MESH
From the Inside Out
For most of us our understanding and experience of epilepsy is an understanding from the outside in. The word epilepsy evokes images of frightening physical convulsions, a body out of control. For someone watching, this is a bewildering and frightening experience. For the person having an epileptic seizure the experience is not only physically traumatic but can also challenge the very foundations of their psychic being, their sense of who they are and their identity as an individual. An epileptic seizure temporarily wipes out all sense of memory and of 'self'. When Isabelle Delmotte is recovering from an epileptic seizure, she doesn't know who 'she' is and describes the process of regaining consciousness after a seizure as the 'reaccumulation of the self'.

The journey that Epileptograph takes its audience on is an audio-visual exploration of what it's like to experience the aftermath of an epileptic seizure ∆ the awareness process leading to the regaining of consciousness - from the inside out. Delmotte's internal experiences, visions and sensations are externalised in Epileptograph allowing the audience to share her subjective interior world. The shock, fear and pain of a seizure as well as the disorientation and confusion typically experienced are expressed through large illuminated images and sequences output to video. The intense kaleidoscopic images are created with Microsoft SoftImage, a 3D animation program, on a Silicon Graphics workstation. Delmotte describes working with 3D animation as an addictive experience, one that "destroys and reshapes all notions of time and space allowing the user to travel inside physical structures. This precise but infinite space is an ideal representation of the mind/body space, the camera functioning like the mind's eye travelling through a dream/nightmare."1

The installation also includes a series of lightboxes with texts describing the various stages of a seizure and the subsequent recovery process juxtaposed with CAT scans of Isabelle Delmotte's apparently 'normal' brain. An epileptic seizure is often described as being like an electrical storm in the brain and the soundtrack of Epileptograph evokes this profoundly unsettling and disturbing sensation. The relentless discordant grinding, crashing, breaking sounds of the audio track are of an almost unbearable intensity making the installation environment an extremely unsettling and disturbing experience for the audience.

On a philosophical level, Epileptograph is an investigation of the very nature of consciousness itself and the indivisible relationship between mind and body. Most of us take for granted that we have control over our body, that we know who we are. It is only when something goes wrong that fundamental questions of identity and the complex relationship between mind and body are challenged. Neurologist Oliver Sacks documents a number of such cases in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat: - the case of a 'Disembodied Lady' with no natural control of her own body and a fundamental sense that her body did not belong to her; a man with retrograde amnesia whose recent memory only lasted for a few seconds and who could remember nothing that had happened to him since 1945, the face he saw in the mirror that of an unfamiliar middle aged man; another case of a man who was convinced his leg did not belong to him who would wake up on the floor after having tried to throw this 'alien' object out of bed.2 Like the loss of consciousness and memory that occur during an epileptic seizure, these 'disconnections' of the mind and body chart the boundary limits of our simplistic notions of identity and the consciousness of self.

Delmotte's Epileptograph also deals with the limits of language to articulate bodily experiences and sensations and what Delmotte describes as the way the body "resonates and talks".3 In her artist's statement, Delmotte states that her work in progress "addresses the inadequacy of articulated language as a tool for discussing a phenomenon that in many ways pre-dates and determines any personal linguistic concept".4 The visual and auditory patterns represented in Epileptograph and the visceral sensations that Delmotte describes bear similarities to Julia Kristeva's psychoanalytic descriptions of the Semiotic, the anarchic, chaotic pre-Oedipal, pre-verbal stage of a child's development characterised by the drives and pulsions of the body expressed in tones, colours and pre-verbal sounds. Kristeva's Semiotic Phase precedes Lacan's Symbolic Phase where the subject gains a stable identity and enters into the norms and restrictions of a socially constructed language.5 Delmotte herself describes consciousness as "the ultimate censor, the tool filtering organic languages and channelling them using 'linguistic facilities'" and suggests "Maybe consciousness is narrow minded?"6

I recently spoke to Isabelle Delmotte before she left Sydney to present papers at two conferences dealing with consciousness and the mind, one in North America and one in Wales.

KC Can you comment on audience responses to your work?

ID Some people subject to epilepsy, and conscious of the works' subject, have provided me with amazing comments (such as "that's what I've been trying to say all my life"). Although such comments are rare and that I always insisted that this work was only subjective to the extreme, these words had a mental impact but do not affect the creative process. Others, not aware of the work itself even in relation with the broad definition of epilepsy, have made the comment that the images reminded them of what they were seeing while having ophthalmic migraines or hypoglycemia attacks. What has been more interesting is the frequent response that some people 'knew' the sensations that they were experiencing while being in the space, as if their bodies 'knew'. The most positive outcome is the fact that this project seems at times to provide people with a 'neutral ground' enabling them to talk more openly about personal issues or feelings about epilepsy. One very gratifying experience is people coming forward and telling me stories or anecdotes linked to their lives through the lives of their friends, families, acquaintances subject to some form of epilepsy. The work is not discussed (thank God!) but becomes a facilitator, which is the most rewarding possible result, although it is purely incidental as it has never been the 'subjective aim' of such processes.

KC What has the response to your work been like from the medical profession? How would you compare what you are doing with medical descriptions of epilepsy and medical imaging techniques, for example, EEGs, CAT scansˇ

ID One of the major triggers for this work to exist was the total non communication level I reached with the medical profession. The view on what I was trying to describe and express was that this kind of experience was closer to philosophy than medicine.

I am not seeking the medical profession's approval although I have had feedback from medical practitioners interested in epilepsy and behaviour of art and epilepsy.

There hasn't been any correlation between the artistic 'product' and traditional medical representation although I used CAT scans of my brain (CAT scans which look "normal") together with some text output.

KC You have described the process of working on Epileptograph as 'therapeutic' in that it has helped you control and reduce the frequency of seizures. Can you explain this a bit more in terms of your own experience?

ID Therapeutic in the sense that I have learned to discern physical sensations and 'states of mind' which could lead to seizures. To experience such states of awareness has been a big 'break through' and has impact on all compartments of my life.

KC You have said that recreating the sounds and images you experience as you regain consciousness after a seizure is largely an intuitive process. Can you explain this process of how you externalise these internal/subjective experiences into images and sounds a bit more?

ID I don't think that 'recreating' is an appropriate word anymore. I'm using intuition to help me produce material which is going to fill the gaps between what I know, what I used to know, what I don't know yet and what I will never know if I will never try. The produced material doesn't matter much anymore because it is through the process that I am finding my own substance: pompous to say, impossible to describe. The use of all equipment is intuitive because whatever knowledge there can be, knowledge on technology or my own being, it is there to be destroyed, to be deconstructed: the censorship of the conscious mode disintegrated under the weight of biological languages. Apart from explaining how to destroy CD players and waiting for months in a row witnessing computer screens, I cannot explain much about how I am creating these things. I try things and if they take my guts, tear them, hurt 'me', scare 'me', take 'me' out of time, bury 'me' in space, make 'me' cry, hurt the base of my neck, make bubbles of electricity explode on the top of by skull, and so on, then I know it is right for the time being. The time being is the accumulation of who I was, who I didn't think I was, who I didn't know I was. The time being is also the one which gives me a glimpse, considering who I was when I didn't know that I was, of the past and its future and takes me further, where I didn't know I would go, that is if I get there.

KC You have presented Epileptograph as an immersive experience for audiences in a darkened space with lightboxes, video and audio... would you like to experiment with even more immersive presentation, e.g. virtual reality interfaces? What about the possibility that this could induce a seizure...?

ID The main goal is to be unable to witness whatever I can create at one point in time and for my body to teach me how and when to view it. Therefore whatever product I end up with is pure history, becomes only a derivative expression of a never ending process. Virtual reality will be great. It will be the ultimate way to push body limits as time will only take the dimension that the conscious body will be able to handle. Center of gravity and awareness of body activity could allow the organic languages to alert the conscious mind on the potentiality of what is defined as 'the body'. Induced seizures will allow me to learn about the time frame which the mind of the body travels in.

More information on Isabelle Delmotte and her work can be found at http://www.cybercultures.asn.au

References

1. Artist's Statement. Cyber Cultures Catalogue, 1997.
2. Oliver Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. 1985
3. Artist's Statements. 1992-96.
4. Cyber Cultures Catalogue, 1997.
5. Julia Kristeva. Revolution in Poetic Language. 1974.
6. Interview with artist. May 1997.

© Kathy Cleland

MESH film/video/multimedia/art #11,MESH is the journal of Experimenta Media Arts

This issue of MESH was financially assisted by the Australia Council through its New Media Fund, Experimenta Media Arts gratefully acknowledges this support.