Interview: Julia Buntaine

Julia Buntaine

Julia Buntaine‘s artwork provides conceptual footholds for issues in neuroscience: from brain imaging, to structural organization and functional pathways, her exploration of the mind is simultaneously playful and deeply intelligent. Born in Massachusetts, Buntaine attained her BA from Hampshire College, her post-baccalaureate certificate from Maryland Institute College of Art, and studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Buntaine has been featured in a variety of exhibitions at Hampshire College, MICA and SVA, has a permanent outdoor work on the grounds of Hampshire, a work in the Johns Hopkins University’s private collection, and two works in Subjective Resonance Imaging, The Beautiful Brain’s recent group gallery show organized in collaboration with the Neuro Bureau as part of the 2013 Human Brain Mapping Conference in Seattle. The artist is currently working and living in New York City.

NH: I’m interested in when you became interested in neuroscience. When did that happen, and what did it?

JB: For as long as I can remember I have been interested in being an artist. I attended an arts high school, and when I wasn’t making art I was exploring abandoned mental hospitals with a group of friends. In wandering the derelict campuses of these outmoded institutions, I developed an interest in the history and mechanisms of mental illness. When I began at Hampshire College, I thought to take the biological approach to studying the mind, and realized very quickly I had found something that would rival my love for creating art. My interest in the psychology of mental illness was replaced with my fascination of the biology of the brain – thinking about the self as being a byproduct of actual physiological processes agreed with my sensibilities more than any other perspective had before. I took comfort in the solidity of the scientific facts. Neuroscience was not only answering my questions but enabling me to ask more, and by the end of college I was deep into the cellular and molecular studies of the brain. It was also by the end of college that I combined my love for art and neuroscience by making neuroscience my artistic subject matter, which in turn gave my art practice a purpose I had felt was lacking previously.

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“Empire State of Mind” by Julia Buntaine.

“Brodmann’s Subways”

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NH: You have made pieces inspired by fMRI images, circuit diagrams, Brodmann’s maps, and specific anatomical structures. As a bio-artist, what do you hope that these pieces can communicate about the underlying theories, imaging techniques, or physical structures? More generally, how do you view the role of the artist in the relationship between the public and the scientist?

JB: I believe the discoveries of biology, among other sciences, can and should be shared through the medium of art. Art inherently demands subjective judgment and interpretation, and unlike reading articles or looking at data charts, concepts embodied in art are understood without words. Many scientific topics often have the reputation of being too complex to understand, and in my work I hope to act as a sort of interpreter, to provide my audience an alternative way to understand the wonders of biology we have discovered in ourselves. There are many techniques to approach the relay of scientific information in a visual, creative manner, and I often end up mixing scientific imagery with more familiar forms to make the subject more reachable for the audience. In each work I always begin with a strong grounding in science and then depart into the world of aesthetics as I manipulate the idea through the use of scale, metaphor, material and form.

NH: I am curious about how your work and your mind have co-evolved since you became interested in neuroscience. Looking back on the pieces you’ve made so far, do they now serve as visual reference points for you, when you imagine the world between our ears, and the techniques we use to image it? Has the process of exploring these issues through your art evolved your understanding of the brain?

JB: Making my work has always aided in my understanding of the science behind it; in fact, it was through my academic pursuit of neuroscience that I had the idea to create art about biological topics in the first place. During my junior year at Hampshire I was taking a broader themed biology course and found myself making lots of flashcards about human physiology. I remember I was going over the way blood is pumped through the heart, drawing arrows through this valve and that, and then I picked up some pencils and started to color and shade the edges… and then it had been twenty minutes and I had not only a nice colored pencil drawing, but a complete understanding, an actual feel for the movement of blood through the heart. Soon after I began to experiment with brain based sculptures, and knew I had found not only my best method of studying, but a subject matter I felt that mattered and truly cared about. Still now, in the way I could “feel” the path of blood through the heart because I had drawn it, I feel that I understand, in a bodily way, each biological subject of my works. This other type of understanding, beyond the scientific and diagrammatic, is the experience I strive to give my viewers.

NH: What is your attitude towards direct collaborations between artists and scientists? What do each have the potential to learn from the other, and what results can come out of it?

JB: As a science-based artist, I am not terribly interested in the idea of collaboration with science. Conceptually, I find there is an inherent issue in the idea of a melding between the two, which has to do with the foundations and methodologies of each given discipline. Say a scientist and an artist do truly collaborate… The bedrock of scientific discovery is the rule laden methodical testing of historically embedded hypotheses, and when scientific breakthroughs occur, it is by individuals who so completely understand the subject matter as to be able to see beyond its current confinements. The bedrock of artistic creation is based solely on what is important to the artist at the time, be it art history, what colors she has on hand, what was in the morning paper, or the like. In a true collaboration, what would result could be never be considered science, but could be art (if the artist says it is). And with this conclusion we are at the one-way road running from science to art, the road that already underlies science-based art today.

That is not to say that science can’t gain anything from art. Specifically, art made about a particular scientific topic could give scientists a new way of explaining their work, much in the way that science journalists create metaphors to relay scientific findings to the public. Science-based artists create visual metaphors to do the same, and as an artist who makes such work I hope that I benefit science by such means.

NH: I understand that in addition to your artwork you are also in the process of launching a new science-based online art magazine. What is your hope with this project?

JB: In coming into my own as an artist, understanding my place in the art world and facing my unique, subject matter-based challenges, I have kept a running list of artists I know about or meet who have similar experiences to me because of their scientific subject matter. Although it is true that many artists have been interested in science every now and then, it has only been for about the past two decades or so that science has been treated as a serious, lifelong subject matter for artists. In my search for compatriots, I found that most contemporary artists I’ve been following are based in London or Berlin, which struck me as odd given that the United States is not only home to the art capitol of the world, but to many other artistically important cities including Miami, Chicago and San Francisco. I realized that here, maybe there is not a lack of science-based artists, only a lack of infrastructure to support us. In my publication SciArt in America – set to launch late summer 2013 – I am going to feature artists and post opportunities and SciArt news within the States, have a place to discuss our common issues, and create the potential for connections among science-based artists, in an attempt to begin forming a real science-based art community.

Visit the artist’s website for more.

 

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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