Affecting Perception: Interview + Gallery

An exploration of art and neuroscience has taken over Oxford Castle’s O3 Gallery this month. The exhibition is titled Affecting Perception, and it features the work of artists “affected by neurological conditions, and contemporary art inspired by discoveries in neuroscience.”

The show was devised by an intrepid, forward-thinking group of recent graduates from the arts and sciences known as the AXNS Collective. Their eclectic roots and can-do spirit has yielded a first-of-its-kind show in Oxford, funded by grants that the AXNS Collective secured from the Wellcome Foundation and the Wates Foundation. You can click each featured artwork below to enlarge it and learn more about each artist, and then scroll down for our full interview with the show’s curators.





Martha CrawfordCosima Gretton, and Rachel Stratton are the co-curators of Affecting Perception.

The exhibition seems to present the work of these artists in the context of that work being affected by their respective brain conditions, illnesses, injuries, or other neurological states we typically label as “dysfunctional” in some respect. What do we see across the board in this work, about how the art seems to reflect something about these inner states?

Cosima Gretton: It is hard to say there is a universal something that can be seen across the board in all the works. That is why they are interesting: each artist is differently affected, and has responded to and engaged with their condition differently.

With regards to the concept of ‘dysfunctional’ – while in some (Utermohlen) the dysfunction as a result of the condition can be seen in the progression of his work over the course of his disease, in others the condition adds to and informs the artist’s work. Cecil Riley, for example, paints his hallucinations, and JJ Ignatius Brennan’s migraine aura form the basis for his surrealist drawings. Jon Sarkin, one could argue, has in fact gained a function: prior to his stroke, although he had an interest in art he had never fully engaged with it, whereas now his post-stroke obsessive-compulsive tendencies generate a prolific output.

Perhaps what can be said across the board is that for each artist engaging with their condition through their art is cathartic in some way. For Utermohlen it was an attempt to understand what was happening to his mind as his Alzheimer’s disease progressed, and for Cecil Riley, painting his hallucinations (caused by Charles Bonnet Syndrome as a result of macular degeneration) seems to exorcise them. Jon Sarkin, Jason Padgett and George Widener have at different points all hinted at the fact that they cannot stop creating their art, and that creating provides a release from a kind of psychological tension.

Do you hope that viewing art in this context– the context of the brain, and its various states of function or dysfunction, healthiness or illness– can have an impact on how we view all art? 

Rachel Stratton: It is important to distinguish between looking at art through the lens of neuroscience in general and looking at art in terms of neurological conditions. Art history and art criticism are constantly looking for new contexts through which to discuss the art of a particular century, style, artist etc. and analysing art through the lens of neuroscience can provide this. In that sense it can impact the way we look at all art.

Looking at a person’s art through their altered brain function, however, is a niche branch of that neuroscientific approach and should only be applied when it fits the context. We were very careful, in our selection of artists, to only choose those whose works could be seen to convey characteristics associated with their condition. We wanted the science and the art to inform each other: the art to illustrate the altered brain function of the artist and scientific understanding of the said condition to offer another perspective on why the artist created the work they did. We were also careful with the way we framed the artists’ illnesses. For example, when looking at the work of William Utermohlen, an artist with Alzheimer’s disease we found that whilst his cognitive and spatial abilities were deteriorating his work became incredibly emotive and visceral, taking on a new poignancy. We wanted to highlight the commonality and difference rather than purely focusing on his cognitive decline.

This approach should not be applied universally to art because, in many cases, the art will not reveal anything about the illness and the illness will not illuminate our understanding of the art. However, I think as a collective we all feel quite strongly that people should not shy away from confronting an artist’s condition when the context permits it.  It can provide fascinating insight into an artist’s work and add a further dimension of understanding about the art.

In the early 20th century it’s been hypothesized that revelations in physics may have contributed to a culture shift in the arts, seen in the explosion of abstraction and cubism. We live in a time where the brain sciences are in a similar scientific spotlight, with major endeavors to understand the brain being announced on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you feel that 21st century neuroscience is contributing to a cultural movement in the visual arts, and how is that movement taking shape?

CG: Semir Zeki points out that 21st century neuroscientists are often treading old ground with the visual arts: artists have for centuries been using the tricks and techniques of the visual system to manipulate the viewer. Take perspective, object invariance, and colour constancy. For example, in many cubist paintings, such as those by Braque or Picasso, the artist provides all the viewpoints of an object within one painting, showing an understanding, almost half a century before it appeared in cognitive neuroscience, of the nature of object invariance. Neuroscience provides these discoveries with a neural basis, and often re-confirms what artists have known for a long time.

RS: There does, in recent years, seem to have been a flurry of activity around neuroscience and art that suggests that there is a particular zeitgeist at the moment. However, it is slightly different to the way that 20th century movements looked to Physics, perhaps a reflection of wider changes that have taken place in the art world. Early modernist movements such as Cubism used discoveries in geometry and physics to interrogate the visual arts. They appropriated these scientific principles with a view to exploring the fundamentals of painting and sculpture. In the contemporary context, it seems to me, that the lines of communication between neuroscience and art are much more fluid and run in both directions. Artists look to neuroscience and neuroscientists to artists. There is a greater move towards collaboration for the common goal of understanding more about the human condition and the world we live in rather than solely to inform the discipline of art. Nowadays art is less introverted and more outward looking, as are many other disciplines.

It feels to me, here in the U.S., that the U.K. is at the vanguard of this dialogue between the arts and sciences, with active sources of funding, artists, scientists and philosophers of all breeds involved in building a highly interdisciplinary culture at present. Do you sense that the culture in the U.K. is leading in this regard, and if so, why do you think that’s the case?

Martha Crawford: I am not sure if we are ‘leading’ in discovering this new dialogue but I do think that we are seeing a steep rise in interdisciplinary work between art and science in the U.K. Projects like ours and the Wonder Season at the Barbican certainly indicate so and more groups are cropping up whose main interest is the relationship between art and science and exploring this relationship.

In the last fifty years we have seen huge leaps and discoveries in science which have helped us understand more about ourselves, the world around us and our relationship with it. As all artists, scientists and philosophers are explorers in their fields, sharing the common quest to learn, discover and rediscover our place in this world, I think this marriage between sciences and the arts is a natural and inevitable move. Looking at the world through the lens of a different subject gives us more lines of questioning to follow. The more questions we can ask, the more we can learn.

The new dialogue is an exciting one as we can utilise it as a tool to increase public understanding of tricky issues and new discoveries. We still have an education system which separates people early into ‘scientists’ or ‘artists’. Although this in itself is an issue it does mean that interdisciplinary dialogue can give scientists and artists a way into a world they might previously have been excluded from.

What is original about your initiative with AXNS Collective that you feel hasn’t quite been done before? 

MC: Several elements of our project have not quite been done before and I think that this strengthens what we are doing substantially. The artists in the exhibition have never been exhibited in this way together. As far as we are aware this is the first exhibition which looks at a group of artists with direct reference to their neurological condition and asks what we can learn about said condition from their art. The response we have received so far and results of our own discussions could conclude that this is a brand new way of looking at neuroscience and conditions of the brain. We are taking the discussion out of a specialist forum and placing it in the public arena. This move is extremely important for this new area of interdisciplinary work as it will increase its longevity and ensures the continuation of innovative fieldwork.

I think the most exciting and original aspect of our project is the way we are asking questions about neuroscience and art. Our project has three platforms for discussion and for learning: the exhibition exploring the work of artists with neurological conditions and those who play with perception in their work; the community seminar series exploring the themes of the exhibition and the workshops and tours for local community groups and schools. This means we can include everyone and offer people with different learning styles and abilities a way into the conversation.

What do you, as curators, hope visitors take away from the exhibition?

CG & RS: The exhibition, seminars and workshops are public engagement exercises and we were clear from the start that one of the fundamental objectives was to make people more aware of different areas of the brain and how the brain works. We want people to leave a greater awareness of different neurological conditions and how they differ from psychiatric conditions. We have tried to make people think about the nature of vision and visual processing, and how it affects the creation and appreciation of art. We also want to make people think about the philosophy and anthropology of art production. We want people to question why we produce art in the first place and what function it fulfills.

Ideally we would like them to leave with more questions than they arrived with. We hope that the exhibition opens up new avenues of enquiry, and stimulates them to ask questions on the mind, the brain and creativity that they might not have considered before.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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