Game On | 2013

Game On is an interactive performance (and installation) where players drawn from the audience use joysticks to control the movement of two boxers (human performers) via a MIDI-controlled electric muscle stimulation device. This device sends electrical impulses to specific muscle points on the boxers via electrodes connected to their arms, causing them to punch their opponent involuntarily. [1] The way the players control the boxers in Game On is similar to the way a gamer would move a joystick to control an avatar in a virtual fighting game. When the player moves the joystick, the boxer moves involuntarily and throws a punch.

The work is a creative enquiry into the nature of agency within a system where cognition is distributed across people, objects and environment through technologies of connection. [2] Our sense of agency is created through actions, and the actions of others influence our understanding of ourselves as separate from them. In the Game On system, the boxer is connected to their player by an electrical network (akin to neurological signals) such that the player’s embodied experience extends to include their boxer. This expansion of agency entails a form of cognition that exceeds the boundaries of the nervous system. Game On explores what happens when embodied experience and sense of agency is disrupted or extended, and the implications of this for locating a responsible agent within this system. (i.e. whom, or what, is actually boxing?).

Questioning both the motivations of the players (who are subjecting the boxers to punches and electric shocks) and the culpability of the boxers (who are complicit in the violent act by relinquishing control of their limbs in order to be remotely controlled to punch their opponent), the work references Milgram’s 1960s psychological experiments on obedience. These experiments demonstrated that participants were prepared to administer increasingly painful electric shocks to another human if instructed to do so by a figure of authority. Game On explores the role of the artist, who occupies a position of power not dissimilar to the experimenter in the Milgram study, and conceptions of artistic activity which may permit the artist to explore practices in direct tension with society’s norms.

The Game On installation design is based on a scene from the 1970’s cult classic Future World, where human players control android boxers. Replacing avatars/androids with real people, Game On challenges the disassociation from violent acts that players experience within a virtual game environment and the ethical challenges faced by society as technology advances to a point where the level of realism in ‘games’ becomes indistinguishable from reality. Game On makes real the speculative science fiction of Future World and in turn asks questions about the spectacle of violence & entertainment in the future.

1. Electric muscle stimulation mimics the impulses sent to muscles from the central nervous system, which cause the muscles to contract.
2. Participatory artworks like Game On can be viewed as a form of performative research, which do not only represent possibility, but enact possibilities in real time and space.

DUTY | 2014

Duty explores sonic possibilities and human limits, harnessing the bodily convulsions produced by electrical impulses to control seven performers in a work composed in one octave for fourteen handbells. The title of the work refers both to the movement of a bell and the enforced physical obligation of the performers, and references Pavlovian classical conditioning experiments pairing the sound of a bell with another stimulus to elicit conditioned responses in subjects.

A performative realization of a system where agency is dispersed across people, objects, and the environment, the work creates a distributed system where the artist/composer executes pre-determined motor actions in the performers via electric muscle stimulation (EMS).

A composition converted to MIDI triggers two custom-built EMS devices, which deliver electrical impulses to specific points on the performers’ arms via electrodes attached to their skin, causing their muscles to contract and generating specific involuntary movements at changing velocities. Variations in voltage, frequency and pulse width dictate different muscular responses in the performers, ranging from unnatural jolts to unnervingly fast movements. Duty uses the induction of involuntary movement to explore the way physical (and psychological) constraint can determine both a musical outcome and extend sonic possibilities. Expanding the potential of the human body beyond conscious control the use of electric muscle stimulation in this context enables experimentation with rhythmic structures and fast movements that the performers would be unable to achieve of their own volition. The ensemble of performers create a unified somatic instrument; a conduit for complex rhythmic soundscapes and visually unnerving movements.

The application of EMS to musical performance provides a novel way to explore the interface between technology and live performance, and raises interesting questions regarding creative agency in the creation of music. The transmogrification of the performers’ body as an input/output device literalizes aspects of musical performance, where musicians frequently describe feeling like conduits or transcribers of a creation that is not their own. A perverse take on Schoenberg’s (1911) claim that “art is born not of ‘I can’ but of ‘I must’”, Duty explores the liminal space between didactic execution and free interpretation inherent in all musical performance.

In a broader sense, Duty questions assumptions about agency and free will both in musical performance and everyday contexts. An enquiry into the nature of agency within systems where cognition is distributed across people, objects and environment through technologies of connection, Duty explores what happens when embodied experience is disrupted or extended, and what kind of agency is created in these distributed systems.

“DUTY by Michaela Davies tells a story about traditional musicianship, society and control. Technology is used only where absolutely necessary. The fact that it has to be performed live, that the performers have to follow the electrical impulse of a machine, the reduction to very simple instruments and reducing the musicians to extended non-artificial limbs shows the politically and socially relevant aspect of the piece… Duty shows that you can make a political statement without connections to agitprop, playing with contemporary genres and situations, crossing the border between music, performance and dramatic arts, but being grounded in a deeply musical culture.” (Hybrid Art 2015-Ars Electronica Archive)

Compositions for Cyborg String Quartet | 2013

Davies’ Compositions for Cyborg String Quartet explore sonic possibilities and human limits, at the interface of technology, live performance and composition. Davies harnesses the bodily convulsions produced by electrical impulses to control performers in a string quartet, who are literally shocked into playing their instruments. Two performers in the quartet are connected to a custom-built electric muscle stimulation (EMS) device, which sends electrical impulses to their muscles, generating specific involuntary movements. [1]

The involuntary elements of the work are controlled via a composed MIDI sequence, while the voluntary parts are written as a notated score. The Cyborg Quartet creates an absurd dialogue between the ‘robotic’ players and the professional musicians through the use of repetition, call and response and other techniques from the classical lexicon.
The use of EMS in this context extends the potential of the human body, enabling the performers to execute tasks beyond conscious capabilities. The performers’ bodies become a technological resource controlled by the musical score, to execute complex rhythmic structures, precision phasing, and other techniques they would otherwise be unable to perform of their own volition. The interface also enables the performers to play in rhythmic unison without any external cues or obvious tempo.

By placing non-musicians in a formalized performance setting with trained musicians, and controlling their limbs so that they execute complex rhythms and techniques which would otherwise be impossible, the work speaks to the ‘democratization’ of music with the advent of user-friendly technology, and the subversion of cultural traditions previously reserved for the elite or trained initiates.

Inserting these ‘robotic’ elements into an enduring emblem of Western classical tradition, this 18th-century-meets-cyborg string ensemble provides a stark example of the man/machine interfacing that is central to most contemporary music creation, production and performance, and points to a growing reliance upon machines to perform repetitive or difficult tasks previously relegated to humans.

In a broader context, the Cyborg String Quartet is a creative enquiry into the nature of agency within systems where cognition is distributed across people, objects and environment through technologies of connection. The work aims to inspire reflection upon assumptions about agency and free will both in and beyond the context of musical performance.

1 Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) is the elicitation of muscle contraction using electrical impulses. The impulses are delivered through electrodes on the skin near to the muscles being stimulated. The impulses mimic the action potential that comes from the central nervous system, causing the muscles to contract.

Note: The text above was written by the Artist. No modification was made by C.O.C.A.

Michaela Davies


Michaela Davies is an Australian artist and musician with a doctorate in psychology, and fuses these multiple disciplines in her work. She investigates sonic possibilities, human limits, and the nature of agency, using electric muscle stimulation and other methods to both obstruct and extend human capabilities. Her work has been presented worldwide, including London V&A, Boston Athenaeum, Currents International New Media Festival (New Mexico), ISEA, Museum of Contemporary Art (Australia), Loewe Theatre (NY), ISEA, Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, and Sonica (UK) where she was artist in residence. Michaela was awarded a Creative Australia Fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts, and received an Honorary Mention in Prix Ars Electronica (2015) for Digital Musics & Sound Art

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