The Emotional Computer


In this performance work artist Tom Estes explores the use of hand gestures and hand-over-face cues while wearing the mask of a Cyberman. Both nostalgic and futuristic, the performance provides a visual reflection on the technological advancements that are fast becoming an essential part of our civilization. 

At the McTaggart lectures in 2011, Erik Schmidt, Chief Executive of Google proposed that the next great innovations in the digital field would only come if the ‘luvvy’ and the ‘boffin’ begin to work together. Artists have long been experimenting with and working alongside different scientific fields, trying to explore the potentiality of such exchanges; indeed new and applied technologies have often been implicitly embedded in these collaborative ventures. But as well as aiding scientific discoveries, productive interactions between performance and engineering, mathematics, neuroscience, biology and computer science bring to our attention the question of how science impacts our daily lives.

In his performance work EMOTICON artist Tom Estes explores the use of hand gestures and hand-over-face cues while wearing the mask of a Cyberman from the British television series Dr. Who. Cybermen were a wholly organic species of humanoids, originating on Earth’s twin planet Mondas, that began to implant more and more artificial parts into their bodies as a means of self-preservation. This led to the race becoming coldly logical and calculating, with every emotion deleted from their minds.

As cybernetic technology catches up with the wild imagination of Science Fiction, the kind of dreams and fears anticipated in Science Ficition stories may also become reality. For example, today computers can already communicate with humans. But can computers understand emotions? Can computers express emotions? Can they feel emotions? New research reports that computer will soon be able to recognize hand gestures during unvoiced speech using surface Electromyogram (sEMG). Electromyography (EMG) is a technique for evaluating and recording the signals of human or animal movement. This line of research proposes different methods for identifying facial movements and hand gestures, which can be useful for providing simple commands and control to computer. The results indicate that there are possible applications of this research include giving simple commands to computer for disabled, developing prosthetic hands and the use of classifying sEMG for Human–Computer Interaction (HCI).


Engineers building artificial intelligence, such as image-recognition apps for smartphones, are now giving their software the ability to ask humans for help. Crowdsourcing internet sites like Mechanical Turk make this possible, along with everything from translation to navigation. Likewise, how we communicate with each other has changed. The stuff we type today looks the same regardless of who we are or what mood we’re in. Helvetica, one of the most popular fonts in the world, was designed to be neutral so it could suit all kinds of contexts. So apart from the occasional transgression into the dubious world of Comic Sans, our business memos look just like our love letters, which look just like our complaints to the editor. To balance out all this sameness, people often resort to exclamation marks, ALL CAPS, smiley faces, and sometimes even Hello Kitty emoticons, which can have the effect of making us seem like a squealing teenager.

Fictional cyborgs are often portrayed as a synthesis of organic and synthetic parts. In Science Fictional cyborgs frequently pose the question of the difference between human and machine as one concerned with morality, free will, and empathy.  And in a strange twist of logic the title of the peformance work “EMOTICON” is, much like a cyborg, the combination of two or more elements to create a single new element.  The word ‘emoticon’ is what is known as a ‘portmanteau‘ because it is a combination of ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’. For his performance artist Tom Estes takes this meaning forward, combining the hand to face gestures that provide visual clues to ‘emotions’ and fusing them with the highly stylized or ‘iconic’ hand gestures found in Voguing.

Estes is interested in the relationship between machines and humans and in the performance work EMOTICON, Estes considers the future of biological intelligence in a world of distributed machine intelligence. In his performance Estes enacts a number of gestures that can generally be sorted into two categories. Co-speech gestures which are the idiosyncratic, often unconscious ways we move our hands as we talk (Researchers believe these gestures help us think and speak and even learn) and emblematic gestures which are the culturally codified motions that we use to supplement or substitute speech (ex. the peace sign, the thumbs-up, the raised middle finger- these gestures are symbolic, and in many cases imitative).  As with slang or new words, we tend to pick up our hand movements from the groups with whom we communicate most frequently—especially our peers. If your friends are thumb-texting at you, you will thumb-text back at them. Soon enough, the movement of your thumbs can be done without speech, and people know what it is. That’s the definition of an emblem.


Relatively speaking, in terms of communication, textual ubiquity is brand new. Thanks to millions of years of evolution, we are genetically wired to respond differently to visuals than text. As far back as the days of cavemen, humans have used visuals as mechanism to suppliment storytelling. In their wall paintings, early man sought to discuss successes and failures, foibles and virtues. And long before online bulletin boards, people used to pass on their histories by word of mouth. How they communicated went beyond just the words they spoke; body language, eye contact, tone of voice and even smell added signals that gave their words a much wider and more nuanced spectrum of meaning.

Psychologist Albert Mehrabian demonstrated that 93% of communication is non-verbal, and studies have found that our minds react differently to visual stimuli and verbal stimuli. John Berger, media theorist, writes in his book Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books, 1972),

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

Dr. Lynell Burmark, Ph.D. Associate at the Thornburg Center for Professional Development and writer of several books and papers on visual literacy, said:

“…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about 7 bits of information (plus or minus 2). This is why, by the way, that we have 7-digit phone numbers. Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.” Therefore, it is not surprising that it is much easier to show- for example, a circle than describe it.


Throughout his practice Estes has created socially engaged performance work that is both participatory and immersive, while at the same time playfully messes with habitual ways of thinking. During his performance, audience members were asked to interact by taking pictures on what the artist calls a “communal camera”. The pictures were then posted on social networking sites for another, wider on-line audience. This is what Estes refers to as ‘Harnessing The Hive‘ – as the view of the central performance is mediated by humans but digitally recorded through machines. The term ‘Harnessing The Hive comes from the Theory of Collective Intelligence which describes a type of shard or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making in humans and computer networks. So in the performance, the ‘hive mind’ is referenced not only via the Cyberman mask from the science fiction television show but also through the active participation of the audience. By merging everyday technology and the absurd, Estes strives, not to break down the introverted, often self-imposed boundaries between the fictional and the real but instead uses the fictional as a reflection on how data flow impacts on the significance and symbolism of real-world human senses.

The term cyborg is often applied to an organism that has enhanced abilities due to technology.  The idea of the cyborg dates back as least as far as Edgar Allen Poe In an 1839 short story, he told the tale of a wounded war veteran whose body was rebuilt using synthetic parts, including the “handsomest pair of whiskers under the sun”. Other writers have imagined a similar future, albeit with less emphasis on facial hair. In the last few decades the image and the idea of the cyberman has evolved remarkably from an awkward, mechanical creature to a sophisticated cyborg with artificial intelligence and the potential for human-like consciousness. Indeed, even the fantasy of intelligent brain-implants may become real as researchers are currently devising electronics to revive lost memories.


By donning the mask of a Cyberman, Estes questions the relationship between humans and a new cultural mechanisms capable of eclipsing the analytical capabilities of our own species. Estes’ principle concern, then, is how our view of life is increasingly mediated by machines and the digital as a shaping condition and structuring paradox. So while machines may enable us to do things, they also do things to us and do things at us. We are being completely enveloped by abstract systems and inundated with information that we are struggling to come to terms with. So perhaps the question is not how much computers are becoming like us, but how much are we becoming like computers?


Technology has changed the way we think from the rise of modern economics― based on algorithms of marketing and fictional currencies to advanced capitalism’s smooth, self-sustaining art world as infinitely reproductive and fictional as the currencies pinging across digital networks. Value is no longer indexed to the material production of goods, or to any inherent meaning, but extracted from the digital circulation of signs.

The work on the study of the human mind begun by Sigmund Freud as a means to help humanity have been adapted to manipulate and manage the world through advertising, public relations, and politics―in turn bringing us the modern world of hyper-consumerism. Freuds legacy is an idea that would dominate politics in the age of the masses―that the dangerous desires and irrational impulses of individuals could be managed on a large scale by objects that reflected and fulfilled those desires: consumer goods.  And if technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the effects as well as the side-effects?

Contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for a “disciplinary” society and the pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Cyberspace, once believed to be the dawn of a new era of communication and freedom is becoming an increasingly efficient tool of surveillance with which people have a voluntary relationship. Social networking sites like Facebook deal in self-aggrandizement and self-invention. It’s all become a fantasy expedition helmed by the ultimate avatar: a digital version of your idealized self. In the episode “The Age of Steel”, Dr. Who is able to defeat the Cybermen by shutting down their emotional inhibitors, enabling them to “see” what had become of them. Their realisation of what they had become led them to either simply shut down out of sheer horror, or partially explode. So despite the performance’s seemingly light-hearted appearance, Estes demonstrates the serious implications posed by new technology and our physically disconnected contemporary lifestyle.



Emoticon by Tom Estes took place on June 6th, 2013 at ‘A Portrait of Modern Movement’ organised by Art Pendeo at The Visual Collective Space, 10 Vyner Street, London E2 9DG

 Curated by Sarah Gavin and Heather Firminger

Photographic images by  by Louise Lynn

About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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