SCI-ART: Exploring the Brain and the Role of the Artist
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. – Marchall McLuhan
In the ‘60s, Nam June Paik documented how Norbert Wiener and Marshall McLuhan’s had similar ideas on Cybernetics: that the binary system of computers today originated from the "on/off" character of the neuron synapses of animals. The commonality portrayed between the brain and machine feeds each of them to explore what they are capable of. For example, the study of the brain becomes the diagram of how a computer system should be built and a computer simulation models the possibilities of the brain. The study of AI is one where neural and electronic data melts in one pot and a Frankenstein wonderland is made possible. Today’s artists are fascinated by the scientific information in brain research and it is of no wonder that their artistic medium of expression also deals with systems of MEDIA. Two artists, Lee Boot and Todd Siler look at the brain but in different contexts and with the use of different media. Diversely, the brain is explored through the medium of film / TV by Boot and through books by Siler. By doing this, these artists present a new way of looking at the role of the artist.
Since 1991, Baltimore artist Lee Boot has been working with the theme of the brain while making a series of narrated video singles entitled Making Art with Tape. It was the combination of Boot’s background as a High School arts teacher and being encouraged by a Neuroscientist named John Shield that sparked the idea of making an educational film series / potential TV Pilot called Euphoria. One of the purposes of this film idea is to speak to young people about the power and capacity of the brain, not in the voice of a scientist hosting an educational flick, but as an artist speaking about the creative aspects of building fulfillment. By 1997, Boot wrote an abstract for the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans and did a poster talk about how an artist like himself would be the vehicle to identify and generate meaning out of factual scientific information to the public, especially to youngsters. At that time, people from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were at the convention and encouraged Lee to submit grant proposals. Euphoria came to life.
The film series Euphoria directed, written, and hosted by Boot is compelling. It has all the right ingredients for a culturally significant art project. It is educational, informative, and carries a popular voice. Nevertheless, it doesn’t lose the very innovative and artistic vision that makes the piece cutting edge. Funded by NIH, the film series is made to steer teens away from substance abuse and instead learn how to "get high" by being creative and "happy". If Jean Rouch made the film Chronique d’un ete (’61) to ask everyone in Paris if they were happy, this is a film series that can inform people in America on how to be happy. "We want to make an artwork that conveys vital information — in this case, the neuroscience of happiness. We’re putting art, science, TV and film into a bowl and stirring them all up and making something ELSE." (Boot).
The title "Euphoria" is taken from the chemical reaction in the brain when one is in a state of happiness. Located in the skull, the limbic system has a reward pathway that allows one to feel euphoric moments. By doing things that makes one feel rewarded, a person’s brain changes in response. In a sense, the film series is a humanistic and cultural campaign on how to achieve more euphoria. Furthermore, rather than being a "how to" manual, the film provides a vast space of people appreciation time and meaning. Portraits of characters are chosen to express their very own passion in life and how they go about getting it. The first prototype was a spectacular quasi documentary / music video / video art that informed viewers about the scientific facts of how the brain functions during euphoric moments and in turn, how this state affects the body and spirit.
Up to this point, Boot has worked with a team of neuroscientists and an evaluation team for the many phases of grant writing. His first film prototype has been so well received that offers will be made by various cable and broadcasting networks. But, there is a twist. What Boot wants for this film series is to circulate underground, perhaps through music and tape stores, sold as DVDs in ziplocks… (thinking like an artist). So there is money involved–that is the risk–from the NIH backing him up to be a new model for the war on drugs. And this gives Lee tremendous power, freedom, and responsibility. If it was a broadcasting station funding such a project, too much might be altered to please TV ratings, if it happened to be an art patron or institution, it might be too much about the donor’s taste. Somehow, in this case, the world of medicine and science seems to want to give the artist the space and funding to create art that would represent their concerns. Boot comments, "The key strength of art is creating a cultural affect. Cultural effect are echoed in social attitudes, and social attitudes influence individual belief, individual belief influences individual intention, individual intentions influence individual behavior." Boot, as an artist, plays the role of expressing what is profound in information to the world to create a better society, he is a humanist and an activist, and he is using the age of science in its most effective ways. How about that for a role model for teens! (www.makeu4ia.com)
Another artist, Todd Siler from Colorado sees the human brain as quintessential art. According to Siler, "the human brain is art, in its purest form, both materially and conceptually. It’s the living embodiment of "artscience," a phenomenon of communication that occurs when the arts are so fully integrated in the sciences that they become indistinguishable from one another. Their differences blur in the vanishing point of experience … …My personal philosophy of Art and Art-making and Art-appreciation begins and ends with the human brain. For me, Art is All Representations of Thought." Siler is the author of the book Think Like A Genius (Bantam, ‘97), which sold over 80,000 copies and published in eight languages. He is also the founder and director of Psi-Phi Communications, LLC, and the Think Like a Genius Program for Education. Foremost, he is an artist and a creator of the philosophy Metaphorming.
The idea of metaphorming helps people become geniuses by excelling their thinking and creative capacities. In turn, this helps people perform at their highest level of excellence to achieve their goals. The program initiates the notion that genius thinking isn’t about the who but about the how. In sense, a person does not have to be a genius to think like one. A person who can think creatively and critically can be capable of enriching their own life. The foundation of this thought process is to find methods of problem solving by building symbolic models that helps people clarify their visions and thoughts and organize a way of communication. In other words, this metaphorming process is "what artists and architects do when they use symbolism, signs, stories, visual metaphors and physical analogies to show and share their ideas, knowledge, wisdom, and experiences, what scientists and mathematicians do when they use symbolic representations to "Show-and-Tell" their ideas and research findings. It helps them see the unseen…" (Siler)
Siler is represented by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York and has an international track record of exhibitions. His artwork is also collected by major art institutions such as the Guggenheim, Metropolitan, MOMA, and Whitney to name a few, but what distinguishes him from all other art stars is perhaps his ability to communicate to people beyond the art world. In 1995, he was awarded the "Artist of other Year" award from New York Teachers Association and United Federation of Teachers. Similar to Lee Boot’s work, Siler is an artist who is also an influential educator of art and science. In some respect, his book Think Like A Genius is his most creative and socially effective art piece made yet and he has set new grounds for what it means to be an artist of our time. (http://www.thinklikeagenius.com)
Another highly recommended art project that deals with the subject of the brain is by Nina Sobell. An artist based in New York, she has been working with interactive installations involving people non-verbally communicating with their brainwaves since 1973 in a series called Brainwave Drawing. Recently, this artwork has evolved into an Internet art piece Brain Streaming Project that allows different participants around the world to signal brain-wave outputs through the Internet in real time. In sense, her work orchestrates a World Wide Web of collaborative brain-wave drawings.