Spilling Out of the Laboratory: A Conversation with Suzanne Anker
Suzanne Anker recently organized, and showed her own work in Cerebral Spirits: Stalking the Self at the William Paterson University Galleries in Paterson, New Jersey (January 30 through March 9, 2012). The exhibition explored ways in which research concepts in neuroscience have been incorporated into visual art practice and contemporary culture. The other seven artists in the show were Phil Buehler, Richard Dupont, Thomas Eller, Frank Gillette, Michael Rees, Katy Schimert, and Jeanne Silverthorne, and featured sculptures, installation, photographs and video, all taking the brain as their subject.
Hallucination, memory, and the nervous system were some of the themes that emerged in a show brought up questions such as: What makes us fundamentally human? Can the “self” be identified? What mechanisms are in place to frame our concepts of the “self”? The artists addressed these questions concerning neuroscience and art, referencing advances in understanding the nervous system, measuring brainwaves, somatic responses, technological imaging, and studies of consciousness.
Anker’s own installation featured tiny parachutes, silver-leafed figures and “rapid prototype” sculptures referencing the brain. She also showed a video and photographs featuring a cross-section of a human brain together with a butterfly.
Phil Buehler showed two video loops that compare the eyes and faces of inmates of a long-term mental institution, taken from old black-and-white mug-shot photographs. Frank Gillette’s large-scale digital prints pictured hallucinatory sensations of the interiority of psychic life.
In works that reference the body’s nervous system, Michael Rees isolated the hearing mechanism in a sculpture cast in “stereo-lithography” resin. In a similar work, he presents a sculpture of a spine made through “selective laser sintering.”
Richard Dupont’s large sculptural heads were made out of amber-colored resin filled with personal ephemera, books, and photographs. Jeanne Silverthorne’s installation featured tiny yellow cast sculptures of family members sitting beneath clouds or on the edge of pedestals. And Thomas Eller exhibited large cutout photographic self-portraits on laser cut aluminum that referenced a swimming accident.
Suzanne, can you tell us briefly about the genesis of this show?
“Cerebral Spirits: Stalking the Self” is the third exhibition I have curated on the theme of neuroscience and art. Advances in imaging techniques have been at the forefront of much of the research in the neurosciences which is altering perceptions of identity and personhood. Although the 1990’s were granted the title of “decade of the brain” it is much more recently that the neurosciences have become part of the public dialogue. For example, it is now possible to move a cursor on a computer screen by employing the subject’s own eye movements. The Brain Computer Interface allows a person with “locked-in” syndrome to communicate with the external world. This technology, on the other hand, is also being marketed by computer gaming enthusiasts who create entertainment scenarios of characters engaged in battle.
You recently curated a similar show in Istanbul; you got a great space for the show at Paterson. How has the switch of location and slight change of artists changed this show, or do you see the shows as unrelated?
The exhibition at the Pera Museum in Istanbul, “Fundamentally Human: Contemporary Art and Neuroscience” focused more on the anatomical and physical structures of the nervous system. Images of neurons and their metaphorical associations with trees, a mechanical robot drawing images perceived as similar to Andreas Vesalius’ early anatomical representations, and Michael Joaquin Grey’s computational video were all technologically-based. That exhibition also showcased several European artists such as Andrew Carnie from the UK and Leonel Moura from Portugal. “Cerebral Spirits: Stalking the Self” although still involved with anatomical associations had more of a focus on psychic states and the emotions. The work was more figurative as well, focusing on ideas of portraiture. Jeanne Silverthorne, Richard Dupont, Phil Bueuler, Katy Schimert and Thomas Eller exhibited work in this genre.
Can you talk a little about how science has developed as a theme in your own work?
My work has always been about the natural world. However, it was in 1989 in an exhibition at the Greenberg/Wilson Gallery in NYC did my work take a “scientific turn.” Besides several bronze sculptures fabricated from tree limbs and 100-year-old ash-covered eggs, I used kaleidoscopes as “altering viewing” devices. By looking through a small vase with a lens on it, the spectator experienced an image of repetition and multiplicity, an image somewhat related to looking through a microscope. The periphery of the image appeared as circular. The name of the piece was “Fixed Gaze” and later went on to be exhibited at the Philips Collection Washington, D.C. Influenced by this optical experience, I researched microscopic images from biology’s vast data bank. I was not interested in portraying disease in ways that limited my palette. I then came across an image of a chromosome that I immediately perceived as a sign of the body’s writing itself. The rest is history.
As you reflect on these two shows now, any thoughts?”
Science has spilled out of the laboratory and into our lives…from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the pharmaceuticals we are prescribed. It is no wonder that many visual artists are interfacing with concepts in science both conceptually and even in science labs. Most recently, I have created a Nature and Technology Lab at SVA, where students work with living matter, engage in field work and employ the metaphors inherent in nature and science to their own work. Our lab houses plants, fish, frogs, sets of microscopic slides, three microscopes (with camera and video equipment) as well as an autoclave, incubator and fume hood. Visiting lecturers have included artists, scientists and theorists.
And where do you see connections between art and science progressing from here?
Many artists have integrated scientific notions in their work, which is not particular to our current time frame. However, the molecular genetics revolution, advances in neuroscience, and sophisticated visualizing technologies as well as concerns over bio-terrorism place the artist in a fertile mind-set for the 21st century. Science has become a framing device for artists, much like popular culture in the last century. As new technologies continue to open up recombinatory practices and as visualizing technologies reframe garnered biological data, we are all in for a bit of a spin.
A final question: 1980s art school education was typically focused on Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory. Now we’ve moved on. As head of the program in Fine Arts that includes New Media and Bio Art at SVA in 2012, what new theorists and fields of ideas are shaping thought and progress in this area now, and how?
Whereas theory was a hallmark in the 1980’s, I think its role in the visual arts has become greatly reduced. Although Ranciere, Bourriand, Groys and Zizek have added much to the lexicon, other central issues have emerged in this time of uncertainty. Social media, film and science fiction have had a crucial role in expanding the ideology of the present. The TED series, YouTube, Facebook et al have all contributed to a multi-dimensional network of thought. War, rogue governments and propaganda machines have also been relevant in regard to the ways in which we theorize the here and now. In a sense, deep thought has merged with fantasy. Margaret Atwood, Bruce Sterling, Werner Herzog to name a few, have opened up contentious territories with regard to environmental, technological and philosophical propositions. Media has trumped many other forms of knowledge production and terror has become a buzzword. Jürgen Habermas’ insights continue dissect the current moment, while art criticism, per se, has become merely descriptive. Re-formatting platforms of investigation into what issues are at stake in a transglobal world are being incorporated into art practice, at least at the School of Visual Arts. We have recently built out a state of the art facility in which digital sculpture, media art and the bio arts figure prominently, alongside traditional forms of painting and drawing.