By Anusha Narayanan
A visual artist and designer who has transcended into art for social good and tech-based installations, from illustrations for children’s books, Shilo Shiv Suleman is an experimental feminist and an independent voice, representing not only herself, but other innovators and women around the globe. In an afternoon at Leopold, Anusha Narayanan got the chance to catch up with her and talk about biofeed installations.
Art is an external expression of internal discoveries: thoughts, dreams, advocacies and emotions of artists. Art in the ‘truly public’ domain is a rarity in India, but with the street art movement catalysed by the St+ART India, and independent artists such as Shilo Shiv Suleman, Anpu, Harshavardhan Kadam and more, art seems to be getting democratised. Yet as the quality of public artistic interventions at open festivals such as the Kala Ghoda Festival consistently and drastically drops, there is no room for quiet contemplation. In this quicksand, last year, I found Shilo’s work on bio-feed installations, an oasis in a desert.
After about a year or more of pursuing, Shilo Shiv Suleman in order to have a sit-down on her experiments with biofeed installations, we finally met at Leopold in November 2015. Biofeed installations, are built to represent readings or observations of the body: the activities happening inside the human body, as a response to sensory or external influences. Say, if you listen to a particular music you like, or indulge in a company or a conversation that stimulates you, or if you are in a state of meditation, what happens to your heartbeat, your breath and the body? Biofeed is a way to track, and experience this.
Essentially, biofeed sensors record your body’s responses, while you are immersed in an activity. The installations are triggered by your responses allowing you to experience your own inner self, externally; and appreciate your body and your mind. That sums up what I have understood of biofeed and Shilo’s work in this field.
Here is a conversation with the artist on Biofeed on her explorations of the “quantified” self and one of her installations: Pulse & Bloom.
On Biofeed Installations
AN: Tell me about Biofeed installations. How did it start and what is the purpose?
Shilo: My work with technology in general began in 2012. I got really interested in new media narratives particularly on the iPad. I have been illustrating children’s book since I was about 16. Suddenly there was a boom around the iPad; I hated technology and I decided to jump in and start work with new media in interesting ways. So I developed Khoya which is a series on the iPad.
Through that experiment, I realised that I really enjoyed bringing together all sorts of different mediums together, right from animation to illustration and storytelling using technology. That was the beginning of my work with technology.
A couple of years ago I was in Brazil where I met this neuroscientist, Rohan Dixit who was studying brain waves among the meditating monks in the Himalayas, and observing the brain in a state of meditation. We got talking about things that could bring art and biofeed technology together. At the same time, there was also this trend particularly across America, around this whole idea of the “quantified self”; [people constantly monitor] how many steps am I running today and how many hours am I sleeping; and that irritated both me and Rohan. We started using technology around the quantified self, to break down the idea of self completely.
It started off with an app called Sunlight where we were working with brainwave readers i.e. neurosky brainwave readers wherein essentially as you meditate the plant [displayed] on the screen would grow. Just a tiny experiment we launched, but it started to get bigger. We wanted to do more experiential things where you can actually see the invisible workings of your body and bring yourself to awareness through visualization. Therefore, Pulse & Bloom and Beloved/Brindavan came about. There was another app idea that we were working on simultaneously. For Pulse & Bloom we sent an application to the Burning Man Honorarium and got a Grant to build it. They choose about 20 artists every year.
Essentially we were working with the Brain, Heart and Breath. For me, these are the three most interesting ways that our body works and at different levels of consciousness. Of course, there are a lot of things happening inside the brain without our knowledge. There are some things that we can control, like our breath, and then there is the heart, which you do not control have any control over, on some level.
AN: Is there anything interesting that you have detected through all of this work?
Shilo: Yes. For example, for Pulse & Bloom we were doing a lot of research about bio-synchronicity. How, when people spend enough time with each other, their heart rates start to sync in time with each other. This is something we do not really get the opportunity to see at all otherwise.
With Pulse & Bloom, if one person puts a hand on the Lotus (referring to the lotuses of the installation), it starts to glow sensing one heart, but if two people put their hands on the same lotus you can see both heartbeats in action, and that allows you to take a moment and be brought into awareness of your heartbeat and also how it is syncing.
Same with Breath; there is a lot of interesting research about how, say, when a teacher teaches a class, all of the students in the classroom start to breathe in sync with the teacher. So lovely, if you think about it!
AN: Really? Intriguing.
Shilo: There is also a very interesting research going on in Stanford right now of about how body rhythms sync up. For me, I am REALLY interested [in such studies]. Just like how fireflies flashing in a forest flash in patterns; similarly, a lots of things happen within the human body in rhythms and patterns that we do not necessarily know. Just that we not aware of it, and that drives me to make art.
About Pulse & Bloom
AN: Tell us about Pulse & Bloom. How did you put it together mechanically?
Shilo: So that is when Heather comes in. In the beginning, there was just me and Rohan working on this idea. I am an artist and Rohan is an neuroscientist but we had to build 20 giant Lotuses (laughs) in two months. When I work here in India, I do a lot of stages and installations but I work with production teams of big strong men and Bamboo scaffoldings. Suddenly I found myself in America with a hammer (laughs).
Heather and her partner, Luke, run a company called Boxouse where they convert shipping containers into tiny homes. They had warehouse space in this place called American Steel and they both are builders essentially. Luke was a INK Fellow a couple of years ago and that is how we met, at this conference. When I was in America, he introduced me to Heather and before we knew it, we had a full crew on Pulse & Bloom with big shipping containers and giant warehouses. Heather did all the welding and building and production of Pulse & Bloom.
AN to Heather: Could you tell me about the experience of working on Pulse & Bloom?
Heather: I met Shilo and then we started talking about how to make a physical object around her concept. But the thing about building things for Burning Man is that you have a really harsh environment at the festival, and the structural requirements are insane.
We had to build something which can withstand 90 miles/hr winds and have a 1500-pound lift capability. So, a lot of us were just figuring out how to anchor these things to the ground. We used big industrial pipes and a friend of ours has an industrial workspace that is further up in northern Oakland. We took these pipes there. Using a CNC pipe bender, we made three giant arcs that one can adjust the radius of, so it would not be necessary to bend all the pipes. I had never worked with any of that kind of industrial material, or in that scale. It was a matter of figuring out like how to bend all the metal and make all the petals. It was really hard because Shilo had all the petals in Boston…
[Shilo: ………..the entire installation was made across the world …..]
Heather: …Teams in India were making cushions and they were in Boston making petals and in San Francisco, welding.
[Shilo:… We were thinking how can we create something like this, from all these different places entirely but it is came together eventually…..]
Heather: But, the first time we put things together, it was on fire (not literally). We had not tested anything, we just loaded, got there and unpacked the containers. Suddenly there was flash hailstorm and everything started blowing away and our friends were facedown…
[Shilo: Felt like the Wizard of Oz moment. (laughs)]
Heather: …on the ground, trying to hold everything in place. It was a pretty stressful week of things not working and figuring out how to hack them with the tools we had.
[Shilo: Especially putting sensitive electronics in the middle of the desert.]
Heather: The person who built our electronics, is a software developer. He runs a startup that aggregates news, so he is really good at complex algorithms. But when writing code for hardwares, the goal is to make it as simple as possible. Instead, we had all this crazy code running through our arduinos, and everything was overheating and failing. We did not know how to fix it and he was off on a hike with no phone reception. We were sitting in the shipping containers with just acres of wiring and soldering things, but it eventually all came together. Now we have rebuilt it three times.
Shilo: We have taken it across India to a bunch of festivals. We had a great run for all Supersonics, the Weekenders and couple of other art festivals. Then we took it to the Southbank Centre in London. It also went to LA, so it has been doing tours. We are booked for Singapore next year and a couple of other places.
AN to Heather: When everything comes together, and you see people interact with the objects, how does it impact you?
Heather: It is amazing. It is interesting because as it travels to different locations, people have different interactions with it. Putting it up at Burning Man first was a really amazing experience because people go to see the art and to interact with the art there. There is a big consciousness around the interactive art and tech scene. It was beautiful – people got married in front of it. People were holding hands, and were encouraged to interact more with each other thereby interacting with the pieces. They got deeper into conversations; random people would sit down on cushions and start talking, which is really lovely!
But then I took it to this giant rave when I was in LA and 16 years old on drugs started passing out on the flowers, and I thought “You are just breaking these things!”
Shilo: At the Southbank Centre in London, we had really cute English couples and kids with balloons going, “Mummy! Is that my heartbeat??” (laughs) So you get all sorts of reactions.
Heather: One thing that we have really struggled with is putting it up in corporate sites. Because when we first we put it out in a white desert, there is nothing but a sky and white ground and it is an amazing backdrop. The flowers really come out in ‘full bloom’ so to speak. Suddenly (in corporate environments) some festival ads and branding is all over the place and people have demands like, “Can this be at the left of the Bacardi (example) sign?”
It is always interesting travelling with it and seeing other people put it up and dictate that interaction. A lot of times they want to spread the lotuses out… one over here and one over there, but for us we always imagined Pulse & Bloom as a grove. It is important for it to be surrounded by other people who share that experience with each other.
View Shilo Shiv Suleman’s work at www.shiloshivsuleman.com
Anusha Narayanan, is a writer with an education in architecture and an interest in design, creativity and content. She is a founding partner at Fish Do It, a content creation and curation consultancy started in 2015. Previously, she worked with Kyoorius as an Associate Editor, where she continues to consult, and as a writer at Indian Architect & Builder magazine, apart from other freelance stints. (Twitter: @anushaiswrite)