• Gabriella Garcia

Roy week 3: "heArt" sense

My heart has always been a tender subject. In a conversation a few years back, my mentor delineated the difference between thinking with your "head" (logical), your "heart" (emotional) or your "gut" (instinctual). In my case, it's my heart which speaks loudest, informing—admittedly sometimes clouding—the other two and even impacting my physical body. So for this week's Listening to Embodied Cognition assignment it felt natural to listen to my heart, as I generally try to do.

heArt Practice

In formulating some project ideas during week one, I considered a listening practice I called "Flaneur with a Heart," for which I would practice flaneurie with a video camera and heart rate monitor to measure changes in heart rate in correlation with what I was observing whilst wandering. I spoke to Dan O about it, and we discussed the vast number of variables to be measured in such a practice—just walking uphill or how many layers I'd have to endure in February would create noise in measuring heart rate. Untangling the measurables would be arduous for a short-term project, so I tailored down the practice in hopes of creating a more controlled observation experience.

Instead of wandering the streets, I went to go see some art. Institutional art has a fairly common template in terms of environment: it's generally encountered one sheltered box at a time, among a specifically general group of others, with very little physical activity. It's the art that makes each space, and attracts those who fill it. I wanted to measure how different pieces of creative output could possibly affect my heart, and perhaps catch what inspires it to race.

Equipment and Process

One of the more important correlations to make was matching what I was viewing to my heart rate—my original plan was to use a go-pro, but I thought that the awareness of a camera (both mine and others) would make me stand out in a way that would inevitably end up distracting me so I decided to go with something a little less exposed: spy camera glasses.

 Camera stylishly hidden in the bridge of these glasses, recording my reflection
Camera stylishly hidden in the bridge of these glasses, recording my reflection

The idea was to capture my line of sight as closely as possible in a portable manner that kept my hands free and not calling attention. While the surveillance "question" feels inevitable, I was comfortable knowing that the footage was only for my empirical eyes and all filming would be in spaces (two galleries and a performance art venue, all which allowed cameras) where we expect to inevitably serve as extras in the memory-documents of strangers. The video quality ended up being unsharable as is, but the glasses served their purpose well. The timestamp on the camera is incorrect as I didn't know how to set it.

I chose a heart rate monitor that straps around the ribs, a much cheaper yet thankfully accurate version of the professional Garmin or Polar monitors. It also seemed to be universally recognizable/readable over bluetooth for both apps and "smart" gym equipment, which made it extremely easy to figure out how to track my data. After testing out a few heart tracking apps I found Heart Graph app, which tracks and reports readings on a very simple no-bones graph interface, with no particular agenda; the apps that float to the top all skew toward sports training, graphing heart rate only when it hits higher conditioning levels.

I was originally hoping to attend "an art" every day for a week, which was dashed when I encountered delivery problems with the heart rate monitor (chronic Lasership rageface). With three exhibitions and two performances spread across two museums and a performance venue, I found myself with plenty (and time-consuming) material to process in the end. These included: Nari Ward and Rhizome net art at New Museum, Lily Jue Sheng and Matt Romein's performances at Roulette Intermedium, and Half the Picture: A Feminist Look at the Collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

I measured my resting heart rate as a baseline the night before launching into three days of art:

Chart displaying my resting heart rate

I discovered that I have a fairly low resting heart rate, falling as low as 56 bpm. I spiked around the 6 minute mark because I got up to use the bathroom, and the ~30bpm change caused by what I thought to be an innocuous action surprised me. Nonetheless, it skewed my resting heart rate up to a mean of 65 bpm. Not bad. And not my first surprise.

The New Museum

I was working on about 4.5 hours of sleep squeezed out of my usual insomnia, with a fairly high caffeine intake as a result of my still needing to arrive at and perform for my 9am ballet class Wednesday mornings. I figured this would account for the mean 79.8 bpm during my 37 minutes at New Museum. Something I want to look into further:

Heart rate chart showing my bpm during 37 minutes at New Museum

This is where I discover my surprise... I went into this experiment theorizing that I could use heart rate as a measure for what artwork stimulates excitement physically by increasing my bpm. It turns out that viewing art work actually calms me down, with the highest spikes in heart rate occurring each time I opened the staircase door to descend to the next level. Just the act of opening the door was enough to affect the rate, before even "exerting" myself by using the stairs. I theorize that it's either my body preparing for the potential unknown on the other side of the door, or the stark change in lighting between soft showcase gallery lighting and fluorescent industrial lighting. The two drastic dips around minute six and minute 20 are when I stop in the staircase to perform breathing exercises to bring my heart rate down after feeling the staircase door spike.

My heart rate maintains between 72 and 82 bpm while walking through Nari Ward's three-floor exhibition, especially low when viewing pieces that felt emotionally striking at the time. There are two spikes that occur while viewing art: one correlates with Nari Ward's "Tanning Bed" which includes a particularly annoying sample of someone whistling the National Anthem (I have a hard time with whistling, and the National Anthem), and a second around minute 18 when observing a piece that reeked of fish.

Minute 22 of Nari Ward, 74bpm while experiencing art

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my lowest heart rates while observing artwork occur in Rhizome's Net Art’s Archival Poetics exhibit in the New Museum lobby. Once again exemplifying that the artwork that most engages my emotions actually calms me (or at least my heart) down, I dip to a near-resting count (68 bpm around minute 29) while interacting with StarryNight, an interactive visualization of Rhizome's website created by Alex Galloway and Martin Wattenberg in 1999. It remains low while I listen to Alexei Shulgin's 386DX perform a busk, only increasing when I turn around and realize there's been a security guard behind me.

Alexei Shulgin's  386DX performing a busk, 72 bpm
Alexei Shulgin's 386DX performing a busk, 72 bpm

A clear indication, I think, of feeling quite at home here.

Mixology Festival at Roulette Intermedium

I found myself well-rested and in an incredibly good mood after 8.5 hours of sleep, experiencing what I consider a healthy rhythm throughout my day (a cup of coffee, eating well at regular intervals, feeling light and relaxed through my classes and work). Still, I thought that performance art would excite my embodied cognition: it's my background and thus the type of creativity with which I engage most deeply. Add the fact that my teacher, Matt Romein, was one of those performers, and surely my heart would swell. Once again, I found myself most calm in the presence of these works.

Here is my heart rate reading for Lily Jue Sheng's Five Movements:

Full of color, immersive projection, and sudden additional live soundtracking performed on zheng and drums, I was certain my heart would leap. But I hold a steadily low heart rate (mean at 72 bpm) with two distinct jumps ~minute 20 (the screen fills with fire, the instrumentalist beats her drums loudly, authoritatively), and again just before the end of the performance, when a full moon rises and is seemingly pursued by a chomping abstract object, prompting my heart up to around 90 bpm. I consider full moon hysteria and wonder if there's something to be said. But I've always felt somewhat in love with the moon.

This chart represents Matt Romein's In Triplicate:

This is as steady as it gets, with my heart rate averaging out to 70 bpm. I knew that Matt as a performer would make me feel comfortable, even validated, but I suppose the proof is now in the pudding. There is one noticeable spike that occurs around minute 20, correlating with when Matt's performance starts to break down into the weirder territory... this is in fact super exciting to me because I feel like I've met a kindred spirit finally at ITP.

View from my spy cam glasses during minute 20 of Matt Romein's In Triplicate
View from my spy cam glasses during minute 20 of Matt Romein's In Triplicate

I am interested in the idea that my heart rests most when I am most emotionally invested in the artwork I'm experiencing.

The Brooklyn Museum

To be honest, I considered excluding the results from my visit to the Brooklyn Museum... I found myself once again in the aftermath of a terrible night's sleep, exhausted from insomnia peppered with a hangover from the post-show drinks with other ITP classmates who had gone to Matt's show the night before. Still I felt one more sample necessary for the heArt practice, and in that thought made a terrible decision by taking about 5mg of an emergency Adderall given to me by a friend to force myself up and out of the house to work. I don't take Adderall, so it's stimulant effect was... dramatic:

heart rate chart for Brooklyn Museum

With a mean heart rate at 92 bpm, I know that the Adderall completely distorted the results of my walk through the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Even when sitting down to perform breathing exercises I could only bring my heart rate down to around 80 bpm (~minute 6-7), and briefly at that. Mild activity held me in the 90-100 range, with forced stimulation obscuring my observation. Given however that this class is about observing the self in the sense of data, it felt honest to document this final practice.

By this time I had observed that engaging art calms me down, so I used this data to map out what pieces of art could actually reduce my heart rate despite the drug. There are three conspicuous moments when my heart rate dips below 85 bpm naturally while absorbing artwork, which I think is notable. These are Renee Cox's The Yo Mama, a fabric sculpture by Ghada Amer featuring her signature use of female figures in erotic poses, and a collection of posters by the Guerrilla Girls protesting terrible representation of women artists in galleries and art publications.

View from my spy glasses of Guerrilla Girls posters at Brooklyn Museum
View from my spy glasses of Guerilla Girls posters at Brooklyn Museum

It's interesting to note what I can use to mitigate even pharmaceutically-induced stress/anxiety, as observed in this last practice. More interesting however is that engaging in art performs as a near-meditative practice for me, which was totally unexpected as I thought that seeking inspiration or creative influence would excite me physically. I'm taking note of this, and now know that a walk to the museum is just what I need when I'm blind with stress.