Anna Dumitriu (AD) interviewed the Institute of Unnecessary Research’s Head of Hypnagogia Luciana Haill (LH) in January 2024, following Haill’s recent exhibition/happening “No Hammer Needed” which took place at St Andrews Mews in Hastings (UK) in October 2023.
AD: What is your background? How did you come to make such complex and fascinating artwork that crosses and combines neuroscience, dreams, and nostalgia?
LH: I studied Interactive Art in the first degree of its kind led by Professor Roy Ascott in the early 90s which was ideal for developing digital interdisciplinary practice. I worked freelance in multimedia for a few years in the early days of internet browsers and made visuals for raves in London.
I’ve always been fascinated by the human brain since I had viral meningitis as a teenager. That was when I learned that although I was experiencing excruciating headaches and neck pain, the brain does not possess its own pain receptors, full ‘meta’ jacket I guess!
My pain was in the meninges (the lining of the brain) nerve endings squashed against my skull, for me any sounds were incredibly resonant and overpowering. There was no medication for this. I experienced my first altered state of consciousness when I fainted in my private bathroom in the hospital in Kent. I clearly recall a stunning ultraviolet neon mauve lozenge shape horizontally stretching in front of my eyes like a welcoming space portal, and as soon as I questioned how I had not previously noticed the feature in my room before, I was awakening back in the bed, with no memory of falling. This phenomenon I would not forget, and one that has only happened twice in my life. It led to my increased fascination with the brain and how consciousness is filtered and delivered.
I worked as a Neurofeedback assistant for a private company in London analysing 20 channels of EEG in therapy sessions for a few years. I’ve also had the pleasure of being a visiting lecturer for several years on the University of Brighton’s Digital Media Arts MA course.
AD: You have recently completed your exhibition “No Hammer Needed” can you please tell us about it? What could the audience see/experience and why did you choose that title?
LH: After 5 weeks I inadvertently made an interactive, immersive installation suggesting a nightclub setting, I made a unique remix of the present and a fictional future with the audience, and their cognitive reactions were recorded using a brainwave monitor. I am concerned with accessing what is not available, maybe perversely, but maybe ’ironically’ my art is an eyes-closed experience, sometimes meditative, and anachronistic, with additional augmented reality art giving heritage a new audience for demolished local landmarks in my hometown of St Leonards in East Sussex. My work does not hang on walls, it exists in your mind, seen when your eyes are closed, or experienced through your smartphone. My art combines neuroscientific technology, with a lot of research into emotional intelligence and meditation, working with some incredibly skilled trainers & masters, recreating an accessible experience for everyone to have an altered state or drugless high. ‘No Hammer’ coalesced the augmented with the flickering ‘entoptic’ art in one space and importantly provided a private studio and showcase for 5 weeks in Hastings.
At the doorway upon entering the space the audience would first encounter the tall graphic displays for ‘Apparitions’ and ‘Pioneer’ – my augmented reality artworks that are special applications for smartphones that trigger lost landmarks and local heritage in life-size experiences. Guarding the entrance was the metal teapot that was the inspiration for the entire project (it was the sole survivor of the sea storm that destroyed local beach huts) owned by the narrator’s family. The Apparitions were also triggered by enlarged postcard printouts on the floor and a long table viewed through an iPad on a tripod, these markers enabled people to see some of the details and hear the special soundtracks for each hauntological experience. Postcards with instructions for downloading the app for free and where to stand in town for the Memorial and Pier to be fully realised were available. Ideally, guests will be inspired to seek out and experience the demolished local landmarks for themselves a short distance away in the centre of town, where Hastings Memorial is geotagged to its original location.
Upon entering the space the audience first encounters the tall graphic displays for ‘Apparitions’ and ‘Pioneer’ – my augmented reality artworks that are special applications for smartphones that trigger lost landmarks and local heritage in life-size experiences. The metal teapot stands by the entrance on a pedestal, this was the inspiration for the entire project – it was the sole survivor of the sea storm that destroyed local beach huts owned by the narrator’s family. The Apparitions are also triggered by large format printouts on the floor and on a long table viewed through an iPad on a tripod, these enable visitors to see more close-up details and soundtracks for each hauntological experience. Postcards with instructions for downloading the app for free and where to position oneself in town for the Memorial and Pier to be fully realised were available. Ideally, guests will be inspired to hunt the demolished local landmarks for themselves, for instance, Hastings Memorial Clocktower is geotagged to its original location about 100 metres away in the centre of town and is triggered using your smartphone’s GPS.
Immediately visible is a classic red Dreamachine I assembled, laser cut from an acrylic sheet and spinning at 78rpm on a retro turntable as the persistent focal point (personally I find the flickering light very conducive to working all the time). A few people recognised this portal and would come and sit close with their eyes closed. I occasionally invited visitors to come and sit close to experience the 60-year-old kinetic art object and ask them what they had felt or seen after a short time. This was sometimes done in small groups of 3, afterwards sharing the unexpected random images with me, this was an honest and accessible part of the show. They have checked a consent form in advance to entering the installation. As long as they are not photosensitive then they could progress further into the room for my choreographed strobe lights, & brainwave biofeedback, and eventually a personalised VJ treatment. The antithesis of standing around or even dancing in a dark crowded nightclub, with flashing lights and strangers, my guests each privately experienced the intimate installation space, beginning by taking a comfortable seat in the white futuristic padded rocking chair. They are their own therapy, as once the flashing programmable white light session is underway, and their initial apprehension or attempts at control dissipate, the real experience unfolds, of calm self-reflection. This may touch on voids, or epochs of sadness, but all these pass within synecdoches or minutes. The strobe light was choreographed over 13 minutes to adjust between calming and invigorating rates of flashes gradually, unlike a club where very hectic repetitive flashing lights can induce stupor or ecstasy, this is a connoisseur’s strobe treatment.
The display method is intrinsic to the dreamlike quality of the visuals as each active participant is asked to keep their eyes closed, which is tempting to not obey. And the experience is deepened by closing your eyes to engage in art. You are the art; you are the process, you are the projector of the visuals. I enjoy chatting with each person after the strobe light has completed its special programme, finding out where they went, what they felt and so on.
The projected visuals are improvised live, mixed by myself in my role as Token Girl, using VJ skills acquired during lockdown to generate new mythological multi-layered postcards. I became fascinated by repurposing obsolete postcards as brightly lit digital ephemera, on the fly. Creating impossible scenes of faces and local landmarks such as Hastings Castle sliding into the sea with real-time brainwave data pouring over model villages, iconic landmarks, and Edwardian portraits. Feeding into the VJ software are their real-time brainwaves and scans of vintage postcards of local heritage and portraits from the early 1890s to the 1960s. Brain biofeedback interpolating with local landmarks creates a new, ever changing layered map of memories and minds. I realised they are evoking autobiographical memories, and from the feedback people described tentatively they were potentially augmenting their sense of self.
Personal VJ’ed interactive Art: Brainwaves beyond the brain Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that uses real-time displays of brain activity and I have been using this for almost 30 years in my art. Guests are connected to my EEG sensor which is a flexible band housing 5 dry electrodes across the forehead, that detects neuronal electrical activity from the pre-frontal and left and right cerebral hemispheres above each eyebrow. A small amplifier is attached to the chair and transmits this data via Bluetooth 5 metres across the room to where I am positioned in neuro-therapist and VJ roles. My system combines the brainwave signal in response to the flickering light in a feedback loop and the special VJ software allows me to add this visual analysis into a multi-layered, sound-reactive composition. See videos here.
The visual layers dissolve through each other using customized smearing FX to deliver a ‘nostalgic melt’ that does not change quickly. The music they experienced was also made by myself in our duo called Per Diem in 2018 and I chose these as it evoked the right atmosphere for this melting nostalgia, using VJ club tech but without the clubbers, or fast music with mind-dulling repetitive beats. The same music is played through the room to guests and in high-quality headphones for a more immersive experience by the performative participant at the same time
AD: What was the reaction of the visitors and participants?
LH: Some were content with this initial AR part of the exhibition and did not feel ready for an altered state of consciousness. However for the explorers, curiosity and initial apprehension transformed into feelings of contemplation and introspective thoughts. Afterwards, I received gratitude I read in the feedback, this came from anonymous, private unprocessed thoughts flowing that these guests had not anticipated. I also organised a guided walk between two of the lost landmark sites in Hastings and St Leonards on Sunday 22nd of October to demonstrate how to get the most from the portable artworks using smartphones which had a keen gathering.
Back in the Mews inside The No Hammer installation with flashing lights, repeated floods from storm Ciaran and Southern water issues, combined with a quiet location became more challenging to attract an audience, however, I understand it’s not for everyone. Many described this as an immersive and transformative experience, the ability to access calm self-reflection during our busy lifestyles. This is a polarizing treatment for me. Sometimes I cry when I do this alone, I certainly didn’t anticipate that.
Participants realised something that a press release or ticket could not have convinced them of. For some, this was the elusive gift of self-awareness through quiet reflection. It’s not something I can elaborate on verbally. There is a knowing, a wry smile on the face, a gentle nodding, even a tear, but I can tell when they ‘got it’. Most people are initially apprehensive or try to control it in an executive manner. Some friendship groups took turns and watched each other have the longer solo white strobe light experience. When in the reclined chair they described how they were affecting an atmosphere of reflection or reminiscence. A sense of intimacy and risk that they may encounter sadness or brief melancholic images on the route to their self-reflection; distancing from immediate surroundings and feelings.
AD: What is next for your work? What work would you like to make?
LH: I would like to undertake a residency to develop slow art into a longer durational experience. My work delivers similarities to ‘sensory mindfulness meditation’ where ‘your focus of attention is in the moment and not on external ideas or thoughts, and the wonder and awe early visitors to sea piers, who would gaze to horizons and feel a sense of awe about life on this planet. Themes of transcendence and self-reflection and of great importance to me, and I would like to develop these through engagement with scientific research into how AI and Art can assist with grief and digital reminiscence. ‘Beyond Localism’ is a new artwork that examines gentrification analogous to social taxidermy. I am discussing the white strobe light experience with each guest as they watch their EEG working on a new AR experience about ‘Lucid Grieving’ that’s been informed more since my No Hammer show, and this is something I want to release control with and engage more with AI, ideally into an installation and performance of Digital reminiscing. Expand the hauntological lost heritage in augmented / extended realities with iconic sites internationally.
I am fascinated by Victorian slum living, explored in mixed reality (not VR) immersive experiences giving a 3D environment within Unity games engine that creates an ‘Asylum for sleep’ another work in progress, ‘Living in Anaesthesia’ and ‘lunchtime lobotomies’. I’m not proposing to attempt to create a group theme narrative but these are what most my daily reading materials incorporate. Combined with the psychological benefits of nostalgia, grief and digital reminiscence. I enjoy bringing forgotten technologies into the present using contemporary techniques, often involving smartphones and special lighting. I am keen to reveal how ground-breaking our predecessors at the turn of C19 were with ambitions and revelations parallel to current VR and mixed reality experiences in art and cinema. I am particularly interested in the history of George Albert Smith and his interest in hypnotism and psychical research. I have previously recorded the brainwaves of clients during hypnosis and have a fascination with the supernatural. I would also be keen to lead workshops and have many years of teaching experience at the University of Brighton. I would love the opportunity to incorporate some of these new skills and creative processes to the next level.
AD: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
LH: Everything was stacked against me on this occasion, an unplanned series of crises overlapped and I felt overwhelmed, lost and trapped. In the end, I felt inspired, energised and inspired to make new work from the engagements I had managed, thanks to my mentors, friends and supporters.
See more at No Hammer Needed