A Singaporean Artist Who Uses Her Brainwaves as Her Medium

This story was first posted on T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Singapore on 7 October 2020.

In this global age, it’s a universally understood fact that the world would come to a grinding halt without technology. State-of-the-art technology has not only altered human communication dramatically, but has also changed the way many modern artists express themselves creatively.

More recently, technological revolutions in neuroscience have enabled artists to create art by harnessing human brainwaves and delving deeper into the subconscious. One such artist is Yeo Shih Yun, who has seamlessly fused neurotechnology with her love of traditional ink paintings. Based in Singapore, Yeo graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts in 2001 and further pursued painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2002. Courtesy of Yeo Shih YunYeo Shih Yun with two of her ink paintings. Left: “Re-charging” (2014). Right: “Connecting the Wires” (2014).

Yeo Shih Yun with two of her ink paintings. Left: “Re-charging” (2014). Right: “Connecting the Wires” (2014).

Professionally, the mother of one is also the founder of the independent art space, called Instinc. She is known for her impressive oeuvre of works which run the gamut from abstract expressionism to unconventional experimentation. Inspired by her research on meditation devices, such as Muse — which is a brain-sensor device that tracks brain waves, Yeo has found a way to utilise electroencephalography (EEG) sensors in her contemporary art. 

In her work, titled “Mind Ink Painting Machine,” Yeo transforms the electrical impulses in her brain into compelling, abstract video art. Visually stimulating, the 17-minute piece showcases particles which are reminiscent of brush strokes coalescing with each other and then breaking apart, almost like crashing waves. An immersive and seemingly eerie electronic track lingers in the background. The ambient track, as it turns out, was composed by a close friend of Yeo’s, Andy Yang, a musician and artist, using the Chapman Stick, an electrical music instrument with 10 to 12 individually tuned strings that was devised in the early ’70s by jazz musician Emmet Chapman.

On her inspiration, Yeo says, “I wanted to control digital ink with the human mind; to tap the energies of the most mysterious and powerful organ, the brain; and to create.” Yeo’s masterpiece, she explains, fluctuates with her emotions. The ink waves respond to her emotions, a direct and almost palpable culmination of them. “When my state of mind is uncalm,” she continues, “the piece resonates and becomes more turbulent. But when I am calmer, the ink waves become gentle.”

The development of Yeo’s work involves two parts. She began with the development of the “ink” in the video, which requires a total of 100,000 particles to appear as a smooth, fluid simulation. She then used the EEG sensors to translate the human brainwaves and converted them into data for the ink painting. The raw data was processed in TouchDesigner, software for visual programming, and used to control the data stream for the simulation. Subsequently, the data from the simulation was passed into an Open Graphics Library which rendered the network to create the final digital ink paintings. 

Transposing EEG data into interesting and aesthetically pleasing liquid ink forms can prove to be a conceptual and technical challenge in itself. The stark contrast of blending a traditional art form like landscape ink painting with a contemporary medium from the 21st century is certainly a refreshing concept altogether. 

Here, Yeo answers T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.

What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

Typically, I get a good 8 hours of sleep every day and wake up between 7 and 8am. I go to my studio 2 or 3 times a week to do my work which includes testing new devices or robots, priming canvases, packing, and sometimes just reading and writing, before fetching my son home from school in the afternoon. I would then continue working at home where I can look after my son. I also try to go for walks twice a week in the morning.

How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?

I do not think the hours of creative work I put in a day can be measured. I have never stopped contemplating new ideas for my art. For example, it could be while I’m driving when I see a colour combination that’s interesting which then inspires my painting palette. I could also be sleeping and dreaming of my art. That, at times, does fuel my work in unexpected ways. 

What’s the first piece of art you ever made?

When I was still in Lasalle back in 1999, with the encouragement of my professor, I took part in a national art competition, UOB Painting of the Year. It was the first art piece that wasn’t a school assignment. This minimalist work was created on an IKEA translucent blue shower curtain with stripes of acrylic paint that resembled Chinese bamboo and was eventually titled “Bamboo”. It won an award for the ‘Top 20 Highly-Commended’ work. 

What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?

“Bamboo” was the first artwork I ever sold. I sold it for S$1,500 to a couple who worked for the bank.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

For my paintings, I have a series of different works. For example, the trees, music and robots series. Before I start on any series, I will first conduct some research and experiment on the materials and colour scheme before creating smaller works with the chosen technique, whether it is painting or screen printing or both. 

After completing several small works and when I’m confident enough, I will start on the bigger piece. The work will begin after I’ve primed the canvas or linen and, in the process of doing this, my mind is preparing for the work to be created. I will prime at least 3 layers of gesso and sand between each layer to get a smooth final surface. For works that are new media, like “Mind Ink Painting Machine,” the work starts with research on the internet. 

How do you know when you’re done?

When the work is optimised and there is nothing more to add to the piece. It is easy to over-paint a piece of work so when the work reaches the final stages, I will take it slow and make sure I don’t overdo it.

What music do you play when you’re making art?

I love John Cage and his experimental piano music. Cage’s work is minimalist and full of surprises. Cage gives very specific instructions as to how the instrument should be prepared, detailing exactly what sort of object should be used on each string and how far along the string each object should be placed. It is always inspiring to listen to him. I have been listening to him while painting since 2001 back when I was studying in the San Francisco Art Institute. 

When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?

I can’t remember exactly when, but I guess a rough estimate would be around 2004 when I started my own space, Instinc.Courtesy of Yeo Shih YunA still from “Mind Ink Painting Machine”, 2020.Zoom

A still from “Mind Ink Painting Machine”, 2020.

What’s the weirdest object in your studio?

This little stool with 4 wheels that I bought from a DIY store in Fukuoka. This was meant for gardening when I was doing a residency in Studiokura, but it is so useful when I am priming and painting as I primarily work on the floor. 

Are you binge-watching any shows right now?

Yes, I love to watch reality competition shows like “Making the Cut,” “Skin Wars,” “Blown Away,” and “Glow Up.” Basically shows with design and art elements in them. Right now, I am watching “Upload,” a series about an afterlife in a digital world and “Raised By Wolves,” another series set in Kepler-22b after the earth gets destroyed and androids are programmed to be parents of human kids.  

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

I like to surf the internet and do some research on cool tech gadgets. I also like scrolling through Instagram.

If you have windows, what do they look out on?

From afar, I can see Marina Bay Sands. Directly outside my window, I can see the swimming pool.

What do you bulk buy with most frequency?

I don’t really buy things in bulk as I don’t have much storage space. 

What’s your worst habit?

Indulging in delicious wine and sake.

What embarrasses you the most?

My atrocious parking skills, especially when it comes to parallel parking.

What are you reading?

A book that was given to me last year by a dear artist friend from Spain, Alba Escayo. Somehow I didn’t get a chance to read it until now. The title of the book is “Diary of a Genius” and peeks into the most astonishing and intimate workings of the mind of Salvador Dalí from 1952 to 1963 during his bizarre world travels.

What’s your favourite artwork (by someone else)?

It is really difficult to choose just one artwork but if I really need to, it will have to be “Automobile Tire Print” (1953) by Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage. My two favourite artists created this collaboration piece” Tire-tread mark of the front wheels and tire-tread mark with house paint of the rear wheels, made by Cage’s Ford Model A and driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper. This work exemplifies the phrase “less is more.”

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