Landscapes of the Mind at the Williams College Museum of Art

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Andrew Carnie, Magic Forest
Andrew Carnie, Magic Forest

Landscapes of the Mind

Williams College Museum of Art
January 30 through May 2, 2010

For the second time in as many years, Williams College Museum of Art is presenting a cross-disciplinary exhibition and symposium that challenges the conventional compartmentalization that has characterized educational and aesthetic definitions of math, and art or, in this instance, neuroscience, psychology, and art.

Last year’s focus on Mathematics and Art is followed up this year by Landscapes of the Mind, a group exhibition featuring installations, prints, and mixed media works that attempt to depict the workings of the brain, consciousness, and the Self both metaphorically and scientifically.

Nearly a half century ago, Marshall McCluhan, in his influential book Understanding Media, observed that artists are among the first to grasp the significance of the effects that scientific invention and technology have had or will have on the human body, but that they were then already seriously behind the scientific community—and becoming increasingly marginalized by the level of insight regarding the body that science had become equipped with:

In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral efforts of artists….

The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. In the electric age there is no longer any sense in talking about the artist’s being ahead of his time. Our technology is, also, ahead of its time, if we reckon by the ability to recognize it for what it is.

The percussed victims of the new technology have invariably muttered clichés about the impracticality of artists and their fanciful preferences. But in the past century it has come to be generally acknowledged that, in the words of Wyndam Lewis, ‘The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the present.’ Knowledge of this simple fact is now needed for human survival. The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. Equally age-old is the inability of the percussed victims, who cannot sidestep the new violence, to recognize their need of the artist. To reward and to make celebrities of artists can, also, be a way of ignoring their prophetic work, and preventing timely use for survival. The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness.

I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties.

from Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, pp. 739-740 (= Marshall McLuhan, “Introduction” and “Challenge and Collapse: The Nemesis of Creativity” from Understanding Media)

With this observation in mind, and in the current climate of educational synthesis, Landscapes of the Mind, has been exhibited at Williams College Museum of Art, and it runs through May 2. A symposium was held in March, and it featured some of its artist exhibitors, and a panel of neuroscientists, there are a number of questions and observations that the exhibition provokes.

The exhibition is organized into two central galleries, where, in a conventionally lit space, the installations of Katy Schimert are spread out and dominate the space. Prints by Susan Aldworth, and Jessica Rankin’s embroideries are conventionally hung.

Installed in separate light baffled chamber is Andrew Carnie’s provocative Magic Forest. The artist uses projected light and theater scrim installation to depict layered dendrite and neural networks. The dark chamber seems to evoke some the mystery that is usually associated with brain activity, and having to dark adapt to the chamber also evokes the true retinocortical activity we encounter in everyday activity.

At the symposium Williams College Professor of psychology Dr. Betty Zimmerberg gave a detailed presentation of instances in history where the human brain has been depicted—with particular focus on DaVinci’s 15th century first directly observed diagrams of the brain, and represented a unique time in history where artistic and scientific investigation resided in the same person. In hindsight, could these graphically precise depictions also either be seen as where science, technology and art began to diverge, or where conventional definitions of art and science emerged?

Dr. Zimmerberg’s presentation was augmented with examples from the intervening centuries where increasingly exponential technological and scientific breakthroughs have made deeper and deeper levels of insight and neural experimentation possible. Sir Christopher Wren and Santiago Ramon y Cajal were cited for having contributed to the greater understanding of neuroscience through their precise depictions of brains and nerves, indeed, Ramon y Cajal is cited as the father of modern neuroscience who was trained as an artist and famous for his depiction of brain cells.

It’s a theme that has been encountered time and again over the centuries, Adelbert Ames, founder of the MIT department of psychology, was famous for having left the field of art when he became more and more fascinated with visual illusions and created the famous Ames Distortion Rooms.

The presentations given by Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, two neuroscientists from Yale School of Medicine, and founders of the Yale Center for the Study of Dyslexia, were concise, detailed, graphically and visually sophisticated, at times funny, and very informative. They outlined the currently understood differences in how dyslexics process written words, how women and men process speech differently, with specific examples showing in what regions of the brain these anomalous differences exist, and what may or may not be inferred from this data. The significance of extra-scientific questions came into play at that juncture. The Shaywitzes were carefully disciplined scientifically about avoiding any mistakenly wayward extra-scientific conclusions about what this data means. It was a reminder of the danger of the 19th century phrenology pseudo-science, where “conclusive inferences” were drawn based on the false assumption that the size and shape of skulls were indicators of intelligence.

In the early 21st Century the brain diagrams and scans that we’ve become accustom to viewing, with their increasingly minute degrees of precision, and their antiseptic clarity have made the visualization of the apparatus of our consciousness almost too familiar and nearly clichéd. Three-dimensional visualization and animation is now the paradigm, the micro striation of cell samples, and their sheer redundant proliferation are presented in countless journals, documentaries and the internet.

Recalling Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic insights from the beginning of this essay, we are confronted with the enigmatic contrast between the proliferation, precision, and sheer beauty of brain diagrams and the equally enigmatic schematic artwork of at least two of the exhibiting artists and panelists Katy Schimert and Susan Aldworth who gave detailed autobiographical presentations of roughly two decades of their work.

Susan Aldworth’s work is acutely concerned with issues related to the Cartesian Mind Body dualism and an exhaustive attempt to answer the seemingly unanswerable Cartesian questions: Where does The Self reside?, and Can the Self be Depicted? In some respects, while listening to the literate prose of her journal entries, there is the undeniable dimension of an earnest pioneering spirit in her work, and it might almost be said that there was just as much to be learned from her writing.

Katy Schimert’s feminist diagrammatic work The Oedipus Blindspot, is perhaps the most iconic and centrally located focus of the exhibition, and it was the topic of a multidisciplinary talk a few days after the symposium by various departments at Williams because of its congruently layered references to Classicism, Physiological Optics, Cephalic diagrams, etc.

A panel discussion was hosted by Dr. Bevil Conway, an artist turned neuroscientist from the Harvard Medical School, who was the first to breach the subject of the physically ugly squishy gooeyness of the brain. He spoke about the contrast between the clinical clarity and “packaging” of brain scans, the iconic proliferation of the diagrams of it, which are so clean and self-contained, and the abhorrent, tactilely revolting thing itself.

To this day we are revolted by the thing itself, and can’t help but be reminded that perhaps the only time when we see the thing itself directly, is when it’s been damaged, and is accompanied by negative associations of every kind, remembering the horror of the images of the splayed back of JFK’s skull and the visible portion of his brain is just one example.

It was also at that juncture that Susan Aldrich’s approach to art, which is focused on understanding the Cartesian Self was especially poignant, because the squishy mass is the location of our consciousness, and we are still revolted when we behold the seat of our consciousness from the outside. She spoke of an instance where she first saw a scan of her own brain… an image with the dendrite and inky snaky squirmy looking apparatuses undulate inside, in two dimensions. It was a profound recognition for her, or anyone, of their own mortality, and has had a profound influence on her course as an artist.

The spirit and time in which this exhibition has taken place definitely evoke Ray Kurzweil’s statistical predictions of the Singularity, or the fusion of, the various separate disciplines that have defined research, scholarship, art and technology for centuries.

Dr. Bennett Shaywitz presentation included a brief segment from Young Frankenstein where Marty Feldman, as Igor the Hunchback, bumbles his way through formaldehyde pickled lab jars containing normal and abnormal brains. It was a reminder that humor also has its place, —maybe especially so in this realm. It also brought to mind an observation I came across last year… “Mel Brooks has mastered the art of mindlessness over matter.” It’s an ambition that I’ve long aspired to.

The day after attending the symposium I remembered a quotation by someone who had seen the first nuclear detonation at Los Alamos… “It was like a huge brain, the convolutions of which were constantly changing.” It was the type of iconic archetypal insight that I was hoping to have encountered at the exhibition, but the exhibition accomplished its purpose by having triggered my own brain to recall, seriate, and classify recent and distant memory.

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