[-empyre-] neuroaesthetics - terms, fields and frameworks

Barbara Stafford bms6 at uchicago.edu
Fri Sep 26 03:12:17 EST 2008

dear michelle and hello all,

thanks for the question.

first just a clarification. i think warren neidich would separate 
himself strongly from the brain modularity [aka neuroaesthetics wing of 
brain research] . both in converversation and in his writings, he has 
come down on the side of the neural darwinists and the neural 
constructivists--especially on the importance of the secondary 
repertoire and the kind of intensification of sensations that come with 
what gerald edelman terms "reentry."

as to your question, i believe new media artists of various stripes 
have much to teach neuroscientists about cognition. i'll just give one 
example coming from what i've called "extreme phenomenology" [way 
beyond what merleau-ponty imagined. this solipsistic and recursively 
looping phenomenology is articulated in thomas metzinger's book,,  
being no one.}. olafur eliasson's yellow mist installation for the tate 
modern is an excellent example of new kinds of installation work 
exploring the extreme phenomenology of ambiguous situations.  andy 
goldsworthy's new ephemerral earthworks--so different from the heroic 
earthworks of the 1960's--foregrounds micro-shifts occurring 
simultaneously in the subject-object "event," as william james and the 
american pragmatists termed this relational  kind of aesthetics it 
teaches a lot about the actual workings of "distributed cognition"  as 
a mediumistic theory about deployed sensations.

contemporary architecture also has embraced the entwining of space and 
light with viewer subjectivity: the fog work of diller and scofico, 
stephen holl's  ltransparent lenses for the new addition to the nelson 
-atkins museum in kansas city, kazuyo sejima's  shimmeringly clad 
museum of contemporary art in new york that alters our perception of 
the cantilevered floors depending on the weather conditions.

and there are artistic explorations/demonstrations/instantiations of 
and for the other dominant cognitive discourses as well: mark turner's 
on narrative, etc.

all the best,
On Sep 24, 2008, at 6:19 AM, Michele Barker wrote:

> I think both Barbara and Johannes' responses are very timely and 
> pertinent at this point.  I'd like to start with a few and will leave 
> the rest for some of the people mentioned.
> Johannes Birringer wrote:
>> The relation of neuroaesthetics (which is not an art practice or a 
>> new syntax of forms, is it?  a style or a signature? a method or 
>> interactive "architecture" or participatory process? Warholian? 
>> intended or designed?  by whom, applied to what genre or form or mode 
>> of interaction or reception?  are you all implying there is such a 
>> thing as neuroaesthetics? why do you believe so?)
> Barbara Maria Stafford wrote:
>> i confess that i have a problem with the concept of neuroaesthetics 
>> as a "field" or one more ism among many others. as andie murphie 
>> mentioned it was coined by zeki and ramachandran. but i want to 
>> underline that it is specifically identified with concepts of brain 
>> modularity: that certain areas are dedicated to specific types of 
>> processing: well, yes and no as the discussions of brain plasticity 
>> have brought out.
>> there are many camps in the neurosciences, of which the brain 
>> modularity group constitutes one. but that's not my concern here. 
>> it's do we want to establish a new field  called 
>> "neuroaesthetics"--or are we, or some of us, engaged in  a different 
>> project: asking more broadly, how can cultural surfaces [past or 
>> present] be seen more richly by virtue of new data coming out of the 
>> neurosciences?
> I take on Barbara's concern about the idea of a "field" and with 
> hindsight would suggest that the term neuroaethetics - both from its 
> neuroscientific origins and its artistic/humanities rethinking - is a 
> framework for thinking through a variety of issues. I don't believe it 
> is about visualisation tools, nor processes of collaboration per se, 
> although these things certainly have a significant place in this. Nor 
> do I believe it is about a method (interactive, participatory) however 
> I am also aware that much of this debate around art practice has 
> focused on new media practices. In addition to Zeki and Ramachandran, 
> it really has been the work and writing of artist Warren Neidich that 
> has brought this mode of enquiry to the fore in recent years. 
> Interestingly, Neidich's practice is, well, very analogue; drawing, 
> montage, photography and installation (see his monograph "Blow:Up: 
> Photography, Cinema and the Brain")
> Just as an aside, I wonder if the "aesthetics" in the term will 
> potentially prove to be the problem.
> Barbara also suggests:
>> since i've spent much of my career also thinking about the varieties 
>> of imaging and visualization strategies, am concerned about certain 
>> developments in brain imaging--as outlined by joseph dumitt re. 
>> fmri.but not only is it problematic to talk about "portraits" of the 
>> brain in action. there's also the issue of automaticity in image 
>> processing, manipulating, storing, coloring and the conclusions that 
>> are drawn from this automatic sorting and interpreting of differently 
>> scaled data. one can also ask what are the cognitive differences 
>> between expert and "ordinary" perception? what role is played by 
>> communities of practice?
> On this point, I wonder Barbara, do you think that the technologies 
> and information available to artists currently are useful in 
> contributing to the ongoing debate on cognition or are they, in fact, 
> potentially producing more reductivist and didactic works as a result?
> - michele
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