Thursday, April 8, 2010

4/9: The impact of new imaging technology on visual culture and science

Last Update: 04-12-2010 09:02:56

04-08-2010 23:31:13
New imaging technology such as photography and film were becoming available to artists, scientists, and the general public in late 19th and early 20th century. What developments were most significant, and how did they change the way that we see and convey meaning visually?

04-09-2010 03:32:33
In the keynote interview with Eduardo Kac for this symposium, Kac mentions that one often hears about what science has given to the artist but seldom the other way around. He sites as an example the invention of photography and the fact that Daguerre was an artist (He was also a chemist). Kac says this contribution from an artist is seldom mentioned but I’m not sure that is entirely fair. In fact, I can think of two science institutions that embraced and acknowledged the contributions of Daguerre before the art community did. The science community acknowledged the invention’s significance when the French Academy of Sciences announced the process of the Daguerreotype on January 7, 1839. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the art community accepted photography as a legitimate art medium although certainly photography impacted culture and ideas in other ways - through journalism and mass production of images for example. This has already been pointed out in other posts and I’m sure will be expanded upon further today. I see yet another acknowledgement by a science institution of the contributions of photography every time that I walk through the National Academy of Sciences building’s Great Hall on my way to my office. In the south arch of the Great Hall, the emblem below of a camera and bellows was painted to commemorate Daguerre’s contribution and his announcement at the Academy in France. It was painted in 1924 by Hildreth Meière under the direction of the NAS building committee and architect Bertram Goodhue.

Hildreth Meière, 1924, detail of the NAS Great Hall, Washington DC


04-09-2010 06:07:37
Martin Kemp notes two of the early and most powerful elements in the rhetoric that accompanied the reception of the new medium of photography in England and France in 1839 as a “tool in scientific recording”: “the objective eye of the photographic camera” and the “impersonal traces of light on a photographic emulsion.” This rhetoric of photography as a scientific medium, as the correspondence between William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel of the same year shows, was implicated in scientists own hopes and dreams for a new and indeed perfect to their uses medium. Talbot wrote for example that he had “great hopes” for photographs taken with his “Solar microscope…as for instance in copying the minute forms of crystallization which are so complicated as almost to defy the pencil.”

Photography by 1878 had captured movement too rapid for human sight to apprehend as Eadweard Mybridge’s revelations of a horses gait had made clear but it was much later that the medium of photography fulfilled the promise of ‘recording’ that Talbot hoped for in 1839. Capturing movement and witnessing phenomena in stills across scales, previously inaccessible to physiological vision and ordinary sight, seemed to be no problem in the example of Worthington and Edgerton 1908 splashes, or Berenice Abbott’s Wave Interference Pattern of the 1950s. Such vistas of an uncanny behaviour of matter, popular images as they became, informed the work, acts of seeing and thinking about form of a series of artists as well as art historians who from the 50s onwards increasingly engaged with modern theories of vision; Hebert Read, Ernst Gombrich and Rudolph Arnheim among a few.

In 1859 however photography was not the medium to reproduce scientific detail either in book form or in the communications that became published in the Journals of the learned bodies concerned with ‘natural histories’ broadly defined. This was not so much about photography’s inability to record but the inability at the technical level to reproduce photographic image on a mass scale in a way that kept and indeed emphasized the elements most precious to scientific description: pronounced form. Pattern and the delineation of abstracted form as pattern is in place in the visual culture of mid-19th century science however, without photography, as Gray’s almost physiological rendering of form in his Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical of 1858 shows. The resistance of this “dry style”, as Martin Kemp has called it, to both anatomical photography and later X-rays, is perhaps evidence for the success of this particular style of seeing against ways of recording that while allow new technology do not become subservient to it.

To return to Darwin however and photography one should perhaps look more on the ‘modern’ appropriations of physiognomics which as Christina Cogdell has noted in the example of Galton attempted to fix norms about what is natural, normal and pathological, in the context of 19th century research on ‘psychology’. It is interesting though to note that Darwin in the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that included a number of images describing registers of expression as psychologically captured detail and evidence of social behaviour relied also on actors. To attempt to frame a moment in transition from a pre-Darwinian, pre-photographic apparatus of recording emotions as physiognomically embedded signs and socially contingent properties we could look at Honore Daumier’s comic prints from the Physiognomic Gallery, 1836-7, like the Lover of Oysters kept in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where the depiction of the sitter takes up the characteristics pronounced in the taxonomic type of fish, and compare it to the Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne’s, Activation of Facial Muscles with Electrodes from the Bodlean Library, University of Oxford, reproduced in his Mechanisms of Human Physiognomy of 1862. Darwin requested permission to reproduce images from Duchenne’s book and while Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions is a discourse very visually and photographically captured and conveyed in the book, emotions constituted by photographic images of expression attest to a theme dear both to Darwin and evolutionary thinking: instincts.

And some primarily evidence (in rather raw form, apologies) in relation to JD's point about scientists' uses of art and artists, in the example of Darwin's Expression of Emotions.

Darwin’s credits to art and artists in the Expression of Emotions

“I have already expressed my obligations to Dr. Duchenne for generously permitting me to have some of his large photographs copied and reduced. All these photographs have been printed by the Heliotype process, and the accuracy of the copy is thus guaranteed. These plates are referred to by Roman numerals.” (Darwin, 1872, p. 25).

“I am also greatly indebted to Mr. T. W. Wood for the extreme pains which he has taken in drawing from life the expressions of various animals. A distinguished artist, Mr. Riviere, has had the kindness to give me two drawings of dogs—one in a hostile and the other in a humble and caressing frame of mind. Mr. A. May has also given me two similar sketches of dogs. Mr. Cooper has taken much care in cutting the blocks. Some of the photographs and drawings, namely, those by Mr. May, and those by Mr. Wolf of the Cynopithecus, were first reproduced by Mr. Cooper on wood by means of photography, and then engraved: by this means almost complete fidelity is ensured.” (Darwin, 1872, p. 25-26.)

On Darwin’s uses of art as a separate branch of evidence and inquiry in compiling the book:

“The study of Expression is difficult, owing to the movements being often extremely slight, and of a fleeting nature. A difference may be clearly perceived, and yet it may be impossible, at least I have found it so, to state in what the difference consists. When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible; of which fact I have had many curious proofs. Our imagination is another and still more serious source of error; for if from the nature of the circumstances we expect to see any expression, we readily imagine its presence. Notwithstanding Dr. Duchenne's great experience, he for a long time fancied, as he states, that several muscles contracted under certain emotions, whereas he ultimately convinced himself that the movement was confined to a single muscle.

In order to acquire as good a foundation as possible, and to ascertain, independently of common opinion, how far particular movements of the features and gestures are really expressive of certain states of the mind, I have found the following means the most serviceable. In the first place, to observe infants; for they exhibit many emotions, as Sir C. Bell remarks, "with extraordinary force;"…In the second place, it occurred to me that the insane ought to be studied, as they are liable to the strongest passions, and give uncontrolled vent to them. I had, myself, no opportunity of doing this, so I applied to Dr. Maudsley, and received from him an introduction to Dr. J. Crichton Browne, who has charge of an immense asylum near Wakefield, and who, as I found, had already attended to the subject…Thirdly, Dr. Duchenne galvanized, as we have already seen, certain muscles in the face of an old man, whose skin was little sensitive, and thus produced various expressions which were photographed on a large scale. It fortunately occurred to me to show several of the best plates, without a word of explanation, to above twenty educated persons of various ages and both sexes, asking them, in each case, by what emotion or feeling the old man was supposed to be agitated; and I recorded their answers in the words which they used. Several of the expressions were instantly recognised by almost everyone, though described in not exactly the same terms; and these may, I think, be relied on as truthful, and will hereafter be specified. On the other hand, the most widely different judgments were pronounced in regard to some of them. This exhibition was of use in another way, by convincing me how easily we may be misguided by our imagination; for when I first looked through Dr. Duchenne's photographs, reading at the same time the text, and thus learning what was intended, I was struck with admiration at the truthfulness of all, with only a few exceptions. Nevertheless, if I had examined them without any explanation, no doubt I should have been as much perplexed, in some cases, as other persons have been.Fourthly, I had hoped to derive much aid from the great masters in painting and sculpture, who are such close observers. Accordingly, I have looked at photographs and engravings of many well-known works; but, with a few exceptions, have not thus profited. The reason no doubt is, that in works of art, beauty is the chief object; and strongly contracted facial muscles destroy beauty.19 The story of the composition is generally told with wonderful force and truth by skilfully given accessories.

Fifthly, it seemed to me highly important to ascertain whether the same expressions and gestures prevail, as has often been asserted without much evidence, with all the races of mankind, especially with those who have associated but little with Europeans. Whenever the same movements of the features or body express the same emotions in several distinct races of man, we may infer with much probability, that such expressions are true ones,—that is, are innate or instinctive.” ((Darwin, 1872, pp. 13-15)

19 See remarks to this effect in Lessing's 'Laocoon,' translated by W. Ross, 1836, p. 19.

“N.B.—Several of the figures in these seven Heliotype Plates have been reproduced from photographs, instead of from the original negatives; and they are in consequence somewhat indistinct. Nevertheless they are faithful copies, and are much superior for my purpose to any drawing, however carefully executed.”

04-09-2010 08:03:33
Kevin’s topic of course brings up photography and film, as well relayed by Assimina. And, as John pointed out, the development of photography did not fully get recognized by the art community until the 1960s although the Daguerreotype process was conceived in the 19th century. I would similarly like to point out that, in the early 20th century, another form of imaging altogether was conceived by Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin. In effect, it marks a new lineage of imaging that was side-lined until recent technology could build on it and artists found it of value. Fleming’s germ paintings” were playfully made during the early 1930s. He made them by streaking various bacteria on the agar in his Petri dishes, a practice that, of course, did not involve genetic manipulation. This was arguably the first occurrence of ‘living’ art, a tradition that, as we know, continues today in contemporary art. The branches of this lineage now include the work of synthetic biologist, Chris Voigt, who made a ‘living camera’ in 2005 by genetically-engineering E. coli bacteria to create an image. The fact is that Voigt’s innovative imaging technology has now, in turn, succeeded in several different ways to reflect on biological and cultural evolution and on Darwin. It’s no accident that one of Voigt’s bacterial ‘photographs’ included a flying spaghetti monster. He chose it for its symbolic value – the image was originally created as political activism against the teaching of creationism.

On the left is the result of Alexander Fleming's bacterial imaging (early 1930's) and on the right is an image formed by bacteria, genetically-engineered by Chris Voigt’s team to develop photographs

04-09-2010 12:11:29
This is a slight tangent from the meaty thread that has begun on technology but still it is something that interests me in terms of how ideas are communicated through changing technology – how we teach and how we learn. During this symposium I am revisiting the wonderfully executed podcasts that Jane Munro’s team created to accompany the Endless Forms exhibition. I’m reminded of something that many of us who have had to put together a slide show or PowerPoint presentation often take for granted. One of the podcasts reminded me of how contemporaries of Darwin would often use their drawings or the illustrations of others as visuals displayed around the class room. The idea of not having the technology to communicate visually through projection would stump many of us in this group, I dare say.

The progression from the presentation of drawings, to slide projections, to photography and eventually to PowerPoint is significant yet almost unnoticeable in the transferring of knowledge. Today these educational tools are augmented by the use of podcasts, email, and videos and other media. I would even include our present experiment in this online discussion as an example of the range of options available to us through changing technology. It is important to hold in mind that our way of sharing information is mediated through technology whether it is in a classroom or museum environment. The question arises at what point does the technology facilitate communication and learning and at what point does it get in the way?

04-09-2010 12:45:54
Kevin has suggested that I might post a statement on the basic timeline for new imaging technologies and how they were initially used. As my area of specialisation is the cinema, I will focus on this. Many advances in the history of imaging technologies occurred during the nineteenth century, possibly one of the most important in 1832 with the invention of the Phenakisticope. In 1828 Joseph Plateau published his findings concerning ‘the persistence of vision’ (now contested) in which he offered an explanation as to why the eye has the ability to perceive a series of still images as a continuous moving picture. In 1829, Plateau invented a device called the Phenakisticope, which conveyed the impression of still images combining to form a moving picture. In the same year, Simon Stampfer invented a similar device, which he called a Stroboscope. Both inventions were central to the prehistory of cinematography and the emergence of the first motion pictures. Other key inventions in the history of new imaging technologies were the Kaleidoscope (David Brewster, 1816), the Diorama (Dageurre, 1822), and the Praxinoscope (Reynaud, 1877). It is hard to imagine that Darwin was not aware of the inventions of the Phenakisticope and the Stroboscope. If anyone has any knowledge of Darwin’s possible interest in these inventions, I would love to hear more.

It is possible Darwin may have heard of the pioneering work of Eadweard Muybridge who, in 1877, commenced a photographic study of motion. Muybridge set out to capture images of the gait of horses. He wanted to see if a horse, when galloping, ever had all four feet off the ground at the same time. He set up twenty-four cameras side by side along a racetrack. He then stretched twenty-four threads across the track so that the galloping horse would break each thread and trip the shutters of the cameras. What Muybridge did with his sequential images was create a scientific study of movement. By 1880 he was able to project photographic sequences of various animals in motion with his Zoopraxiscope. In 1882 Etienne-Jules Marey developed a photographic gun, the first portable motion picture camera, which enabled him to take twelve photographs per second.

Phillip Prodger makes an interesting observation in relation to Darwin and the work of these two men. In his essay on Darwin’s illustrations in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (edited by Paul Ekman, HarperCollins, 1998), Prodger states that Darwin’s book ‘played a major role in bringing photographic evidence into the scientific world’. This was one of the first attempts to use photographs ‘to freeze motion for analysis and study, predating the pioneering motion studies’ of Muybridge and Marey. He concludes: ‘Darwin’s photographs have proved inspirational to generations of artists, and may even have fuelled the invention of motion pictures’ (401). Darwin’s photographs also freeze emotions, creating another link to the silent cinema, which was seen at the time as a new language of the emotions conveyed, not through words, but through the power of facial expressions.

Following on from Muybridge and Marey, Edison by 1888 had developed the first cinema camera, which was able to produce short filmstrips. In 1891, Edison took out patents on his Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope, which was at the time the most advanced cinematographic apparatus for viewing. It was in the form of a peep show in which individual viewers could watch short lengths of film. It was the Lumiere Brothers, however, who are credited with exhibiting the first films, using their own machines, to a paying public in 1895 at the Grand Café, Paris. Within a few weeks they were screening their films to over two thousand people a day.

A study of these first films, many of which ran for under 60 seconds, reveals that audiences were interested in almost anything: magical films that used special effects, such as those by Georges Melies, realistic films of everyday events, comic events, a couple kissing, workers, children, animals, sex, scientific images, the body. Travel films, which depicted people from around the globe, their daily lives and customs, were extremely popular. One of the most unexpected developments was that pioneers of the silent cinema such as the director, D.W. Griffith, came to see film as a ‘universal language’, an ‘Esperanto of the Eye’, a new language that spoke to all peoples regardless of race or religion.

The influence of Darwinian ideas on early films was also evident. More than twenty films from the silent period examine ideas related to evolutionary theory. These include an early Danish film (The Human Ape or Darwin's Triumph, 1909), short comedies (Joe, the Educated Orangoutang, Undressing, 1898), a cartoon (Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914) and a number of longer silent films such as the first Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1912) and Tarzan of the Apes (1918). With its special effects, subjective camera, ability to travel through time, and its power to collapse distinctions between human and animal, the cinema has proven well suited to an exploration of Darwinian ideas.

JD Talasek
04-09-2010 14:39:32
In thinking about how technology has impacted art, the work of two art historians come to mind – Linda Henderson (mentioned by Kac in the keynote interview) and Anne Goodyear. Individually, both historians have revealed through extensive research the impact that ideas generated by science and changing technologies through out the 20th century have had on artists’ work.

Henderson’s exhibition Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York was a reinvestigation of a group of artists whose work was directly impacted by ideas of time and space and visualizing the fourth dimension. Their work was not in step with the more heavily mentioned members of the New York School of artists and they have all but been left out of most historical accounts (Wilson, in his keynote interview, called for cultural critics to improve their analytical skills by becoming better educated in science). This exhibition exemplifies the possibility that there could have been more artists influenced by ideas of science but they simply may not be within the well known canon.

As the assistant curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Goodyear has focused her attention on a number of technology/art related themes that include the connection between technology and identity revealed in contemporary art practices. As an example, she cites the work of Marc Quinn specifically mentioning his portrait of John Sulston, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2002 for sequencing the human genome. The portrait consists of Sulston’s DNA suspended in agar jelly and then framed. In a way this is more of a “true” portrait of Sulston than a representational rendering raising the question of how our changing understanding of genetics impact our self-identity.

The consensus, it seems, among scientists is that bioscience will have the same impact on this century as advancements in physics did during the turn of the last century. If this is true, then the research of these two historians parallels this shift in interest reflecting its presence in art practices

David Novros, 4.24, 1965, Collection of Blanton Museum of Art

Marc Quinn, Portrait of Sir John Edward Sulston, 2001, National Portrait Gallery London

04-09-2010 14:47:31
Bio-art and the poetics of growth (conceptualized even in reverse as decomposition, like in the example of the work by Marta De Menezes DECON) certainly may be seen to comprise genealogies that could stretch back to examples like Ellen’s fascinating bacteria-cinema. Already from the 50s British avant-garde artists, including Nigel Henderson, experimented with the idea of scaling and modern imagining techniques to produce, at times quite conventionally looking, images of another order. Richard Hamilton’s Microcosmos: plant cycle 1950 is one such example.

Hamilton was fascinated by D’Arcy Thompson’s book On growth and Form and in fact curated the exhibition On Growth and Form 1951 at the ICA that read as a compilation of images referencing this new type of visibility allowed by modern imaging techniques, mixing often, examples of microphotography drawn from scientific contexts to ‘works of art’.

04-09-2010 14:50:54
I’d like to suggest in the construction of the primary narratives and even the discipline of art history (including architecture and design history), the idea of evolution has played a very fundamental role. Until recently, art history survey textbooks hardly covered nonwestern art, despite the greater surface area of the earth being populated by nonwestern peoples. Not only did the idea of style arise as a taxonomic practice (often conceived as birth, maturity, demise, as if styles were living entities), but its conception was tied to theories of psychology: that the mind (and its indexical expressions in artistic creations) of individual artists and of cultures as a whole aptly expresses the evolutionary advancement of the creators themselves (as positioned in popular evolutionary hierarchies). In other ways, despite a gradual broadening to give some space and weight (but not equal weight by any means) to Asian, African, and Latin American art in survey texts today, evolutionary assumptions continue to drive the art historical narrative with regards to two other main ideas: cultivated aesthetics and new technologies as two driving forces of the avant-garde.

New technologies are not just new “imaging” technologies, but also new building and production technologies, as well as new military technologies. This moves us beyond art history proper into visual culture broadly speaking: steel I-beams, electricity, bridges, skyscrapers, those things that made modern cities such thrilling places to be in the early 20th century.

My three chosen images for this aspect of evolutionary narratives of progress in the arts, via technology, are a few panels from a ceramic mural in an apartment building in Philadelphia designed by Paul Cret. The main artist – Nicolas Marsicano – created other similar murals at the San Francisco and New York World’s Fairs in the late 1930s, fairs which were rife with evolutionary themes. Like the main narrative of Art History, and based upon the assumption that the art of nonwestern cultures is arrested in times past (thereby seemingly showing westerners what early human culture was like), Marsicano’s narrative moves viewers from “Early Man” through scenes of Africa and Native America, into the rise of western civilization in Egypt, through the Greeks, Romans, Renaissance, and modern America.

Today’s technological edge is multi-faceted of course, but in 3D CAD-CAM (computer-aided drawing/computer-aided manufacturing), the sciences and the arts/architecture are once again finding a tool of use to both. Architects and designers, as well as artists, are now using 3D printing to create models of buildings with complex curvatures (example: photo from MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind featuring 3D production designs, 2007), and these models functions as 3D images of potential structures but also as an example of the technological means whereby such structure are made feasible. Owing to manufacturing techniques through CNC (computer-numerically-controlled) milling via robotics and laser-cutting as well, complex curvatures in large-scale built forms are now materializing in the built environment, changing the visual culture in their surrounds. (Frank Gehry image attached, with detail from Experience Music Seattle, by Frank Gehry Associates with LMN Architects, 2000) Architects using these technologies are positioned as the current technological avant-garde of the field, the cutting edge of evolutionary progress, as the traditional narratives so goes. Scientists and doctors, too, are using 3D printers to aid them in their studies and preparation for medical interventions. The last image here is one I took in Spring 2008 at Drexel University in Dr. Wei Sun’s tissue engineering laboratory, showing small-scale models of patient’s brains, created through 3D reconstruction of data from 2D MRI slices, for the neurosurgeon to study before surgery.

Nicolas Marsicano, Evolution Mural, Scene Showing the Modern City of Philadelphia Built with New Technologies, Scene 12 of 12, 2601 Pennsylvania Avenue, Philadelphia, 1939

Nicolas Marsicano, Evolution Mural, Scene of Africa, Panel 3 of 12, 2601 Pennsylvania Avenue, Philadelphia, 1939

Nicolas Marsicano, Evolution Mural, Scene Showing the Construction of 2601 Parkway, Panel 10 of 12, 2601 Pennsylvania Avenue, Philadelphia, 1939

Frank Gehry Associates, Experience Music Seattle, Seattle, Washington, 2000. Photo from Artstor image database through UC Davis access.

Photo I took in Dr. Wei Sun's Tissue Engineering Laboratory, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Spring 2008. These are 3D models made prior to neurosurgery.

Photo I took at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind, Spring 2007. This is the section of the exhibition featuring 3D printed/produced designs.

04-09-2010 16:06:12
As a tail to Christina's post, whose position I wholeheartedly share, I would like to point you towards Neri Oxman's work. She was also part of Design and the Elastic Mind (thanks for the mention, Christina). Her website is a bit out of date ( but her work consists in carrying the generative power of digital technology even further. By using 3D technology and computational design, she is trying to build a library of "material behaviors" extracted from nature. In the future, her reconstructed samples might be the basis for designers' and architects' research at different scales, from façade treatments to the design of cities.

Computers have brought designers and architects much closer to the Holy Grail of their profession, learning to build the way nature does, with economy, elegance, appropriateness, and even flamboyance, in some cases--I do not have to explain this to you of all people. There have been moments of revolt against nature in design's history, granted, but also those can be considered part of its natural evolution. Many designers and architect are now dreaming of building not top-down, but rather bottom-up, giving objects a "scaffold" and setting up basic structural and behavioral laws to see them then grow by themselves into naturally perfect responses to the situation at hand.


04-09-2010 19:45:04
Amazing. Thank you, Paola.

I was especially struck by the "Cartesian wax" section of the material ecology site. Quoting from the site:

"The work is inspired by the Cartesian Wax thesis, as elucidated by Descartes in the 1640's. The thesis relates to the construction of self knowledge and the way in which it is informed by and reports about an individual's experience of the physical world. According to Descartes, the knowledge of the wax is whatever survives the various changes in the wax's physical form. That is, the form of the wax embodies the processes that have generated its final features. Replace the notion of knowledge with that of performance and the wax's physical form represents the force fields that grant its birth."

It is a design principle founded on a layered metaphor: first the wax itself, and then substitution of knowledge for performance.

A good metaphor is timeless--1640, last week, 450 BC...doesn't matter a whit. This is in marked contrast to the usual way of doing science: linearly, logically, as a steady accretion of knowledge. Hence the stale joke among scientists that anything more than five years old is "ancient history." But here are brand new architectonic principles being drawn from a 350-year-old literature!

Imaging technology, then, shifts science and engineering from a linear, temporal epistemology to an atemporal, metaphoric one. It seems to me the potential for innovation when you combine two such different ways of knowing are limitless.


04-10-2010 00:32:31
Really enjoying the inspiring reads here.

Nathaniel, I strongly resonate with your statement about the timelessness of a good metaphor. To add further credence to that observation, we need only look to the physical analogies and metaphors Darwin used to describe the evolution of the Tree of Life, and then, peel away the bark on that tangible metaphor to see the reality behind the picture-statements and visuals he used to define that Tree.

I’ve found that many artists and scientists alike simply stop at the doorstep of a good metaphor and don’t know how to open this door and walk into its boundless room. In reality, an absorbing metaphor is a “portal” to new possibilities of thought and discovery that await our creative inquiry. All you need to do is step through its entryway to discover everything that’s just waiting there on the other side.

Raold Hoffmann, the Nobel laureate chemist, authored a book of beautiful poems, titled The Metamict State (1987). If you get a chance to read some of his published science papers, you'll see how essential metaphors are to his approach to doing chemistry. Hoffmann writes: “The images that scientists have as they do science are metaphorical…The imaginative faculty are set in motion by mental metaphor. Metaphor shifts the discourse, not gradually, but with a vengeance. You see what no one had seen before.”

I’d imagine that’s what Dr. Phelps and his colleagues felt when they first flipped on the switch of their novel, noninvasive medical imaging tool, the positron computed tomography (PET) scanning device -- beginning the process of mapping the human brain’s cerebral blood flow (Phelps, Mazziotta, and Huang, 1983). He and his team of neuroscientists peered through the windows of the brain into the biological mechanisms that underlie the source of our creative process.

I'm sure we could trace the evolution of that PET medical marvel all the way back to its roots in early Photography, which begins with the camera obscura that Leonardo da Vinci envisioned in 1515. To get to the level of image sophistication that the field of medicine has arrived at today—with its functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines and related devices—required them to “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

From my experiences working with a spectrum of specialists in the physical sciences, I’ve come to realize that the more open-minded and inquisitive ones are adventurous enough to think in nonlinear, intuitive, spontaneous ways that transcend the disciplines they excel in. Overall, they share many of the same outstanding characteristics as inspired artists who exude creative freedom. I mean, they know how to have fun glimpsing the bigger picture of a problem or challenge, and they’re willing to momentarily experience the world as “expert novices” (suspending what they know to discover what they don’t know). I've got lots of examples...:)

Maybe the greatest shift of all that's happening today as a result of the advancements in tech-enabling visualization tools is the shift in our understanding and perception of the power of metaphors and other connection-making tools. Ultimately, those virtual tools enable us to envision real tools that, in turn, help us see far beyond what we know or believe to be true—in seeing the world anew. Metaphors are the chickens laying the eggs of technology and progress.

Metaphorm it! This diagram of the Scientific Method is a symbolic, virtual tool that enables us to continually discover and innovate new tools and theories. (Source: Scientific Method/Wiki)

04-10-2010 03:41:18
I would like to pick up on your comment:

"The progression from the presentation of drawings, to slide projections, to photography and eventually to PowerPoint is significant yet almost unnoticeable in the transferring of knowledge."

To emphasise that the way we present science is not only a matter of transferring knowledge. There is a large literature ( McLuhan, but more recently his colleague Derrick de Kerchove) on how media shapes thought, more recently people like Lev Manovich ( Language of New Media). The format of the book structured the way that science was carried out. Any way, a huge literature out there.

Alan Kay, one of the seminal technology developers has written extensively of how software design has shaped the way certain problems are tractable. Paul Fishwick a computer scientist also has written extensively about Aesthetic Computing ( see his book at MIT Press), or the way ideas and techniques from art and design can be introduced into the design of software ( for instance a program written as a stage play).

The web art world at the moment is abuzz about "mash up culture" the sequence drawings, to slide projections, to photography and eventually to PowerPoint to mash up actually shapes the way we make scientific arguments

see review


04-10-2010 04:14:22
Christina and Paola,
New imagining technology has also entered the art school. I have been working with "new media" since 2003 to create sculpture. What amazes me most about this technology is twofold: firstly the ability to produce sculptural form without touching the material and secondly the ways in which apparently random forms such as blobs or blots can be constructed by mathematical coordinates. Creating objects through code allows for the fabrication of forms to be "printed" that employ movable parts, nested structures and even deep irregular undercuts. I have recently built a state-of-the art facility at the School of Visual Arts, under the auspices of the Fine Arts Department, that focuses on computer driven sculpture for the emergent artist. Rapid prototyping, plasma and laser cutting and other devices are techniques of object making that are offered in conjunction with welding, woodworking and the like. Although this kind of technology can be found in engineering, architecture and design departments on the university level, it is unique to find these technologies in Fine Arts. Even first year students are awarded the opportunity to work in this way creating sculptural works that can incorporate architectural and design motifs. Thinking this way allows the student to engage in a richer vocabulary of forms and understanding of space. Our sculpture studio is a kind of laboratory in collaboration as well. We have a digital engineer and other technical staff members who engage in researching current software programs, operating 3-D scanners and aiding the Fine Arts student to realize his or her project. These experiences are already altering the ways in which this generation thinks about form.

04-10-2010 04:26:42
Dear Nathaniel,

Can you expand on your statement about atemporality? Atemporality is also something that Bruce Sterling, the novelist refers to:
"Imaging technology, then, shifts science and engineering from a linear, temporal epistemology to an atemporal, metaphoric one."

04-10-2010 05:01:19
I wonder if tied to Roger’s point about the impact of current technology on art and science one could isolate, in the example of photography and video art, conceptual categories which we could then use to re-group post 60s art in a new light. While media and the impact of media is part of the rhetoric that much technology-assisted post 60s work uses, and the rhetoric employed to re-present its legacies in and as ‘new media arts’, there is an undeniable preoccupation with surface and the manipulation of the image and its properties as the visible effect of one's uses of technology, whether in a more coherent sense, say the use of photo-shop, or equally 'craft-based' forms of experimentation, like for example the scratching of surface on film in avant-garde film.

Technology, its visibility and the transparency of its effect on the image, how well we can read its impact on the image in other words, mediates also our contemporary understadning of what constitutes an aesthetically meaningful art form, or practice.

A very interesting exhibition on photography and the idea of surface as the result of manipulation (and not immutability, to reference our earlier discussion on 19th century scientific illutration and the point shared with Ellen Levy) is Surface Tensions at the MET (Phototransformation by Lukas Samaras being an interesting example among the work exhibited but accessible also on line while the video work of Giorgos Harvalias ( inspired but also mediated by current imaging techniques as well as effects drawn from preceding technologies like early filming is equally full of references, used in the construction of the image in the work but also its re-presentation, to technology and the genealogies of imaging techniques employed in the visual arts concerned with the idea of manipulation and surface as an intentionally non illusionistic field.

04-10-2010 07:29:05
This post does not consider directly the evolutionary aspects much but is about visual cuture.

As an imaging neuroscientist who engages the public with science for a living I am very happy to exploit the undoubted appeal of new imaging technologies, but I also have some worries. There is no question but that the inclusion of a 'brain map' in a narrative lends it considerable credence in the non-specialist imagination. It is even possible that bona fide neuroscientists are themselves seduced by the beautiful images. Certainly the deep antipathy which many old school neuroscientists evinced towards imaging in general and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in particular towards the end of the 20th century could speak to a supressed sense of threat from the power of such apparent revelations.

To interrogate the truth value of these images requires two completely different kinds of sophistication: statistical and visual. On the former, almost all of the images displayed are some kind of statistical map where colour represents some kind of statistic (usually a p value) distributed across the brain. It only makes sense to speak of a bright red blob as an activation ("this is the area of the brain which is activated when you see picture of the one you love") within a statistical rhetorical framework. But the bright colours and smoothed blobs speak directly of centres for this or areas for that (rather as the phrenologists might have). It takes a careful scientist (and there are of course still many of these) to eschew the power of a pretty picture and ground their narrative in the p-values and the underlying statistical assumptions.

On visual sophistication, Jane Prophet ( ) and I have argued that without visual sophistication (whatever that means) scientists, whether writers or readers, are at the mercy of their unconscious feelings about their work in the following sense among others. Most scientific images are pseudo-coloured in that the colours on the final image are projected onto the data in an essentially arbitrary form. An activation in the brain could be green, purple or blue, but making it red as is almost always the case makes it look 'hot'. Without education in and reflection on visual culture it is impossible for a scientific narrative to be in control of its visual rhetoric.

Hope that's unpolished enough ;-)


04-10-2010 09:20:24
Dear Daniel,

Trying to understand 'the impact of new imaging technology on visual culture and science', which is the topic in question as opposed to evolution and science or evolution and visual culture addressed already in other forums, by terms and discourses intrinsic to the problem you are examining, in your case, science (with science), or popular science, at the level of method certainly poses some challenges.

But knowing first hand what a fantastically eloquent speaker you are and your thoughts on scientists must be doing science and artists art (no space for historians or theorists from the humanities end) I understand your rigorous, not unpolished cry for up to scratch scientific relevance in all treatments or indeed selections of images discussed in this forum.

04-10-2010 09:25:36
Roger, you're points about the "mash up" work and its influences are right on. I want to respond to your thoughts in-depth once I add these few visual thoughts and notes that are pertinent to the previous two posts. They might interest you. And, they're not unrelated to the metaphorical and symbolic aspects of Mash Up, too.

Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally

Published: February 1, 2010

A version of this article appeared in print on February 2, 2010, on page D2 of the New York edition.

“Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.

As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. The deviations were not exactly Tower of Pisa leanings, amounting to some two or three millimeters’ shift one way or the other. Nevertheless, the directionality was clear and consistent.

“When we talk about time, we often use spatial metaphors like ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ or ‘I’m reflecting back on the past,’ ” said Lynden K. Miles, who conducted the study with his colleagues Louise K. Nind and C. Neil Macrae. “It was pleasing to us that we could take an abstract concept such as time and show that it was manifested in body movements.”

The new study, published in January in the journal Psychological Science, is part of the immensely popular field called embodied cognition, the idea that the brain is not the only part of us with a mind of its own.

“How we process information is related not just to our brains but to our entire body,” said Nils B. Jostmann of the University of Amsterdam. “We use every system available to us to come to a conclusion and make sense of what’s going on.”

Research in embodied cognition has revealed that the body takes language to heart and can be awfully literal-minded.”

More of Natalie Angier’s article can be read in full at this address:

On a related note: If you try to connect the three pictures posted here in a linear way (either from left-to-right or right-to-left or top-to-bottom), you’ll notice how differently your body and mind respond to them according to their order. Each grouping tells a different story about these three elements of thought: the Nuclear Age (symbolized by Ernest Rutherford’s model, or the “planetary model,” of the atom), humankind holding the weight of the world on our collective shoulders (as symbolized by Lee Lowrie and Rene Chambellan’s 1937 public sculpture, “Atlas,” at Rockefeller Plaza), and the future (as envisaged by the Futurist sculpture by Umberto Bocionni, titled “Unique Forms of Continuuity in Space,” 1913). Each story tells us something about the past that has strongly influenced our present-future, just as all the other countless elements of evolution have. Even though they’re not in chronological order here, their influences are nevertheless distributed in such a way that they feel equally weighted to us. Or, at least they do for me. In fact, when I gaze at Bocionni’s 1913 sculpture, in particular, I see our speedy, technology savvy, hyperdynamic, almost AD/HD Civilization today. It somehow mirrors the blur of our world now and onward…
Umberto Boccioni, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913); Museum of Modern Art, New York

“Atlas” by Lee Lowrie and Rene Chambellan (1937), Rockefeller Plaza, NYC
Ernest Rutherford’s model, or the “planetary model,” of the atom


04-10-2010 10:49:44
Dear Roger Malina,
Thanks for posting Michiko Kakutani's book review "Texts Without Context." The growing dimension of digital access is something that requires serious analysis in broad political and social terms. I like to keep in mind, that digital information and social networking so rampart in the First World is not ubiquitous in the Third World. Although the First World may be ensconced in high tech apparatus, the Third World is still engaging its battle with illiteracy. The "mash up" that you talk about is also referred to the "Frankenstein mash-up"and brings to the fore questions concerning intellectual property, originality, simulacra, authenticity and collective intelligence. On the one hand, linear thinking may not be appropriate for temporal network culture, we also need to question what yield of unintended consequences are in store for us in a "cut and paste" culture. We have already seen the chemical industries morphing into global agri-businesses and jumping genes crossing species barriers heralding in disease. Novel terms such as "cybrid" and "neo-mort" have entered our language, while body parts are being sold to the highest bidder.

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his text The Future of Human Nature, calls for a "species ethics." His dialogue is centered around self-instrumentalization in a world where technology reigns supreme.

04-10-2010 11:33:16
Paola, thanks for posting the link to Neri Oxman’s work. In my last post, it was a toss up between a picture of the 3D printing section of Design and the Elastic Mind or Neri Oxman’s stunning Materialecology monocoque on display there. Congratulations on putting together an exhibition that continues to trouble me over two years later, as I am still pondering these technological changes, their sociopolitical and economic contexts, and the incredibly persistent rhetoric that somehow these developments in art, science and technology demonstrate “evolutionary progress.”

While I agree that both you and I are fascinated by much of the same material, it seems you believe in both the bottom-up potential of these technologies, as well as in the utopian dream that computers and genetic engineering, along with nanotechnology, etc., may finally permit artists’ and scientists’ attainment of the holy grail of “building the way nature does.”

In constrast, I fully question it and am troubled by the presentation of this pursuit, precisely because I don’t equate having economic and political power with being more “evolved.” (We could have a lengthy discussion on this, I’m sure, that would bring in current genetic determinism, evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, as well as the successes and failures of western science and technology to control evolution – through antibiotics, say, or through eugenics, or now, through genetic engineering).

Nor do I like the strategy of naturalizing economic and political inequalities (as well as the disfranchisement of nonwesterners by the art world and in the narratives of art history) through evolutionary rhetoric, spoken from the position of those with power, which presents inequality as if it is just the outcome of natural laws of hierarchy and survival of the fittest at work in human culture. For those with power and money and access to technology to act like they are organizing from the “bottom-up,” without seeing that these tools and technologies don’t even exist in the domain of those at the “bottom,” seems to demonstrate a blindness to ways in which the west (or now, the North or “developed” countries) continue to exploit the labor and resources of those in nonwestern countries (now, the South or “developing” countries). Even in the lingo of “developed” and “developing,” we see the overlap between biological, evolutionary, and economic discourses.

There is a circular process at work here: Darwin and Spencer borrowed from capitalist economic theory in their formulations of evolutionary process, which, because of its explanatory power for diverse visual phenomena (from the fossil record to species diversification, etc.), in turn lent credence to capitalist practices. Similarly, Benoit Mandelbrot’s theory of fractals in the natural world led him to study similar patterns in economic trends, to the extent that systems theory is now being used by those at the Santa Fe Institute (and others) as a tool for both understanding and predicting economic jumps.

Despite the theoretical and synthetic beauty of these theories, as well as their pragmatic applications for those with access to the tools and the money to use them, the bottom-line issue for me as a humanities scholar (especially one with an acute awareness of the history of the use of evolutionary theories to justify oppression) is to work against power and inequality to bring about socioeconomic justice.

Because justifications of human culture as determined by genes or evolution are consistently spoken by those with power, I remain dubious of their credibility – especially because of the historical legacy of these ideas. The strength of deterministic, evolutionary rhetoric in today’s popular science, art and design discourse is matched in recent history only by that of eugenicists and designers of the 1930s, albeit with different technologies at their fingertips. So, on to another post (owing to the length of this one) about eugenics and streamline design. I leave you with one image from a Pearl Izumi DNA advertisement in a current cycling publication.

Pearl Izumi ads for cycling gear, currently running in Velonews magazine, advertising their "genetically engineered fit." This is one among many examples of companies using the idea of DNA to market product superiority.

04-10-2010 12:17:19
On new imaging technology and visual culture, I would like to point out problems initiated with Semir Zeki's work on historical art and neuroaesthetics. In his ground-breaking book Inner Vision, he makes much of Mondrian and shows images of the brain responding to solely to color and vertical/horizontal linear orientation, namely areas V1 and V4. By Mondrian he uses both the actual paintings (or at least reproductions of them, which brings up yet another wrinkle) and "Land Mondrians," a scientific, visual chart interchangeably, without distinguishing one from the other. The Land Mondrians are made up of a variety of colors, olive green, purple, etc., which Mondrian would never have used since he stuck entirely to primaries and neutrals. The rectangles of color in a Land Mondrian are entirely different (and non-artistic in their arrangement). Zeki celebrates how Mondrian is very nearly a "neurologist" who seeks essentials. Mondrian's careful and exact selection of a very limited number of colors and careful arrangement of forms came from spiritual, philosophical ideas about the nature of the universe and on a more immediate level was influenced by visuals in western culture--just one of which comes from the saturated colors of stained glass (the artists he was closest too at this time like Theo van Doesburg were working with stained glass and rectangular form). In Mondrian's own circle of friends and perhaps far more widely than this in the early twentieth century, many other areas of the brain would come in to play as well in responding to those works. Despite these deeply embedded problems, Zeki has received near god-like status among historians of visual culture (Onians). You get my general drift on the problems of intentionality, history, imaging techonologies, meaning, and scientific knowledge. ...

04-10-2010 13:30:00
I would like to share some of the concerns outlined by Christina Codgell connected to a reading of technology that sometimes assumes or projects a neutral role on it. From the perspective of history and sociologically inclined history, the kind many historians of art and science have been practicing in recent years, ‘technology’ is understood as a socially constructed fact, rather than a neutral tool. The dominance of one technology over another across time and social context is seen in this light as a phenomenon contingent on the creation of assent in the given community of scientists, artists and the wider society, that is the cultural context examined, and not as the unavoidable effect of the argument itself, or the ‘success’ of the technology itself secured by its ‘truth’ element. To cite a definition, not from sociology of science, even though the work of Latour, Lynch and Woolgar should be mentioned here, but from the work of historians of science informed by sociology of knowledge, I would like to throw in the discussion, a key question which perhaps should have been addressed from the beginning, concerned with how we understand technology and the way it connects, not to science but culture instead and the visual cultures of art and science we are examining here.

Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in their seminal Leviathan and the Air-pump considering the beginnings of experimental practice as a reliable tool for the production of new knowledge give a definition of technology that might be useful to bear in mind. “Our use of the term technology in reference to the ‘software’ of literary practices and social relations may appear jarring,” they write, adding that, “but it is both important and etymologically justified, as Carl Mitcham nicely shows: ‘Philosophy and the History of Technology,’ esp. pp. 172-175. Mitcham demonstrates that Plato distinguished between two types of techne: one that consisted mainly of physical work and another which was closely associated with speech. By using technology to refer to literary and social practices, as well as to machines, we wish to stress that all three are knowledge-producing tools.” (Shapin and Schaffer, Princeton 1985, p. 25)

Hence the rhetoric of evolution is a social practice and a technology that produces new knowledge, socially and politically situated. It’s difficult to disentangle the claims to knowledge that any technology makes from the social hierarchies it conceals. Christina did this successfully in the above example and many of the parallel forums may be seen in this context, as a tribute to the solutions to social, political and visual order that ‘evolutionary’ solutions to problems of knowledge also contained. To avoid misunderstandings this is a point about methodology and historiography applied with regard to the notion of technology and the notion of cultural impact.


04-10-2010 19:15:23
Roger, if I understand the reality of mashups correctly, they’re not just metaphors for the process of merging flowing streams of data, information, and knowledge from many diverse sources into one new source? Meaning, they’re more than “metaphors we live by” and work by today, to borrow George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s expression.

I realize this term mashups is used in the context of web design and development for Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 But it seems to encompass a vast range of creative actions in fields outside the realm of Application Programming Interface (API) work, which, I know, focuses on continually improving the interface experience users have with various software. I gather it refers to all the “unexpected” stuff (new products, services, functionality, etc.) that grows out of these merging streams of information.

I’d imagine it’d be tough to tell in advance what kinds of products are most likely to come out of this informational mergence, or what we should expect to see. For instance, when mashups are used to “remix digital data,” you never know what novel sounds will emerge from this controlled, experimental integration of data. And, even if you did know, would the sound always be the same, and could you re-create it in a consistent and reliable way?

Here’s my main question: What will Web 10.0 look and feel like, given this increased capacity to merge larger and more complex streams of diverse data? Also, how will we manage this increased complexity, using the mashup process to that end? Will it resemble anything like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Studies of water Formations” (c. 1507-09)? Or will it appear more like Leonardo’s “Deluge” (1513)? I’m leaning towards that scenario, in which we’re further swamped by an absolutely uncontrollable and unpredictable haelstrom of data, and where we’re left on our own to organize it, innovate it, and purpose it to our individual needs?

I get the comparison that’s frequently used between Portals and Mashups, and can see their differences, However, I don’t understand yet how the two current styles of aggregating data (vis-à-vis the "Melting Pot" or the "Salad bar" style) are going to be developed and scaled so that they can actually [realistically] manage the flood of data-information-knowledge that’ll spring from this integration. When we figure that out and can engineer a viable solution, most people will be able to easily grasp how this process of merging data via mashups could be immensely valuable for integrating any and all data for any purpose.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Studies of water Formations,” c. 1507-09, pen and ink, 20 x 20.2 cm. Windsor Castle, Royal Library 12660v. © 1993 Her Majesty The Queen. (From Maria Costantino, LEONARDO. Artist, Inventor and Science. (1993), p.120.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Deluge,” c. 1513, black chalk, 16.3 x 21 cm. Windsor Castle, Royal Library 12378. © 1993 Her Majesty The Queen (From Maria Costantino, LEONARDO. Artist, Inventor and Scientist. (1993), p. 121.
04-11-2010 04:20:03
Assimina’s mention of D’Arcy Thompson is particularly of interest not only in the context of our topic (imaging technology’s effect on visual culture and science) but also of evolution, itself. Thompson’s early 20th century work offers, as Martin Kemp and Brian Goodwin have clearly pointed out, resistance to traditional scientific approaches in Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian form, as developed by R. A. Fisher, Sewall Wright, and Haldane. This was accomplished partly by Thompson exploring non-adaptive examples in nature (e.g., not only forms exemplifying principles of natural selection). Thompson's coordinate transformation suggested a way to test whether comparative anatomy could establish a sequence of evolution. The method has limitations. Among other things it leaves chemistry out of the equation and could not, for example, explain the evolution of the cortex. Nevertheless, his work in topological analysis continues to inspire potent algorithmic approaches to generating growth in both art and science, and I have uploaded just one artistic example.
A sculpture of an anamorphic skull by Robert Lazzarini generated with rapid prototyping

04-11-2010 05:37:11
Thank you Ellen. And I should cite one of Martin's early works on Thompson in the special edition you have co-edited for Art Journal:

'Doing What Comes Naturally: Morphogenesis and the Limits of the Genetic Code', Art Journal, ed. B. Sichel and E. Levy, Spring 1996, pp. 27–32.

As well as a more recent paper in Seen-Unseen (OUP, 2006) that considers precisely Thompson's 'geometries of growth' in the context of 20th century art and science from the perspective which you have outlined so clearly (ch. 7 Growth and Form). A huge amount of work on the reception of Thompson's work in science and art but also art history as well as its undeniable impact on 20th century topological thinking evident in the work of 20th century architects and mapped out by historians of architecture.


04-11-2010 12:05:06
To add a few more responses to Kevin’s focal question: There are a number of developments in the fields of brain science and psychology that were engaging artists, scientists and the general public in the late 19th and early 20th century, and that are important to highlight here.

Emerging medical imaging technology and new techniques in clinical neurology enabled scientists and physicians to glean deeper and bigger pictures of the inner workings of the functional architecture of the human brain. As this work progressed, another fundamental search was underway that contributed to the evolution of our understanding of the body/mind relationship.

Up until the 20th century, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and other inquisitive individuals had been actively pursuing insights into the hidden relationship between the brain and mind/body and spirit; or, matter and mind. One of many breakthroughs in the brain sciences that helped bridge the mind-body divide grew out of the empirical work of Sir Charles Scott Sherrington (1857–1952); he was one of the first to describe the dynamics of synapse and synaptic transmission, the mechanism by which our billions of cell/neurons communicate and collaborate with one another 24/7/360 over our lifetime.

The History of Thought shows how artists and scientists have been obsessively searching the thought process itself—a search, perhaps, inspired by the ancient Greek directive, “Know thyself.” We certainly see this interest expressed in the exploratory drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, most notably his early medical studies of brain and the mechanics of vision. Leonardo’s drawings, which were known to many artists and mind explorers, were a serious source of inspiration for probing both the tangible and intangible actions of human body and mind.

In fact, there’s a fascinating body of literature on this subject that draws from all the disciplines that attempts to describe, conceptualize, theorize and visualize the nature of the human brain-mind-creative spirit. By the time William James brilliantly organized, synthesized, and advanced the key knowledge of the human brain/mind with his ground-breaking, two volume books, The Principles of Psychology (1890), there were already ten major contrasting views that divided “monists” [the brain and mind are one-and-the-same thing] from “dualists” [the brain is a separate phenomena than the mind] since ancient times (M. Bunge, The Mind-Body Problem, 1980). Clearly, our scientific knowledge of the brain is entangled in the philosophical doctrines of monism and dualism (C.S. Sherrington, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, 1906; W. Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind, 1975; J.C. Eccles and K.R. Popper, The Self and Its Brain, 1977; J.C. Eccles’ The Human Mystery, 1979).

On a personal note: Over the past three decades, I've explored many of these issues concerning the brain/mind relationship, drawing inspiration from the medical imaging technology and brain research. One example is this interpretive artwork, titled “Thought Assemblies” (1979-82), which was the visual component of my dissertation, Architectonics of Thought: A Symbolic Model of Neuropsychological Processes (1986). This artwork probes the biological basis of creative and critical thinking. It interrelates eons of evolutionary thought on the nature of the human mind into one, dynamic creation on synthetic paper that is 9ft. high x 127ft. long and contains over 515 pictures of mental representations ( This artwork is often configured with a nonlinear design, and is accompanied by this mixed media painting on synthetic canvas, “Brain Theater of Mental Imagery,” which measures 12ft. x 100ft.

In the next post, I’d like to briefly comment on some noninvasive medical imaging technology (PET and fMRI) that continue to advance the evolution of visual culture by inspiring a wide range of artists who share this mutual passion for pushing the possibilities of these medical arts.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Section of a Man’s Head Showing the Anatomy of the Eye,” 1489. Windsor Castle, Royal Library. © 1993 Her Majesty The Queen. (From Maria Costantino, LEONARDO. Artist, Inventor and Scientist. (1993), p. 115.

“Brain Theater of Mental Imagery” was first shown at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 1984 and the Boston Center for the Arts, 1990.

“Thought Assemblies” was first exhibited at Musee D’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France,1982 and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, NYC, 1984.

04-11-2010 16:32:26
In terms of the late nineteenth century and the mind/brain problem, I have an essay "Mapping the Body and the Brain: Neurology and Localization Theory in the Work of Rodin" on new technologies/findings about the brain and the neurological system that intersect with evolution. This is in this issue of Revue d'art canadienne. Among other things this investigates the evolutionist Broca on locating the area of speech and its fallout, the use of electricity on exposed monkey brains, the study of brain lesions and popularized awareness of assymetry studies and brain maps. Rodin was also interested in the hysteria studies of Charcot, not only the photographs, but the illustrations of Paul Richer as well. The brain was not only understood as a map over the cortex with variuos centers of activity, but with the authority of evolution as deeply layered.

In terms of other technologies in the late nineteenth century that contribute to visual culture and science. developments in the telescope and new technologies like new powerful telescopes and spectral analysis (1859) that made use of the wave theory of light allowed for a dynamic vision of the universe. This, along with developments to the microscope (resulting in germ. helping to uphold notions of evolutionism despite the fact that the process itself could not be observed.


04-12-2010 04:00:54
Barbara, thanks for pointing out your essay on Rodin’s work. The neurological studies on hemispheric specialization and localization started slowly mushrooming from the time Paul Broca discovered the patterns of expressive aphasia (Brodmann area 44 & 45) and Karl Wernicke identified a set of disruptive patterns that affect the semantic aspects of speech. I find it interesting how this work was connected to Korbinian Brodmann’s maps of the cortical cytoarchitecture of humans, monkeys and other vertebrates. Given that the Broadmann maps were published in 1909, I’ve always wondered which visual artists had heard about or seen them. I’d imagine they would’ve been as absorbed by these artful maps as the brain scientists were – especially, considering that they were created by using a rather colorful stain technique, the Nissl method, which highlights the cell body with dyes; the dyes consist of either aniline, thionine, or cresyl violet. I’d also imagine that the painters and printmakers, at that time, would’ve taken an interest in the work of the German neuropathologist Franz Nissl who had come up with this new technique thus contributing to the emerging field of Histology.

One brief relevant aside: I was sure interested in this Nissl method. While I was taking a course on “The Human Nervous System” during graduate school, one of the professors teaching this course, Dr. Walle Nauta, who was a great neuroanatomist (and terrific artist, too!), showed me a collection of Nissl-stained cells, these were like an innovation catalyst: they inspired me to further refine some new printing technology I’d invented (which MIT patented with me). This technology enabled me to make massive, one-of-a-kind monoprints with micro-reliefs (e.g., “The Brain Theater of Mental Imagery”). In effect, the substrate resembles neural tissue, greatly enlarged. Picture a sliver of brain tissue mounted on a conventional glass slide to be inspected under a microscope. Now picture that slide the size of a basketball court with symbolic drawings, paintings and sculptural objects that, interpret all kinds of brain/mind-related research that arc back to antiquity, mounted on this synthetic neural tissue.

Which brings me full circle to this point: The brain scientists in the early 20th century, such as the pioneer neuroanatomist, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, had to rely on their own advanced skills rendering-by-hand their observations and vision. They could only dream of a time when they’d be able to use various imaging tools and techniques to see below the surfaces of the substrates they desired to know in-depth. They’d have to wait another sixty years before they’d be able to use such sophisticated tools as positron-emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

But they dreamed, nevertheless, together with the artists whose work and aspirations inspired them, too. Today, countless thought leaders in the field challenge themselves to grasp something as complex as “the dynamic neural correlates of cognitive processes in normal humans,” to quote two outstanding contemporary neuroscientists, Thomas Gravowski and Antonio Damasio. Essentially, they're living the dreams of their predecessors…

…“Improving functional imaging techniques: The dream of a single image for a single mental  event,” by T.J. Gravowski and A.R. Damasio (1996)

04-12-2010 09:02:56
Dear Todd,
Can you talk more about your last posted image, the image that employs the perimeter of the brain in architectural terms. Very fascinating!


04-12-2010 14:22:22
Suzanne, thank you for asking! It's so hard for me to "curb my enthusiasm" and passion for the neurosciences. This field has absorbed my imagination since I was 15-years-old (just 15 minutes ago, right!)...Anyway, that sketch was intended as a first-glance at an ArtScience installation I was planning. I always dreamed of building an experiential structure, or framework, for engaging this artwork, because I wanted viewers to participate in the personal process of understanding the roots and layers of concepts and basic questions nested in these sensual materials. I wanted the art to kindle people’s curiosity the instant they entered the “Thought Assemblies” to physically and conceptually get up-close-and-personal with it. When I experimented with its presentation at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in NYC, a gallery I've happily worked with for the past thirty years, I had wanted to configure this artwork very differently but didn't have the financial means to construct it as I'd envisioned.

Ultimately, this artwork exists to serve only one timeless purpose: To engage people in the joy of discovery. The American author James Baldwin, said this way better: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.” That’s what “Thought Assemblies” aims to do: Invite everyone to examine one’s own creative-critical thought process. In effect, it’s a “mirror” of sorts for looking at us in-depth. It’s a means of seeing our similarities as human beings, as well as discovering our understanding our differences, too, in the way we think-create-learn-discover-innovate-communicate-collaborate…

As you may have noted, I modeled the organizing principle for this artwork after one view, in particular; I think of it as a “room with a view” to the Limbic system, that large arc in the center of this Brodmann map, which shows a mid-Sagittal section of the brain. There’s an inspiring story about how I came to focus on that area of the brain and how it lead me to explore the heart of the human brain. In 1979, while I was a graduate student at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), I was head-deep in developing some Aha moments and hypotheses I’d had about the structure and organic order, or unity, of the creative process. Thanks to the brilliant director of CAVS at that time, Otto Piene, and another stellar professor of Brain sciences and Psychology, Dr. Stephan L. Chorover, I was encouraged to pursue my studies in a unique interdisciplinary doctoral program I put together. In fact, this exploratory work would never have come to be without the guidance of an extraordinary group of professors and researchers who served as the Ad hoc committee, which included: Professor Stanford Anderson, Chairman of the Department of Architecture, Dr. Eric Schwartz of the Brain Research Laboratory at New York University Medical Center, and Professor James Ackerman of the Department of Fine Arts at Harvard University.

These individuals gave me the creative latitude and longitude to pursue my lifetime passion to understand the nature of creativity at the deepest level I could, using my ArtScience approach to discovery. That adventure entailed creating some pretty ambitious visualizations that probably would’ve made Cajal smile, too. In any event, I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to a small community of thought leaders in the overlapping realms of art, architecture, brain and cognitive sciences, and physics who enabled me to reach for my ideals. Without them, this journey would’ve been quite unbearable. You might enjoy reading Breaking the Mind Barrier, as it presents a distillation of some of the ideas behind these visualizations.

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