Gemma Nash: Artist

Using sound to reimagine stories about people, places and objects

Technology: to augment or not to augment … that is the question?

As a digital artist who uses both assistive and mainstream technology, I am disturbed and excited by the idea of augmentations that provide an alternative way of experiencing the world, and for me, assist me to make my work. I currently work in a variety of digital mediums and recently took part in the D2art project for disabled visual artists (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by the University of Birmingham – in partnership with DASH).


The aim of D2art is to explore the use of technologies to remove barriers experienced by some disabled visual artists.  The project focused on software and computer based graphic design and editing programs, such as Photoshop. I use programs like Photoshop on standard computer equipment with a specialist trackball instead of a mouse for editing. Using my trackball for prolonged periods of time has caused RSI problems, and existing dictate software is impossible to use because of my speech impairment. So I was keen to explore a few possible alternatives to both my trackball and dictate programs.

Tobii EyeX

Tobii EyeX

During my session I used Tobii EyeX (left), Enable Viacam, Finger Mouse, Leap Motion, Oculus Rift and Steady Mouse. The most useful software for me was the Tobii EyeX – a fairly reasonably priced eye tracking software. Although I found it was too fast for fine control, I could see the potential use it has for screen jumping and scrolling in conjunction with my existing trackball.

Dr Chris Creed, leading the research, explained that other participants had experienced similar problems. He discussed the need to develop a whole new photo editing software that is made specifically for use with assistive technologies, such as eye tracking. Exciting stuff!

When it comes to assistive technology for producing art there are revolutionary ways of making music, including using your brainwaves, in real-time. D2Art did make me wonder whether there will ever be a similar programme for visual artists? Will future disabled artists be able to operate graphic design software, or even a camera, using mind control? lf so, would this type of augmentation end up making disabled artists ‘more enhanced’?

Enhanced Artists …

The prospect of technology that enables disabled artists to be more enhanced than their non-disabled counterparts might seem farfetched. But since the 2012 Paralympics this phenomenon has come into mainstream discourse for disabled athletes. Sportsperson’s prosthetic limbs, such as those used by Oscar Pistorius, surpass the capabilities of biological limbs – making these athletes ‘enhanced’ rather than ‘disabled’.

Augmented Eye - Bionic Eyes

Bionic Eye

Bioethicist, Andy Miah, refers to the prospect of these types of enhancements as becoming the optimal for “faster, stronger, further and more accurate performances”. Guardian journalist, Jemima Kiss, recently wrote an article about the climber Hugh Herr and his bionic legs. She explores the idea of bionics becoming so appealing that some people may choose to amputate just so that they can augment their bodies – creating a far more profound human digital divide: the augmented, and the unaugmented.

This divide not only questions who exactly is disabled, but also raises questions about our relationship with technology and what it means to be human in the twenty first century. Using my eyes to operate the curser did make me feel like I was almost becoming as one with the computer or more alarmingly functioning ‘under its control’. In this context, are contemporary philosophers such as Braidotti right – is the human an out-dated phenomenon? Critiques of the technological society often seem obsessed by a fear that what is happening is profoundly unnatural, that we are becoming post-human, entering what Professor Sherry Turkle has called “the robotic moment”.  I certainly found eye-gaze software slightly disconcerting in this way, but perhaps this is no different from early anxieties about the telephone. Lets not forget we were once fearful of the telephone’s unnatural ability to separate the voice from the body.

Appropriate use of technology…

I really do support initiatives in new technologies, particularly ones that focus on removing disabling barriers and improving quality of life. But I also feel that we sometimes need to question when it is appropriate to use technology. Sometimes I find it helpful to take part in more kinaesthetic ways of learning or creating work even though these methods are physically difficult. Research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more:

hand writingMueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory … and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand…who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used laptops.

Certainly the module I did the best at during University was one that happened to be in a classroom with wide enough desk space for me to handwrite notes, where I would normally have taken notes using a laptop. Of course it needs to be recognised that using technologies is crucial to some people who may have little or no alternative.

And if there is one thing I did take with me from three years at university it is this; always finish an essay with the opening ‘title’.

‘To augment or not to augment … that is the question?’

“Will future disabled artists be able to operate graphic design software, or even a camera, using mind control? lf so, would this type of augmentation end up making disabled artists ‘more enhanced’?”

Gemma testing Tobii EyeX

“Using my eyes to operate the curser did make me feel like I was almost becoming as one with the computer or more alarmingly functioning ‘under its control’.”

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