Interivew with artist Reiko Yamada

How did you find the artist in residence program?

"I learned about the Artist in Residence program through IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Communication Artistique/Music, which is located in Paris and where I worked for a couple of weeks many years ago. They coordinate the program that funds these residencies."

Why did you choose to work with the LUCA project?

I have a personal history with thyroid disorders. When I saw the description of their research project I realized it would be a great opportunity to explore and stimulatethe communication between medical professionals andpatients, which is especially challenging in the case ofthyroid problems because patients have such a widerange of symptoms that are not always clearly reflectedin the data used by physicians.

When I experienced thyroid problems, it happened all at once. As I discovered later, it was the result of a virus infection. I was hospitalized with severe physical symptoms, such as extreme weakness, daily fever and violent headaches. These are the symptoms that the physician took in consideration and attempted to treat.

But the illness also affected me mentally, changing my mood and, crucially for the person I am, radically decreasing my creativity. These psychological effects began with other symptoms (and lasted much longer), yet the physician paid no attention to them whatsoever, even though in some ways they were at least as important to me as the physical ones.

It is this disconnect between the way I experienced the illness and the way my physician approached it that I found particularly problematic. And it is this disconnect that I’d like to help bridging, at least to a modest extent, in my work with the LUCA team.

Could you explain your project briefly?

The LUCA device uses ultrasounds and lasers to determine whether nodules in the thyroid are cancerous or not. This is a fantastic medical advance because it’s infinitely less invasive than the current practice which requires a biopsy. But it still entails working only with physical data and doesn’t take into account the subjective experience of the patients.

In my project, I map the output data of LUCA device into variety of sound parameters but I also find creative ways to integrate those with elements that reflect the perspective of the patients. The result is that each time the device is used the algorithm I’m developing will produce a short piece of music that combines the two types of information. I’m hoping this could serve as a conversation starter for physicians and their patients, that will allow them to take each other’s perspective into consideration.

Have you worked with scientists before?

I had a project about drosophilae (fruit flies) entitled Small Small Things that led me to work with biologists before coming to Spain. It began with a 7-month residency in Austria, and I presented it in a number of settings in Europe and the US. In fact, it was the first artwork to be presented at an annual conference of the Netherland Society for Evolutionary Biology in 2018.

After I complete my project with the LUCA team, I will be serving as the first artist-in-residence at the biology department of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

What have you learned so far from the different scientists/clinicians that you have been working with? What has surprised you the most?

The way scientists work as teams is very different from the way artists usually collaborate with each other, so it’s been fascinating to observe the dynamics I’ve encountered at ICFO. But obviously I also benefited a lot from the team members who took the time to guide me through their thinking process.

It’s fascinating to see the huge amount of variables that they need to take in account when going from the theoretical design of something like the LUCA device to a tool that will actually be used in clinical settings.

Why is this a process-based project and not a goaloriented project? Could you explain a little more what you are searching for in patients?

Lots of people think that what I do is all about what comes out as an art piece in the end. However, especially for experimental projects such as this one, the most important part of what I do is within everyday interaction with people I encounter. My job is to ask unusual questions, initiate difficult conversations, demonstrate different ways of thinking and attempt to solve problems in alternative approaches. This naturally happens while I and the team work together towards creating an artwork that is especially challenging for both parties. In other words, a lot of the benefits of this residency (for myself and for the researchers) are achieved long before any performance takes place.

What do you foresee to achieve at the end of the project?

Any project that ends up looking exactly like what I had originally envisioned is, at some level, unsuccessful because it means I didn’t learn anything in the meantime. Besides the algorithm I mentioned earlier, I imagine creating some kind of sound-art piece that represents my interactions with the LUCA team but I hope it turns out to be something unlike anything I could have imagined before arriving here.

IMG_20190813_162706911_2 - Kopie.jpg

Artistic drawing of the thyroid by Reiko Yamada

Reiko Yamada is originally from Hiroshima, Japan, and has been working mainly in North America and Europe for the last 20 years. She uses sounds to think, discover and communicate; in other words, she composes concert works, creates sound art installations and works with interdisciplinary collaborators. She’s especially interested in the aesthetic concept of imperfection.

She holds a D.Mus in composition from McGill University, and since she graduated in 2014 she was invited to work in a number of settings, including as a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, as an artist in residence at the Institut für Elektronische Musik und Akustik (in Graz, Austria) and as the Innovator-in-Residence at Colorado College. Before coming to Spain, she has lived in Japan, the United States, Canada, France, Argentina, Austria, and the Netherlands.

The project Beyond Absolute is an artistic research project in collaboration with researchers at ICFO. The main component of the project is the creation of personalised acousmatic soundscapes based on the data generated by the LUCA diagnostic device in conjunction with sonic alterations that represent the subjective mindset of the patients. The project is part of STARTS residencies initiated by the European commission and IRCAM.

Posted on Thursday 30 April 2020