Editor’s Note

The multidimensional map that links cybernetics, cognitive neuroscience, and art commences early on in the history of cybernetics. First, cybernetics’ relationship to cognitive neuroscience is born out in its standard dictionary definition as “a science dealing with the comparative study of complex electronic calculating machines and the human nervous system in an attempt to explain the nature of the brain.”1 The two early pioneers of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch, were both involved in enlisting cybernetics in formulations of the workings of the processes of neural networks. Neural networks are groups of neurons, the basic cells of the nervous system that are responsible for transmitting its electric signals, which work together. Technologies discovered as a result of research in cybernetics, such as feedforward and feedback mechanisms as well as binary, digitally configured electronic circuits, were adapted by Wiener to understand how neural networks performed and, in the case of McCulloch, led to the invention of the first reading machines for the blind.

The entire story of how cybernetics found its way into the art world is complicated and beyond the scope of this introduction. In short, two genealogies, one conscious and one unconscious, were important. Exhibitions connecting art and technology at institutions such as the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York at the end of the 1960s2 and articles and essays by Jack Burnham, who incidentally also curated the exhibition Software—Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art at the Jewish Museum in Brooklyn in 1970 and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 1971, connected artists of various ilks to cybernetic technologies of the day. Some artworks, like Frank Gillette’s Wipe Cycle (1969) and Dan Graham’s Two Consciousness Projections (1972), directly borrowed feedforward and feedback strategies in their work. Even if some artists did not directly use the hardware available at the time, they consciously reformatted and imported concepts from their original location in computer software and hardware to create such devices as a painting machine to create works of art (in the case of Andy Warhol) and into concepts to later be used as art theory, as in the case of Sol LeWitt.

The case of LeWitt is very interesting in light of the “unconscious roots” of conceptual art and the way that cybernetics and neurobiology intersect to construct the foundation for that work. Beyond the obvious link between the mind and brain—a problem of historic proportion that I think is inherent in the philosophical roots of conceptual art, for instance, its fascination with meaning and semiotics—there is another umbilicus that links thinking machines and aesthetic machines. An evaluation of two quotes, one from Wiener and the other from LeWitt, clearly elucidates this and points in the direction of the historic roots of artbrain.org:

That the entire sequence of operations be laid out on the machine itself so that there should be no human intervention from the time the data were entered until the final results should be taken off, and that all logical decisions necessary for this should be built into the machine itself.3
—Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics

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 art.4
—Sol Lewitt, Artforum

Artbrain.org emerges within a quite different context from that which defined the 1960s and the birth of cyberculture. We are simultaneously embedded in a kind of institutional climax of information technology as it segues with our daily lives and an explosion of exploration of the brain, which this technology allows us to probe. As artists act as mediators between the immaterial forces that impose themselves on our daily lives and the visual culture that becomes their instantiated expression in works of art, it is not surprising that they too would seek this territory for inspiration. We see this in the plethora of artworks that either implicitly or explicitly deal with this subject. From artists interested in the iconography of the brain, like Katharina Fritsch and Charlene von Heyl, to those who are interested in its processes, such as Matthew Ritchie and Carl Fudge, visual culture uses its materials to explore the morphologies that are generated, and artbrain.org is one such means to that end.


  1. Jack Rabin and Edward M. Jackowski, eds, Handbook of Information Resource Management (New York and Basel: Marcel Dekker, 1987), 212.
  2. See, for example, Cybernetic Serendipity curated by Jasia Reichardt at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London from August 2 to October 20, 1968 and Information curated by Kynaston McShine at the Museum of Modern Art, New York from July 2 to September 20, 1970.
  3. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Paris: Hermann & Cie, 1948), 4.
  4. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967), 80.