Assembling Desire (2016)
Assembling Desire is an interactive performance that presents Niehaus's own sexuality as an evocative sensory experience. The piece incorporates photography, video, digital 3D animation and sound, in combination with a textile suit worn by Niehaus, which acts as an interface for haptic manipulation by individual participants of a network of media displays. The piece posits feminine desire for the feminine as a cyborg assemblage of desire, a network of situated knowledges outside of stable subjectivity connected to masculinity, and experienced differently in various contexts. It is an exploration of how to effectively image and communicate concepts that are without societal context, heavily personal and emotional, and fraught with issues of fetishization, erasure, and the dangers of oversimplification.
Niehaus performed Assembling Desire from 8 to 11 September 2016, as her final work for her MFA completion during Metasis, the 2016 MA/MFA Computational Arts exhibition at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Assembling Desire is controlled by a wearable suit, made of black chiffon and worn directly against the artist's skin. The suit has a hand-embroidered pattern delineating the area where Niehaus is willing to be touched, and is wired with fine gauge copper wire. This wire is connected to the various pins of a MPR 121 capacitive touch chip, and Niehaus uses an Arduino Uno to communicate between the chip and the laptop. This chip senses touch as an on/off button press on each individual sensing pin. By adjusting the capacitance threshold of the chip's Arduino library, Niehaus was able to create a wearable using thin fabric that is sensitive enough to relay touch data in real time, without allowing any data from her body inside the suit to interfere.
Different areas of the suit are mapped to different pins on the chip, and the data about which section of the suit is being touched is fed into a Processing sketch and broadcast via Open Sound Control to a closed wireless network. The network consists of a router and nine Raspberry Pis with attached screens, each between 5-7 inches wide, as well as the computer that the wired suit is plugged into. The small screens are installed on either side of a corner area, and grouped around the artist while I sit on an elevated shelf in the middle. Depending upon the data the Raspberry Pis receive, the openFrameworks programs running on them algorithmically modify the order, speed, and volume of the visuals and sound in real time in response to the participant's touch.
The imagery displayed on the screens consisted of a variety of different photographs, videos, and still images and animations using 3D mesh-based model self-portraits. Juxtaposing the photographic and illustrative media allows Niehaus to draw tension between the implied 'reality' of the photographic images and the lack thereof in the illustrative, avatar-based works, which depict full nudity and more explicit interactions than the photographic works. The still photographs depict a series of bruises acquired in consensual sexual encounters, evoking pain and desire simultaneously. Hands factor strongly in the imagery displayed on the screens and on the embroidery covering the wearable suit. In the context of Assembling Desire, this is a reference to an idea described by Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter, that various body parts can become phalluses or orifices depending upon their relationship to one another. The gesture of Niehaus' hands in her mouth is repeated across multiple images, drawing attention to the relegation of this gesture to innuendo for a more 'graphic' act, rather than being seen as an innately pleasurable sensation in itself. The repetition of the artist's likeness across all images is a play on the idea that lesbian couples are 'same sex' and therefore somehow the same, or that femme/femme desire is inherently narcissistic.
The sound files, also modified by the sensor data, are self-recorded audio of breathing and ambiguous rhythmic noises, which vary in speed and volume depending on which section of the suit is being touched. In combination with the tactile component of the touch-sensitive suit controller, Assembling Desire is a multi-sensory, experiential performance that engages the participant and the artist directly. The dark, enclosed space was a practical way of limiting participation to a single person at a time, while allowing the lighted display screens to provide the only ambient light for the intimate interactions. The script Niehaus uses for interaction is a guided approximation of verbalized sexual consent, involving her asking each individual participant if they are ready to participate, describing where she would like to be touched, and checking in periodically about how the participant feels about the experience. Niehaus also gives participants the option to touch her or have her touch the suit herself based on their direction, though the second option was less popular. Reactions to the interaction varied, involving everything from confusion to interest to tears, but most participants described their interactions with the piece during Metasis as 'intense'.
The code that runs Assembling Desire can be found here. All image files are © Kiona Hagen Niehaus 2016 and may not be used or reproduced without written consent.