Conceptual Art as Neurobiologic Praxis: The Neuro-aesthetic Reading Room

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“Conceptual Art as a Neurobiologic Praxis” and the The Neuro-aesthetic Reading room are two projects that were originally separate but now have been joined together. “Conceptual Art as a Neurobiologic Praxis” was an exhibition I curated at the Thread Waxing Space, New York City, in 1999 which attempted to make explicit certain trends and ideas that I considered important parts of the history of Conceptual Art but which had not, up to that moment, been adequately explored. The Neuro-aesthetic Reading Room is still an imaginary project proposal which in many ways builds on the concepts of Conceptual Art as a Neurobiological Praxis. In fact the latter is now incorporated as part of the project. Because both operate somewhere in between art works and curatorial projects they are presented here as one project in the gallery section of the website. The accompanying details of artworks included in the Thread Waxing Exhibition act I hope to highlight the type of strategies and models some artists today are using either consciously or unconsciously to approach ideas of mind and brain. Conceptual Art as a Neurobiologic Praxis

The history of Conceptual Art like all art historical movements is continually under a state of siege as the changing cultural milieu in which it lives mutates the facts of its origins, development and relevance. Conceptual Art like Situationism which preceded it and Minimalism, Pop Art and Op Art which was contemporaneous with it had its own founding artists who in their desire to create an identifiable character or brand unconsciously tried to define and limit the parameters of its meaning, economy and distribution.. This of course is always hopeless, at best creating a discourse at worst creating a dogmatic regime that becomes deterministic and exclusive, and in the end results in its own demise. Such is the history of Conceptual Art which in its “pure” form, according to Lucy Lippard,, lasts only seven years running from 1965-1972. However Conceptual Art is not and was not, in spite of itself, a linear practice and emerges in the context of many streams of art practice, including Letterism and Situationsim, philosophy including Structuralism and Phenomenology, Infomatics like Cybernetics, psychosocial discourses like Psychoanalysis and Marxism and the political activism of the late 1960’s. The degree to which each of these contributes to the active image of conceptualism is the result of different networks of relationships that form between them at different moments and create nodal intensities in an open, not closed, autopoetic system of multiple feed forward, feedback, reentrant systems, and temporal synchronicities which are formed as systems of porous information modules linked together by dynamic intermittent temporal synchronicities. I am not here trying to analyze this system of relations into some finite set of determinations but instead to give the reader some idea of the massive complexity of this system and the degree to which organizations of art breathe and live in a system of multiple meanings, realities and definitions which in the end give them very complicated and folded structures which almost defies interpretation and analysis. For it is within this complexity which other forms and other meanings hibernate laying latent, remaining in a state of hypothermia and very slow metabolism, awaiting the proper set of conditions in which to emerge and once again become. We see examples of this all the time as certain artists’ work all of a sudden becomes once again important or in the way certain bodies of works, which had gained notoriety in there day, begin to be appreciated and recuperated. This is certainly true of the many careers of Marcel Duchamp but recently we have also witnessed this phenomena in a renewed interest in the work of Robert Smithson, Anthony McCall and Gordon Matta Clark.

Some would argue that an explanation of this phenomena can be found in the way that the social, political, historical, psychological, economic conditions of the late nineties and early 21st century share important qualities with those that defined the late sixties and early seventies such that this recovered work expresses key incites common to both eras. For instance the work of Sol Lewitt very much influenced by infomatics of the sixties develops renewed intensity in the context new media art today. His now famous quote from Artforum Magazine (5:10 Summer 1967) attests to this. “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art” sounds very much like a quote from Cybernetics by Norbert Weiner.

Others would argue that in fact that these works and the other works that carry for instance, a minimalist codon, were never understood completely and their reappraisal concerns a kind of historicity in which the works that followed have given their primary sources new meanings not originally appreciated, at that time but which emerge within the newly configured cultural context. For instance ideas of time and space have been radically altered since the invention of the Internet and with this new understanding primary works of art that forewarned of this new condition for instance Robert Smithsons “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space”, Arts Magazine (New York) 41, no.1 and John Baldessari, “Painting for Kubler”, 1969 have added significance. Time and space is now generally understood as intensive and folded and complex and these mutated conditions lend new levels of understanding to what these artists intuitively were trying to say. Another permutation of this explanation concerns the way a work of art or a movement is never really understood at all and that other meanings emerge that lay sleeping in the interstices of its being. That is to say the emerging contexts reconfigure the artworks themselves so that their determining factors are not what they were understood to be. In fact the founding artists were responding to conditions that would become and had not yet formed and that these artists, as they are simply observers, spectators, are a product of newly formed culturally derived subjectivities, stumbled through their creations without understanding what they were doing but doing so with extreme elegance. Finally another possibility for emerging interest in art of the past is the condition of the observer who interfaces with it. Such is the condition of the mutated observer whose reconfigured neural networks, reset as they have been by mutating temporal and spatial conditions resulting from the cultural incorporation of new media practice at the end of the twentieth century, view and experience the work in quite new and radical ways. Space does not allow me to go to deeply into this explanation and for those interested in a more in depth analysis please see my chapter entitled, “Blow-up: Photography, Cinema and the Brain” in the book of the same title.

The above discussion is especially relevant for the history of Conceptual Art. Recently a number of exhibitions have attempted to throw new light on the history of Conceptual Art. Most notably are L’Art Conceptual, une perspective,( Musee de Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,1990) Reconsidering the object of art, (MOCA LA,1998) and finally Global Conceptualism: Points of Origins, (Queens Museum, New York, 1999). Conceptual Art as a Neuro-biologic Praxis, 1999 is another recent example of this historical reappraisal by also attempting a rereading or expansion of the roots, causes and concerns of conceptualism while at the same time linking it to the history of artistic and technologic apparatuses and processes as they float between the investigation of perception and cognition on the one hand and artistic production on the other.

Jonathan Crary would link the parallel history of technologies of observation in the nineteenth century to the emergence of a new kind of observer. The same could be said of course about the late 20th century. New media according to the likes of Manuel Delanda moves us away from an extensive culture to an intensive one. Sequential, linear, heirarchial forms of information are substituted for by folded, non-linear, multiplicities of meaning. This new intensive culture is expressed in an intensive subjectivity. One only has to glance at a Frank Gehry’s Bilboa or the graphics used in Wired Magazine to know how this subjectivity is expressed.. This is another important subtext of Conceptual Art as a Neurobiologic Praxis.

Neuro-aesthetic Reading Room

(Conceptual Art as a Neurobiologic Praxis is reinvigorated in its newer instantiation as part of “Moments of Unease: Conjunctions of Neuro-science and Art in the Twentieth Century.”) Before progressing to describe the Neuro-aesthetic reading room a concise definition is in order. Neuro-aesthetics is the study of the development of three streams of knowledge, which are progressing in parallel, but which at times interact together to create new forms of information and images which can be used by the imagination and understanding to create new kinds of thought. These three discourses are the history of techniques as they relate to photography, film and new media, Neuro-science and art. Neuro-aesthetics describes the dance between these three very different methods of investigation that at times exchange partners. It is my contention that research and understanding of the nervous system as it is disseminated through kinds of media forms the basis of new optical and acoustic technologies which extend its abilities, and as a result of the new conditions of visual and auditory culture they produce, artists are affected in ways that stimulate them to make new kinds of images and artworks. In essence, the art works reflect in themselves directly and indirectly the current condition of Neuro-science at a specific moment as it affects ideas of perception and cognition.

1. The Neuro-aesthetic Reading Room is a “trans-disciplinary space” that has three main objectives:

a. To create a transportable library and social space for the creation, production and dissemination of a new kind of trans-disciplinary information based on Neuro-science and art interactions of form and processes. Artist and Neuro-scientist are interested in similar questions like memory, object perception, colour theory, the imagination, creativity and consciousness and the reading room will highlight these interests and how they become connected.

b. To create an exhibition entitled “Moments of Unease: Conjunctions of Neuro-science and Art in the Twentieth Century” that will give the reading room a context. This exhibition traces artists’ work beginning with Cezanne, Serault and Duchamp continuing through Richard Hamilton, Bridget Riley and Robert Morris and recently manifesting in the work of artists like Carsten Holler, Douglas Gordon and Olifur Eliason.

c. To create a space where random social interactions between artistic and Neuro-scientific professionals can accidentally meet and as a result develop ideas for interdisciplinary interactions in the form of hybridized projects.

The Neuro-aesthetic Reading Room borrows on a long history of artists using transportable artworks sometimes called Parasitic Architecture. Following the example of mobile architectures built by architects like Richard Buckminster Fuller and Archigram contemporary artists have used these kinds of structures to radicalize the work of art by moving out of the picture frame into real space. Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rosemarie Trockel and Jorge Pardo are just some of the artists working in this manner.

In my particular case the art crate becomes an armature through which a telescopic space is reconfigured. The term telescopic space delineates two main considerations of the reading room. First: many walls built into the body of the crate spring out. Secondly, telescopic refers to the relationship between the development of optical apparatti as extensions of the body that define the history of visual technologies and their special relationship to the visual system and the brain. Physically and mechanically this configuration allows for the crate to transform itself into a travelling reading room and social interactive space. Library walls spring out horizontally, a projection screen made of cloth springs out vertically, a sitting room/lounge is built into the inside front wall which is opened on the crates arrival. The library contains book titles concerned with Neuro-aesthetics. The Reading Room will travel globally after its tour of England, and will also be featured on-line at a new web site where web cam transmission will detail day-by-day occurrences of such things as symposia and social interactions as well as accessing a compilation of on-line websites that are related to Neuro-aeshetics that will be listed and made available.

2. Accompanying the reading room and surrounding it will be an exhibition entitled, “Moments of Unease: Conjunctions of Neuro-science and Art in the Twentieth Century.”

This exhibition traces the affect of knowledge coming out of physiologic psychology, neuro-biology and cognitive neuroscience that implicitly or explicitly affected artist in their art production. This exhibition would not feature real work but instead simply photocopies tacked to the wall. First there was the work of Marcel Duchamp characterized as it was by an interest in the apparatti of photography and cinema on one hand and that of the neurophysiology of the eye and brain on the other. Duchamp’s work such as the “Rotoreliefs”, “The Stereoptican Cards”, “Tu m” and “Temoins oculists” plus his statements concerning anti-retinal art attest to this. The second phase took place around the nineteen sixties. The advent of information technology in relation to feedback and feed forward mechanisms of neural loops as described in Norbert Weiner’s book Cybernetics, an interest in the “phenomena-logically” based work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an reawakened interest in the work of Marcel Duchamp and the use of psychotropic drugs led artists like Richard Hamilton, Bridget Riley, Donald Judd, and Joyce Koslov to make work that explored the intersection of art and mind.

“Conceptual Art as a Neurobiologic Praxis” is a restaging of the original exhibition at the Thread Waxing Space, New York City, 1999, will make up the final historical period of this exhibition. The exhibition included twenty-five artists that would form the basis of works by contemporary artists who have been affected by the advent of the internet, artificial intelligence, network theory, binding, neural networks, and intelligent media. Participating artists include: Ricci Albenda, Uta Barth, Sam Durant, Eric Duyckaerts, Spencer Finch, Carl Fudge, Rainer Ganahl, Liam Gillick, Douglas Gordon, Grennan and Sperandio, Jonathan Horowitz, Beom Kim, Anne Kugler, Ann Lislegaard, T. Kelly Mason, Jack Pierson, Jason Rhoades, Mathew Ritchie, Andrea Robbins, Thomas Ruff and Charlene Von Heyl

The exhibition was divided into three parts of which artists’ work illustrated. The Retinal-Cortical Axis, as the name implies, looked at the kind of visual processing occurring in the initial phases of perception where the image of the world is transformed into electric signals. The retinal-cortical axis concerns the transfer of these electrical signals from the initial events occurring in the retina at the level of the photoreceptors to those taking place at the optic chiasm, lateral geniculate nucleus, optic radiation and finally the visual cortex. Artists in this part of the show explored through their artistic practices the various aesthetic possibilities created by the anatomical and physiological conditions present in these structures like stereopsis (Grennan and Sperandio ,Ruff), gaze (Barth), visual field (Finch, Kim), and anatomy( Albenda,Von Heyl). The second part titled The Word-Image Dialectic explored the relation between text and image. Neurobiologically this work looked at the relation between the visual cortex and those areas of the brain involved in the reception and production of language like the Arcuate Nucleus, Temporal Lobe, Wernicke’s and Brocas area were explored. Works dealing with images and text were an important component of conceptualist practice in the 1960’s and artists are still involved in issues surrounding language today except that its referents have expanded beyond an analysis of sign and signifier into issues of mapping and cultural discourse. Artists work in this domain looked at such things as language acquisition (Robbins ,Ganahl, Horowitz), neologisms (Pierson), dyslexia( Albenda, Durant) and symbolic meaning ( Durant ,Robbins). Finally Global Chaosmosis explored how the whole brain operated. This term was derived from two sources. First Gilles Deluze’s notion of chaosmosis and the rhizome and secondly from global mapping as it is referred to by Gerald Edelman and Pierre Changeux in their descriptions of the developing brain sculpted by experience. Global Mapping defines the way the disparate parts of the brain, which are working in parallel on certain cognitive tasks, are synchronized together in order that all their outputs can be shared as a unity. The underlying thematic construct here concerned the way that our cultural conditions had recently undergone a radical shift in which hierarchial, sequential, analogue, arborealike had become instead intensive, folded, complex, digital and rhizomatic and as a consequence reconfigured the neural networks of our brains into what I was referring to as an Intensive Brain. Artist here explored the nature of brain waves (Finch), cerebral lateralization (Duyckaerts) mapping (T. Kelly Mason and Ritchie), hypnosis (Lislegaard), dreaming and myth, (Rhoades and Kugler) thinking, (Gillick), artificial intelligence (Fudge) and consciousness ( Gillick, Rhoades, Ritchie and Duyckaerts, Gordon) in relation to the above mentioned changing cultural conditions.

One question that comes up quite frequently is whether or not the artists chosen for this show were intentionally making work about the brain or were intentionally utilizing neuro cognitive strategies to make their work. The answer to this question is complex. In certain situations like Ricci Albenda, Charlene Von Heyl, Mathew Ritchie, Douglas Gordon, Eric Duyckaerts and Spencer Finch the answer is definitely yes. In other cases the similarities of what is being explored by neuroscience and that of art were so close that an investigation of one automatically involves the other. In other words the synchronicity between the two fields contextualized the work of art with out the artists awareness or intent. That is true for Uta Barth, Grennan and Sperandio, Rainer Ganahl, Carl Fudge and Thomas Ruff. In the case of the others it came down to a curatorial perogative based on a my special knowledge of the field of neuroscience and cultural studies. As a result I was able to make connections and draw links between what I saw as essential components of the works and the kinds of issues that in my mind they referred to. The intentionality of the artist is not always a determining factor because in some cases the works are so ripe with meaning and causality that any one reading would be simple minded. The work of art also mutates in the sea of relations that enfold it and as those conditions change so does it. Liam Gillickís work is a case in point. Yes it has to do with thinking but in this show I was more interested in its concerns with social relations and the way that these relations became recontextualized in the context of discussions of the brain and consciousness.

3. The third component of the reading room is its “inter-activation quality”.

This is a term to describe a kind of plug-in that helps the user/participant navigate the space in a creative and amusing way. When the user enters the space he or she signs in on a computer interface set up in the middle of the room and is assigned a number that relates to a tiny homing device that the individual is asked to attach to himself or herself. This homing device will help the computer record that individuals route through the reading room and will also collate that route in relation to other routes by other individuals doing the same thing. In the reading room their exists a compartment outlined in red, called the “red zone”, that contains one book from each of the ten subjects of neuro-aesthetics for instance philosophy of mind, visual culture, neuroscience. Each of these books was chosen by the artist as key references of neuro-aesthetics and is electronically connected to other volumes of like subject matter distributed locally by topic and diffusely throughout the reading room. So for instance Neurophiloshy by Patricia Churchland would obviously connect to books in the section on philosophy but might also be connected to books in the neuroscience or psychology section. Each book therefore has a multiplicity of connections that were formulated by the artist and in a way represents the workings of his mind. When the viewer or user takes one of the books from the red zone, this by the way is optional as the reading room can be freely accessed, it sends out a radio signal to a set of prescribed books with which it has an allegiance and causes a red light to flash above its placement in the shelf. One book may cause many such signals simultaneously and the user then chooses which related book to choose from. It creates another meta-category of how books are related to each other beyond subject matter. This book is hooked to the same referential network so that when it is chosen it to sends out a radio signal to related books one of which is always contained in the red zone. Consequently the user is led around the reading room according to his or her choices and selections. When finished the user receives a printout of their individual journey and the books they chose. It is like a poster and on the bottom sheet is written, Neuro-aesthetic Reading Room, the date and time. The purpose of this is to increase the desire of each user to participate with the piece. Over the course of the exhibition the computer will record many such journeys and an algorhythm will combine these separate trips to see if any patterns emerge. As the reading room travels worldwide it might be interesting to view cross cultural differences as they emerge.