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HeartBeats

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Many academics experience severe levels of stress and anxiety, but we do not address these issues in scholarly contexts. Instead, we cast stress as a personal matter, even though it is a shared experience in our profession. I would like to propose an installation for this year’s ELO Media Arts Festival that asks interactors to be mindful of the gap we have created between our academic lives and our mind-bodies. My installation, “HeartBeats,” prompts interactors to experiment with breathing techniques derived from Buddhist mindfulness mediation with a pulse sensor attached to their wrist. The sensor is connected to an Arduino Uno R3 board, which processes the analogue pulse signal to light up 60 NeoPixel LEDs based on the interactor’s heart rate. Depending on the frequency of the pulse, the LED lights blink in different colors. A color key allows interactors to interpret their heart rate. The installation displays instructions for breathing techniques alongside quotations taken from traditional Buddhist texts such as the Mediation Sutra. Buddhist quotes are shown both in Sanskrit and English to underscore that when we use coping strategies like mindfulness meditation in Western contexts, we are in fact appropriating ancient Buddhist practices. The instruction-section of the text is meant to effectively and succinctly communicate how to use mindfulness mediation, thus standing in stark contrast with the Buddhist narrative quotations, which rely on highly descriptive language and are challenging to interpret for a modern audience. In juxtaposing these two textual forms, the installation encourages the interactor to consider that mediation originated in Eastern spiritual practice; while it can indeed offer short-term relief, using mindfulness a quick remedy for anxiety and depression in fast capitalist society contradicts mediation’s role and purpose in its original Buddhist contexts. For the interactor, following the HeartBeats breathing instructions carefully will lead to a pleasant sensation of relaxation and a slowing of the pulse, which in turn prompts a change of colors in the LED lights. A high resting heart rate is often related to stress and anxiety. HeartBeats prompts interactors to slow down their breathing, which in turn slows down the pulse and lowers levels of stress and anxiety. By visualizing these relations, HeartBeats draws attention to the inseparability of mind and body. HeartBeats complicates not only the binary of the physical and the mental realm, but also the relation between human mind/body and machine by using LED lights to show the flow between thought, emotion, heartbeat, breath, physical sensation, and technology. In engaging HeartBeats, the interactor experiences a unity of mind, body, and machine through a two-fold interface: for one, the pulse sensor registers biofeedback data through skin contact and thus functions as a tactile-kinesthetic interface connecting human and machine. Secondly, the LED colors are altered based on conscious breathing, so that mind/body itself functions as a ‘controller’ interface. HeartBeats is an exploration and an intervention. Interactors are free to play with HeartBeats by inducing different heart rates, but they may also continue to practice the breathing techniques shown in HeartBeats to gradually improve their stress levels and negative emotions.

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Jane Lausten