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Neuro-Curo


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. Curating the Neuro-Sensorial - Cognitive Section

Earlier on this week there was series on BBC television called ‘How Art Made the World‘. While the programme’s direction presented serious difficulties for me, the last episode did have a striking proposition concerning humanity’s earliest imagery depicted in caves – the possibility that, rather than being representations of hunting scenes or anything else, these paintings have far more to do with sensory depravation, and as a result are direct neurological images projected onto cave walls. Whether this proposal is true or not, who knows, but there is something fascinating in the possibility of brain function being transferred directly on to prehistoric surfaces. The image to me offers a sort of immediately curated space, proto-curated in a way that I think is very interesting.

Of course, it did strike me too, when reflecting on some of the talks we have already heard, that it is very difficult to arrange to see the original Lascaux. You have to go into ‘Lascaux 2′, which is, if you like, a downloaded file right next to the real Lascaux, where you can see a facsimile, precisely repainted caves, a copy of the original constructed for conservation reasons. There’s somebody here DJ-ing around Lascaux. One might draw in Dolly the sheep, another kind of animal clone, who lived and died in my home city of Edinburgh. A downloaded copy of the sheep species but also an icon to mental projection – the possibility bred first in genetic scientists’ minds then projected in actuality on to the walls of science. This kind of event gives us permission to make these sorts of connections.

I am going to give a quick overview of some curatorial material which I hope will set up our two main speakers and touch on some of the reasons why I think this area around ‘neurology and aesthetics’ could be interesting. When I say, ‘could be interesting,’ I am guided always by artists. Paying attention to the curiosity of artists is a good way for me to judge when something is interesting or not.

In 1999, there was a large museum exhibition called Searchlight: Consciousness at the Millennium at California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco. Artists included Stan Douglas, Gary Hill, Agnes Martin, Museum of Jurassic Technology, Gillian Wearing, Bill Viola, and even a play by Samuel Beckett was included. The curator was Lawrence Rinder, who works at the College. Interestingly the catalogue was almost entirely populated by neurologists, neuroscientists like Paul Churchland, Francesco Varela and others.   The fact that these are the writers in an art exhibition is telling us something about how mainstream contemporary art is seeking to present itself using quite a select and very eminent group of neuroscientists.

In that exhibition was a work close my heart, that I know well and have written about, called 30 Seconds Text (1996) by Douglas Gordon. It features a small room that lights up when you go into it. At that moment of luminosity you see a text, a white text printed on black on the wall which confronts you. I am now going to read the text:

30 Seconds Text.

In 1905 an experiment was performed in France where a doctor tried to communicate with a condemned man’s severed head immediately after the guillotine execution.

“Immediately after the decapitation, the condemned man’s eyelids and lips contracted for 5 or 6 seconds…I waited a few seconds and the contractions ceased, the face relaxed, the eye lids close half-way over the eyeballs so that only the whites of the eyes were visible, exactly like dying or nearly deceased people.

At that moment, I shouted “Languille” in a loud voice, and I saw his eyes open slowly and without twitching, the movements were distinct and clear, the look was not dull and empty, the eyes, which were fully alive were indisputable looking at me. After a few seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and steadily.

I addressed him again. Once more the eyelids were raised slowly, without contractions, and two undoubtedly alive eyes looked at me attentively with an  expression even more piercing than the first time. Then the eyes shut once again. I made a third attempt. No reaction. The whole episode lasted between twenty-five and thirty seconds.”

…on average, it should take between twenty-five and thirty seconds to read the above text.

Notes on the experiment between Dr. Baurieux and the criminal Languille (Montpellier, 1905) taken from the Archives d’Anthropolgie Criminelle.

Extreme consciousness, i.e. the thirty seconds between your head leaving your body and ‘complete death,’ is the moment that Douglas confronts here. He is adopting experimental techniques by proxy of the original experiment. He is playing with the notion of how long consciousness lasts. He is also allowing you thirty seconds before the light goes off in that installation (when you can no longer read the text), a mirroring of the event of execution itself. So the trauma, in reduced form, is transported into the exhibition. There are a number of things going on here, and I won’t dwell on them now, but one of the things of interest is many artists have a quasi anthropological interest in the structure of experiments. Those that are being conducted on humans and sometimes on animals often have a clear unethical dimension to them, stemming from their context in nineteenth- or twentieth-century science or study. (I mean you couldn’t do this experiment now). Artists show anthropological interest in crossing borders, crossing boundaries of the acceptable.

Another relevant exhibition (jumping in here with an aside), called An Aside, was launched at Camden Art Centre, London (currently in Edinburgh). It was curated by artist Tacita Dean. And as an artist Dean was uncharacteristically explicit about her methodology (I mean uncharacteristic for artists in general). Her approach to the show used what she termed ‘objective chance’, which is a reference, a direct quotation, from André Breton. She used the idea of a surrealist way of intuitively making connections between works. This is, I think, a very fruitful model because it allows the exhibition of the artworks to talk intuitively back to the curator, which in this case, significantly, an artist rather than a curator alone. In a way, that is how an exhibition gets constructed. With exhibitions, as I am sure we will hear shortly, there is always an interplay between the logical and the illogical. A sort of a narrative is required, but you need alternative logics to drive those narratives. The exhibition, as a format, is more resilient than we might think for allowing alternative logics to exist. We have all seen, I imagine, exhibitions where programmatic logic has been applied and then artworks have been forced in to try and prove a curatorial a priori position. This never works. There is always something artificial and stressed about it and, I think that there are other ways to produce good exhibitions.

One of the ways that I have been thinking about this is to evoke the term micro-curating. On one level, artworks in juxtaposition, physically present, across which a viewer moves accumulating non-linear experiences is the way exhibitions do actually work. I think that curatorially we have sometimes ignored the natural, embodied way that exhibitions work in time and space.  Synaptic links become incredibly meaningful – the way that you can look at works of art as neurons, and we are, to some extent, work as neurotransmitters, making those synaptic gaps work when you accumulate a voyage through an exhibition. Barbara Maria Stafford states in Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting (1999), “we possess no language for talking about resemblance, only an exaggerated awareness of difference…” The way that exhibitions work through valuing both the aspect of connectivity and also difference, must encourage a more natural way of curating. And, I think that a lot of that naturalness derives from neurological models.

Maybe I could bring up Edge, a website set up by a science publisher / editor named John Brockman, who describes himself as a ‘curator of thought’ which I thought was an interesting expression in itself. Edge is a platform for eminent scientists, in particular, to have conversations with each other. For example, Brockman often throws out questions and allows people to respond in certain ways. At one point everyone was invited to name a law after themselves – what law would they propose. Steven Pinker wrote, “Human intelligence is a product of analogy and combinatorics. Analogy allows the mind to use a few innate ideas—space, force, essence, goal—to understand more abstract domains. Combinatorics allows an finite set of simple ideas to give rise to an infinite set of complex ones.” And, again, I find that very useful way for modeling exhibitions. We can move Pinker’s tessellated way of thinking to the related but slightly more flowing one of Antonio Damasio, who wrote in ‘The Feeling of What Happens’ (2000): ‘…the process we come to know as mind when mental images become ours as a result of consciousness is a continuous flow of images many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time, speedily or slowly, orderly or jumpily, and on occasion it moves along not just one sequence but several. Sometimes the sequences are concurrent, sometimes convergent and divergent, sometimes they are superposed. Thought is an acceptable word to denote such a flow of images.’  (p318)

Following the recent death of Saul Bellow, his work is back in the media again. In The Adventures of Augie March, he says, “Everyone knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression. If you hold one thing down, you hold down the adjoining.” and, put that next to, “we possess no language for talking about resemblance, only an exaggerated awareness of difference…” from Barbara Stafford, and I think that you get a lovely connection (born in Chicago, of course!)

Moving on quickly I want to highlight some of the reasons why thematics within neurology are interesting and pertinent here. We have touched on them but I would suggest a list like this:

Neural Networks:

Brainball is an artwork made around five years ago by Annika Hansson, a Swedish artist. It was a game-based artwork in which two protagonists move a ball between themselves, without any physical contact on the ball. They have to move the ball through the creation of a neurological vacuum if you like. In fact, that is what makes the ball move. The more that the participant suppresses his or her own brain activity, the faster the ball moves. The two people compete in a kind of anti-game. In another work, Yucca Invest Trading Plant, Hansson wired a plant that was then linked directly to a share trading programme on a computer. The plant became directly involved in the buying and selling of shares. It had an 18% success rate, which is about right for a human being…

Enigmas:

(a topic I talked on at the earlier Phantom Limb Phenomenon Conference)
I think that the idea of enigmas is very important, and consequently how artists situate themselves close to scientific enigmas and work with that material productively. Enigmas are crucial attractors for artists, particularly those who are intrigued by the kinds of ‘combinatorics’ between biology, psychology, and neurology happening at the moment.

Okay, to finish my long introduction, let’s invoke Gregory Bateson and his classic, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972). At the beginning of one of the ‘Metalogues’ as Bateson describes it, the fascinating two-way conversations with his then young daughter Cathy, Bateson is asked, precociously, “Why are there so many ways to be in a state of muddle and only very few ways to be tidied up?”

I think that artists intuitively understand the delight of that state of muddleness, and therefore quite rightly refuse to tidy up. I hope that sets up some of the things that we might find interesting on the curatorial side.

Dr. Andrew Patrizio is a Reader and Director of Research Development at Edinburgh College of Art. He is a writer on contemporary art practice and a curator, previously in London (Hayward Gallery) and Glasgow (Glasgow Museum). He is currently preparing a major exhibition on art, anatomy, and medicine in Scotland called ‘Anatomy Acts.’ He is the author of a relevant article for New Formations (#46) entitled ‘A Phantom Limb: Feeling the Gap Between Invisibility and Touch in Recent British Art.”