop.» Blog
post. November 11, 2018. Accessed December 8, 2019. http://
www.eegsynth.org/?p=1624.
Whitmarsh, Stephen. 2019. Patches for the Cogito Project. https://
github.com/eegsynth/eegsynth/tree/master/patches/cogito.
Woerden, H. Van and R. G. Strom. 2007. «Dwingeloo – the golden
radio telescope» Astronomische Nachricthen 328 (5): 376–387.
http://artnodes.uoc.edu
artnodes
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
«Somebody’s noises are another person’s signal»:
9
A UOC scientifi c e-journal
Paola Castaño
Artnodes, no. 25 (2020) I ISSN 1695-5951
FUOC, 2020
CC
CC
CV
Paola Castaño
castanop@cardiff.ac.uk
Cardiff University
Paola Castaño is a Newton International Fellow funded by the British
Academy at Cardiff University. Her fields of research are sociology of
science and knowledge, epistemology of the social sciences, art and
science, sociology of morality, public communication of astronomy
and space exploration. She is currently working on a book about the
meanings and valuations of scientific research on the International
Space Station. On the basis of ethnographic work following the life
course of experiments sent to the station, the book examines the fields
of particle physics, plantbiology andbiomedical research. In the field
of art and science, she has written about an interdisciplinary project
that aimed to represent the fluid materiality of the universe involving
an astrophysicist, a historian, and an artist. She has a PhD in sociology
from the University of Chicago and has been a postdoctoral researcher
at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, the Free
University of Berlin, and Waseda University in Tokyo.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Full-text available
Transdisciplinary collaboration is the future of knowledge making in advanced post-industrial societies and there is a growing awareness that the most vexing problems we face cannot be solved by any single discipline. Best practices for complex and challenging physical and mental disorders require a multi-disciplinary approach, yet there is a void in bridging the gap between the most contemporary models. It is in this capacity that the Twenty-First Century Great Conversations in Art, Neuroscience, and Related Therapeutics serves as a missing link. It was with active minds and a collective spirit that artists, scientists, therapists, physicians, engineers, technology experts, healthcare practitioners, and researchers from across the globe transcended historical silos to explore the capacities for collaborative partnerships to influence the health of patients and the amelioration of disease. Hosted at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), presenters shared insights through didactic sessions and panel discussions aligned with three tracks led by prominent experts in their respective fields: (1) Neuroaesthetics, Anjan Chatterjee, MD; (2) Creativity and Consciousness, Arne Dietrich, PhD; and (3) Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI), Klaus Gramann, PhD. The goals for this symposium were developed from a vision which embraces cross-disciplinary intersectionality, a merging of viewpoints, and active dialogue surrounding the development of a common language with which to advance the Creative Arts Therapies and neurosciences. The goal was also to contribute to the development of a simplified roadmap to enhance and enrich the CATs with a greater understanding of neuroscience and the available technologies that can assist in research.
Book
Full-text available
Being Brains offers a critical exploration of one of the most influential and pervasive contemporary beliefs: “We are our brains.” Starting in the “Decade of the Brain” of the 1990s, “neurocentrism” became widespread in most Western and many non-Western societies. Formidable advances, especially in neuroimaging, have bolstered this “neurocentrism” in the eyes of the public and political authorities, helping to justify increased funding for the brain sciences. The human sciences have also taken the “neural turn,” and subspecialties in fields such as anthropology, aesthetics, education, history, law, sociology, and theology have grown and professionalized at record speed. At the same time, the development of dubious but successful commercial enterprises such as “neuromarketing and “neurobics” have emerged to take advantage of the heightened sensitivity to all things neuro. Skeptics have only recently begun to react to the hype, invoking warnings of neuromythology, neurotrash, neuromania, and neuromadness. While this neurocentric view of human subjectivity is neither hegemonic nor monolithic, it embodies a powerful ideology that is at the heart of some of today’s most important philosophical, ethical, scientific, and political debates. Being Brains critically explores the internal logic of such ideology, its genealogy, and its main contemporary incarnations.
Article
Full-text available
Dialogues and collaborations between scientists and nonscientists are now widely understood as important elements of scientific research and public engagement with science. In recognition of this, the authors, a neuroscientist and a poet, use a dialogical approach to extend questions and ideas first shared during a lab-based poetry residency. They recorded a conversation and then expanded it into an essayistic form, allowing divergent disciplinary understandings and uses of experiment, noise, voice and emotion to be articulated, shared and questioned. © 2016 by Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts.
Article
Full-text available
In the past two decades, the sonification of scientific data - an auditory equivalent of data visualization in which data are turned into sounds - has become increasingly widespread, particularly as an artistic practice and as a means of popularizing science. Sonification is thus part of the recent trend, discussed in public understanding of science literature, towards increased emphasis on interactivity' and crossovers' between science and art as a response to the perceived crisis in the relationship between the sciences and their publics. However, sonification can also be understood as the latest iteration in a long tradition of theorizing the relations between nature, science and human experience. This article analyses the recent public fascination with sonification and argues that sonification grips public imaginations through the promise of sublime experiences. I show how the auditory sublime' is constructed through varying combinations of technological, musical and rhetorical strategies. Rather than maintain a singular conception of the auditory sublime, practitioners draw on many scientific and artistic repertoires. However, sound is often situated as an immersive and emotional medium in contrast to the supposedly more detached sense of vision. The public sonification discourse leaves intact this dichotomy, reinforcing the idea that sound has no place in specialist science.
Article
Full-text available
It is generally accepted that the development of the modern sciences is rooted in experiment. Yet for a long time, experimentation did not occupy a prominent role, neither in philosophy nor in history of science. With the 'practical turn' in studying the sciences and their history, this has begun to change. This paper is concerned with systems and cultures of experimentation and the consistencies that are generated within such systems and cultures. The first part of the paper exposes the forms of historical and structural coherence that characterize the experimental exploration of epistemic objects. In the second part, a particular experimental culture in the life sciences is briefly described as an example. A survey will be given of what it means and what it takes to analyze biological functions in the test tube.
Conference Paper
Article
OPTICKS is an art project realized by interdisciplinary artist Daniela de Paulis, in collaboration with the CAMRAS radio amateur association based at the Dwingeloo radio telescope in The Netherlands. The project is presented as a live audio-visual performance during which digital images are transmitted as radio signals to the Moon from a radio station in Brazil, the U.K., Switzerland, Poland or Italy. The signals reflected by the Moon’s surface are received by the Dwingeloo radio telescope, converted back into the original images and projected live at an exhibition venue. The project uses Visual Moonbounce, an application of the Moonbounce technology, developed by the artist in collaboration with the CAMRAS team during her residency at the Dwingeloo radio telescope.
Article
The Dwingeloo 25-m telesope, inaugurated in 1956, has played a major role in research for half a century. We trace its history back to its conception in 1944, and summarize its main achievements. (© 2007 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim)
Article
In this powerful work of conceptual and analytical originality, the author argues for the primacy of the material arrangements of the laboratory in the dynamics of modern molecular biology. In a post-Kuhnian move away from the hegemony of theory, he develops a new epistemology of experimentation in which research is treated as a process for producing epistemic things. A central concern of the book is the basic question of how novelty is generated in the empirical sciences. In addressing this question, the author brings French poststructuralist thinking—notably Jacques Derrida’s concepts of “différance” and “historiality”—to bear on the construction of epistemic things. Historiographical perspective shifts from the actors’ minds to their objects of manipulation. These epistemological and historical issues are illuminated in a detailed case study of a particular laboratory, that of the oncologist and biochemist Paul C. Zamecnik and his colleagues, located in a specific setting—the Collis P. Huntington Memorial Hospital of Harvard University at the Massachusetts General Hospital of Boston. The author traces how, between 1945 and 1965, this group developed an experimental system for synthesizing proteins in the test tube that put Zamecnik’s research team at the forefront of those who led biochemistry into the era of molecular biology.