Synapstraction

Speculative designer Josh Urban Davis helps artists create paintings with their minds.

For engineer and speculative designer Josh Urban Davis, working in science and technology has provided a way to explore the intersection between research, culture, and the implications of emerging technologies. In his new project, Synapstraction, Davis has created a brain computer interface system that allows users to paint pictures with their minds.

The machine uses a headset called an electroencephalograph (EEG) in order to measure the electrical activity of the user’s brain. This activity is represented by the machine in the form of a wave. Fortunately, sound is also a wave. The machine takes the brain wave of the user and transforms it into a sound that can be played through a speaker, which is filled with paint. This allows users to directly translate their thoughts into splattering spurts of color that can be draped across a canvas. The resulting paintings are texturally rich and luscious.

How did you get into this field of study?
Painting was my second love. My first love was music—I grew up playing piano, violin, and cello. But we all know how first love is, don’t we? My first painting teacher was my grandfather. He despised abstraction. When I started out as an independent artist, I was obsessed with surrealism—there’s something wondrous and terrifying about making the crevices of the mind visible. Eventually, though, I grew tired of making the paintings myself and wanted to find a better way to explore visualizing the workings of the human psyche. When I started working with emerging technologies and brain computer interfaces, the goal remained the same: to unearth the underworld of human imagination and display it for everyone, creating a strange kind of empathy. I guess this work has always been coming for me, like a velvet cello being lifted from its case…

How long have you been working on this project?
In a sense, 12 years. In another sense, 6 months. In a truer sense: my whole life.

What are the applications for this technology, if any? Are there any particular theoretical or practical problems you’re trying to solve?
There are vast and varied opinions on the theoretical or practical applications of art—as many opinions as there are definitions of beauty. This project is part of a series, however, that we call “Experiments in Computer Augmented Psychokinesis” and in the long term could provide a new way in which we interact with the world—transforming our conscious thought directly into kinetic action. In the short term, however, this sort of technology could help people with disabilities express themselves in a way that might not be possible otherwise. We are using similar technology to develop works that allow people to conciously compose whatever melody comes to their mind, control physical objects, even better understand and assist in constructing their gender representation. It is the dawning of a new age—we live in a future we couldn’t even imagine—and are building something even more spectacular.

That’s not, of course, why we do it.

Do you see this as more of a creative / aesthetic project than scientific research? Or are the paintings actually a form of data that can be analyzed to reveal something about the human brain?
Understanding how the brain reacts to stimuli helps us to better develop these devices and improve our understanding of how the mind works.

This is helpful, but that’s not, of course, why we do it. Being able to visualize the workings of the brain in a tangible way creates a medium for direct understanding of other human beings—again, it’s a strange kind of empathy—and with the world spinning and splitting the way it is, empathy is wholly necessary. This work could lead to visualizing emotions or memories and also to healing, by making visible the invisible.


Josh Urban Davis is an engineer and speculative designer from Texas. His visual work has been exhibited at DiverseWorks, Blaffer Art Museum, Lawndale Art Center, and others. He currently lives in Hanover, NH with his cat, Nocturne. In 2012 he received a BS in computer science and BFA in studio art, and he is currently pursuing graduate studies in computer science at Dartmouth. To learn more about Josh’s work in art, tech, and design, visit his website. (Header photo courtesy Jeff Mentch)

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