Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
Feeling emotional, a late Friday spectacle at the Wellcome Collection

Lucy Orr

I’m definitely #FeelingEmotional at the many people on display when entering the usually meditative Wellcome Collection – a museum for the “incurably curious” far from London’s busy Euston Road.

Tickets for all workshops, discussions and lectures are sold out, even though it’s only 6pm, and the event doesn’t start for another hour. I try not to beat myself up for not attending the Dominatrix-led Emotional Workout session.

An almighty queue makes everyone feel really emotional.
Enlarge / An almighty queue makes everyone feel really emotional.

Lucy Orr

Never mind, because there are more than enough walk-in events (all with good queues) to fill my Friday night.

Looking like an anarchist entrance exam with lots of waving random papers, I head to the Testing Feelings drop-in workshop hosted by Dr Chris Millard of the Queen Mary Center for the History of Emotions. The scraps of paper swirling around me are historical personality tests. Millard explains that the tests—ranging from Jungian to Freudian—are good examples of pseudoscience specific to a time and culture.

The validity of these tests when administered 40 years into the future is “almost doubtful as to whether they will be obliterated”. He’s here to get people thinking about why society wants to convert complicated human emotions into numerical data. Millard hopes we’ll think about why people shouldn’t just be complicated and contradictory. Time to complete my Cassell Group level of Aspiration Test, followed closely by a Maudsley/Eysenck Personality Inventory.

I have to agree with Millard’s assumptions that these tests are pseudoscience, as the results seem to point to borderline ferret obsession and compulsive cider drinking. Whatever!

Picking up a pair of wireless headphones on the seat next to me, I’m suddenly part of Nina Wakeford’s site-specific intervention with a large screen showing a chorus of women sitting on a flight of stairs singing “this song is so boring.” This apparently addresses the “effects of gendered solidarity using women’s voices”. This is apt given that feminist writer Susie Orbach is in the building.

Fancy another foray into pseudoscience, it’s time for me to get to grips with some forehead measurement known as metoposcopy. I am handed a paper reproduction of a 1785 forehead reader made by a lover of psychology and physiognomy Dr. Carl Ludwig Silkbermann. I map my eyebrow lines with a pen to analyze my face. Turns out I’m sensible in marriage, and a skilled dressmaker who’s kind to the poor. But wait! A flick of the eyebrows suddenly reveals that I am strong, fat, hot-tempered and will die in a fire – all of which sounds much more realistic.

Danny Reece, engagement officer for the Wellcome Library, explains how this mix of divination/fortune telling was once an extremely popular parlor game among the European intelligentsia. At this point I’m starting to wonder if the Wellcome Collection has stock in Gypsy Rose Lee’s Clairvoyant Academy, and I’m anxiously awaiting the moment when I have to cross someone’s palm with silver.

Instead, events go a little Camp Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib with the Stress Head drop-in, where participants receive electric shocks to the wrists until they feel uncomfortable (but not with pain), and then asked to perform various tasks to see how well they function under the fear of shock. Sarah Peters, a neuroscience master’s student at UCL, seems to be adept at putting volunteers in a state of sustained fear with her equipment straight from the conditioning lab in A Clockwork Orange.

Be your own Lucy emoji and demand money from the parent.
Enlarge / Be your own Lucy emoji and demand money from the parent.

Lucy Orr

But hey, who needs shock treatment when my anxiety is already at boiling point fighting the queue jumpers in line for ‘Be Your own Emoji’. Adele from the creative studio Could Be Good asks me to randomly pick an emotion from one of their cards. Then I use my face to portray that emotion, while – yes! – pass through a hole surrounded by a sufficiently massive counterfeit mobile phone interface. As I growl, a random text message appears above me. Mine is – coincidentally – “Dad, can I borrow some money?”

At this point I’m scared because this is the exact wording of my last email to my father. And when I send this image to him, his immediate response is, “Fuck off! I gave you some money last week.” Oh.

Robin, the autonomous social toddler robot (happy enough in his playpen, and seemingly oblivious to the crowd of onlookers), instantly reminds me of Buck Rodgers’ useless Twiki. Fortunately, Robin has the lofty goal of educating and managing children with diabetes.

Robin has a software model of diabetes running on him and he can be fed different foods that affect his blood sugar levels. He may also be given dummy insulin.

Matthew Lewis, from the School of Computer Science University of Hertfordshire’s EECAiA laboratory, explains how Robin contributes to a positive experience of managing diabetes. AI techniques have been used to make Robin appear independent. Social needs are satisfied through interaction with his camera, which has face detection. Robin can also simulate fatigue – a symptom of low blood sugar – which can remind children to keep an eye on their own diabetes indicators.

Then I take my seat for Loteria! Unhealthy obsessions primed by the claustrophobia-inducing sorry you’re not comfortable collectively. This emerging indie art group has researched and observed objects in the Medicine Man collection from a post-colonial theoretical perspective. Photos of the objects have been added to the magazines for Loteria! a game of chance somewhat similar to bingo.

The event’s curator, Teresa Cisneros, explains how this Mexican bingo works: Organizers call out the information about the objects, and players intersect the images, unraveling the collection using critical analysis, before finally questioning identity politics.

At the, er, Phhoto booth, I’m asked to choose a different emotion to convey with my now-worn facial muscles. I’m clearly going for shock and horror in the funny GIF it creates.

Apex Elixir can make you super dizzy.  Look after!
Enlarge / Apex Elixir can make you super dizzy. Look after!

Lucy Orr

When seeing for the price of the cocktails at the Bompas & Parr Turbo-charged Emotions bar: £10 for a small brown medicine bottle of either Nadir Elixir (worry-free comfort to surrender the mind to an out-of-body experience = Gin) or Apex Elixir (breathless euphoria to make the heart swell with intoxicating offense and excess = Rum), and a health warning seems pretty stiff.

When I opt for the Apex elixir with sassafras – which in higher doses is reminiscent of MDMA – all I feel is euphoria that I’m not standing in line around the block to get into the building.

But my heart rate starts to speed up as I reach the tube, and for a moment I’m tempted to go to the Slimelight club instead of going back to Surrey. #feeling nostalgic

Feeling Emotional was a free ‘Friday Late Spectacular’ event held on February 5 at the Wellcome Collection in London. The museum regularly hosts nightly events to showcase the arts and sciences.

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Lucy Orr grew up near CERN and Fermilab, while her father was busy searching for the Higgs boson (which he eventually found). While waiting for her mutant powers to manifest, Lucy dabbled in BASIC programming, reading comics, and playing MUDs. With an extensive career in digital art and animation, she still finds time to pet ferrets, listen to pop punk and drink cider.

Frame image by Lucy Orr

By akfire1

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