22 02 2009


Rene Descartes, when writing on optics and consciousness, (La Dioptrique 1637) instructed the reader to follow the advice of the German priest Christopher Sheiner, who, in 1619 used the dead eye from a recently deceased body as the lens for a camera obscura. Thus Descartes, perhaps best remembered, as the principle architect of Cartesian dualism, becomes the unwitting proponent of a tangible connection between body and mind in the relationship of vision to cognition and consciousness. Descartes was fascinated by the possibilities offered by the camera obscura, not least as an aid to understanding the complex mechanisms of sight and cognition. In his misguided search for the ‘seat of the soul’ (which he deduced was in the pineal gland) he spoke of looking into the metaphorical ‘mind’s eye’, in Descartes’ time impossible, but now thanks to fMRI scanners and confocal microscopy, seemingly a reality. The ‘Cartesian Theatre’ (though not conceived by Descartes himself) offers us the spectacle of the mind as a darkened theatre where we may search for ‘the self’, but the self is an elusive spectre, and neurologists now know that the self is not constant but is in a state of continuous neurobiological flux.

I am intrigued by Descartes’ experimental philosophy, and I suggest that were he alive today he would most likely be working in cognitive science, or as a philosopher of science, playing with broader theoretical notions of consciousness and scientific vision imaging. The philosopher Daniel Dennett (1991), credited with coining the term Cartesian Theatre, dismisses this metaphorical model of consciousness outright, while acknowledging that the “persuasive imagery of the Cartesian Theatre keeps coming back to haunt us – laypeople and scientists alike – even after its ghostly dualism has been denounced and exorcized.” (p.107) But I would argue that in his reductionism Dennett fails to grasp the usefulness of the Cartesian Theatre as a metaphysical or hermeneutic model for exploring and understanding consciousness. Perhaps the model requires a more lateral analysis, the kind of experimental, practice-based approach that an artist might for example undertake. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki (1999) provocatively maintains the position that “artists are in some sense neurologists, studying the brain with techniques that are unique to them, but studying unknowingly the brain and its organisation nevertheless.” (p.10) The writer and commentator on arts and science collaboration Sian Ede (2005) eloquently reinforces this point:

“Scientists may be able to explain how the brain works in terms of mapping the cortex or understanding synaptic connection-making or the function of neurotransmitters, but they cannot convey how experience feels the way it does to us as individuals. Nevertheless, current endeavours to understand the actual matter of the mind and consciousness increasingly show it to be depersonalised. How far can we claim to possess a unique sense of self, of individuality, or identity, if so many of our mental processes are innate or automatic? Over the coming years we will be able, mechanically and electronically, to extend the capabilities of our brains as well as our bodies. Imaginative leaps forward will require artists to engage with and invent new paradigms for the body/mind continuum.” (Pp.3,4) Both Zeki and Ede are alluding to the artist’s role as creative interpreter or translator.

In Walter Benjamin’s famous text The ‘Task of The Translator’ (1923) Benjamin sees the role of the translator as much more than a mere interpreter of syntax and language, transcending the mechanics of linguistic translation in order to illuminate the original text and thus reveal hidden truths. This is a truncation of a complex semiotic theory, but the translator’s essential task of creating powerful resonances between different languages (rather than passively explaining one text or medium through another) suggests that the role of the artist as translator, locating, interpreting, creating, and provoking reaction and uncertainty between art, science, technology, and philosophy, may be an essential role if we are to succeed in creating the ‘imaginative leaps forward’ that Ede proposes. I want to make it clear that I am not simply speaking of the artist as ‘mediator’ between the arts and sciences. Nor am I necessarily thinking of what has come to be labelled as ‘public engagement with science’ (as worthwhile as I believe it is) but of a more subtle process involving genuine collaboration and translation between artist and scientist based on a willingness for each party to provocatively engage with creative tension and oppositional paradigms and methodologies thus arriving at new insights, and rarely, new techniques or procedures, that benefit artist, scientist and, ideally, society as a whole. A tall order to be sure, and, as yet successful examples are few and far between.

For art and science collaborations to succeed, risk-taking and failure must be not only allowed but encouraged. Bernard Moxham (2006) makes this point when he states that: “Sciart ventures were introduced not merely to provide a better means of communicating scientific information and endeavour but to achieve new insights by allowing the artists and scientists to think in innovative ways that would otherwise elude them.” (un-paginated) I suggest that extreme science, at the cutting edge of new medical breakthroughs for example, requires extreme translation. In other words, the artist must engage with profound and controversial practice, philosophy, ethics and knowledge, (as is the case with stem cell research for example) and not superficially skim ironically across the surface of science as much postmodernist art has been prone to do. In terms of the themes of this conference in challenging arts and science, I want to look now at the cognitive extremes of the brain, and at how the mind itself may mutate, corrupt and crash like the cerebral hard drive it is. Does art have a role to play in not only understanding but in translating, in a Benjaminian sense, this intricate cognitive and conceptual environment? The brain is a complex organ, an extreme environment at the best of times, but what if the brain is dysfunctional, what if Huntingdon’s or Alzheimer’s disease has created a hostile environment where memory, connectivity, and perception are altered, eroded, and ultimately destroyed? What then of the mind, what then of the search for the elusive self?

As an artist, academic, and philosopher working with transdisciplinary methodologies across bioscience, art and digital and diagnostic technologies, I would like to briefly submit three examples of time-based artworks which have provoked a dialogue between art and bioscience, with particular reference to the extreme environment of the mind. The works discussed encompass the practice-based enactment of theoretical thinking and are based in part on my experience as the 2005/6 Arts & Humanities Research Council’s ‘Sciart Research Fellow’ with the Neuroscience Research Group at Cardiff School of Biosciences. As visual manifestations of collaborative dialogue between lens-based arts and bioscience, these theoretically embodied artefacts might perhaps be considered as useful signifiers in the evolving discourse between science, art and technology.


Based on the Victorian science of Morphology (a precursor to contemporary genetics)


Six Stages of Mutation: A Self-Portrait presents a DVD morphology of my own mutating face as mapped via MRI scanning and subsequently edited as a series of dissolving, biological morphs. Made in collaboration with the radiology department at Morriston Hospital Swansea (UK) the artwork utilises Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology, which has become something of a de’ rigour technology for artists interested in bodily abstraction, to question notions of truth and representation in the search for consciousness and the construction of ‘the self’. The face mutates from the surface characteristics through the layers of skin, muscle, tissue and bone, ceasing to function as a representation. This is no image caressed and transfigured by light, but one of invasion, bombardment, decay and disintegration, morphology mutating out of control, the mind as alien terrain, the self as an atavistic ghost. In terms of the inverted gaze the work is a reminder that medical imaging technology looks ever inward in search of the absolute truths that science seeks to answer, (for unlike postmodernism science abhors relativism) the eye of the lens turned inwards, the mass of the brain seen through what Sarah Kember (1998) refers to as the astro gaze of the medical researcher, a cosmos of synaptic activity. But does this position lead to a greater understanding of the mind, and thus of the slippery self, or, as Chris Smith (2005) suggests with his reference to René Daumal’s “Omniscienter” (1979) – “one who knows everything but under stands nothing” – is the non-scientist “right to fear that the analytical drive of modern science leads inexorably to a race of omniscienters unable to see the big picture for the details.” (Pp. 26,27) I have written elsewhere (2006) on how the lens of science seeks ever greater magnification in the belief that a closer focus means a greater truth. Six Stages of Mutation does indeed bring us closer to a kind of truth, the truth that we fear mutation and metamorphosis (think of the malignant and mutating cancer cell) but are fascinated by it none-the-less, as is evident in the popular rise of both fictional and factual programmes of bodily disclosure and forensic investigation. Indeed, it is worth noting that the relationship of the lens to mutation and death as a form of entertainment is a long one. As far back as 1659 Christiaan Huygens invented a projection system that he dubbed as the lantern of fear (or magic lantern), creating enlarged and eerily mobile images based on Hans Holbein’s popular 16th century engravings Dance of Death. (Mannoni 2004) This brings me to the next artwork, which very clearly references death, mutability and transience, in this case in the diseased and hostile environment of the neurologically damaged mind.



The result of collaboration between lens-based arts, neurology, neuro-psychology, anatomy, botany and biological imaging, Bio-botanical Vanitas refers to several artworks from (2006) Seeds of Memory: art, neuroscience and botany, constituting an ongoing body of electronic/digital artworks that explore questions of consciousness and memory. Using time-based DVD ‘loops’ the artworks incorporate actual fMRI and electron scanning confocal microscopy images of the thinking brain as it attempts to consolidate (create memory) and re-consolidate (re-create a memory already laid down), a process vastly diminished by diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Using the conceit of the floral Dutch Vanitas paintings, which sought to allegorise the fleeting and transient nature of life and the inevitability of aging and death, the series plays with the ebb and flow of the troubled mind as beta amyloid proteins strangle and eventually destroy the synaptic connectivity that facilitates memory and cognitive mobility and awareness. The images concentrate on the hippocampus, an area crucial to memory formation, and are over-laid with images of therapeutic plants such as narcissi and galanthus (used in the Alzheimer’s treatment Aricept or Reminyl) with the ‘real time’ element supplied by the living plants and flowers which eventually wither and die, as in the original Vanitas paintings. Perhaps, this is the most extreme and hostile of all cognitive environments as the mind literally destroys its ‘self’.


In this work the Vanitas theme is continued as three genetically linked morphing faces continuously ‘loop’ within an x-ray of a bulb like skull, which floats against the ‘coma blue’ of the medical instruction screen, linking generation to generation in a technological vacuum of eternal life. Questions of genetic transmission, explorations of consciousness, and allegories of transience and mutability are explored through digital morphing techniques and video dissolves of anatomical x-rays of the skull. Originally screened as part of my artist in residence installation at the Waag, Amsterdam in April 2005,


Vanitas: Seed Head was influenced by discussions with neuroscientists and stem cell researchers during my Sciart Fellowship with Cardiff ‘s Neuroscience Research Group in 2005/6. In his description of stem cell research in the group, Kevin Fox (2006) describes how “…all cells of the brain (and indeed of the whole body) are formed from a single initial pluripotential cell by successive divisions and progressive specification down restricted lineages. A ‘stem’ cell is a cell early in this hierarchy that retains the capacity to reproduce copies of itself (‘self replication’)…” (unpaginated). Using morphing soft wear I created a series of transitions between the faces of myself, my partner and our son; a literal genetic lineage. These were then overlaid with an x-ray of our son’s skull, following a head injury, which coincided with a short artist’s residency in the radiology department at the municipal hospital. The notion of the stem cell is transcribed to the Dutch floral Vanitas, alluding to an actual plant stem and bulb, a biological ‘seed-head’ or ‘stem-cell’ referencing the notion of the seed continuing a genetic inheritance even as consciousness fades and dies. Do we survive as a DNA trace, the seed of a new beginning, or as age and gender become increasingly fluid definitions, do we simply ‘re-animate’ aided by Promethean technologies that promise (or threaten) to modify the very notion of the self?

Perhaps what all three of these time-based artworks are exploring is how art, science and technology are merging to create ever more fluid definitions of what it is to be human (and some would say we are already on the brink of the post-human). Descartes’ instruction to merge tissue (the dead eye) and technology (the camera obscura) is proto-photographic. But it is also proto-artificial intelligence. But however great the technology I suggest that no machine will ever satisfactorily replicate qualia, the vividly individual sense, feel and smell of what it is to be in the world.


Benjamin, Walter (1969) The Task of the Translator in Illuminations (trans. H. Zohn), New York: Shoken Books Dennett, Daniel (1991) Consciousness Explained, New York: Little, Brown and Company

Ede, Sian (2005) Art and Science, London and New York: I.B. Tauris

Fox, Kevin (2006) Developing Memories in (ed. K. Ingham) Seeds of Memory: art, neuroscience and botany, Cardiff and Swansea: CLASI Publications

Ingham, Karen (2006) Descartes’ Eye: Theorising the Art and Science of Observation in New Constellations: Art, Science and Society in D.C. Rye and S.J. Scheding, (eds) Proceedings of New Constellations: Art, Science and Society, Museum of Contemporary Art: Sydney pp19-22

Kember, Sarah (1998) Virtual Anxiety: Photography, New Technology and Subjectivity, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Mannoni, Laurent et al (2004) The Art of Deception in Eyes, Lies and Illusions, London: Hayward Gallery, p. 44

Smith, C. U. M. (2005) Evolutionary Neurobiology and Aesthetics in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 48(1):17–30

Zeki, Semir ((1999) Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, Oxford: Oxford University Press



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: