Observe the Heart · 观心

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The video above shows a technical prototype for Observe the Heart.

If you ask a Zen master how to meditate, he might answer you, "Observe the heart." But the heart is so abstract to imagine, not even to mention observation. Observe the Heart is an artistic attempt to represent the meditator's mental state, generating visuals and sounds based on realtime brainwave input. The generative visuals are projected back onto the meditator, transforming the introspective meditation into an observable performance, in a sense.

There is more to tell about the concept. While third-party audiences can watch and hear one's meditation, the meditator themselves couldn't experience the generative contents in real time (given that they close their eyes during the meditation, and may even wear earplugs to block the sound). It is then questionable who is this meditation for. Moreover, the meditator will nonetheless be curious about how their meditation looks and sounds like, and this mental activity will be captured by the brainwave sensor and be reflected by the generative output. Therefore, it could make it even harder for the meditator to really "observe the heart".

The experience is designed to be installed in a dark room. The meditator sits in the center of the ground, with a projector projecting the generative visuals onto them. The audiences watch the meditation from above in order to get a better view. In this demonstrative production, a NeuroSky MindWave Mobile EEG headset is used to sense the meditator's brainwave. An openFrameworks application analyses the brainwave signal, and drives a GLSL fragment shader to render the generative visuals, and a Max patch to generate the sound. The generative approaches could be enriched for better output in future productions.

Impermanent Zen Garden · 无常禅园

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本文中文版链接 (Chinese version): http://shi-weili.com/impermanent-zen-garden-chinese/

Impermanent Zen Garden contrasts the Buddhist idea of impermanence with the principle of mindfulness meditation. Zen practitioners believe that through mindful observation one can gain wisdom. Therefore, Zen gardens were built around the world to provide serene environments for meditators to focus their minds.

However, in this Impermanent Zen Garden, almost every aspect of the environment is constantly changing. Once the meditator focuses their mind on any object in the meditation room or in the garden, they will notice the moving mountains on the doors, the floating clouds on the walls, the smoke being blown on the ceiling, the water permeating through the tatami, the water stains coming and going on the garden walls, the touring glosses on the rocks, the traveling ripples on the sand, and the blinking stars in the night-sky. Not any two moments are identical, so that it seems impossible to fully observe any moment.

Therefore, the dilemma is thrown to the audience, and the decision is up to them to make. Are you going to concede that the world is ultimately agnostic, or are you determined to embrace each and every present moment in this impermanent world?

Impermanent Zen Garden is a dynamic environment made with Unity. The ever-changing contents are generated in real time using custom shader programs.

5 in 5

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In this Major Studio 1 assignment, I was supposed to create five projects consecutively, with each project conceptualized, produced and documented in a single day. There is no restriction on theme or medium, and experimental attempts are highly encouraged.

#1: Meditation for 1H

The first three projects are related to my body. I named this serious Half Familiar, Half New, for that in each project, I started with a topic I'm familiar with, yet ended up with an experience I've never had before.

In this very first project, I used time-lapse video to record myself meditating for one hour. I've been doing Zen meditation in recent years, which helps me to get closer to a mental state of mindfulness. I also treat meditation as a practice of spiritual strength. However, I've never done a meditation as long as one hour.

In addition to the extension of meditation time, I've also changed its location to an outdoor environment. People usually meditate in a quiet room. However, since during meditation one's senses tend to be more acute, it might make sense to do so in an open area.

The outcome of my meditation is a mixture of different feelings. First of all, it is indeed physically demanding to meditate on such a time scale. As time passed on, it was gradually harder to concentrate my mind on my breath, and easier to lose my mind into a mental state like dreaming. I could feel the weakness of my body, and I was even unconfident of completing this challenge. Fortunately, I endured this one hour without problem. When I opened my eyes, the world turned blue, because I have been closing my eyes under sunlight for so long time.

The good news is that, in long-time meditation, it is relatively easy to fall into a "deeper" mental state even if you are not of an optimum physical strength. The experience reinforced my thoughts that people's physical and mental states are interrelated with each other. Being still for a long time really helped my mind to quiet down, and this explains the reason to practice mindfulness in this kind of body set.

During my meditation in the community park, I was able to recognize various kinds of surrounding sounds, such as the splash of the fountain, and children playing around me. Making myself quiet helped me to better sense the environment, and even the mental state of my self. However, without the help from a camera, I can never know the way my body looks in the meditation. Although predictable, the time-lapse record still surprised me on how motionless I was during the whole process. What's more, when reviewing the record, I found out that there are many more things that I hadn't notice during the process, such as squirrels playing around me in a very short distance, and the change of lightness of the sunlight. These interesting discoveries showed the limit of human senses, even in a highly mindful state.

#2: Fifth Avenue—From The New School to Central Park

In the second project, I used a mobile app called Hyperlapse to record what I have seen in a jogging along the fifth avenue. I've been a runner for years, so that the distance from The New School to Central Park is not a problem to me. The amazing part of this experience is the video captured during the process.

The team of Instagram have done such a wonderful job in making Hyperlapse that its stabilization algorithm enables people to shoot time-lapse video with a hand-held phone, even when they are walking. Before, shooting time-lapse video requires a tripod in order to make the image stable, which largly limits its usage. Now, even a jogging can be recorded and condensed into a two-minute video with ease.

To me, the outcome is stunning. The buzzy night of midtown Manhattan was captured and highlighted by these video clips. They are rough but vivid, just like what people tend to make with the first grasp of a cutting-edge technology. An interesting thing is that since the recording of video gave me so much fun, I almost lost my mind into it, experimenting ways of camera placement and movement, without remembering that I was there originally for a jogging.

(Music credit: U2, The Miracle)

#3: A Moment of Butoh

My third and last project dealing in the Half Familiar, Half New serious, I tried to recollect my body memories of Butoh movements. As a genre of contemporary dance, Butoh is a mixture of modern dance and Japanese traditional culture. It tends to build a dark and deep atmosphere using restrained body movements.

I had learned some modern dance and Butoh during the spring, but since I began to travel in the summer, I never practiced dance again. This project is an attempt to awaken the dancer in me, and get myself more prepared to continue my learn dancing in New York. I set up the room, and used a fixed camera to record myself doing random movements, in hope of producing a montage of me dancing.

The process was quite disappointing at first. I found out that my body has almost forgotten the way it used to dance, and I cannot achieve a proper tenseness of it, in order to make clean movements. Every piece of footage was ugly when I first looked at it. I didn't know what can be done with them.

Then, after collecting an hour of video clips, I stopped dancing, sat down, and looked at them for a second time. I began to notice interesting movements in the footage. It might be not that bad if I only collect and arrange this moments. This idea resulted in the following piece. I named it A Moment of Butoh, hoping that in all my random search, I've found at least one moment that matches the state of a Butoh dancer.

(Music credit: Nocturnal Emissions, 01 from Music For Butoh)

#4: How to Do Chicken Right, Seriously

When I say "seriously," I really mean it. Eating in America makes me homesick, since cooks here don't give chicken the extent of care it deserves, which results in a bland and coarse taste. The Chinese people treat chicken as precious food; they carefully prepare chicken for their New Year's Eve—that's the way I was going to cook my chicken.

The slideshow above demonstrates the process of cooking a whole chicken. The basic idea is to remove the blood and body fluid from the meat, and bring out the flavor using various cooking methods. The whole process took me three hours, and the outcome definitely cured a nostalgic stomach.

#5: Pushing the Beats

At the beginning of this semester, I bought myself these pieces of MIDI controllers:

I daydreamed with them, but have had no time to play around with them during the first three weeks. When dealing with my very last 5 in 5 project, I decided that I just want to do something with them. Simple things should suffice.

The video below demonstrates me making a sequence of beats, using a MIDI controller named Push, which is a new type of musical instruments which lets the musician to modify the arrangements of a musical piece on the fly. What I have made is not some masterpiece, apparently. Nevertheless, I had fun in making it.

Final Thoughts

Doing 5 in 5 is my first experience of formally documenting the process when doing projects. The video or photo documentary enabled me to reflect on my process, which is full of interesting findings. The documentary also functions as a effective showcase of what has been done. Therefore, it is a good design practice to document.

On the other hand, adding an observer affects the process, even if the observer is a camera. To some extent, keeping the observer in mind makes people act like performing. This shifts their focus from the object to the subject themselves, which is equivalent to the objectification of the subject. Furthermore, the documentary itself becomes another form of outcome, which is sometimes more interesting than the direct product of the project, and will last longer than the latter, especially so if the project is action-taking (e.g., performance art) rather than object-making.

The presentation of 5-in-5 projects in class is eye-opening, since everyone demonstrated his or her unique area of interest and way of doing things. It becomes even more mind-revealing when people are asked to do choose their topic and approach in a serious of projects. This process is also a great opportunity for me to reflect on myself, which hopefully leads to a better understanding of the relationship between me and the world I'm experiencing and affecting.