Unit 2: Future of the Mind- Thinking about the Future research/my work

Here are some musings I had around the future. It is intriguing to me how futures have this dualism, being at one point something within and outside of our control. The knowledge that there are infinite possible futures can be both empowering and bewildering. But then the notion that our futures are already decided, or not within our power to change, is similarly fraught.

Anxiety is commonly to do with concerns and worries surrounding future events (whether immediate or distant), because of imagined negative predictions. The uncertainty of what will occur in future events means that we all predict to some extent what to expect in order for us to effectively plan for that event, whether our brain is reliably doing so or not is a matter for mental health professionals. But it is intriguing for me this planning and prediction, and fear of the unknown.

I thought it could be interesting to explore this prediction/imagining of the future through some questions posed to my peers, to see how differently they might all be doing so. I chose to create a questionnaire with suitable ambiguous and open-ended questions in order to do so. I also wanted to ensure I was accessing their personal future, rather than a prediction about humanity, which could rely less on their own personal prediction than something they have read elsewhere. So I chose to play with the dual meaning of ‘where are you going’ as in a physical or spiritual location. A destination that can be self-determined by the respondent. Below is an example of a response to my questionnaire.

Recent trends which have addressed this anxiety (which we are told is on the rise) include mindfulness, as well as the popular pursuit of yoga and pilates. These all bring us back to Zen buddhism practices, which I was reflecting on previously.

observation and being seen (how not to be seen video)

I think it could be interesting to create a set of instructions for navigating the unknown. Not only in terms of the map making that I have explored so far with the grid, but also in the other ways we make sense of the world, and how we might go about getting to know the unknown, e.g. stories, histories, signs, rules, rituals etc.

This would of course follow on from the instructional works I saw from Yoko Ono, which I have since discovered was also used by other artists such as Brecht, and more recently there was a collaborative work with various instructions by artists called Do It.

I also saw this fascinating and amusing work by Hito Steyerl called How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File at the Tate Liverpool gallery. It provides a series of instructions for how to avoid being seen, and takes it’s name from the Monty Python sketch.

I find the voiceover particularly fascinating – it reminds me of the robotic voices of assistive AIs such as Siri, but also sounds like it has been distorted or slowed down, slurring. This reinforces the ridiculous nature of the film, which I enjoy.

In a similar vein, I have drafted a set of instructions for navigating unknown spacetimes. The intention is that a person should act out the instructions whenever they find themselves in a place that is unknown that they would like to become familiar with, to help them navigate this anxiety. I have sought to make this similar to the mindfulness meditation exercises commonly shared. For instance, a suggestion on this website is to meditate while washing up:

Savor the feeling of the warm water on your hands, the look of the bubbles, the sounds of the pans clunking on the bottom of the sink.

verywellmind.com

Apparently this form of meditation is proposed by Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh! I love how this everyday experience has been transformed into something transcendental and spiritual from mere instructions on what to focus your attention on. Something so simple but seemingly world-bending, while doing a mundane chore.

Below is a download link to a draft of my instruction leaflet.

I intended to try and cover the different ways humans go about getting to know or make sense of places (indicated by the different chapter titles), and imitating them so that I could create a set of actions that could capture this in miniature, to readily turn an unknown place into one you are well-acquainted, or in fact intimately knowledgeable of. I think this achieves this (though I or some willing participants will need to test it out!). I have also managed to work in my learning about grid cells and how the brain ‘maps’ the world, by including instructions for moving using a hexagonal pattern. What I feel I have lost though from the examples I have looked to, is this sense of humour and nonsense… though some of the actions do seem odd, I don’t think they go as far as to be funny. I like though that the framing of it as for ‘conscious agents’ and ‘spacetimes’ implies for me that it could almost be a future person, or alien person discovering a wholly new place and time, though it remains open to interpretation.

Unit 2: Future of the Mind – Grid Cells Interaction

I was keen to explore how the grid cell pattern, once ‘unveiled’ within the world, might disrupt people’s movement. I was also eager to understand the nature of future as unknown, and something we can only imperfectly plan for.

In order to capture this, I decided to ‘disrupt’ space that is usually transitory in nature, and might see a more predictable mode of transport across it. I laid out a grid of post-it notes on the floor of a corridor in the Art school, choosing intentionally one that is a little unusual, for having uneven floor, a partitioning rail, and small staircase, as well as obstacles such as a fire extinguisher.

Participants were first asked to plan their route across the grid on an exercise sheet I provided. I intentionally did not provide a scale or inform them of the side of the grid they would enter first, or reveal the location of the grid within real space. Once they had drawn this, I brought them to the end of the corridor where they would approach the space and let them do so unassisted.

Example of instructions and planned grid interaction
Video of participants engaging with the grid space

Following their interaction, I asked them to record the route they had taken in interacting with the grid.

Here we can see the participant varied their route quite a bit on interacting with the space itself.

It was interesting to see the participants engaging with the grid space, several of them adopted a less-natural gait in order to more precisely recite the route they had planned, and we saw their arms being used for balance and to help navigate obstacles. It could be interesting to reenact these movements once decontextualised by the grid/this particular space. Several participants walked on tiptoe in order to avoid stepping on the post-it notes.

An unexpected observation was the change in participants’ mental states throughout the exercise. There was a certain nervousness and confusion when first being instructed on the task, and uncertainty in the chosen route. Some expressed some frustration on discovering the grid was unlike the space as they had imagined. There was a general sense of focus and concentration during the task, followed by a sense of achievement and enjoyment on completion of it. If I were to repeat this I think I would seek to find a way to record this change in mental state more fully, as this anxious anticipation could be a natural state of future thinking.

It would be interesting to do a similar exercise using a much larger space, and/or to repeat the exercise with participants who have more expertise in gesture and movement, e.g. dancers. I enjoyed when there were two participants engaging at once, and having multiple agents seeking to complete their routes at the same time could be interesting in itself.

Unit 2 – Future of the Mind – Grid cell context/research

My research into AI and artificial minds took me into the latest developments of DeepMind, the research arm of Google. I was intrigued to learn in this article that the increasing sophistication of AI is in turn advancing our understanding of the human brain – specifically here in relation to how we navigate space. It particularly fascinated me this notion of there being cells specialised to certain sensations (a bit like the individual conscious agents that Hoffman mentioned in the interview I posted – the specialised cells all contributing to one seamless conscious experience of space) – one type acting as a ‘you are here’, one for the direction of your head, and another forming a grid for relative position/spacing.

This regular pattern of grid cells was especially intriguing for me – here it referenced a hexagon, though it could also be considered a tesselated pattern of triangles. It has previously been proven in rat brains, and only in the past few years have we seen early proofs it could too be present in humans.

I love this notion of a secret/hidden mental map that is created to help us navigate the world, that is underlying our visual interpretation of the world. I wondered too if there could be a future in which we could ‘hack’ this secret mental mapping system, to make familiar spaces that we are new to, or allow you to immediately understand the best route through a maze, for instance. Use of this regularised grid could help you to better predict or adjust to new situations, which of course the Future is the ultimate one.

This strikes me as similar to the dots used in motion capture technology – to help digital imaging ‘navigate’ an actor’s body/face in order to best map it to a 3D computer generated image.

That this should be in a hexagonal grid was also very intriguing for me. Instinctively, I imagine organic forms and shapes to be irregular, curved, amorphous, but hexagons are geometric, regular, straight edged. That said it is a form we do see in nature, for instance in honeycomb structure, or the basalt columns visible in places such as a the Giants Causeway. It is described as being the most ‘efficient’ shape, and hence why the cooling rock forms in this way. It is also described as the strongest shape – hence it’s use in the structure of the strongest known material, graphene.

Giants Causeway basalt columns

It was thus especially eery to come across this display in the Whitworth, just a day after reading of grid cells.

I was interested too to see what these grid cells might look like in reality. Unfortunately it does not seem there are specific electron microscope images of these in existence, so I instead looked to images of generic neurons.

These images, magnifying the molecular to amazing detail, show an intriguing textural quality, and complex intricacy of connection
I experimented recreating this texture using gummed tape and tissue paper, along with ink and paint. I could not quite achieve the level of intricacy I might have liked but it was an intriguing effect. I particularly liked using the gummed tape to make the 2D surface more structural
With another, less magnified image (the original here on the right), I found hexagonal areas within it and cut or drew over to indicate these, before overlaying it with a regularised pattern on tracing paper. I particularly like the effect this produced, the juxtaposition of the geometric and irregular, organic and structured.

Unit 2 – Futures – Context & WIP Group Critique

I have found it difficult so far to fully grasp the context of this brief – Future being so broad and conceptual, and Mind equally so! For both concepts, they can reasonably be argued not to exist by certain schools of Philosophy (e.g. presentism states that only present time exists and the future does not in the same real sense).

It was interesting sitting as a group and piecing apart all the various elements of Future that we could use as starting points. For many of us possible futures represent a point of anxiety of where the world might lead (in dystopian imaginings) whether through further increasing technological advancements, or from apocalyptic consequences of existential threats such as climate change. What the life of a human might be like in the future is also hard to imagine, and the very basic norms we take for granted such as speech for communicating is by no means certain. It seems impossible for us to predict with much certainty what we might expect.

It was interesting too to think about different artistic visualisations of the future, notably within fantasy and scifi fiction, but too in works that imagine a utopian future that might solve a particular problem we face in our current day (e.g. feminist utopia of Tai Shani). Also intriguing the imagining of future societies looking back at our own, or at things that will be extinct or defunct (e.g. Ginsberg and Elizabeth Price).

It is interesting to look back at this initial group discussion, having just now completed a group critique of our work in progress. We took it in turns to present our work to the group, explaining our approach to the brief, the context of our work, and our ideas for a final outcome, whilst providing visuals to support and evidence this from our sketchbooks etc. Then each person in the group would feedback to the presenter. Some had specific questions to answer (which alternated between presentations) such as ‘If this was your project what might you do differently’, or ‘What are the strengths’. I found this exercise really stimulating and enjoyed engaging with others’ projects in a deeper way than had been possible in previous critiques. I also enjoyed exploring my own project in this way, and found the comments of the others to be insightful and stimulating. It has encouraged me to focus my attentions somewhat, having explored many different avenues so far!

Group critique feedback on my work and areas to explore or focus on further
Feedback post-its for another participant in the group critique (my comments on the yellow post-it note on the right hand page titled ‘gen. feedback’)
Me in the process of presenting to the group (laptop on hand to play my future self portrait video)