Etikettarkiv: Neuroaesthetics

My Text on Uncanny Artist Matti Kallionen Now Online

The great new book about the art of Matti Kallionen was published just days ago by Kalejdoskop. When I first met Matti, he and I spent a lot of hours discussing the cognitive life of artworks and those conversations led to the writing of a text for the book about the mechanisms for understanding. Enjoy the final version of the text below.

The Experience Machine 

Am I some kind of apparatus, a desire-machine, possibly conscious, apparently intelligent? Here, “apparatus” and “machine” do not necessarily indicate a purely material “gadget”, but rather an instrument created for a specific purpose. Can my “ego” be reduced for an individual purpose? And could I, somehow, catch a glimpse of this “self”? This is what I ponder in front of Matti Kallioinen’s work. Rarely narrative but constantly informative, his art is difficult to place. On several occasions when I have ended up in front of his performances, sculptures or drawings, my impressions have been coloured by introspective thoughts. The works Beautiful Robot (2007) and Self Destructive Theory (2009) comprise sculptural shapes, exterior hardware and moving images with sound. There is an overall narrative, but it generally serves to frame tiny moments of “losing oneself”. One really has to sharpen one’s senses to be able to appreciate his works fully, not least as the nature of the content is a kind of meta‑data – information about information.

The film Self Destructive Theory turns out to be a circular movement in and out of my own consciousness, due to the fact that the metallic, computer-animated voice in the film (mis)guides the viewer through a parallel, alternative reality. Not in the style of Hollywood, but rather as a Freudian LSD dream. Words that stick, throughout the film, are: “Not exist… can you feel… another reality”. Suddenly, you stand there and psychoanalyse yourself, if your “self” is willing to play along, that is. Just like all other lens-based media of today, the film is static. It looks the same each time it is screened, but to me it seems as if it modulates every time I watch it. To throw yourself into meta‑spection – read: thinking about how you think – leads to a questioning of one’s senses and forms of thought, to the extent that all present experience bases begin to wobble. How can I trust myself, how can I know that it is “I” who is thinking right now, at his very moment and not some external software downloaded into my head? Descartes’ doubts provide little comfort in this situation. Just like Alice in Alice in Wonderland follows the white rabbit down into a world of new laws and rules of nature, I also soon become aware of the ricketiness inside my head, when I follow Kallioinen down his rabbit hole.

Self Destructive Theory starts with some kind of greeting from a group of unidentified beings, or perhaps they are presenting themselves. Everything takes place in a rehabilitation ward in a hospital, in a kind of “experience room” for the autistic and the severely disabled, complete with flowery patterns and a ball pool. And here I begin to falter, because, if a gang of intelligent non-Homo sapiens appeared, would we actually be able to distinguish their bodies, clothes or body movements from our own inveterate references? Our socio‑cultural canon? Certainly, the brain is adaptable, but at the same time very limited. Our false memories sometimes trick us. If we encountered an anthropomorphous being we would perhaps, for that reason, regress to the ball pool of our childhood and to 1950s science fiction in order to sort the unknown, scary and even threatening into recognisable pigeon‑holes. The velour androids of Self Destructive Theory are, as in so many of Kallioinen’s stories, seemingly friendly but uncanny, and even ghostlike.

In robotics and artificial intelligence theory, feelings of eeriness in front of anthropomorphous robots are seen as a sign of psychological resistance. The condition is referred to as “The Uncanny Valley”. People who fall into the UncannyValleyhave often encountered a humanlike robot or animation whose richness of detail and anthropoid features have tricked them in believing that they have seen a real human being. Almost. Kallioinen constantly plays with this feeling of “almost”, in order to provoke our firm conviction that we control everything we see and hear and that we are quite capable of telling the difference between things as obvious as living human beings and inanimate objects. In his film Beautiful Robot, this feeling is particularly evident. However, I wonder if Kallioinen has consciously created an uncanny setting with normal people who are clad in “space suits” and engaged in a bizarre interaction, or if he, by using high-tech robots, has created androids that try their hardest to act as human beings. Difficult to say. In any event, the feeling of unease arises. Here I am amazed by yet another experience of my brain’s limitations: how a specific feeling – in this case the sci‑fi flavoured “UncannyValley” – can be generated regardless of whether I’m faced with a human being or a machine.

However, to be pulled down into the UncannyValleydoes not only happen in the encounter with robots or unorganic objects; this uncertainty may also be provoked by people with neurological conditions and similar deviations from the norm. The American futurist Jamais Cascio argues that the UncannyValleyeffect may appear more frequently in the years to come as people modify and improve their bodies by means of “transhumanist modification”. According to Cascio, human beings will soon be able to improve their sight, muscle strength and brain capacity, and, as a result of this, may end up being classified as a different kind of species, separated from Homo sapiens, leading to more instances of uncanniness. “Well, now…” I think in a whimsy of childishness, “maybe it’s this kind of transhumanist individuals that actually populate Kallioinen’s installations and films. No wonder he never allows them to show their faces. They may be genetically modified or something – they are former human beings…” But, on further consideration, perhaps this impression is also generated in an artificial way by Kallioinen’s clever way of blending analogue hippie aesthetics with super-digital futuristic philosophy. Lost, again. Further down the rabbit hole.

All things considered, the most prominent feature of Kallioinen’s work may still be his manic use of loud, unnatural ranges of colour. When you look at the film The Gentle People of Utopia, you encounter full-body suits in colourful latex, or some kind of nerve-tickling leisure suit. In Beautiful Robot you also see a kind of colour code flicking by; perhaps it is the written language of the androids, or something like Morse code. Colours are in fact physical light phenomena, which, according to contemporary neurologists, physicists and robotics engineers, is something uniquely human. Not that colours can only be perceived by human beings, but that the experience of them is so complex and personalised, even within our own species, that it is difficult to talk about objective ranges of colour. Some people claim that this experience is entirely individual. Just look at achromatopsia – complete colour-blindness – or other forms of colour vision disorders. How to describe the northern lights to people with these conditions?

The robotics engineer and artificial intelligence researcher Luc Steels has devoted much of his work to colour vision and how to reconstruct the experience of colours. Early AI researchers, in the tradition of classical mechanics, thought it would be fairly simple to construct a robot that was able to experience colours like a human being. It was just a matter of calibrating light-sensitive sensors’ different inputs of a colour and then connecting the output to its linguistic counterpart – the word for “blue”, for example. Adjust variations of shades and light intensity – and hey presto, some theoreticians claimed, we have a colour robot! Steels and others have, of course, tried this method and failed miserably. If you want to construct a robot that is able to perceive colours, you have to build in a function for determining where on an object you should measure the colour; the robot must also learn to “understand” where the very object begins and where it ends. Because, in physical terms, there are actually no clear borders for where an object begins and where it ends.

You have to say that Matti Kallioinen has created his own colour wheel, which is as far removed from the pre‑modernist colour palette as is (un)humanly possible. He constantly glances at cognitive science and robotics, and in his work, futuristic visions of earlier times rub shoulders with contemporary chimera culture. Kitsch and low-tech are mixed with high-tech robot culture. Everything we see, hear and imagine do not, as in the head of Descartes, form evidence that anyone but me is experiencing it. And what Descartes never could imagine, but what Kallioinen and other contemporary neuro-philosophers have begun to understand is that there is no scientific proof for the existence of an “ego”, of a “self”. The philosopher Thomas Metzinger uses the term “ego machine” to describe our body’s ability to experience things amalgamated. That is, there is something in ourselves that constructs an “ego”, but not the psychoanalytical triad of id, ego and superego, as in Freud. Instead, it is a mechanism which, by connecting widely differing sections of the brain with the rest of the nervous system, generates a self-image in front of us, which we, for practical reasons, describe as our “self”. In Kallioinen’s work Intelligence (2009) and particularly in his film Turing Battle (2009), the chimera of something serious, large and extraterrestrial is frighteningly manifest. To begin with, these works are enveloped in techno-dramatic music that forces my “ego” to dig out references to popular depictions of extreme religious cults, 1950s science fiction, and human indigenous peoples. It does not look like anything one has previously seen in terms of rituals, patterns of movement and fluctuations of light, but still, I recognise everything. Uncomfortably and inexpressibly. The end product of the mixed feelings is that I instinctively drag my memory for references to all sorts of uncanny things and mix them with the imagery of the artwork. I swirl around inside Kallioinen’s head, looking for a stable, Cartesian point to hold on to, but to no avail.

Because, just as in our (post)modern cultural loss of soul, and now also of the coherent “ego”, you find, in Matti Kallioinen’s work, no firm scientific evidence or references to anything outside your own experience. Whose experience is real, credible or objective? I conclude my meditation on these works by ascertaining that I am a hallucination. “A hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination”, as Douglas Hofstadter put it. If you want a real, credible or objective description of Matti Kallioinen’s peculiar imagery it has to be this one.

Translation: Hans Olsson

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Neuroreview in Latest Issue of Frieze Magazine

Oh how I adore the practice and style of the Neuroreview (I attribute myself for that neologism). The method is a difficult one, though. Try blending the self-annihilating prose of neurophilosophy with the transcendent materialism of international art criticism and you in a black hole of concepts and (parallax) point of views.  But I still love the effort och fusing introspection with artistic pondering. In latest Frieze Magazine lecturer in English Michael Sayeau writes about literature and the way of the brain:

New forms of communication and transformation disrupt our senses of space and time, while developments in the human sciences call into question many of the age-old ways in which we have understood who we are.

Spot on. Continue reading here.

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The Enlightened Brain – It’s not Your Intellect, It’s your Brain’s

This past week the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm have gathered the world’s foremost neuroscientists for a riveting symposium on the neurological bases of disease, art, emotion and consciousness. the name of the symposium is very non-Cartesian, anti-dualistic: The Enlightened Brain – Evolution and Development of the Human Brain.

Semir Zeki, Hugo Lagercrantz, Eric Kandel, Morten Kringelbach, Tania Singer, Torkel Klingberg and Jean-Pierre Changeux were some of the greats giving interesting lectures within their respective fields. I leave you wishing for more with an excerpt of Jean-Pierre Changeux lecture ”The Neuroscience of art”:

Any neurobiological hypothesis about artistic creation faces the combinatorial explosion of the 85 billion of neurons that compose the human brain. There is a need for rules that constrain and restrict in a top-down manner the selection of representations generated in the artist brain and which result in the personal style and quality of the work together with its efficient social communication and shared interpersonal recognition. These règles de l’art, hypothetically viewed as acquired patterns of connections, or scaffoldings, stored in long-term memory, include, among others: novelty, the coherence of the parts within the
whole (Alberti’s consensus partium), parsimony or the most frugal route of expression (Herbert Simon), the tension between bottom-up realism and top-down abstraction, the search for shared social recognition and the artist’s conception of the world (for instance the ”noble ideas” (belles idées) of Nicolas Poussin) (Changeux 2008).
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Neurofear – How Emotions Dictate What Music Teenagers Listen To

We all know that peer pressure influences the lives of  teenagers. But a new study has found that adolescents choose to listen to music that has been approved of by their peers rather than because they like it. Great new reasearch for the field of neuroaesthetics, bad news for al of us that still hold the view that our identity are self-moulded.

The study looked at teenagers listening to music on social networking sites such as MySpace, where a song’s popularity can be gauged by how many times it has been downloaded. The results suggest that if their musical choices do not match those of others, their brains recoil in fear.

The Daily Mail reports:

‘We wanted to know, for example with, when you see a four or five-star rating of something, does that make you like it more?’ Gregory Berns, Chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University told the Times. Youngsters aged between 12 and 17 were played a track and asked to rate how much they liked it. Some of the group were then given the opportunity to see how popular the song was according to how many times it had been downloaded.

After an interval, they were all asked to rate the track again, with participants changing their ratings 22 per cent of the time after finding out the tune was a hit. More than three quarters switched to match the song’s popularity rating. Brain scans revealed that the first time the teenagers heard a song, regions associated with reward and pleasure were activated.

On the second hearing, those associated with anxiety and pain would light up, suggesting that fear made people change their ratings. The findings, which were published recently in the journal NeuroImage, back up previous research on conformity, which says that young people submit to peer pressure to avoid being teased.”

Read more

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Read My Neuroaesthetics Introduction Online

Now you can read my text Är en blå jordgubbe bättre än en röd? in the magazine Konstnären online. I go though some of the theories behind the concept of Neuroaesthetics. Jump to  the link. Enjoy


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Scanning for Picasso, Dalí Found in fMRI Study

Neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani have in a small-scale study scanned a dozen students watching images by Picasso and Dalí trying to find patterns in their brain activity. Through the findings they purport that scientists will be able to read your mind when it comes to the exacts neural differences between artworks by different artistic hands. New Scientist reports.

The study was conducted at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan where the team showed 12 students images of Picasso and Dalí while scanning their brains using functional MRI. A computer program then identified patterns in activity that were supposed to be unique for each of the two artists. But the program ”merely” completed about 80% of the guessing game, a bit more than just guessing.

Crucifixion (Hypercubic Body) by Salvador Dalí

The most interesting finding was that to identify the artists, the computer program relied on activity in multiple brain regions, not just the visual ones. But, we must be very wary to make statements about how the brain process styles, since this is not just biochemically given, it is also a matter of training the brain to see and identify images off multiple sorts.

Studies conducted on chess players find that a trained eye can remember and identify a given set of chess pieces but only if it correlates with a known scenario within the game of chess. A control group then has much harder remembering any such scenario, random or not.  So memory and constructed patterns in our minds can surely play a vital role for how these relults play out. I would advise mr Kamitani to continue the interesting research but extending it to art students and artists alike.

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Neuroreview: Hayward Gallery Got The Looks But Not The Brains

As I reported some time ago, The exhibition Walking in my mind recently opened at the Hayward Gallery in London and now some of the first reviews of it arrived. Critic Brian Dillon opens up with what seems to be a googling interest for art history’s neurological underpinnings, but he is, bluntly put, underwhelmed. But scoring easy points dissing Semir Zeki is not good journalism, maybe Dillon also should have read Warren Neidich, Zack Lynch or David Lewis-Williams before he just sneezed at the subject. The exhibition is for Dillon not more that  show ”about the act of artistic invention, rather than the rigors of thought as such”, and he totally omits the quite interesting catalogue texts.

brainThe Guardian gives a full-on review, critic Laura Cumming protrudes the installations and their underpinnings, but her uninterest in delving inside the minds of the curators when making claims about ana exhibition as a metaphor for going inside the artist’s mind, is telling for the crappy art criticism of today. Dillion is a more senior art critic but still, the review gives me utter dissatisfaction, as does Cumming’s last words:

The best way to experience Walking in My Mind is probably to forget this issue altogether (How to represent the mental space of the mind inside the gallery space) and see the show for what it is: a handful of good and serious artists caught up in a summer blockbuster. The rest is a lacklustre funfair.

I have also conducted an interview with one of the participant in the show Bo Christian Larsson, read it here.

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New Interview with artist Bo Christian Larsson

Larsson_Welcome_to_the_jungleAs I reported in a previous post, The Hayward Gallery in London recently opened a summer show on the aesthetic brain called Walking in my mind. I caught up with the only Swedish participant in the show, Bo Christian Larsson, for a brief interview through the web. In the interview I ask him about his work, the theme of the exhibition and what he reckons of the critic as a neurologist.

Jump to the text to find out what he answered.

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New Research on Museums and Neuropsychology

One of the world’s first cross-disciplinary projects of empirical neuro-aesthetic research has recently been made public at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland. The question is basically philosophical, but as neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland have explicated philosophy’s ground have always been challenged by scientific breakthrough and thus moved its realm furht toward the unknown. In this case the question ”Can the perception of ‘art’ be measured?” will possibly now be answered empirically, instead of philosophically, at least in the closed setting inside the Museum in Switzerland.

Modell_12_1eMotion – Psychogeographic Museum Cartography is the title of this research project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. It follows in the conceptual tradition of Alexander Dorner, the preeminence of 20th century curating, by investigating the museum as a ”force field”, or kraftwerk. eMotion takes the concept of psycho-geography, mostly used within the field of architecture, to analyze the data that will spring from the 4-year project. In 2010 we will hopefully know more about this interesting endeavor, but right now the project can be experienced in situ at the Museum i St. Gallen.

Read more about it here.

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Hayward Gallery Goes Neuroaesthetics


The Mind In The Cave: Thomas Hirschhorn's Cavemanman

Neuroaesthetics just made another poke at contemporary art when an interesting show recently opened at the Hayward Gallery in London under the title Walking In My Mind. The exhibition gathers ten artists from USA, Europe and Japan that all have made works that can be “read as translations of the human mind into physical form.”, using the words by one of the two curators Stephanie Rosenthal (the other being Mami Kataoka). In her catalogue essay for the show Rosenthal tries to outline a non-engaged theory of mind and art institution. She does best in her attempt to relate works such as Thomas Hirschhorn‘s work Cavemanman. The work is described as a way of trying to structure the viewer’s mind as in a cave with cavities ”where you put something inside, with garbage, with unspeakable things.”. Sure Hirschhorn knows that he he working with metaphors, but I have a hard time seeing his cave metaphor pared with Hegel’s theory of absolute mind how this is more than a naive attempt at talking about the brain through an established artistic practice. Sorry Hirschhorn!

Much more intriguing is psychologist Susan Blackmore’s text ”Mysteries of the Mind”. In it she makes interesting (although no ground-breaking) points on the mind-body problem, as seen through the artifacts in a contemporary art exhibition.  Other artists in the exhibition include Pipilotti Rist, Mark Manders and Yoshitomo Nara.

If you are going anywhere this artsy summer, should be via London.

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