Cognitive Conversations: The Artist’s Perspective
On Wednesday 20th February, I was very excited to host the third event of the Cognitive Sensations programme at FACT. Joined by a panel consisting of a neuroscientist, artist, designer and curator, our combined efforts told a story exploring artistic practice in the digital age. The narrative evolved through a series of presentations representing the diverse perspectives of the multi-disciplined panel, as well as a participatory artwork called The Artist’s Presence (2018), and a Q&A session with the audience. This essay will seek to represent some of the issues we addressed, using examples of artistic practice to illustrate the conversations that artists can bring to the great debate surrounding screen culture.
Perception is one of the most popular subjects of the Cognitive Sensations programme, and is repeatedly brought up as a starting point to how we interact with the world and its relationship with the digital age. In previous events, we discussed how the brain is hugely adaptable to the environment, and that its sensory inputs affect core processes such as perception and memory.
Cognitive Conversations extended this discussion point further by considering what these sensory inputs are, their impact on the body and their relationship with the environment. Julius Colwyn outlined in the discussion that digital technology works in a two-dimensional manner, flattening our visual experience to a digital form. Although digital technology has the power to mentally immerse us within an experience, what can we remember about our bodily experience?
Neuroscientist Richard Cytowic presented us with a fascinating analysis of the function of perception, and its relationship with sensory experience in the digital age. Drawing upon the semiotic theories of biologist Jakob Van Uexküll and semiotician Tomas. A Sebeok, he defines our unique experience of perception under the term ‘umvelt’. Our meaning of the world is constructed through the movement of our self-directed body through unique multi-sensory experiences, determining our objective reality. Perception then becomes something that we do, not something that happens to us.
As part of this project, I commissioned Cytowic and artist Marcos Lutyens to collaborate in the creation of a new artwork, A Semantic Survey of Forms (2019). Participants interacted with five unique objects through touch alone, recording the details of their tactile encounter via a survey. The artwork sought to test the results of a sensory experience that eradicates visual perception, whilst comment on the predominantly visual era we have found ourselves in.
In Cytowic’s analysis of this data, he reflected how participants tended to visualise the objects in their mind, which as a result brought upon memories, leading to a more intense experience than had it been purely visual. They found that predetermined expectations heightened their reactions to the experience, drawing them to the subjective theatre of their mind. This is a natural reaction of the brain to connect the dots between what we cannot see or know, creating a context which is subjective to the individual.
In the Q&A, I asked the panel their opinion of the effects of the digital age on the ability to think critically. When we are alone, we are drawn to our digital devices which can in effect prevent us from processing what is happening around us. When trying to recall a piece of information, we naturally go to Google to provide us with our answer. Our devices are becoming a central reference point for the way we digest internally what is happening around us, and the way that we think and find answers. Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield emphasises that the effort invested in connecting the dots and taking the journey of discovery, is the essential ingredient in making connections across neurons, and giving a significance and importance to what we learn so that we see information in a new way .
In A Semantic Survey of Forms, we have a perfect example of an intense experience that relies on this ability to draw upon our previous knowledge of the world. Through the slowing down of one’s experience, one is able to consolidate old information with new, creating a fresh stream of sensory mega patterns to make sense of an unknown experience. Although there were many similarities between participant feedback, no two surveys were the same, reinforcing how our lived experiences are based on our individual subjective ‘umvelt’.
A Semantic Survey of Forms was designed as an experience to challenge the visual domination of digital media on our sensual diversity. As a perceptive device, our everyday handheld technologies compete for our attention through their repetitive notification stimuli and tempting wealth of information. In her analysis of artistic practice in relation to the digital age, Sarah Cook played an experiment in perception of her own. Instead of including slides for her introduction, she projected the artwork ‘Automated Beacon’ (2005), a project by THOMSON & CRAIGHEAD that collects and relays internet searches in real time.
The artwork functioned as a metaphor for the internet and its role as a consumer of attention. It pulsated and breathed through its random flashing display of internet searches, reflecting the sense of pace and connectivity that the internet represents. As it drew the viewer into its captivating display, it reflected the sense of addiction many of us feel as a condition of the digital age. Digital art blog Rhizome describes the artwork as ‘a feedback loop providing a global snapshot of ourselves to ourselves in real-time, while occupying a kind of nostalgic now-ness’ . Cook reflected how after almost fifteen years, this artwork still gives an accurate representation of the internet and shows us how it has developed through the decades.
Julius Colwyn is a practitioner working in the realm of art and design, compelled by questions around human nature through a multidisciplinary approach bridging neuroscience and system science. In the discussion, Colwyn shared his views on the physical embodiment of our devices, and their effect on the way we tangibly engage with the world around us. Through a series of examples, Colwyn described how he might face these issues through hypothetical designs, bringing experiences back to the human condition that are beginning to wane in the face of the digital age.
In his design Hush, Colwyn creates a place of silence protected from the fast-paced speed of life. The design considers noise cancelling, signal blocking and crowd dynamics to create a moment of disconnection. Proposed for high traffic public areas, Hush is a response to the sensory saturation and constant connectedness of our contemporary environments. The focus on silence fights against the pulsating attention-grabbing nature of the digital age which Automated Beacon seeks to highlight.
Whereas the previous two sections focussed on one’s internal sensory experience with digital media, this chapter will examine engagement and interaction. Artist Zara Worth played an instrumental part in helping us physically and intellectually engage with these subjects, as she explored our relationship with the hardware and software of Web 2.0. Worth explained that Web 2.0 demarcates the contemporary era of participatory culture, user-generated content and the hand held devices that are so much more than just phones.
Through the homonym triptych of present, (to) present and presence, she provided us with a thematic anchor of definitions surrounding web 2.0 and the politics of presenting art. The words allude to witnessing, the act of showing, exhibiting, and the state of proximity to a person or thing. Present, for example, is a condition that is constantly slipping into the past, and in social media acts as a live narration of our experiences. In an art context, we choose to be present before an artwork as it awards us with the in-flesh experience. Online documentation then becomes our evidence of the presence, and through a simple hashtag pinpoints us to a moment in time through the guise of happening ‘just now’.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c.1505) is a classic example, which has risen to the status of a famous pop icon. Visitors to the Louvre crowd around this tiny painting, snapping desperately to capture their own personal digital replica. They don’t seem to be interested in looking through their eyes, they are experiencing the artwork through the viewfinders of their screens. Being present before the Mona Lisa is one thing, but being present before the Mona Lisa online shows you were really there.
During the event, the audience were invited to take part in Worth’s artwork, The Artist’s Presence (2018). Consisting of two chairs placed facing towards each other, The Artist’s Presence is an augmented reality artwork activated by scanning the image of a hand using a mobile device. The artist appears on the participant’s screen, as if sitting on the chair facing opposite them. The work questions the importance of the artist’s presence in performative arts practice, a tongue in cheek response to Marina Abramovic’s artwork, The Artist is Present (2010).
Worth’s artworks each have IRL (in real life) and URL (uniform resource location) counterparts, using social media both as a medium and a subject. They explore and compare how the experience of art differs in its physical presence to its encounter online. The Artist’s Presence is activated through both physical and augmented interaction, reflecting the hugely influential effect of Web 2.0 on real life. As Worth appears in a ghostlike form, she highlights the presence we often look for in artworks as it gives the impression of being closer to the artist. When our world is already shadowed by the omnipresent online realm, what are the necessities for physical proximity to a person or object?
Critiques of the digital Sherry Turkle, Susan Greenfield and Richard Cytowic argue that hand-held technology can cause isolation and detachment amongst society. Cook provided us with some examples of artistic practice which seek to challenge these social issues caused by digital technology, by returning physical bodily experience through a simple intervention. In one example, artist Miranda July created a messaging service in the form of an artwork called Somebody (2015). The app asked strangers to deliver messages between friends, exploring the social disconnection that digital technology can sometimes cause in the reduction of face-to-face contact. The technology became a tool to fix the problem that it created.
The artistic practice I have discussed in this essay seem to focus on the body and mind. In A Semantic Survey of Forms, participants were connected to their memories through a haptic sensory experience, bringing back the sense of touch that can sometimes feel distant in an era of mediated images. In Automated Beacon, our minds were stolen from us as we entered the rhythmic pulse of the internet search. Here we were dominated by the era of mediated images, and reminded of their attention grabbing power. In The Artist’s Presence, the mediated image took the form of a body as the artist appeared before us in pixels, challenging the status and aura of the artist, and the relationship between our physical and virtual world.
As Colwyn emphasises, dancers think with their bodies, human speak with gestural language and we communicate via different sensory modalities. What emerges through the artworks and discussion is the power struggle of our senses, which can feel at risk of being flattened as we carry out more and more of our activity through the screen. In the words of Cytowic, what happens to our umvelt, our unique perception of the world, when it is reduced to a two-dimensional form?
1. Greenfield, S (2014) Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving their Mark on our Brains. Rider, p218
2. Rhizome [online]. Automated Beacon. Available at: https://rhizome.org/art/artbase/artwork/automated-beacon/