Hi. My name is Joe Patitucci and I work at MIT Media Lab. My job is to identify ways of combining the use of new and emerging technologies to extend real-time human perception beyond what is commonly accepted to be within the empirical realm. I’m inspired to do this work because I believe that humans have sensory abilities beyond our current understanding and that through using technology to expand perception we may activate innate capacities previously abandoned in our particular trajectory of technological evolution. In doing so, we may even identify ways of training people to use these faculties towards goals related to our long-term survival and evolution as a species.
Evolving here at home on Earth, it may seem counter-intuitive to expect that we should survive beyond the life of our solar system. I feel this acquiescence to an eventual death sentence by red giant contributes to an indifference related to our long-term survival. I feel this indifference allows us to reside in a state of consciousness that accepts the possibility of human self-annihilation through war and environmental destruction as being less than tragic. These scenarios become, in the collective consciousness, one of the many bullets in the chamber in a never-ending species-wide game of Russian roulette – just one of the many ways humanity might eventually manifest its destiny of erasure from the Universe.
For this reason, I feel it is essential that we as a species commit to searching for means of surviving beyond the life of our solar system, galaxy and known universe – not only to facilitate the continued evolution of humans into trans and post-humans, but also to unite those of us on Earth in harmony around mutually assured survival.
My work at the Media Lab is inspired by my belief that in order for us to survive beyond our solar system, we’re going to need to tap into innate abilities that may not seem to have an immediate application here on Earth – abilities that may have been cultivated by artists, scientists, spiritual communities and technological societies of the past but faded due to their perceived irrelevance to our industrialized world. Since it’s not yet known what sensitivities will be required of us in our future homes in the cosmos, it becomes even more essential that we work to better understand and develop these latent faculties so that we might gain access to tools that provide us the capacity to experience and thrive in realms beyond our little valley of the sun.
The journey that led me to MIT was accelerated by my founding of Data Garden, a record label and media arts group in 2011. Originally established to serve as a home for my sound work, the project evolved into a digital hub dedicated to exposing people to electronic music through the windows of history, science and community.
Online curation of primitive media art and early interactive systems combined with a fascination for ideas related to the nature of creativity and expression lead me on a path of research and investigation into how I might explore my own vision of future - one that would eventually manifest itself through my tenacity for exploration and expression.
In 2012, after curating and producing the first of two highly successful outdoor arts festivals (The Switched-On Garden) at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, Data Garden was invited to develop a temporary sound installation for The Philadelphia Museum of Art. My good friend and Data Garden co-founder, Alex Tyson, had an interest in plant-generated work at the time and suggested that we work together to produce our own piece entitled Data Garden Quartet.
Working closely with engineer, Sam Cusumano, I was able to access a real-time stream of MIDI data generated by fluctuations in conductivity over the surface of a leaf for use in the generation of an immersive audio environment. This is when I got my first taste of the power of bio-generative art.
With Quartet exhibiting for three days in my city of residence, I felt it was essential to spend as much time as possible in the exhibition space in order to observe how people responded to the emerging soundscapes being generated by the plants. Each of the four plants was assigned its own instrument and its own speaker to allow guests to perceive in real-time which plants were having the greatest fluctuations in conductivity at any given moment. The sounds were designed to be harmonious, with the intent of encouraging guests to spend time with the piece – to slow their minds down and encourage listening deeply to subtle fluctuations in data.
While my role in designing the sounds for Quartet made me intimately aware of the relationship between the music and data, I was surprised to observe how some members of the audience, without any prompting, were able to pick up on these fluctuations as well. I remember an instance where Sam and I explained to some 6th graders how the system worked and one of the first reactions of a member of the group was to wave his hands in the direction of the plant as if he was emitting light from his hands. I remember lounging and reading Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth only to be interrupted four times by enormous spikes in activity in the music coming from across the room. Each time, upon raising my gaze, I could see that there was nobody touching the plant – nobody interfering with the integrity of the data by grounding it with their own body. These changes seemed to be happening independently, within the plants themselves, while the person nearest to the plant was a few feet away. That person attracted my immediate attention.
To my surprise, each time I sprang up and engaged an individual, explaining why I was moved to approach them, their first reaction was, invariably, something along the lines of: “That makes sense.” Not: “What?” or “Oh, really?” No, just: “That makes sense,” followed by their own explanation of why. “I’m a botanist.” “I’m a florist.” “I’m an energy healer.” “I’m a Reiki instructor.”
Among this group, there was a common thread. They all either worked closely with plants or with channeling energy, and they all felt it was perfectly natural that data from a plant being monitored for galvanic variation should be more greatly affected by their presence than most others. This was completely puzzling to me. It seemed to be anecdotal evidence pointing toward a hypothesis that there are unseen phenomena that some people are more tuned into than others and that these unseen phenomena can be monitored by using a plant as a probe in a room. Thinking back to how these folks waved their hands at the plants, it also seemed as if there emerged somewhat of a consensus as to the appropriate body language for connecting energetically with a plant.
While all of this inspired me, my feeling was that my role as an artist was not to answer questions related to these phenomena, but to create more opportunities for people to have these experiences. If this work was truly compelling, it would inspire qualified scientists and/or passionate hobbyists to take autonomous action. Meanwhile, I focused solely on the presentation and development of my artistic practice.
Central to my artistic practice are the themes of Exploration, Discovery and Connection.
Through exploration, guests / participants / audience members are encouraged to take an active role in experiencing a piece. This can be stimulated by means of special instructions on how to interact with a responsive system or by a certain spatial design that encourages a specific set or type of behaviors. Pillows can be made available to encourage people to lie down, for instance. A piece could have multiple components spread across a room (or series of rooms) with multiple points of entry to encourage movement and a non-linear experience.
While exploring a piece, audience members are guided to make discoveries for themselves without being explicitly led to any particular phenomena. The use of Easter eggs rewards those who spend more time and go deeper into a piece. These can be crafted as actual physical objects as well as sweet spots in an interactive system. These sweet spots have a fraction of a percentage of occurring in the amount of time an average museum visitor might spend with a piece – again rewarding those for whom the work resonates the most.
The context in which my work is presented is designed to encourage audience members to make a connection between their discoveries and something larger than themselves. This is usually framed with a question. For instance, “What is the creative force of the Universe?” or, “What latent innate qualities might exist among humans?”
Framing a piece with a question empowers an audience member to extend the application of their discovery to serve a greater understanding of their own relationship to larger concepts of identity, consciousness, environment and community. It also serves to compel people to spend more time with a piece, something that is central to my “Researchtainment” work at the Media Lab. We’ll get into that in a bit. First, let’s discuss impact.
The success of the Data Garden Quartet project was immediate. The physical copies of the 2-hour album that I had edited down from three days of recording sold out in less than a day. We were bombarded with research questions, press requests, thoughtful letters and more opportunities to exhibit this work. Sam and I were flown around the US to present more sonification works at museums and international festivals. Like-minded artists gravitated towards working with Data Garden to release their own bio-generated works.
While all of this was amazing, it was also clear that it was not sustainable. Our travels to produce installations and workshops on plant-sonification had inspired a new generation of artists and developers who, themselves, had their own research questions as well as their own audiences. It became clear that, rather than trying to perform every experiment ourselves, we needed to provide people access to our tools and foster a community around those tools through which support and inspiration could be shared.
In the spring of 2014, Data Garden launched a Kickstarter for the MIDI Sprout, a biodata sonification device that allows users to monitor the conductive variation of their houseplants as music through a synthesizer, computer or mobile device. The project was quickly funded, with over 450 backers and another 450 people on a waiting list to order one. The success of this campaign inspired even more press and opportunities to present, including reality TV requests that I passed on to biofeedback artist Mileece.
Quartet and MIDI Sprout succeeded in presenting technology pioneered by outsider biofeedback artists of the 1970s (and my friend in his basement) as relevant, emotive and expressive tools in the contemporary realm. Our blog, the digital artifact that I created to keep track of my own inspiration was even archived by Cornell University and chosen as one of 150 websites on the entire Internet deemed indispensable to the history of digital media art. These projects, which I was able to manage in my spare time outside of a 9-5 day job, were just the beginning.
Transitioning from working 40 hours a week to earn a living plus 20-30 hours a week on creative projects to working 50-60 hours a week on creative projects certainly proved to open up new opportunities. My skills related to presenting biosensing art combined with a deep understanding of marketing and communications together with access to some of the most talented researchers, artists and scientists in the world made me a valuable member of the MIT Media Lab.
My current work at the Media Lab is centered around the development of what I like to call “researchtainment.” Researchtainment makes use of biofeedback art and responsive entertainment systems as a platform for the generation and collection of data for the furthering of scientific research. At MIT, I’ve been able to extend my work beyond installation art into other media, including apps paired with biosensing wearable technology.
I work directly with engineers, researchers, inventors and other artists here to develop ways of presenting biosensing technology in highly engaging and compelling ways, informed by both my artistic practice as well as real-time user data. Using biosensing and responsive systems, we are able to optimize the rate at which an Easter egg or a sweet spot in an interactive system may appear to a user based on their own physiological response. This inspires users to feel compelled to use the technology more, providing our team with more useable data.
Without MIT Media Lab, I would not be able to do this work. Access to builders, inventors, researchers and other artists is an invaluable resource, not just for the utility of what everyone brings to the lab, but for the forward-thinking mind space it fosters. Here, I am able to occupy a more expansive visionary space for a larger percentage of my time than in any other occupational environment. Here, I exist as part of a leapfrog feedback loop of inspiration. Here, my job is to live from the perspective of the future. Occupying the future as I write this, here, I have already started. I am here, now.