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The 2014 Conference on Neuroesthetics: Seeing Knowing - Vision, Knowledge, Cognition and Aesthetics

University of California, Berkeley, 6-7 September, 2014
Sponsored by the Minerva Foundation; Co-sponsored by the School of Optometry and Vision Science Program, University of California Berkeley
Johanna Drucker, Convener
Conference website: http://www.minervaberkeley.org/conferences/seeing-knowing-vision-knowledge-cognition-and-aesthetics.

Reviewed by Amy Ione

“Seeing Knowing—Vision, Knowledge, Cognition and Aesthetics,” a weekend conference in Berkeley, California showed how broadly people are now thinking about what a visual epistemology—defined as an emerging field of knowledge creation and production across disciplines and practices—could be. The conference presentations ranged from deep history to the present day, with speakers offering analyses of the visual brain in Paleolithic cave paintings, the use of visualization in computer and graphic design, the complexity of visual processes, neuroesthetics research, and the use of visual thinking in developing critical cultural insights and visual forms of knowledge production. Words like perception, cognition, representation, and design hardly touch upon the breadth of ideas. In a general sense, the talks emphases included embodiment, skilled vision, cognitive patterns and patternmaking; narrative, metaphor, visual analytics, visuality, art history, and art practices. It was clear that both the presenters and those who attended saw a value in connecting vision and knowledge, culture and cognition, art and science as modalities of design. In probing these broad areas, the underlying assumption was that “visuality” is a primary mode of knowledge. As the visual mode of thinking, it is not the representation of things known in other fields, but a way of generating new insight through research and creative investigation in the visual modality.

Needless to say, a short review cannot capture all of these threads, so I will only offer a few short comments.  First, I appreciated the anthropological/archeological talks, since this area has so much to offer in terms of framing cultural issues. Although Francis Steen, Derek Hodgson, Cristina Grasseni and Peter Wells all covered different topics, it is clear that an anthropological/archeological perspective offers a parallel taxonomy for thinking about who we are, what we see, and how we know the world.  Similarly, Marcos Nadal and William Seely offered complimentary talks on neuroesthetics and how we see and engage with art. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of neuroesthetics or philosophical perspectives in a general sense, but found both were good speakers and both showed a tremendous sensitivity for the issues surrounding the topic. Nadal’s inclusion of historical context about empirical aesthetics helped him frame the field and to offer a foundation for the movement toward a biological understanding of the variety of aesthetic expression around the world today. Seeley proposed that the reason we find art so engaging is that artworks are attentional engines. No doubt his assertion that there is no right or wrong way to look at art is to some degree an outgrowth of his training in sculpture. He adeptly characterized the communication process we have with artwork in a way that included both the maker and the viewer.

One tension that came up many times and intrigued me was the difference between a visual analytic approach and the use of narrative. The two approaches seem quite different in terms of goals and intentions, which left me wondering if the goal of achieving a visual epistemology is more of a conceptual target than a practical tool. While it seems that in some respects visuality and visual epistemology represent a kind of different animal from narrative epistemology, many of the speakers seemed to combine and/or conflate the two. Thus, for me, the conference was more successful in showing the value of a combined approach. I ended up thinking that a visual epistemology is not always fully divergent from a narrative one, although it is at times.

One key difference between visual modalities as a tool of knowledge and narrative perspectives was articulated quite well by the geographer Alan M. MacEachren. He defined visual analytics as “the science of analytical reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces.” In his presentation he sketched out developments in geovisualization and visual analytics targeted toward enabling analytical reasoning. He also outlined some challenges and potential approaches that he believes are a part of developing good tools. When a member of the audience asked if he had any thoughts as to why earlier speakers had talked more about narrative and his presentation was more about problem solving, he replied that his focus as a scientist is more about building knowledge. Because his work is not premised on story telling, in his view, once the knowledge base is built there is a narrative involved in sharing it.

I liked Harold Cohen’s talk the most, in part because I was sure it was one that wouldn’t excite me at all. Although I had some vague knowledge of his work, I clearly didn’t appreciate the depth of his artistic practice and the ongoing problem solving he brought to AARON, an AI (artificial intelligence) program he began to develop in the 1970s. Cohen trained as a painter and later built AARON in an effort to simulate the cognitive processes underlying the human act of drawing. Cohen’s talk, “Reflections on designing and building Aaron” traced the program’s development and his focus on how to derive work from both the experience of seeing and the behavior of the cognitive system itself. Cohen says he was amazingly successful for two reasons: First, and to oversimplify, at some point he realized that he wasn’t interested in rendering superficial surfaces through his programs but needed to build up a database of internal points. In other words, if he wanted to render a body he needed to look inside the body not on its surface. With the database of various internal points he could thus turn it and model movements in a way that successfully simulated our anatomical movements. Second, he decided that if you build something yourself you understand it in a way you don’t if others build it. His success didn’t depend on pre-packaged materials or transposing drawings into a digital device. Instead he opted to learn to program himself. Over the years he adapted his programs based on the results he achieved.

His talk, although too short, showed a unique and creative approach to problem solving, one that felt surprisingly more artistic than mechanical as he described his process. What I found particularly appealing was the way Cohen’s coupling of random variations with some general selection features brought to mind Gerald Edelman’s “Neural Darwinism” theory of consciousness. Edelman, a neuroscientist, proposed this theory in the 1980s in an effort to account for our uniqueness as well as both our developmental and experimental processes.  Edelman’s goal was to build a model that was biologically (rather than computationally) driven, one that could incorporate how we alter our cognitive responses based on what we know/discover. Cohen’s AARON seemed to fit (and function) according to the criteria remarkably well. Because Cohen had some problems with his slides that made the talk even shorter, I supplemented his presentation with a lecture he gave at ASU, “Collaborations with My Other Self,” see http://fosters.oscr.arizona.edu/sista/1DBD9444-1462-4F5B-919E-05917CEF76E9-800kbps.mov. I highly recommend others watch it and appreciate all he has done. I was sorry that I failed to ask him if others can (or will) continue to fine-tune the program once he is no longer able to work on it.

Deborah Aschheim was another who presented a creative and stimulating perspective. She, too, is an artist, primarily known for her large-scale immersive installations, sculptures and drawings. For the past ten years, she has been trying to understand and visualize memory, a subject that has led her to collaborate with musicians and neuroscientists. Aschheim premiered two videos and showed several of her large-scale immersive installations, sculptures and drawings based on invisible worlds of memory and information and work from her time as a visiting artist at the Memory and Aging Center (MAC) in the Department of Neurology at UCSF. This art included an eye tracking sculpture and an EEG network. I was not at all surprised that she said the doctors were generous with their time and she learned much. Indeed, I’ve always thought that the visual practices of art and medicine are intertwined and history also confirms that doctors practice and are interested in art.

Seeing slides of her art in the hospital setting reminded of Richard Cork’s recent book, The Healing Presence of Art
(Cork 2012) as well as the two recently released The Fine Arts, Neurology, and Neuroscience volumes (Finger et al. 2013a, 2013b). I wish she had mentioned the many connections between art and medicine at the conference, although this omission didn’t make her talk any less compelling. Cork’s book, for example, looks at several Western masterpieces in hospitals, including a painting that Piero della Francesca made for a hospital in Sansepolcro, Hans Memling’s hospital murals in Bruges, Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, El Greco’s compelling work in Toledo, Rembrandt in Amsterdam, William Hogarth in London, Vincent van Gogh in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and Marc Chagall in Jerusalem. The two Fine Arts, Neurology, and Neuroscience volumes cover everything from creativity in general to doctors who were also artists.

Aschheim’s work on memory really struck a chord. She came at this from two directions. On the one hand, she realized that it didn’t bother her at all that she had no memory of her life between 0-3 years old. But, on the other hand, her family’s fairly pronounced history of dementia was an upsetting reality. As she began to witness her relatives gradually lose memories, language and their selves she created projects that allowed her to explore her own “forgotten” history and to undo the erasure she saw in her relatives.  Creatively using photographs, films and other artifacts the family had collected over the years allowed her to see her early years and to recreate her relatives in their healthy, younger forms. One extraordinary example was a film of her interacting with herself in the mirror when she was young. She recovered this active, younger version of herself from films her father made when she was a toddler. She also introduced her Aunt DeeDee, a former editor who, with aphasia, lost her ability to create sentences and eventually lost all words.

I, too, have been thinking about memory lately and Aschheim’s work fed into some of these thoughts, so it was quite timely. I had been thinking that we don’t really know where in the brain our memories are stored. Seeing how she successfully integrated memories into her art with traces from the past recorded on technological devices offered an interesting parallel. Given the recent emphasis on visual thinking, I’m not certain if schools still teach that the value of writing was that it allowed us to store things offline, so to speak.  Now, we use our technological tools to record even more. I sometimes wonder if the devices are as stable as our written words because they become obsolete. On the one hand, will her grandchildren be able to watch her videos or will the devices become outdated? On the other hand, I don’t know what any of this means, but the circularity of writing, memory, and history is on my mind and her talk offered some new creative and artistic ruminations that I can add to my musings.

Peter Wells also gave an amazing talk that in effect dealt with these very questions, although his ruminations were more implicit than explicit. He was exploring the material culture before the development of written language in Early Europe. Wells characterized his presentation as a work in progress and I don’t believe it even had a title. None of the materials about the conference included a title for his talk and I know that he didn’t begin with a title slide because he mentioned that he was the only one to open his talk with an image and no text. Wells, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, studies later prehistoric Europe, especially the Bronze and Iron Ages and the Roman Period. The talk briefly touched upon the complex histories of preliterate society and the role of visuality in the Bronze and Iron Ages. While he did a particularly good job in framing how different life was then as compared to now, when it was over I wished I had asked if his generic overview had thoughts on the individuals within these cultures.  He did point out that, unlike our world where it is hard to escape images, there was significantly less to occupy one’s visual space when many people owned little and had little ornamentation in their lives. Yet, it seems he overstated the cultural embellishments we add to our lives when making this statement. One only has to go for a walk in the country to realize just how dizzyingly rich the natural visual environment is! He also asked what writing does to a culture and argued that what we have seen determines how we see things and with our shortened attention spans we do not communicate the same way as people would in an oral culture.

One element that has stayed with me is that Wells used very few words on his slides. It was clear that this was to emphasize the power of images, the kinds of systems of communication that writing replaced and to ask how can we interpret the images, designs, and signs that people used to communicate and store information in pre-literate contexts. He did include a ruler in one of his last slides to allow the audience to understand that what we were seeing was not the huge pot on the screen, but a projection of a much smaller object. I wondered if I should consider the ruler a visual notation or something else, since clearly my mind was using the measuring device to rescale the image. Part of the reason I wrestled with what the abstract rescaling of the image meant was that Johanna Drucker had opened the event with a quotation of the mathematician René Thom, who once asserted that knowledge could only be represented in two systems, textual and numerical. She then went on to say that she wondered if he had deliberately excluded visual expressions and visual notations (visual arts and visual languages) because visual languages are too unstable, too broad, and too ungovernable. After asking if they were excluded because they cannot be trusted she explained that she thought that their very messiness was a virtue in her mind. Thus the question of whether the ruler was a visual or an abstract notation. Perhaps it is both!

Overall, the excellent presentations from Johanna Drucker (the convener), Francis Steen, Aude Oliva, Derek Hodgson, Harold Cohen, Deborah Aschheim, Cristina Grasseni, Ellen Lupton, Alan M. MacEachren, Marcos Nadal, William Seeley, Line Cecilie Engh, Aaron Marcus, Colin Ware, and Peter Wells offered an opportunity to re-think ideas, re-visit previous research interests, consider how people strategize as they continually re-develop their research/practice programs, and to simply marvel at how broad visual modalities are when coupled with one another. As a visual thinker, I was surprised to find that the conference reinforced my sense of the value of words as well as my appreciation for the visual. One reason for this was that some speakers tried to present too much information in their slides and talks. Since more often than not the excess was due to too many words, I suppose a logical response would be to minimize the value of language as a communication tool. In my case, I felt that because I couldn’t absorb all that was jammed into the twenty minutes I was glad I could turn to well-thought-out publications as an alternative. Similarly, when others briefly mentioned aspects of their work I was again glad that I could also explore both visual and written publications. I also found some of the visual strategies reminded me of the value in pairing a visual epistemology with critical thinking. This was a thought that came up during several of the talks that emphasized our knowledge of how visual processes operate can allow us to manipulate behavior.

At the end, one woman who is a theater director spoke. She said the kinds of designs she constructs and this kind of immersive environment was not discussed at the event. It was the end of the conference and I was sorry I was too tired to take careful notes of all she said for a number of reasons.  During the conference, my mind kept coming back to Plato, who was an artist himself and yet banned the artists from the Republic.  He not only spoke of “an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (Republic 607b) but also, and often, presented conflicting views on both knowledge and learning, in particular by using visuality and metaphors to convey his points, as in the metaphor of light projecting into a cave. What we often forget is that many of his works show he was rebelling against an oral tradition that he believed used mnemonic and imagistic devices to manipulate minds. For all the flaws in his philosophy, he was advocating for people to think independently and riling against the Homeric oral tradition that educated people through a hypnotic use of language that facilitated them in embedding cultural norms in their mind as them learned/memorized the imagistic poetry. Ironically, his banning of the poets from the Republic was also a response to the way the tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides), like the Homeric tradition, manipulated minds. Their art didn’t foster memorization of cultural norms so much as it manipulated people’s feelings and passions, often raising questions outside of the cultural norms in the process. Plato’s concern with the way images can mislead us and the ways words can manipulate our minds us has resurfaced for some in the dizzying array of images today.  Yet, many of our arguments and how we position the issues have significantly changed, as the theater director’s words showed. Clearly, the challenges embedded in knowledge production, imagery, and visuality have evolved over time and yet still remain with us. Since I ended up appreciating the kinds of abstract thoughts we find in written materials, visuality, and the artistic practices of participants, I think it would be great if these high quality and diverse papers are published. The composite would provide a useful book for those of us who seek diverse perspectives on seeing, knowing, vision, knowledge, cognition and aesthetics.


Cork, Richard. 2012. The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospitals. New Haven CT; London: Yale University Press.

Finger, Stanley, et al. 2013a. The Fine Arts, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Volume 203: Neuro-Historical Dimensions (Progress in Brain Research). Oxford: Elsevier Science.

Finger, Stanley, et al. 2013b. The Fine Arts, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Volume 204: New Discoveries and Changing Landscapes (Progress in Brain Research). Oxford: Elsevier.

Plato. 2005. The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the Letters (Bollingen Series LXXI), Bollingen series. New York: Pantheon Books.



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