Mediated Body, Burning Man 2010 & Emerge and see conference 2011 

Mediated Body is a symbiotic system consisting of a human (the Performer) wearing custom-built technology (the Suit). The system offers a play session to a single Participant at a time. The role of the technology is to sense the physical bare-skin connection between the Performer and the Participant. The sensing yields analogue values in a range starting from a few centimetres from actual touch, via light touch, to full contact.

The values are converted into a relatively complex soundscape, which is played back in the headphones that both the Performer and the Participant wear. Thus from the Participant’s point of view, the Performer is a human theremin: a musical instrument that she can play by touching. However, due to the design of the system, the instrument can also play its player: When the Performer touches the Participant, the soundscape is affected in the same way.

The performer would engage with participants by inviting them to try out the suit with him. They did this by putting on a pair of extra headphones. The headphones would turn the participant and the performer into an interpersonal touch-reactive interface. It offered a bare-skin interaction between the participant and the performer. The system would sense the distance and the amount of touch between the two which would be turned into a rather complex soundscape that they could explore through different ways of creating contact with each other.

We tried out the suit on many occasions. The first experiments were done at the Burning Man festival in 2010. It proved to be extremely enchanting both for the participants and for the performer. The performer would be energised through the many social encounters he would make, and the participants would react strongly to the experience of being sound-reactive with a person they had just met.

The suit efficiently transgressed social boundaries and norms between strangers. It created an alternative social bubble where traditional conduct (like getting to know each other before physical contact) was bypassed. When the participant and the performer returned to the default world (by taking off the headphones), they had to take one step back and reconnect on the terms of the context the interaction had resided in.

The aesthetic quality of the sounds generated was rough and mostly resembled what could be considered the sounds of an old Gameboy system, and we worried that the rather lo-fi sound would not be good enough for it to create an engaging experience for the participants. However, the experience of touching someone else proved to compensate for it, and it became a point in itself that it was not the quality of sound that generated the exploration but the actual social engagements through the system.

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Credits Bent Haugland, Mads Hobye, Nicolas Padfield, Nikolaj Møbius and Nynne Just Christoffersen.