Sunday, January 22, 2012


What would you do if, under the right circumstances, you saw hallucinations (no drugs involved)? If your name was Alexis Kirke you would take your two PhDs (one in arts, one in technology) and create a professional demonstration to share with the public.

I had no idea what to expect when, prior to our conversation, I read about Alexis and learned we were going to talk about his upcoming performance that would share live visual hallucinations. Who is this guy, I wondered?

Alexis Kirke is a member of Plymouth University's (UK) Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, and Composer in Residence at the Plymouth Marine Institute. As part of his latter role, he has composed a score for a performance of "artificially intelligent whales" interacting with a saxophone. Impossible to describe; you just have to go here and expose yourself to it. Then there are other performances with titles such as: "Phrased and Confused" and "Drum Abuse". What next?

Afterimages. Ever look straight at a lightbulb and then been half blinded with the image of the bulb well after you stop looking at it? That is an afterimage. Afterimages come in two types, positive and negative. Positive afterimages are the same color as the original image and thought (according to my brief research) to have a neurological origin. An often cited example of positive afterimages are the "trails" associated with use of LSD. Conversely, negative afterimages invert the colors and are thought  to have an optical/retinal origin.

Alexis has Palinopsia, a neurological condition that produces (most often positive) afterimages. What this means to Alexis is that when he is extremely tired, stressed, or in just the right lighting conditions, he will start to see afterimages. No drugs involved. He describes it as unnerving sometimes, but, he stresses, unlike schizophrenia there is never any question about what is real and what is a hallucination.

Most people with Palinopsia presumably find ways to work with and around the condition and there are resources out there to help such as The Palinopsia Foundation. Alexis, on the other hand, is going beyond co-existence. His first PhD was in the area of theoretical multi-robot systems and he spent time interacting with neuroscience research groups. After earning his degree, he worked in the fields of finance, and speech and sound recognition. Following a calling to move deeper into music, he then completed a second PhD in Computing Music and became a composer.

Composers work is performed; artists often take their inspiration from their own experiences. As I spoke to Alexis about the lead up to the creation of Insight, which will premier February 10 of this year, it no longer seemed bizarre to create a composition that uses computers to enable the sharing of visual hallucinations.

In the next post, I'll explain more about how it all works. Don't stray too far...

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