Charged Hearts

Charged Hearts, a new media work by Ottawa artist Catherine Richards, uses the heart’s iconic status to materialize the waves and particles that produce electromagnetic currents – the physical but unseen substrata of the electronic age. The choice is apt, for the heart is both a metaphor for passion and the emotions and one of the most well-known parts of the body’s electromagnetic fields.

An ambitious and brilliantly conceived project bringing together a variety of scientists and technicians under the direction of the artist, Charged Hearts exists both as a gallery-based installation and a Web site game. Richards traces the interconnections of electromagnetic impulses as they occur within three systems: the weather, the body, and the new virtual worlds commonly known as cyberspace. These premises are embedded materially in three key objects. First, the Terrella, a nineteenth-century artifact first used in experiments to replicate the patterns created by the Northern lights. Second, in the anatomically correct glass hearts that glow with a gas plasma triggered by the electrical activity of charged ions. Thirdly, in a computer printer, which stands to the side of the piece but connects the installation to the World Wide Web.

The luminously charged gases in the Terrella and the hearts sit on separate raised podiums atop a Plexiglas tier. On the centre podium raised slightly higher than the two stands flanking it, is a glass cube containing the Terrella tube, sparkling with a bluish light in its simulation of the earth’s north and south magnetic pole. Technically it is the Terrella that produces the electrical charge that connects the two hearts. Located on separate platforms to the right and left of the centre podium, these hearts are in bell jars inside glass cases. The cases are open to one side so that hands may enter and hold the jars containing the hearts. Slightly larger than life, these hearts emit a pinkish purple glow when the fluorescent powders on their inside surface are bombarded with electrons.

Picking up the glass heart triggers changes in both the Terrella and in the hearts. The heart in the jar seems to pulsate in the hands, its light intensifying, weakening, moving with every torque of your wrist. There are no wires connecting the hearts to the Terrella, only a coil of copper wire on the bottom of the jars. Yet, by picking up the heart in a jar, you become a part of this loop connecting body to glass heart to Terrella – and finally of course to the Web site. If there is another participant touching the other heart, you enter into the circuit together. The interactivity is oblique and somewhat organic because there is, intentionally, no clear indication of the causal lines connecting one thing to another. In this way, the installation challenges push-button notions of interactivity, which place the user in a privileged and fictive site of agency. In Charged Hearts our bodies, like our subjectivities, are caught in a matrix of coterminous interacting elements.

Because the hearts are handheld objects Charged Hearts has a tactility that is both pleasurable and carries with it real risks. Dropping the hearts may cause them to explode into pieces. Because of the materiality of the objects, oddly cold and clinical despite the glow, the installation falls within the tradition of other media works that come out of sculpturally-based electronic arts, such as Norman White’s Hapless Robot. Giving the user the “smart card,” in reality a piece of cardboard, with your own “personalized access code,” both allows the user access to the Web site and pokes fun at the interactive promises of cyberspace, asking again, “Who is in control?” By stepping on the platform and partaking, your presence is registered – a reminder of the potential power of these systems to monitor the movements of citizens and consumers with every swipe of a charge card.

Likewise, Charged Hearts, the Web site ( is no ordinary game. Developed in collaboration with Martin Snelgrove, a computer programmer, it eschews conventional video game formats, which are mostly competitive in nature. However, it does share one feature – at its locus it is a game of survival. Created from a scanned medical image of the top valve of the heart, this pumping, pulsating little miniature greets you when you log in. You are asked to name your heart, and you are given a statistical readout on its condition. The game is not to win points but to keep your heart alive, an avatar for your very self, which you can only do by moving it around the screen and bringing it into proximity to other hearts. No heart stands alone – literally. You must request that other “hearts” come into your sphere in this virtual space, itself a simulation of the complexities of love and other forms of social interaction. Their presence may assist you, boost you, or damage you depending on the rate of their own activity, and the cumulative effect of all of the hearts gathered together. The only other way to rescue an ailing virtual heart is to recharge yourself at the gallery site, a ploy which indicates the artist’s own proclivity for the physical over the virtual.

In this concern with life, death and survival in the late twentieth century, Charged Hearts is the successful alter ego of Richard’s last major piece, Curiosity Cabinet at the End of the Millennium (1995). In Curiosity Cabinet, the spectator entered into a gigantic copper cage in an attempt to insulate the self from the cumulative charge of our present electromagnetic field. In so doing the spectator became an object on display, much like a museum piece or a curio in a nineteenth-century cabinet. Curiosity Cabinet explores the luxury of escape and the nostalgic fantasy that we can isolate and protect ourselves. In contrast Charged Hearts highlights the pleasures and dangers of life in the midst of these very real, yet invisible fields interrogating the consequences of living in an environment thoroughly penetrated by electronic gadgets. You would never consider sticking your finger in an electrical socket. Richard’s installation suggests that this is exactly our present condition. The move to more “wireless connections” only masks this environmental shift. Charged Hearts plugs us in, traces our movements, and compels us to consider our future survival within this technologically saturated life-world.

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