Interview with Warren Neidich by Charles Gere Summer 2004
Charles Gere: Though the idea of Neuroaesthetics first appears in your work discussions about 1995 but you were a practicing artist sometime before that. So why did this idea begin to appear in your work?
Warren Neidich: Prior to 1995-1996 I had been doing work more about cultural discourse and visual culture. I had been done this project called American History Reinvented, which concerned the nature of the photographic document as it was linked to the historical archive. I reinvented that archive by creating my own parallel one in which actors dressed in period costumes reenacted scenes from five different periods of American History and these images were modeled on ones I had researched in the archive> However in my new versions a reversal of power dynamics occurred as people of color stood in for Caucasian counterparts in position of power and ownership.
This work came to an end in 1995- 1996 after I created a work concerning the media at the OJ Simpson’s trials. I was able to gain access to media encampment that was set up alongside the courthouse during the trial, and I photographed the media making, producing the fiction that contextualized the cultural historical psychological social fictions that surrounded OJ Simpson’s trials. I photographed it like I would the backstage happenings at a rock and roll concert. I felt that this whole idea between the validity of the photograph and the veracity of photographic document the relationship between the media and how the photograph is produced, the material that is produced and its production value and how it is then visualized and perceived and how in the case of OJ the whole equation becomes completely reversed in the sense that now reality looked like fiction rather than producing fiction that looked like reality. You see what I mean I didn’t need to make the fictions I made in American History Reinvented or like other artists like Jeff Wall, because that fiction was already part of what we now imagine as reality. That in fact that our memories and the images of our thoughts had been colonized by these composite fictionalized happenings and it was necessary to take another approach one that involved where the events were being incorporated in the body as brain and mind
That somehow I needed to trace the roots of the relationship between fiction and non-fiction back to the body itself. What was available to me at the time of this work in terms of laying out the path through which I could investigate these issues were psychoanalytical paradigms, which had emerged in Surrealism and in Feminist Practices of the late seventies, or Phenomenological-based theories concerned with the body as the non-physical representation of embodiments from the sixties. OJ is a very psychological piece, although it investigated many other aspects of visual culture represented by this event as well, especially in the way I photographed it and the materials I used to print and produce it. It is photographed with a super wide-angle lens that created uncanny and warped spatial arrangements. It was also about this idea of a kind of collective memory of the unconscious in a kind of historical sense because OJ was yet another mediated ‘American Super Event’, a kind of Blockbuster event that we all shared together. We swooned when he appeared on the camera; we were appalled by the bloodstained gloves; we were mesmerized by the car chase at the beginning of the episode. But we were also affected by the way that the media constructed the story. It was a kind of weekday afternoon version of the soap opera ‘As The World Turns’ with the same kind of episodes and intrigues.
At about the same time as I was doing this project my concerns were going through a transition, and I started to embrace my interest in neuroscience and began to think about ways that I might be able to bring some of its ideas in an abstract way into my art work. So I wanted to go from this idea of psychodynamic drama as it was played out in this unconscious to an exploration of what was going on in the brain. In other words I wanted to start to look at the relationship between mind and matter in a different way. I also felt that this investigation would be away for me to bring the two parts of myself together. I was an artist and I had been a Physician and this seemed a way to consolidate the two, while at the same time allowing me as an artist to bring a specialized knowledge to my practice, which in turn might result in encoding that knowledge for others in the art world interested in similar things.
I had up to this time kept my past as a physician somewhat secret because I did not see its relevance to my work and I also thought it just confused people when I told them what I did. Then I decided that the only way to investigate this mind and brain dichotomy in relationship to media and techniques was to embrace my past as a doctor because it was both a specialist knowledge and something to which I was very connected to, and also was something very much about me and very personal and I wanted my work to be about my life and my experiences. I had always thought that one of the important things about being an artist is to bring specialized knowledge from other fields into the artistic domain. I began think of ways that neuroscientific ideas could become a way of understanding the conditions of culture and be an inspiration for art practice.
This is, to say the least, a difficult thing to do, primarily because, although there were antecedents in film theory and some art works of the fifties and sixties like the early work of Richard Hamilton, Bridget Riley and Stan Brakhage, which had generated a large amount of literature, no one had in the contemporary sense had attempted to create a language connecting aesthetics and neuroscience taking into account all the many new ideas and methodologies that had occurred in the past thirty years, and which I thought had real importance for making art, works of art, artists, and audiences.
I created the word Neuroaesthetics around 1995 and gave the first lectures about it at the School of Visual Arts in the program developed by Charles Traub. I actually didn’t start producing Neuroaesthetic work until 1997 it was like a two-year period time between when I was able to think about it philosophically and intellectually and actually was able to start making a few works about it. I realized that where before neuroscience was about matter and brain Neuroaesthetics was a way to understand it in terms of mind and ideas. Ultimately Neuroaesthetics is a means or a process through which the ideas of mind and brain can be connected in a dynamic way. Neuroaesthetics can perhaps be understood in the Duchampian sense. It is the way that Neuroscience is a readymade, which is recontextualized out from its original context as a scientific based paradigm into one that is aesthetically based. Science being rigid, rigourous and crystalike and static while art practice is about becoming and is dynamic, rhizomatic, unformed and multiplicitous. Art is about creative evolution and the development of ideas, beauty and the sublime can also be ideas, and when Neuroscience is placed in the White Cube it becomes part of a very different discourse and genealogy. Just like the winerack removed from its utilitarian domain and placed into the domain of sculpture where its objectness is changed into process you can do the same thing with a field of knowledge. Ideas like objects can be neutral and utilitarian and this is especially true of science in general and are subject to the same contextual dynamics of the aesthetic field. What is especially relevant for neuro science is that in its special case many of the issues explored by artists like color, memory, forms, spatial relationships etc. are explored by them as well. Although they use different techniques to do so when it is now seen in the light of the aesthetic field the match-ups provide bridges for the flows of information between the two. So that is the way it happened.
CG: Besides being a working artist for some fifteen years and are now in fact the visiting artist at Goldsmiths College, London you were also a trained and practiced as a doctor as well as studying neuroscience on the way.
WN: Yes I did. I directly studied neurosciences, or physiological psychology as it was called, for four years as an undergraduate in college and also I did a year of research in neuroscience at California Institute of Technology in the Laboratory of Roger Sperry. Also, in my residency in Ophthalmology I studied Neuro-Ophthalmology as part of my training, a three months in-depth study of all kind of problems that have to do with the eye and the brain.
CG: What is interesting is that you are not an artist who engages science at a superficial level (what I call the magpie level) but at a far deeper level and this I think clearly comes out of your background as a practicing scientist. I think we would be interesting to talk a little about what Neuroaesthetics relates to recent developments in neuroscience.
WN: Well, I always say that there are really two fields simultaneous fields which are emerging and that are going on right now, both of which are called Neuroaesthetics, and which are equally are important. But I think they are coming out from different kinds of approaches and producing different kinds of information.
What I call Neuroaesthetics is where you foreground the cultural, historical, psychological, economical, social relations that actually produce a piece of work. A piece of art is an instantiation of a group of immaterial relations which it concretizes within its own structure within its own objectness, and there is also work that is non-objective as well in art and that is a very special condition, but, whether it is an object a non-object, or its about relational aesthetics, or its about the relationship between objects or its about the history of those objects, or its about the spaces those objects occupy, it is still, whatever it is in its final manifestation, a representation or a concretization of its historical, social, political economical conditions that actually formed it. You cannot strip those things away from the artwork without changing the artwork fundamentally.
The way an artwork is created is through creative evolution, it is about addition; no idea in art is ever destroyed; it always is there waiting to become again, like the work of Robert Smithson for example. He is very fashionable right now, but nobody has really talked about him in 30 years, so there are certain conditions that there are occurring right now that are either similar to the conditions that happened during the late 60’s or early 70’s that are concretizing themselves, so that now people can look anew at Smithson’s work, or there were aspects of implicit relationships in Smithson’s work that never came out before, or were never developed at the moment of the work’s existence, but the conditions that are now happening create a condition that these other aspects of the work are now made explicit. Also there is the condition of the observer who has changed as well to now be able to perceive and comprehend this work differently. So Neuroaesthetics takes these three mutating conditions that inform the work of art into consideration and looks at the way these mutating conditions affect the brain as well.
CG: Do you mean by becoming visible?
WN: Yes, because the observer is changing as well. The same conditions that changed the artwork are also changing the observer through neuro-selective processes and, some people would say, through constructive processes.
Aesthetic Neuro-Biology on the other hand takes the art object from its place within the cultural field, takes it out of that field and puts it into a laboratory, thereby stripping it bare of all of these conditions which produced it, and acts as if it is some kind of static object and then applies a set of conditions that are very different than the conditions that made it. So instead of remaining fluid and dynamic, the artwork becomes caught in a crystallized lattice of scientific fact
CG: What you suggest in your recent book, Blow-up: Photography, Cinema and the Brain, is that the brain itself is made and makes the world in which it operates, through its actual plasticity. Can you talk a little about that.
WN: When I was writing the book people would constantly ask me Why did you write the book? I tell them that I had to write it I didn’t have a choice
WN: I wrote it because it came out of me but also it was a reaction to people constantly commenting on my work, saying things such as ‘your work is strongly influenced by phenomenology and the work of Maurice Merleau Ponty. Which it was, but that for me was a historical note and just the beginning. Or people might say ‘you know your work looks like late 60’s work or early 70’s work’. They would say ‘your work like that of Bridget Riley’. All these artists are great, however I had realized that I was dealing with a paradigm shift and that I was aware of this paradigm shift because of my special training in neuro-ophthalmology and Neuroscience and also because of my close relationship to some of the leading artists of my day, the artists that worked with me as an artist or curator or who I was in contact with like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Moriko Mori and Douglas Gordon.
For instance I ran two artist-run spaces in the nineties. The first was called Virtual Space and the second was called The Spot Art Foundation. Spot Art Foundation was around for two and half years. Its main objective was to investigate how the alternative space operated within the context of the gallery dominant art world market driven system of New York City. Much of the work show was self-reflexive being about the alternative space itself. For instance we built a warped wall along the long dimension of the space to talk about the need to get away from the idea of neutral space. An artist lived underneath the gallery for a month and artists did projects on the voice activated telephone greeting for the gallery. So I was very aware of the dominant and emerging discourses of my time. Also I was very aware of a very cutting edge neuroscience discourse as well because I was constantly reading books and papers about the most recent advances, which most artists were not aware of, because the information was not being made available to them. So I wrote the book because I had to I had realized that it was a paradigm shift and that I was part of that….
CG: So both of things were developing separately, but were operating in a similar way, and you were a point where they converged.
WN: That’s it. I was seeing all of this. I was part of it
CG: You see a direct co-relation between some contemporary art practice that is happening now, rather than twenty or thirty years ago, and some of the ways neuroscience is theorizing about our relationship with the world.
CG: And this is an important aspect of your thinking.
WN: Artists were picking up on it.
CG: Artists were picking it up because they always do.
WN: There was nobody there to really put it in to a kind of new context. … To really understand it and to put it into some kind of language that was relevant to today. All the artists, we’ve been talking about and some who we have not been, like Carsten Holler and Olafur Eliasson, have been kind of categorized as coming out of a phenomenological discourse, which in some cases is true and is or course very important. Or perhaps their work is close to an autopoietic discourse, such as that of Francisco Varela, which is also incredibly important, and it was true that these artists during that time were very much affected by such ideas, and there are still artists that are interested, just like artists today who are doing work about modernism. Similarly there are architects today who still interested in modernism and there architects who are doing computer-generated work and dealing with blob architecture, or dealing with intelligent buildings. They coexist simultaneously. Another way to look at this is to say without the Louvre there could not be a Pompidou Center and without the Pompidou Center there could not be a Bilbao.
There are always these kinds of relationships. But I am calling for another interpretation as well, which proposes that these artists like myself are being affected implicitly or explicitly by the same kinds of knowledge as the information that helped Deleuze and Guattari create their theories of Choasophy, Rhizomatic thought and Nomadism. As with philosophy new paradigms are necessary to understand this new kind of artwork. Especially since art creates its own sensations and thoughts which require new material and immaterial representations to understand and appreciate.
CG: It seems to me that the difference between what people like Richard Hamilton and Bridget Riley and Donald Judd were doing and what you are doing, is that their paradigm is phenomologically and psychoanalytically inflected, whereas is yours is where material neurology comes into play, the actual materiality of our evolutionary relationship with the world around us.
WN: Yes and no. I think that it’s definitely an important part of what I am doing but whereas they are dealing with ideas of conceptual art, perception, phenomenology, embodiment, objecthood and issues like that, I am foregrounding ideas like plasticity, sampling, variability, population dynamics, neuroselectionism, and creative evolution and using them to encode a new dimension of aesthetic discourse. I am folding this new energy and contemporaneity, especially in the sense of reformulating the ‘desire machine’ of the new observer, into a context that is evolving in art production today.
CG: All essentially neurological ideas.
WN: Again yes and no. I am talking about the way new kinds of idea are evolving out the relation of between mind and brain through the processes of how each is produced. I am interested in production and apparatus and techne as they commingle and co-evolve in parallel processes through Creative and Darwinian evolutionary paradigms. This is not Conceptual Art or Neo-conceptual Art. It is just art making and using the new means of production to that end. Artist have always done this and there is no need to foreground the technology. In my work you never see the technology it is invisible and sublime but at deeper levels it is always there deforming the work of art. The idea of ‘creative evolution’ comes out of Bergson, but it plays an important role in my aesthetic paradigm and was extremely prescient. What I am trying to do is to find a new language in terms of how the mind and the brain are connected. I am trying to create a new paradigm for mind and brain and using art works to do it. What I am saying is that creative evolution is creating a multiplicity of heterogenous, highly variable objects, that is to say…
CG: In the brain?
WN: Hold on, I am going to get to that. First the mind, using creative evolution, creates a new whole bunch of objects and new combinations of objects as for instance in ‘dj culture’. You have this global sonic archive, to use a term I got from Kudwo Eshun, and then you have these DJs who are sampling, who are scratching, who are creating different kinds of sounds, and VJs, who are creating new kinds of visual-acoustic sounds. The same thing is going on in the visual arts, because a lot of artists today are actually using DJs’ methodologies in their artwork. But instead of directly sampling the sound archive they are going on line and accessing the Internet. Then what happens is that these new kinds of acoustic or visual objects scatter themselves into visual culture and they change visual culture; they change what the visual culture’s objects look like; they change the relationships between objects and they change the architecture in which these new objects and relations live, and, don’t forget, they change the reactions against these relations.
Look at Bilbao, for instance, which is in response to a kind of computer-generated program called CAD. Now what happens is then the brain that you are born with what Gerald Edelman based on the work of Hebb and Changeux calls the ‘primary repertoire, which is made up of a highly variable population of neurons, which is the result of the genetic combination of the DNA of the sperm and egg, and of the events that have taken place during development. Every one of us is born with a unique ‘fingerprint’ of the organization of the brain within certain limitations. After all we are all of the same species. According to the Theory of Neuronal Group Selection this highly variable nervous system is sculpted and pruned like the branches of a tree by the environment with which we interact, and culture is an important component of that environment, as it affects what we pay attention to and what is important for us. Those neurons, which are competing for stimulation, that are stimulated repetitively by stimuli in the real/imaginary/virtual world most often develop faster and with more efficient firing and wiring capacities, which in the end allow them to be selected for above and beyond those other neurons not so stimulated.
In the same way that the different types of relationships that exist between objects and signifiers allow them to form networks of relationships in the world, groups of neurons called nets may be selected together. Just as some objects, words and relations are part of more than one type of meaning relationship and participate, for instance, in multiple narratives, some neurons or groups of neurons participate in a multiplicity of network relations which in the end gives them even more selective advantage as a result of being stimulated in many different conditions and as result of this kind of co-operativity, which Edelman calls degenerative, may have selective value as well. I hope you see where I am going.
Because it is the mutating, dynamic and changing world that sculpts this brain according to these Darwinistic principles and as the world changes so to does the neurobiological architecture. New network relations in the world select for new network relations in the brain. Therefore the mind utilizes creative evolution paradigms, at least according to this model, while the brain and its materiality is shaped by Darwinian principles. That does not mean they are different. They are all part of one system that includes the world. Creative Evolution creates new objects which are sampled by a different population of neurons in the brain which are thereby selected for. This new neurobiologic architecture as it is based on different kinds of neural connectivity between the sensorial primary areas of the brain and the more abstract areas allows for new kinds of thought based on these new forms of connectivity to occur in the imagination. Creative evolution feeding off this imagination creates more new objects and the spiral goes on ad infinitum. For simplicity sake I have explained them separately but they are all one system. In my opinion there is no mind-brain dialectic, or for that matter no mind brain(body) problem.
CG: Are the neurons constantly changing? Physically changing?
WN: Yes I believe so. I believe for instance, the seventeenth century brain is very different from the twentieth century brain.
WN: It can’t be proved. Unfortunately the technology does not yet exist that has the capability to look at this kind of structure. There is some controversy about this idea. But there is new data emerging, which seems to show such differences. But it is still far from definite. However most neuroscientist I have been speaking with agree with this idea. Also one has the kind of evidence that exists anecdotally. For instance a child of nine who has been seeing TV and working on the computer has no problem reading Wired Magazine with its specifically internet-style graphic design and layout, whereas the child’s grandfather does. This does not mean that a certain percentage of the grandfathers couldn’t learn it but a great proportion of them could not. I believe this discrepancy is due to different configurations, both spatial and temporal, of the two very different kinds of observers. There is something different about the Internet world and the world that preceded it. Sociologically this opens up all kinds of issues as one begins to understand the problems which might occur in communication if in fact the different agents were wired up in different ways.
CG: Is it also a question of speed?
WN: Yes, it is about the relationship between extensive culture and intensive culture that we live in a time of folding and heterogeneity and multiplicity and rhizomatic time and I think things are getting hooked up in very diverse ways. The plasticity of the brain is therefore organized differently because these intensive relationships create other kinds of groupings of sensations and meta-sensations, gestalts and so forth, which are perceived ensemble and all together.
CG: Is the brain changing? Are the changes inheritable? Or does the brain begin as a tabula rasa?
WN: That’s a difficult set of questions. These changes are generally not inherited because these changes occur during the lifetime of that individual and only in extreme situations, where the animal has a natural propensity that results in a selective sexual advantage in which that proclivity has selective value and is passed on. Acquired characteristics are not normally passed on that is, of course, the difference between Lamarckian and Mendelian inheritance. The sculpting I was talking about perishes with the host. What you are born with is a pre-wired architecture which is in some instances already synched up to certain unchanging and stable conditions of the world, plus generalized qualities of the neural tissue itself, like plasticity and mutability, interspecies variability and synchronicity, which are processes which help the brain adapt to varied sets of circumstances as well as being functional characteristics of neuronal systems themselves.
For instance gap junctions, tiny communications that exist between neurons, may be important for synchronicity. You are born with them they are part of the anatomy of the neuron. But other examples like you inherit linkups between your senses and the cortical systems where these sensations are processes, you inherit basic categories of sensory processors based on specific architectural configurations like that which is found in the visual cortex for processing color, shape and movement might be significant.
Recent research in the somatosensory cortex is finding similar parcellization, which may be a condition of all sensory cortices. It may be an a priori condition of the nervous system. You are inheriting specific hierarchial arrangements of processing from the most concrete to the most abstract, such as one finds in the posterior cortex between primary perceptual areas and different layers of association cortex or in the opposite direction in the processing of movement from the most abstract to the most concrete. What I am emphasizing, and I am trying not to be too technical, is that, for the most part, you are inheriting building blocks or fragment detectors, like edge , color, motion and form detectors (maybe what Joaquin Fuster calls cognits) that can be assembled according to the world one finds oneself in. There are exceptions like the fusiform cortex for face recognition where the whole face is represented. There are certain areas that are so important for the young (and now I am anthropomorphizing) that you are born with the ability to recognize faces and probably your mother’s or your parents’ faces.
But beyond these exceptions for the most part there is this condition of fragmentation. What are the implications of this idea of the partial whole or as neurologists call it parcellization. When you look at the outside world you think you are seeing a seamless world but in fact you are seeing fragments and parcels, the color is processed in one area, the form in another and motion in another part of the visual cortex. Certain monkeys have seventeen different areas that process the visual stimulus in different ways in parallel and then these different areas become sutured together by a process called binding, which binds the fragments together. This takes place beyond the primary visual areas in the association cortices. These building blocks may occur at the most basic and the most abstract levels, in other words higher categories of thought may have their own kinds and forms of building blocks but in the latter it may be harder to identify where there are isotropic counterparts in the world.
There is no one to relationship between what is perceived and its representation. The direct coding is elusive. You may inherit all of these potentialities. How they get hooked up is about experience and sculpting. Depending on what world you need to adapt to, you put the building blocks together differently. That is why I am emphasizing the question of time now. Although time itself may in the future found to be parceled it still has the ability to be morphed and new types of temporality are beginning to function because of the artistic experiments occurring in cinema and new media where it has become non-linear or the narrative time becomes cut up and reorganized into some thing non-narrative, and because these have been designed by the human brain then it may be that these new temporalities reconfigure the way the world appears and it may also affect the way the brain codes for it.
CG: This sounds almost Kantian.
WN: Yes it is similar to Kant except, it is the a priori relations are building blocks that create the possibilities for an a posteriori brain. The a priori brain is sculpted by selective processes in my model (and I am indebted to Scott Lash at Goldsmiths College for expanding my understanding of the work of Manuel Delanda) into the a posteriori brain, which is no longer the Cartesian brain of an extensive world but the Riemian/Deleuzian brain of an intensive world.
CG: There has to be something that we inherit.
WN: Yes, basic building blocks and processes, but every world is different and if we knew what we were going to see and our brains were already wired up to see that specific world, then it will be very hard to change the world beyond the senses we are born with to appreciate it. We would be trapped by a kind of stasis instead of being open to the multiplicity of possibility of the dynamic. But of course the extensive is remediated in the intensive and both systems are coextensive with themselves and with the brain creating new possibilities for the mind. That is the point, because in the end I am calling for a new way to look at the mind and its products thoughts, ideas, imaginings, dreams and nightmares.
CG: So you are saying that we inherit enough to cohere the world but in different circumstances different worlds are brought together.
WN: Exactly and our brains are able to make sense of very different worlds within the boundaries of very specific sensorial possibilities, which makes sense. It also will mean you don’t have to have that much genetic code to do it, you don’t have to code for every object that we might see or every situation we might experience. All we need is to code for processes that help us put the building blocks that make world picture together whatever the conditions might be within certain bounds. Obviously if there was no light within the visual spectrum we would be unable to see. That is what I mean about limits. Our senses are tuned to living on the Earth to the extent that human beings have long roamed the surface of this planet. You just have to put things together.
CG: That makes a lot of sense. It allows for the evolutionary traits to perform in very different circumstances. You can live in varied environmental contexts and to be able to respond very quickly in an open way.
WN: Exactly, the person ‘becomes’. We are constantly becoming. But the thing is that when you die your nervous systems dies with you. Everything that you have learned dies with you. What is going on is that you have cultural memory. Cultural memory is really where the genetics of culture takes place. Let’s take architecture as an example, because, as I said before, the Bilbao wouldn’t have happened without the Pompidou Center, and the Pompidou Center would not have happened without the Louvre, because of the technological advances, and because of each one of those represents a different kind of historical, political, social, economic and psychological condition that was preponderant at that particular time; plus the history of technics itself which allow these kinds of different structures to be built. Cultural memory is a history of the genealogy of different conditions of creativity and the history of their creative, visual auditory and technical resolutions.
Artists, Architects, Designers, Writers, Cinematographers and Musicians/Composers all have participated in this genealogy as each has reflected upon their particular discourses and through acting as a kind of membrane between themselves and the changing conventions have added or subtracted to that genealogy. Like the rings of a tree the history of these changes represent a kind of cultural memory that the brain and mind reflect upon and are sculpted by. Notice I put mind in this case first. The brain is different than it was in the seventeenth century because the conditions of cultural memory of are different. But the twenty-first century remediates the seventeenth century brain and one can say this for the mind as well.
CG: So you don’t need a meme.
WN: No I am not into memes.
CG: Nor am I. I think that memes are a very poor conception. Although what I think is interesting is that the idea of the meme can emerge because the brain and mind have been configured in certain ways by cultural history. The meme itself is a kind of cultural object.
WN: Yes it is a cultural object. A meme can be because the brain has been already configured in a certain way. It doesn’t change anything and it doesn’t cause anything.
CG: I want to take the discussion in a different direction. If we bring in technics we imply their use by humans rather than animals, in a sense, because the history of technics implies human phenomena rather than animal phenomena.
WN: We do know certain chimps use sticks for eating termites.
CG: Yes, but that is not inherited. The origin of technics is quite complex. But to express my understanding in a rather simplistic way, when an animal uses tools it still remains largely an instinctual act. What humans do is to enable their tools to be inherited. That is the difference between humans and animals. Humans can inherit what humans before them did and understand it and adopt it. So if the human brain is different in different periods, could the same be said for a horse brain?
WN: That is an interesting question. But the answer is no, Of course not. It is not inherited. It is not connected to the social political and economic and historical relations. The horse and for instance the elephant are born with a predetermined anatomical form which is to be already perfectly suited for a predetermined ecologic system that it is to become coextensive with. It assumes that the environment will be their. The animal is born with the tools it will need to survive in specific contexts.
CG: Much of what you say reminds me of the work of the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, particularly the way in which he analyses the relation between the brain, the world and technics.
WN: The brain makes the world and it is made by the world of which technics is part. It is a cycle it is a real, cybernetic cycle, and as such is very complicated and full of feedback and feed-forward loops.
CG: So the objects we are surrounded by actually determine the neuronal arrangements in our brain?
WN: Right but they are always changing, the conditions that create them are mutating, they are responding to those mutating conditions and they are mutating themselves.
CG: Physically mutating?
WN: This is what I was trying to say before. There are no technologies right now that can allow us to see these changes explicitly and in fact there are some people who are even questioning the results of brain scans themselves because of the large degree of error caused by the machines themselves. The technologies of neuro-imaging are still comparatively primitive. However these ideas are in agreement with most of what neurobiologists and neuroscientists think is happening and I might add concurs with the discussions happening at the borders of sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Even if those conditions existed they would be difficult to see because, as I said before, they may be dynamic temporal codes or signatures that are linking up spatial static relations. However we are leaning more and more about neural plasticity in the last few years and the brain is much more mutable then we ever imagined.
CG: But in theory what you are saying makes sense. Brains are mutable. So where does all this lead. What are the political or social consequences that arise out of these ideas and discoveries, particularly in relation to globalised, mediated capitalism and, above all, what is the role of the artist?
WN: I think that there are some interesting political consequences of this because I think that basically that this idea of neuro selection can also lead us into an alternative way to view the political sociological consequences of global capitalism and, in particular, you can look at its methodologies. One first needs to look at what is called phaticity, from Paul Virilio, meaning something that is emphatic, so you have to pay attention. This idea of phaticity is the idea of that these are artificial stimulants, stimulations that are constructed to make us pay attention to them. If you look at history of special effects or the history of advertising you’ll see how the images have changed and the use of special effects become more and more complicated more effective and more and more what Jonathan Crary calls obscene.
So that in a sense the brain has to pay attention to them, it captures our attention. Attention is one of the most fundamental ways in which groups of neurons and neuronal networks are configured, and it is a way to stimulate them over and over and over again. These as you remember are the fundamental conditions that allow for neurons to be selected for.
CG: Are you saying therefore that because they are more complex we need greater and greater stimulation for the phatic effect to take place.
WN: If you take for example the special affects used to make movies such as star wars and matrix you can see what I am talking about. The observer or movie viewer has an insatiable hunger for better and better special effects. Your expectations constantly increase. What originally was overwhelming and exciting on the first viewing of Star Wars becomes commonplace on repeated viewing. The next blockbuster must be better, more expensive, have better special effects. To the degree that these effects require more complex machines with greater computing power the answer may be yes. Anyway to continue the argument Hollywood knows this is as well, you need more and more phaticity to capture your attention.
But these images are not just occurring in the movie theaters. There is a confluence between technology and physiological psychology, now that brain imaging and computer graphics create ever more attention grabbing stimuli that are even marketed to different age groups according to not only their commodity needs but to a specialized aesthetics which is incorporated in the branding of the product being sold. Sophisticated computer graphics are tethered to advertisements for video games and blue jeans. These types of images are being made for billboards, computer screens, magazine images and so on. They are occurring over and over again in our visual culture. Global Capitalism allows these images to be distributed worldwide. They’re happening everywhere you look. So we have a perfect set up for a Neural Darwinistic Paradigm. We have artificial stimuli that have been designed to capture our attention which have been disseminated worldwide, appearing over and over again throughout visual culture. One other point is that there is an actual competition going on between the phatic stimuli themselves to capture our attention. They also compete with other such phatic stimuli to become ever more cognitively ergonomic. This is a term I began using in 1996 to describe stimuli that were no longer adjusted to the sensorium but were directly designed for how the brain itself processed information.
As such over time they become incredibly sophisticated. This has another strange component as it relates to the body and the notion of embodiment. This has implications for neural selectionism and especially for ideas of memory and the body. In the end these phatic stimuli compete for the minds attention more effectively then naturally occurring stimuli because they have been designed so well. Soon they overtake the neural space of the brain because they outcompete the naturally occurring stimuli for the brain attention.
CG: What happens in the end?
WN: In the end what happens is that these phatic stimuli competes more effectively than naturally occurring stimuli so in the end in our brain and all its memory will be somewhat artificial. These phatic stimuli have one other advantage. They are all connected to each other. The icons or brands they represent are no longer about an object or product but instead about relations. It is their relationships that now become engineered and the effect is on the network relations in the brain which link up lower brainstem areas of desire to those of the higher cortical areas concerned with perception and action. These are all organized in a certain way together. They develop linkages to each other in the world and when they are processed they become parts of many memory networks any one of which can cause the stimulation of the others. This is what Gerald Edelman calls ‘degeneracy’, which is an unfortunate terminology for obvious reasons.
Thus phatic memories and their relational components set up a system of artificial and highly phatic memory networks which can compete effectively for neural space. They are a ‘super-memory-system’ which can out compete through their neural efficiency quality all other competing systems of stimuli, including those of the natural world which we were once so much a part of. So in a way you are creating what I am now calling Cyborg Mnemotechny, through a process of ‘cerebral mnemonic cyborization’ , based on networks of artificial stimuli that have outcompeted naturally-occurring counterparts for the limited neural space. This was the theme of the essay “Blow-up: Photography, Cinema and the Brain in the book by the same title. If you multiply this over and over again you understand why you need more and more of this kind of stimulation, it is linked up to desire remember, and now it is no longer about the icon/brand but now it is about the branding relationship, and about the network of relationships not the brands how they are acting together to coopt networks in the brain.
CG: They are also communities in themselves.
WN: They are communities themselves and they stimulate neural networks. These very same network relations in the real/world/imaginary/ virtual interface as I refer to it now (and these can be natural or culturally determined) create or construct or select for networks relations in the brain.
CG: What is the role of the artist in all of this?
WN: It is always about variability and deformation. Today people believe the avant-garde is dead, and there is a partial truth to this because we are, because of this artificial network of relations right now that we are all responding to, we are no longer sampling individually anymore. This is the problem. These neurosystems are no longer sampling individualistically anymore. We are all sampling similar phatic networks that are now becoming hard-wired into the brain, so we are becoming more and more similar.
The artist, because of his or her unique role in this system as arbiter of difference or because of ‘unique’ circumstances of their lives and perhaps because of a unique education with another or alternative systems of signs and meaning, for example the world of painting, sculpture, film, video , performance and installation just to name a few, views the world from along side it and produces work according to principles of creative evolution. However even artists are affected by the homogeneity and the mass of clichés that are now present. However there is another side to these new technologies, as I was thinking the other day. I was clicking the television remote control, and I thought that, even though the sponsors of these shows want us to see their commercials and the directors who are imbedded within the studio system want us to view a specific narrative, I can resist it all.
I can click on thirteen different channels to create my own individual non-narrative film. Or one can now use DVD machines to view films in a multiplicity of ways. What people are doing in effect is to create their own movies according to their own individual needs. Through the deformation of the hegemonic practice they can break down and disrupt these public sanctioned relations to create their own freedom. Difference, variability and heterogeneity can then emerge. Another example is the use of mobile phones to expose the horrors and autrocities occurring in the Abu Ghraib prison. There are tons of examples like this.
CG: Which links up to your notion of DJ culture. In a sense what this is going towards is that the role of the artist becomes not so much creating but more about finding ways of combining, extending global signs we now have. What the artist is does is finding ways of reconfiguring those in such a way that will go against the grain against the global capitalisms world of consumers.
WN: I think that is very true. Artists such as Richard Prince in the 80’s were dealing with this idea of you no longer have to look to nature for stimulation and images for your artworks and instead simply look to the history of cinema itself. The whole idea of the relation of cinema and art if you look at this incredible new field and new ontology of art which is coming out of cinema whether you look at Cindy Sherman or Douglas Gordon or Fiona Banner or Stan Douglas, there are thousands of-shows about film in art. Peter Lewis just told me recently about a show he was in about B movies.
CG: There have been a lot of such shows in the last 10 or so years.
WN: In the last 10 or 15 years, because people realized that the cinematic and now the new-media environment is as important as the natural world for finding things and images to work with to find ideas to work with. Nicholas Bourriaud has branded a new genre of art as ‘post-production’ and even includes remaking art works or reinstalling art works of the past as new works of art. Like, for instance, ‘In The Belly of Anarchitect’ by Pierre Huyghe, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Pamela M Lee, which was a remade Gordon Matta-Clarke piece recently shown in Frankfurt. Artists are like DJs remixing their own history.
CG: You might go so far as to say that our media world has become our natural world.
WN: I would say that the mediated world is our world.
CG: There is no nature?
WN: In my latest essay called ‘Controlling Consciousness: Methodologies of –Resistance’, which is being printed as part of the First Visual Culture Symposium in Spain, I analysed the film The Matrix. I love science fiction and science fiction films. The Matrix is a computerized consciousness, a kind of machine consciousness, but one that is completely designed for connecting to the specific neurobiological and neuropharmacological architecture of the brain. It is like the co-evolving relation between an orchid and a wasp, a kind of chiastic evolution. When Neo takes that pill that Morpheus offers him (I always forget if it’s the blue or the red pill) it alters his neurochemistry and disrupts the link between the machinic consciousness and his own. The pill alters the relationship between the cooperative neural chemical systems of his brain, altering the cognitive ergonomic relations between man and machine and therefore allowing him to see the real. Now there is a slippage and he can see the world as it is; a post apocalyptic dystopia. ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’ as Slavoj Szizek would put it (though for different reasons).
CG: Neo is a kind of artist.
WN: ‘He’ is the artist.
CG: Because the world that the matrix produces is really that of globalised capital. This is a world that is based on an acceptance of what reality presents and a concomitant reluctance to transgress or critique its illusion. Which is what Neo does and his cohorts do is to refuse it. And this is what artists supposedly do. Refuse that kind of world but now maybe artists are no longer working on the side of capital they are working inside of capital?
WN: Maybe we do. Artists have been co-opted as well. Perhaps it is because the new tools they are using like Photoshop, computers, printers require an acceptance of capitalism as the only way they can now make their work. Although there are artists like the Critical Art Ensemble and Nathalie Bookchin who are utilizing these types of media to create acts of transgression. Again there is a whole lot of artists doing this so it is not so simple.
CG: But look at artists like Cindy Sherman or Douglas Gordon. They work within the sign system but they in the end transgress it.
WN: Douglas Gordon definitely does. But then there are artists who have gone back to the handmade like Thomas Hirschhorn, who is making truly transgressive work that does in fact engage in resistance. Painting in a weird way can be seen this way as well.
CG: Getting back to the artist, they are playing a role in the options the brains are offered.
WN: The genes, no matter what is out there, are always going to produce incredible variation at this point, and who knows what the future will be. However at this point we have the full potentiality of what the neurons can become, what the neuro-networks can become. They have ingrained in them this ability of heterogeneity and the ability respond to heterogeneity so there is always that possibility and that is the real resistance, the real resistance is to allow that to become, that variability and those differences to become. That is really creative evolution.
CG: That is what Bergson is talking about and what you want to bring into your theoretical framework.
WN: I am trying to develop an idea about mind and brain in which the processes are linked into an open autopoetic system of relations. I am trying to solve the mind brain problem posed by Bergson and Darwin, in terms of creative evolution and to Darwinian evolution respectively.
CG: With the artist as the kind of embodied membrane, through which these processes are mediated, assembled, reconfigured and ultimately find expression in a new variability of production. They change the world and in change our brains. This is opposite to a Neo-Darwinian approach promulgated by Dawkins among others, which is predicated on a limited space of possibility. That is not what Bergson was talking about. He was saying there is always the radically new.
WN: I think the idea of Neo-Darwinism works really well when you talk about matter or brain, but when you talk about mind, what is interesting about creative evolution is that it is an additive process, not a Darwinian substractive process, which is and can be instrumental in the creation of new species but it is a kind of negative process, sculpting; it removes and it selects. Creative evolution is about addition and what Bergson is really saying is that nothing is ever lost, everything that has ever been thought still exists, and it can reappear any other time depending on the conditions existing at a particular time. No idea is ever lost. Let’s take the example of Smithson I mentioned before. It is not that Smithson went away. He is forgotten temporarily, but he hasn’t been destroyed, or pruned or negated, as Darwinian Evolution would have us believe. He is there he is just pulsing at a lower frequency in the world as an implicit relation, and what happens is there are other kinds of connections or networks which appear that connect back to him in the past and allow him to pulsate at higher and stronger frequency again, because these other networks, which his work informs or is informed by share similar networks and thus reinvigorate his cultural memory. Thus Smithson’s condition of implicitness is turned into explicitness. He erupts out of an implicit art historicity into one that is now explicit and which operates with different rules then those which created the original context of his work when it first appeared and but which is now invigorates it in the context of the conscious language of artists working today.
CG: There is a kind of temporal thrust in Darwinian Evolution which suggests an ongoing process. But this in some ways seems to go against this notion. Time is directionless and always omnipresent.
WN: There is no time. In Darwinian evolution there is this idea of progress or non-progress. A direction of evolution. However time is also not linear, the past and present are always happening simultaneously. As Bergson says the past is eating away at the present, through durée or duration. So there is another conception of time in creative evolution. Creative evolution needs mind and Darwinian evolution needs matter, brain.
CG: So they don’t contradict each other but rather present two types…
WN: Yes, they work together and form an autopoietic system of relations. The other thing that is interesting is Noology. This is an idea I first heard from reading John Rajchman on Deleuze. I want to talk about noology as the history of thought images, because one of the things that creative evolution does is produce a new culture of images. This process allows for the invention of new images, these images become selected for and become accounted for in biological neuro-physiological ways. For instance if you close your eyes you can bring them up in the minds eye. These new thought images, these new images of our imagination, and there is a history f these images, so if you are in the seventeenth century and you were thinking in the images of your day they will be very different than the kind of images, which you can see if you close your eyes, from those of a twenty first century observer. I would argue that these thought images go beyond the simple objects and images in memory but are also related to the way they are arranged and connected. I am not saying for everybody but generally speaking. And this new kind of history of thought images allow a new kinds of combinations of complex conglomerate images for which complex narrative stories and non-narrative conjunctions can be formulated. In the end these lead to in the artists hands new kinds of films and new kinds of paintings and sculptures and buildings.
CG: The interesting thing is that the images don’t go away. They are still there.
WN: Yes they are still there.
CG: They have been interiorized.
WN: That is why I talk about creative evolution. You don’t nee the meme you have cultural evolution. It is embedded. It is in the object.
CG: this sounds remarkably like Bernard Steiglers concept of Epiphylogenetic memory in Technics and Time, which is materialized, extruded, and exteriorized memory, which is a far better model than Dawkin’s mystical notion of the ‘meme’.
WN: However the meme only exists because of cultural evolution and the way it inscribes itself into the brain creating a brain environment a neurobiological architectonic environment that the meme can insinuate itself in as a kind of messenger with imitative and cyclic qualities.
CG: if it is possible is go back to this idea that we talked about before that you call plasticity, especially in relation to your ideas expounded in your text in Blow Up about the French artist and fetishist Pierre Molinier. It seems to quite controversial since what it seems to be engaging in a friendly critical way with psychoanalysis. You take an idea of the fetish and remake it and rethink it in neurobiological terms.
WN: Sure. First of all that was not my idea, that was the idea of V.J. Ramachandran, the Neuroscientist working in San Diego. For those who may read this and do not know about his argument maybe I should explain it simply. Basically what he and others found was that when you lose a limb the area of the brain that would normally sense the now missing arm or leg is no longer. The entire body is represented in the brain as a map. That map is called a homunculus. The picture of the homunculus is very odd in that the body is represented by its degree of sensitivity. That is to say that the tongue is very large and the back is hardly represented at all. The other characteristic of the homunculus is the arrangement of the body representation. So it turns out that the face is next to the hand and arm and the genitalia is close to the leg and heal. When you lose a limb in about thirty percent of people the limb lingers as a phantom. The individual feels the non-existent limb.
What can also happen is a phenomenon called remapping. The area of the arm and hand is remapped on the adjacent area of the face. In fact you can stimulate the face and feel tingling in the non-existent arm The same can happen on the heal and leg which is remapped onto the area of the genitalia. People who manifest this phenomenon can feel the limb when they are micturating and fornicating. Ramachandran expressed the possibility that this could be related to common connection between the heal and the foot fetish and that a psychological remapping could be taking place. There has been a lot of substantiation of this work.
However I believe I utilize it in a way that he would never consider. I wrote this text with the notion of taking the idea of the fetish from its normal habitat of psychoanalytic discourse and seeing if I could apply a neuro-aesthetic paradigm to it. In a way it looks at the way of embodiment can be re-realized. By looking at the kinds of immateriality the fetish and the phantom leg engender I think you see two sides. The fetish is after all a substitute for the phallus. The fetish is a kind of immaterial ideation of the materiality, perhaps a symbolic reconfiguration of the fear of castration. Then taking the idea of the phantom leg, the missing leg as a kind of physicality of the immaterial then you have the immateriality of the physical and the physicality of the immaterial. But rather then dwelling on this which anyone who wants to read an in depth can read it in the chapter called ‘Pierre Molinier and the Phantom Limb’.
Recently I have been thinking about the way artists use psychoanalytic paradigms. For instance Surrealists such as André Breton or Man Ray as well as the recent interest in Post-Lacanian psychoanalytical feminist work in the 1970’s such as that of Mary Kelly and how these works then populate the visual and auditory cultural landscape. These works of art allow psychoanalysis to populate the visual auditory culture and they become the variable objects and relations that are important for the reconfiguration and sculpting of the selective brain. So it is interesting that in Freud’s time he makes explicit or conscious certain historical, social, psychological, economic and spiritual relations that were affecting the body, for instance in hysteria and dreaming, and culture, and ideas concerning eros and thanatos, which were floating around at the time and he gives them a conscious expression so that we have been able to talk and discuss them in the open. Then the artist affected in some way by these ideas code them into aesthetic paradigms and reconfigure the symbolic relations of the words into more abstracted and physical instantiations in the form of fashion, design, painting, sculpture which then populates the visual culture in the form, because mass media was just merging in a big way in the 30’s and 40’s, as was advertising as it was found on the kiosk and in newspapers and newsreels. Later it becomes billboards and TV advertisements. So that now they are being taken and transformed into phatic stimuli which are sculpting the brain.
CG: Thus psychoanalysis finds its way via the objects, The object becomes the means by which psychoanalysis affects our brain.
WN: What is interesting is that what I think is interesting is that the psychoanalytically-derived objects, psychoanalytically-derived fashion, the psychoanalytically-derived architecture, the psychoanalytically-derived visual culture is sculpting primitive areas of the brain that are associated with affect, such as the hippocampus, the enterorhinal cortex and the hypothalamus. These areas of the brain that are associated with emotion, feelings thirst, hunger, desire and at the same time make network relations with higher cortical areas like the frontal cortex where planning and abstract types of thinking is taking place. What is interesting for me now it is the role in creating fast global networks between the areas of emotion in the brain and the areas of more abstract thinking in the brain and actually sculpting these areas simultaneously, because I believe that the paleaocortex, which is the old cortex where these emotions are being processed uses a different kind of system of coding and therefore is sculpted by phaticity differently than the neo-cortex is. Even if psychoanalysis is not as important to artists today as it has been, it is still embedded in cultural memory. It is remediated by those forms of cultural expression that follow it and is remediated in the brain as well.
CG: Before we finish I want to ask one more question.What is the ethical dimension in your work? What would be the ethical possibilities of, in the sense of global capitalism?
WN: It makes us aware for instance of what is going on in the world today For instance, there are two things, two things I would say, First of all I hope it makes us aware of what people in third world countries are so freaked out about. Because they realized the power of these phatic images they realized that their culture is under attack. They also realize that they must be more vigilant about their own symbols.
CG: So they realize their cultures are under attack at this level.
WN: at this level whether they understand it explicitly or implicitly it is there, they feel it they feel the power of these images They feel the power of these images they feel it and they feel the way they can disrupt consciousness. This is remember layered upon a history and memory of colonialism which subjected them to subjugation of another type but which is still fresh in their minds. Has imperialism, in which foreign interests lay hold of lands and raw materials been substituted for by Global Capitalism using the technologies of mass media to engage and control the varied topology of the gyri and sulci that make up the brain. I don’t know the answer but maybe we should at least consider the possibility.
CG: …and they are aware of this.
WN: Yes in some way. Ideas now have strange and unforeseen powers.