[ISEA2020] Paper: David Howes — The Barbican Totem: Lighting up the brain, zoning in on synapses, redistributing sentience

Abstract (short paper)

Keywords: Sentience, Synapses, Sensory ethnography, Brain emulation

This short paper presents a sensory ethnography of audience response to a pulsating, highly dynamic light sculpture called “Totem” that formed part of the “AI: More than Human” show at the Barbican, which ran for four months during the Summer of 2019. Totem was created by Chris Salter and associates. The piece (which is dotted with sensors) could be said to hold a mirror up to our brains, so that we see the neural processes involved in our perceiving the environment while the artwork perceives us. Totem takes the idea of interactive art to a new level, and in so doing short-circuits the brain.

  • David Howes is a Professor of Anthropology at the Centre for Sensory Studies of Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Law at McGill University, Montreal. He has conducted field research on the cultural life of the senses in the Middle Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, Northwestern Argentina, and the Southwestern United States. He is currently directing a project on “Law and the Regulation of the Senses” and collaborating with new media artist Christopher Salter to produce a series of art installations that re-arrange the senses. His latest publications include Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (2014) co-authored with Constance Classen from Routledge, and the four-volume Senses and Sensation: Critical and Primary Sources compendium (2018), also now from Routledge. He is the Managing editor of the journal The Senses and Society. See further concordia.ca/faculty/david-howes.html