[-empyre-] neuroaesthetics

trish adams trishadams84 at gmail.com
Mon Sep 8 20:16:11 EST 2008

Hello everyone,
I'm most grateful to Michele, and the -empyre- facilitators, for
giving me the opportunity to participate in the September discussion

I guess the best way of introducing myself  is to give an overview of
my art practice. I've been carrying out research in labs since 1998
but this is really a continuation of my long-standing interest in the
intersections of art & science. I often think that my hybrid approach
is akin to that of the seventeenth century "Natural Philosophers",
entering into my art/science collaborations with a spirit of "what
if"!! My focus has been to reinterpret scientific data from the
perspective of a visual artist. I then recontextualise this (digital)
image data in subsequent artworks. Recently I developed a methodology
that allows me to be central to the scientific research and the
experimental subject matter. I feel that this first-person approach
increases viewer/participant empathy with the artistic outcomes;
including the human traces with which the image data is imbued. In my
interactive artwork: "machina carnis" I explored the impact of recent
groundbreaking techniques in stem cell research, creating an
innovative model where I became at once both artist/researcher and
"human guinea pig". In seven days, with the aid of my scientific
collaborator, stem cells from my blood sample were changed into
beating cardiac cells 'in vitro'. "machina carnis" posed questions
about what it means to be human in the twenty-first century, and the
ways in which our understanding of ourselves will be changed by
contemporary developments in biotechnology. Certainly I am emotionally
involved when I hold a flask of my own cells or feed bees on honey in
the palm of my hand and I think this human connection definitely
creates an emotional bond between the artwork and the participants.
These artworks present the scientific image data in ways that allow
for what is often emotionally charged participant engagement.

After a number of collaborative projects in the biomedical sciences I
began working with neuroscientists at the end of last year . My
experiences whilst looking at cellular behaviours at a microscopic
level led me to Maturana & Varela's theory of "autopoiesis" and
subsequently to the highly complex issues relating to "brain" &
"cognition". In addition I often heard scientists referring to the
brain as 'the last great frontier in science' so it seemed like a
logical progression for me to make this inter-disciplinary shift. I
had been reading about Professor Srinivasan's pioneering research into
the cognitive and navigational capacities of the honey bee and I am
fortunate to now have a residency with his Visual & Sensory
Neuroscience group at Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), The University
of Queensland. Although I am still in the early stages of my
observations I have become aware that flying insects, such as the bee,
are beginning to suggest alternative, computationally simple systems
which shed light on human perception - making this research both
fascinating and relevant to our understanding of ourselves and how our
brains function. Interestingly, in connection with Micheles' queries
about emotion, the group are also beginning to explore the honey bee's
emotional range of responses - and I am curious to know where this
research will lead.

When I read Michele's introductory text I was struck by some key
issues in relation to my own art practice and research:
Firstly that of 'perceptual engagement with the work in order to
create, compose, receive & "complete" it'. For me the creation of
open-ended, interactive media artworks allows for each viewer to
become a participant and through their interaction bring the work to
life, resulting in an individual outcome upon its completion.
Significantly, in relation to the subject of cognition - and also
emotion - this approach allows for "spaces" - it encourages
multi-dimensional experiences and interpretations of the work. For the
other media artists out there who also embrace this approach I'm not
saying anything new here, but it does provide a counterpoint to some
of the artworks already introduced in the earlier days of this
discussion.. This is not to say that technology is not essential in
many of my works, it is of course a vital component to empower the
interactivity, however its use is discrete and the human element in
the work is forgrounded.

This brings me to to the second point raised by Michele in her
introduction, when she refers to Steven Rose and the referential links
between observational technologies and their outcomes. The level at
which scientific data is mediated by technologies has always
fascinated me ever since I started going into university labs in 1998.
The gel electrophoresis process is a case in point as is the electron
microscope itself. (When given a "drive" of the JSM scanning electron
microscope I was reminded by the scientist how particles might distort
the specimen & thus the image data!). The slippery nature of
"readings" of scientific research data have been incorporated into my
research which explores interpretations made from the perspective of
an artist - and of course subsequently by the artwork's
viewer/participants. However Professor Perry Bartlett, Director of QBI
states that 'Neuroscience is entering a period of rapid expansion &
development' (http://www.qbi.uq.edu.au/index.html?page=62840) & this
is of course due in a large part to the rapid development of ever more
sophisticated experimental technologies. So perhaps this might be
viewed as some sort of double-bind - scientists need the cutting-edge
technologies but...???

I will close for now, cheers Trish
Dr. Trish Adams
Visual & Sensory Neuroscience Group,
Queensland Brain Institute.

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