Inside/Outside: Panim/P’nim: Bioimaging system for dynamic self-portrait generation

Excerpt from The Future of Art in a Postigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press). pp. 92-93.

Mel Alexenberg


Artists are continually inventing alternative interfaces that are conceptually and experientially linked to content in dialogic art systems.  I developed the use of biofeedback interfaces in a dialogic artwork that I designed in collaboration with my son Ari at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. For the LightsOROT exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum in New York, we used a plethysmograph interface, which monitors blood-flow as an indication of changing mind/body states.  Our bioimaging system integrates real-time computer graphics with biofeedback. 


The starting point for this dialogic artwork is the fact that the Hebrew words for face, panim, and inside, p’nim, are written with the same four letters.  We explored creating a digital portrait in which outside flows from inside and inside flows from outside in a continuously flowing feedback loop. In our studio/laboratory at MIT, we developed a system using biofeedback from brain waves sensed by electrodes connecting the participant’s head to an electroencephalograph.  For the museum, however, difficulty placing electrodes on people’s heads required that we redesign the system.  We built a console in which a participant seated in front of a monitor would place a finger in a plethysmograph, which measures internal body states by monitoring blood flow, while under the gaze of a video camera.


A feedback loop is created in which changes in one’s internal mind/body state changes a video image of one’s external self.  It is a video/computer graphics self-portrait painted by the flow of one’s inner river of light.  A person sits before a video camera.  Her body is connected to a biofeedback sensor.  She watches a real-time naturalistic image of herself on the video monitor.  Information about her internal mind/body processes is digitized and conveyed to the central processing unit of the computer system.  The video image is modified by a specially designed software package.  It can be modified by changing color or size, by stretching, elongating, extending, rotating, replicating, superimposition or by other computer graphics effects.  For example, the participant sees herself turn green and is shocked by the sight.  The shock, in turn, changes the biofeedback information causing the computer to modify her self-portrait again.  Her green face now becomes elongated. Changes in body processes affect changes in the video image.  The perceived video image, in turn, stimulates the mind/body changes, and so on in a continuous feedback loop like the unending flow of a Torah scroll.


This biofeedback artwork points to new directions for dialogic art of the future that will explore the dynamic interplay between carbon-based biosystems and silicon-based cybersystems.  Living organisms are biosystems made up of numerous types of molecules built from versatile carbon atoms surrounded by a mass of water.  The core of cybersystems is circuits etched on chips make from silicon atoms that are akin to carbon atoms.  Carbon atoms with a 2-4 electron configuration sits in the same column in the Period Table of Elements as silicon atoms with 2-8-4 configuration.  Having four electrons on their outer shells, both carbon and silicon atoms are amphoteric elements that can act as metals or non-metals.  Elements with atoms of less than four electrons on the outer shell act as metals while those with more than four act as non-metals.  Carbon atoms possess such amphoteric versatility that they form more compounds than of all the other 91 elements combined.  Feedback loops between carbon-based plants, animals, and human consciousness and silicon-based artificial intelligence will provide the raw material for artists’ creative endeavors.