The mysteries of the brain inspire art as well as science
By Laura Buchholz | October 13, 2006
Neuroscience is a predominantly left-brained activity. This is a good thing, as the logical, analytical gaze of the left-brained has revealed much of what we know about the three-pound wet blob that lives in our heads and directs our lives. But as brain imagery becomes commonplace, perhaps it was inevitable that the right-brained among us would take on the brain as an artistic subject. In fact, as moist agar is to a bacterial colony, the dark, ephemeral, and hidden nature of the brain may be the ideal environment for artistic inspiration to thrive. And thrive it has, to the point where brain art could almost be considered a genre.
Images of the brain have the power to shape the way we understand the mind and consciousness itself, according to Suzanne Anker, Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the School for Visual Arts in New York City, and co-curator of the recent exhibit "Neuroculture: Visual Art and the Brain" at the Westport Arts Center. "We make images, and images make us," she said.
Co-curated with Giovanni Frazzetto, a Branco Weiss Fellow and molecular biologist, "Neuroculture" addressed three related themes: the landscape of the brain as mapped by imaging technology; conceptualized images of mind and consciousness; and pharmacological enhancement of the neurochemical self. Anker contributed to the exhibition a series of Rorschach inkblot tests made three-dimensional and distributed, seashell-like, among chunks of pyrite and other seemingly biological matter.
"Consciousness is layered by experience, education, and connoisseurship," said Anker, adding that these levels of awareness inform the way we look at images. "This is true of scientists looking at MRI scans as well as artists looking at a painting or a sculpture."
The cerebral cortex, the hypothalamus, the corpus callosum -- each of these parts of the brain comes with its own shape and essence, available to be probed by the artist. But even the elusive brainwave has been making -- well, waves -- in the artistic world for some time. The art installations "Wave UFO" by Mariko Mori (2003) and "Slumber" by Janine Antoni (1994) both used brainwaves as their central interactive element. In "Wave UFO," which was shown in Manhattan as a Public Art Fund project, visitors contributed their own brainwaves inside a giant "UFO pod" to create images that were projected onto an overhead screen. In "Slumber," which took place at the MASS MoCa arts center, Antoni used her own brainwaves, recorded while she was sleeping, to stitch a "dream blanket" onto fabric torn from her nightgown.
Installation artist Nina Sobell has been making art from brainwaves since the 1970s, a time when biofeedback, alpha machines, and video were just coming into vogue. Sobell's early installations hooked up two people at a time to an EEG machine, and then connected the output to an oscilloscope. The oscilloscope images of the combined brainwaves were superimposed over live monitor images of the subjects' faces. "I wanted to create a physical and mental portrait of how people are being and communicating together in a nonverbal way that is always there, but is never visualized or realized," said Sobell, who is now expanding her work to take advantage of the connectivity of the Internet.
But perhaps the art of the brain doesn't need all this explanation and theorizing. The brain can make for good art simply because some of the images coming out of neuroscience are mysterious and compelling. Adrienne Klein is Co-Director of the Science & the Arts Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her video installation "Mind's Eye" (1998) taps into the flow-chart nature of human thought. Describing the graceful arabesques of particle traces and other visual images provided by modern science, Klein said, "These images are simply beautiful, and visually exciting. Why wouldn't artists want to explore that?"
Laura Buchholz is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.
Links within this article:
Neuroculture: Visual Art and the Brain (Westport Arts Center)
The Branco Weiss Fellowship
"Wave UFO" Mariko Mori (2003)
Public Art Fund
"Slumber" Janine Antoni (1994)
CUNY Graduate Center: Science & the Arts