Thoughtography at Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei

Art, Galleries
A sample of a thoughtography print-out at NGV for the Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei exhibition

We submitted to a machine that creates a visual representation of how our minds respond to art and all we have to show for it is an amazing personalised image

In the future, we’ll be able to strap on a dry electrode electroencephalogram headset which will measure the electrical impulses from our frontal lobes as we look at a piece of art. The headset will then generate an algorithm, which will create a pictorial representation of how well our brains focused and engaged with the artwork we viewed.

Except that this isn’t the future – it’s happening right now. And you can be a part of it at the NGV every Friday night as part of the Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei Friday Nights series. The project is called Thoughtography, and it’s a initiative of La Trobe University’s psychology department.

I approach the Thoughtography pop-up full of nervous anticipation. I feel like I’m back in high school, about to take a test – except that I’m being tested on whether my brain really does engage with artwork in a strong, meaningful way. As someone who loves being immersed in art exhibitions, plays and live music, I think (hope) that the technology will reveal the fact that I am, indeed, someone who responds intensely to what I’m looking at. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

With my EEG headset firmly in place, I sit in front of a large screen and put on a pair of headphones. They’re playing soft white noise, which is designed to help clear my mind. Then, four pieces of art appear on the screen in quick succession – two are by Andy Warhol, two are by Ai Weiwei.

Then, much like waiting for strips of photos from a booth, I wait for my ‘Thoughtograph’. Other participants near me are marvelling at their own results; each of their images are entirely different, with coloured streaks representing the four pieces of art floating from their heads, lit up with white lines, which measure engagement.

The first thing I notice about my Thoughtograph (below) is how thick the white lines are. Thickness indicates interest. Some are wigglier than others; the wigglier the lines, the more the viewer is engaging with the artwork. I wonder what thick, straight lines says about me (that I’m super interested, but not thinking very hard?) – but mostly, I’m just fascinated by the fact that a piece of technology has, effectively, read my mind. The rest of me just wishes that I’d put a bit more effort into pulling a fun expression when I had my photo taken.

Thoughtography is free with your ticket to NGV’s Friday Nights program, which includes access to the Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei exhibition, plus a live music gig. Post your #thoughtograph online and you'll go into the draw to win a 12-month NGV membership.

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