Artists and Scientists in Dialogue at the Rubin Museum of Art

The sixth annual Brainwave series kicked off on February 6 at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, and will run through April.

François Girard and Carl Schoonover at Brainwave. (Photo: Michael Palma for RMA)

Just before neuroscientist Carl Schoonover and director François Girard took the stage last Wednesday at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City for a one-hour public dialogue, series curator Tim McHenry told the crowd that the two had never met before. A murmor of surprised excitement spread through the Rubin’s basement auditorium– we were about to witness that first meeting of minds, and the respective practices of art and science carried within them (opera and film in Girard’s case and neuroscience in Schoonover’s, who had just handed in his doctoral thesis at Columbia University, and last year published his first book, Portraits of the Mind).

What ensued was somewhat like two masterful musicians taking the stage to improvise a set: first there was a warm up period, as the two got to know each other, tested the waters and lobbed some preliminary questions back and forth; then the interplay of ideas began to soar, giving the assembled audience a dialogue that seemed to be more than the sum of its parts.

Girard was in town to direct Parsifal at the Met Opera. Schoonover, bring an opera enthusiast himself, was curious to explore the question of reality, in everyday existence and in created worlds, especially Wagnerian ones. This iteration of the Brainwave series bears the general theme of “illusion,” so starting with questions of reality in the imagined worlds of opera seemed appropriate.

“Wagner’s worlds were not literal, they weren’t real in the sense that you thought they happened,” Schoonover said to Girard. “Would you argue that those worlds hold as much sway in your life, in the way you make decisions in the world, as say, getting kicked in the toe? Do they have the same immediacy in your life?”

Girard replied: “All I’m doing is addressing brains. Systems of neurons and emotions. Whether that is real or not… if you feel these emotions, they are real.”

The discussion began to heat up, as some of the best Brainwave events at the Rubin often do.

Schoonover admitted that there are some limits in exploring subjective emotional experience through current scientific tehniques. Speaking to Girard, he said, “I feel that you, and artists in general, are way ahead of the scientists, in that you have figured out ways to create these images, create these feelings. And the science is very impoverished right now, partly for technical reasons. If you want to study the human brain while it’s doing stuff, you have to put it in this fMRI machine. Try to experience the bliss of Parsifal inside there, after someone injects a tracer into your arm.”

Girard spoke about how he engages audiences in his work– the need to build a rich emotional backstory to a character, and then to put a lid on it, restraining performances at every step, asking the viewer to fill in suggested emotions that the characters have come very close to evoking, but have held back from stating obviously, leaving enough room for us to bring our own projections to the viewing experience. Girard’s most penetrating observations came near to the end of the talk: “The full reality of a piece of art is in the blanks,” he observed. “The writer will give you fragments of reality. What a film is really about is the reconstruction of it in the mind of the audience.”

Schoonover was sharp with his questions and offerings from the realm of neuroscience, quick to suggest a relevant insight to the discussion at hand, such as mirror neurons (though he was careful to offer plenty of disclaimers about the limited explanatory reach of such lines of research), and Girard displayed a depth of philosophical consideration of his work, and a genuine interest in what the science can say about perception and emotion. The dialogue proved to be an auspicious start to this year’s series at the Rubin.

Upcoming Brainwave events:

Wed, Feb 27
7:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Screenwriter | Learn More
Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) + neurobiologist Tom Carew
Sat, Mar 2
3:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Photographer | Learn More
Mary Ellen Mark + neuropsychologist Daniel L. Schacter
Sun, Mar 3
6:00 p.m.
$25 | Buy Tickets
The New Yorker Cartoonists | Learn More
David Sipress, Paul Noth, Zachary Kanin + neuroscientist Richard Restak
Wed, Mar 6
7:00 p.m.

$35 | SOLD OUT
The Humorist | Learn More
Fran Lebowitz + experimental psychologist Steven Pinker
Sun, Mar 17
6:00 p.m.
$80 | Buy Tickets
The Memorist (The Memory Palace) | Learn More
Nelson Dellis + neuropsychologist Lila Davachi
Wed, Mar 20
7:00 p.m.
$80 | Buy Tickets
The Memorist (The Memory Palace) | Learn More
Nelson Dellis + neuropsychologist Todd Gureckis
Wed, Apr 3
7:00 p.m.
$35 | Buy Tickets
The Virtuoso | Learn More
Zakir Hussain + neuroscientist Seth Horowitz
Sunday, Apr 7
6:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Lighting Designer | Learn More
Jules Fisher + neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone
Wed, Apr 10
7 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Spice Master Learn More
Lior Lev Sercarz + neuroscientist Donald A. Wilson
Wed, Apr 17
7:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Chef | Learn More
Wylie Dufresne of WD-50
Sat, Apr 20
3:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Congressman | Learn More
Tim Ryan + psychologist Tracy Dennis, after a screening of Changing Minds at Concord High School
Fri, Apr 26
7:00 p.m.
$25 | Buy Tickets
The Architect | Learn More
Bjarke Ingels + neuroscientist Tom Albright

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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