Subjective Resonance Imaging was a group gallery show we co-organized with the Neuro Bureau for the 2013 Human Brain Mapping conference in Seattle, June 16-20 2013, featuring the work of 12 artists from around the world. The following essay appeared in the show catalogue, and the following images were taken at the exhibit in Seattle last month.
MODERNISM OF THE MIND
by Noah Hutton
Like the human brain it seeks to understand, neuroscience, as a discipline, leans on the visual: from founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s hand-drawn sketches of neurons, to the present-day offerings of functional magnetic resonance imaging, optogenetics, connectomics, and computational simulations, seeing is vital to knowing.
Artists are seeing these images of the brain as well, and their contributions to 21st century imaging of the self is the subject of Subjective Resonance Imaging, a group exhibition presented at the 19th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, in Seattle, June 16-20 2013. The work assembled here comes from around the world and encompasses both established, widely exhibited artists as well as several emerging voices in the present-day conversation between neuroscience and art.
From Nina Sellars, working in Australia, who creates mixed reality pieces that integrate links to digital scans of her own brain, to Julia Buntaine, working in New York City, whose sculpture provides conceptual footholds to grasp metaphors of brain structure and function, Subjective Resonance Imaging finds artists at this interdisciplinary vanguard working with a wide range of materials and thematic interests.
Some touch on more personal issues of identity and disfunction through their work, attempting to shape new meaning from the scientific images of themselves. Elizabeth Jameson’s special installation Sanctuary of Mind and Brain builds on her interest in bringing the sacred and the profane together, searching for a place where science becomes transcendent. Scans became a recurrent image in Jameson’s life when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). “As the stack of MRIs grew,” she writes, “so did my fascination with the brain and the eerie black and white images that seemed to hold my fate. They are frightening, yet also immediately mesmerizing.” The art that resulted came from the artist’s undeniable urge to reinterpret the im¬ages, to use them to explore the wonder and the complexity of all brains—including those with disease.
Two other painters featured in Subjective Resonance Imaging—Constance Jacobson and Katherine Sherwood—also investigate the point at which art, science, and disability intersect: Sherwood through her mystical explorations of neural landscapes following a stroke she endured in 1997, and Jacobson through structural depictions of memory loss—inked suggestions of tidy neural networks, carried off into blurred edges and disappeared forms.
As diverse as the forms and approaches are throughout this group, there is a common pursuit that has brought everyone here into a shared space. This is a band of explorers who have all shone their light on the vast and uncharted realms of the human brain; their maps may be more subjective, but they are cartographers nonetheless. With commonality in mind, how does one deal with this work as a cohesive artistic movement, and approach the work of these interdisciplinary artists through the lens of traditional art criticism?
We often speak of the sort of work seen in Subjective Resonance Imaging as being science-inspired art; in this case, neuroscience-inspired art. What this passive description fails to capture is the active loop of making and perceiving that this work embodies. These artists have actively turned their focus onto the physical structure of their minds, and of all of our minds, and they are using that biological architecture to make the work itself. Whatever resonance their work creates for others is felt in that very biological architecture which originally focused—and was the focus—of this work. This is a system of mirrors of mirrors.
In his seminal essay “Modernist Painting,” written in 1961, art historian and critic Clement Greenberg, speaking of the abstract expressionists of his time (namely Pollock’s paintings that seemed to call more attention to the physical paint itself than any sort of figurative representation) observed that
The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence… The Enlightenment criticized from the outside, the way criticism in its accepted sense does; Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.
Greenberg’s Modernist mechanism is again at work here, but in a different context. Now, instead of artwork referring to the external discipline of the art world in order to achieve the awareness of Modernism, we have subjective images referring to the seat of subjectivity itself, the human brain. In this sense, the work in Subjective Resonance Imaging represents a new evolutionary branch on the Greenbergian tree of artistic self-awareness. This art is engaged with the procedures (brain imaging, processes of the mind, complex structures) that are themselves the creators and perceivers of it; this art is acutely aware of the inside.
There may also be structural parallels between the pursuits of art and those of neuroscience, which may be helpful to consider if we are to push the interdisciplinary conversation at hand from passive-inspiration to active-convergence. Consider the line of criticism focused on large-scale mapping projects, such as those undertaken by the leaders of the push to map a full mammalian connectome, that asks the question of just how helpful such a map of one individual’s nervous system will be for the ultimate goal of abstracting universal principles regarding brain function that can be applied to all individuals of a species. This critique poses a question that continues to loom large in the field: Are we in a place yet, with large-scale mapping projects, to be able to pull out abstract universals from the noise of individual differences between brains?
The artist sometimes faces a similar dilemma. Will the art object, in its emergence from one individual’s subjectivity, resonate with another individual? Though the artist may prefer not to think about this dilemma directly, it may creep up from time to time: achieving some resonance from the world can be intoxicating. Yet trying to create from this place—with the ends shaping the means—can make for art with some sort of diluted ideal, an “average” of all tastes. Scientists have even created “average” faces and landscapes: the results have repeatedly shown to produce sterile and unexciting images. This is neither a viable nor an interesting solution for the artist.
For the scientist, a sort of “average brain” might be helpful as a sketch of a nervous system, but may not help us account for the particularities of consciousness, disease, or any number of highly specific neural phenomena—this “average brain” might display certain basic principles, but may not actually be like any real brain. From these observations, a shared truth emerges: the solution for both the artist and the scientists may be to just keep doing more work. The artist who sets out to create his work will never step in the same internal Heraclitean river twice; the scientist who seeks to pull out abstract universals from individual brains may also find that the Heraclitean edict applies to her practice as well: a first map will need to be followed by many more maps before the vast extents of neural possibilities and their causative relations comes into focus. With more neural data and more artwork—from the Chauvet caves to today’s vanguard—what Paul Churchland has called the “multidimensional space of possibilities” becomes more and more populated, giving us more context, coordinates, and means of comparison and analogy between individuals and their subjective and objective maps.
But why make these maps, and why make this art? What is the urge that drives both endeavors, and is it linked at its core? It is helpful here to turn again to Greenberg, for his evolutionary account of art disciplines.
Each art, it turned out, had to perform this demonstration on its own account… Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.
Let us reframe Greenberg’s concept in terms of the deep, unanswered question of our time, pertinent to science as well as art: What is it about this piece of matter—the human brain— that generates the “effects exclusive to itself”? To map these effects, which include subjectivity, consciousness, and the feeling of selfhood, a symbiotic approach through the “operations and works” of both science and art seems most appropriate, given the source of the matter.