Where is the “I”? Off to Ars Electronica to explore some existential questions with VR

Where is the “I”?

A standard question for those with any interested in mindfulness and meditation. Where is this elusive “I” that we cherish so much?  Where does it actually live and reside in any stable way? Can you really find the “I” if you turn your mind’s eye inwards and try to find it?  Where is “my” I and where is yours?

These and many more mind-bending questions being raised and explored in this collaboration between The Mindfulness Centre of Excellence and artist Mark Farid (also sponsored by the arebyte Gallery, London and Ravensbourne College) at Ars Electronica Fesitval in Linz, Austria over Sept 2-9th 2019.

With a keen interest on mindfulness, creativity, and tech it was only natural that Dr. Tamara Russell from the Mindfulness Centre of Excellence linked up with Mark Farid and the amazing Seeing-I project. Over 7 days,Mark will wear a virtual reality headset, seeing and hearing what 7 other people see and hear for 7 days. This week will culminate on 8th September, with a public conversation between Farid and Dr. Tamara Russell (Chief Mindfulness Officer and Clinical Psychologist for the project).

Visitors to the Seeing-I gallery space will be invited to observe Mark as he lives immersed in the life of an-other. The visual information streamed into his VR headset comes from an individual living their “normal” life with cameras attached to their bodies and head.  This collects all that they see and hear and feeds this into the VR headset for Mark to literally, life a day in the life of ……

A variety of participants have been selected to take part – of varying ages, genders and occupations.  As part of the collaboration, a Mindful 360 process was applied to the project to ensure the safety of the artist during this unusual experiment.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge – also Tamara’s viva examiner from back in the day!)

“Seeing I documents an extraordinary social psychology single-case study, an experiment in which for one month Mark sees the world only through other people’s eyes. All this is possible through new technology. One might imagine various outcomes of this experiment: that he might become more empathic, being other- rather than self-focused; that he might experience distorted perceptions and even delusions, given that his own brain is not receiving its normal input but instead is experiencing a kind of sensory deprivation; or that he might establish that the brain can in fact adapt relatively quickly (hours or days?) to anew reality, and then adapt back again at the end of the experiment with no serious side effects”

Key Themes being explored:

  • identity
  • self/other boundaries
  • surveillance
  • how sensations create reality

Preparation: After a mindfulness assessment, Mark engaged in months of both mental and physical training in order to prepare for the event.  He was schooled on the neurocognitive model of mindfulness as a way to get more familiar with the types of mental movements of his own mind.  This will help him to notice more promptly (and with more detail) the movements of his mind in and out of the experience of the “other”.

Maintaining self awareness: Mark was also briefed on the key mindfulness of the body practices that are used in the Weathering Storms project (working with psychosis) and the Death Incubator VR (cyberdelic) experience to support grounding during dissociated, disorganized or depersonalised moments.

Mark will be using a number of key mindfulness grounding techniques (all pretty analog):

  1. mindful movement of any body part (play with pacing)
  2. mindfulness of the soles of the feet (wiggle your toes if you need to)
  3. sensory stimulation of the feet with “foot spots”  (thanks to Sylvia Afonsso) or sand/pebble trays
  4. scents and essential oils applied directly to the nostrils
  5. massage and soothing touch practices
  6. hand on heart (to regulate the vagal nerve)

Join in the discussion on the Seeing-I FB Page.

This work is sponsored by the arebyte Gallery London with Psychological safety and assessment provided by Dr Tamara Russell from the Mindfulness Centre of Excellence. Support also from Ravensbourne College.


Blurb from the Festival below:

Inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment (1971), Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and Josh Harris’ Quiet: We Live in Public (1999), Seeing I will confine Farid to a gallery space at Ars Electronica, subjected to the simulated life of the project’s Other. With no pre-knowledge of, or existing relationship to the Other, the only details confirmed to Farid will be that the Other is in a relationship and at least eighteen years of age.

For the duration of the project’s 7 days, Farid will experience no human interaction relative to his own life, allowing his indirect relationship with the Other to become Farid’s leading narrative. Will the constant stream of artificial sights and sounds start to displace his own internal monologue?

Adapting the question of nature vs. nurture to the digital age, Seeing I will consider how large a portion of the individual is an inherent self, and how large a portion is a consequence of environmental culture.

How many days will it take to alter Farid’s movement, mannerisms, memory or rationale? Without free will to determine who he is, will Farid’s consciousness be enough to deter significant changes?

At Ars Electronica, 2019, in the Artist Residency building, we will be doing our final trial run in the build up to the 28-day performance in 2020. This residency will see Farid wear a VR headset for seven days, experiencing a different person’s life every day.