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Embodied and Embedded Visions

The Nineteenth Annual Conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts– SLSA
Chicago, IL, November 10-13, 2005

Reviewed by Simone Osthoff

With the title Emergent Systems, Cognitive Environments, the SLSA 2005 conference brought together this past fall in Chicago about 260 participants among scientists, artists, and scholars. Organized by Joseph Tabbi of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the conference plenary speaker was Dr. Gerald Edelman, a neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner. The keynote artists were Eduardo Kac, Warren Neidich, Allison Hunter, Eve Andrée Laramée, Daniel Wenk, and Zane Berzina. Among prominent critics were Cary Wolfe, Barbara Stafford, Katherine Hayles, Linda Dalrymple Henderson, and W.J.T. Mitchell.

Beyond the panel presentations which ran on seven parallel streams, the conference converged in three large forums: The first was the Friday evening plenary in which Dr. Gerald Edelman delivered an engaging and informative lecture about the relations between the brain and the mind with poignant philosophical insights and witty jokes. The second large event of the conference was the Cognitive Forum on Saturday afternoon in which the different perspectives on the conference’s themes came together in a panel discussion that included most of the SLSA 2005 plenary speakers. The third all-inclusive event was the Saturday evening plenary with an exchange between keynote artist Eduardo Kac and scholar/theorist Cary Wolfe.

The plenary lecture by Dr. Edelman reaffirmed the multidisciplinary nature of the conference by probing questions such as "What is the basis of perception? How does memory work? Can we account for consciousness by analyzing brain function?" Dr. Edelman examined the relationship between biology and psychology, between the brain and the mind, matter and imagination, as they are shaped by, and respond to different environmental systems–"the brain is embodied and the body is embedded."

A wide variety of artistic explorations and theorization revolved around the concepts of sensation, perception, and memory (no longer in the sense of a Freudian idea of perceptual memory, stored and waiting to be dug). Themes in the visual arts ranged from more traditional tropes also shared with literature, such as notions of the double, shadows, alter-egos, and other surrogate selves, to perceptual questions about vision and visualization, in which themes of fragmentation and embodied and disembodied vision were never far apart. Among such explorations were the psychopharmacologies of the brain–from consciousness altering drugs to depression, disease, exhaustion, and the body’s response to the environment–the visualization of travels within the mind and the body, as well as the transformative power of new materials and optical technologies. The invisible aspects of these technologies were also present, in examinations of network ecologies, biotechnology, and nanobots, as well as their relationships to the brain, the mind, and the environment.

Amongst the sections that explored a pharmacology of the mind, was "Psychedelic Science" organized by Richard Doyle, which addressed expanded states of consciousness and their visualization. Doyle described psychedelic experiences with ayahuasca, an hallucinogenic brew from the Amazon region, asking "how to do psychedelic science? What would the institute of psychedelic science be like?" Observing that the theme, despite at least 150 years of literature on psychedelic experience of altered states and expanded cognitive capacities, continues to be difficult to explore, because the subject is still persecuted, illegal, and taboo, he examined the differences between drugs and medicine in how a drug connects the brain in the process by telling the mind how to heal. Other presenters in the panel such as Diana Slattery and Robert Yarber offered a rich variety of examples and approaches to visualization of ecstatic experiences.

Also exploring body-mind connections, yet extending its metaphors to the social-political body, was W.J.T. Mitchell’s section "Inside and Outside the Body" in which he discussed the immune system (the virus and defense mechanisms remembers and recognizes a foreign body) and of the nervous system (the media as the global nervous system) in terms of social and political-military analogies. In this panel Kiki Benzon presented the paper "Psychopharmacology and the brain" examining relationships between psychiatric disorders and creativity–"artists work to get out of hell." Using quantitative and qualitative data she examined liminal states between the social and the biological while addressing questions such as: Is depression a scopic regime? How do drugs affect what is produced by artists?

Artist and visual theorist Warren Neidich, who organized the Neuroaesthetics conference in London in May 2005, presented a section with art historian and critic Barbara Maria Stafford. Neidich brings attention to how photography, film, and the mass media implicate consciousness and conceptions of history, while also incite new artistic experimentation. Neidich coined the term neuroaesthetics in 1995 and has been exploring the areas of neuroscience in his photographs and video work since then. The combination of knowledge of neurobiology with art is rare and for Neidich it has been a very productive one, both aesthetically and theoretically. Observing how our
mutating, dynamic and changing world sculpts the brain, "as the world changes so to does the neurobiological architecture," he also pointed to the ethical dimensions of art mentioning the possibility of creative revolutions and of a new sense of self shaped out of networks of texts/images. For him, the importance of art in larger bio-political contexts should not be overlooked.

In dialogue with Neidich’s discussion of the disjunction and the instability of cognition (against the artificiality of smooth narrative constructs), Barbara Stafford argued that theories of representation and narrative need to be rethought in terms of episodic manuevering. In opposition to the smoothing of cinematic narrative, for instance, she proposed the tradition of the mosaic and of the emblem, which brings discrete elements together, also highlighting the history of caricature, especially in the work of Daumier, but also in Seurat’s compositions, Hannah Hoch’s collages, and in Goya’s Caprichos (concealed images within the prints’ shadow patterns). From the audience Joe Tabbi observed that cognitive theory is comfortable with the notions of unity and variety in ways that literature is not, often creating a sense of self out of fragments. Also from the audience, W.J.T. Mitchell pointed to the connection between caricature and stereotypes and the discussion that followed explored issues of collective memory, social and collective cognition in response to the question: how does one work across the individual and the collective?

Among the many questions raised throughout the three-day conference were those concerning the history of art, and in particular of the history of art since the 1960s. An example was "The House of Dust: Origins of Computer Music, Poetry and Art" organized by Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn. This section brought together two generations of artists and scholars. The artists, James Tenney and Alison Knowles were among the first to work with computers in the early 1960s in New York. Tenney and Knowles talked about serendipity, synchronicity and the openness to explore uncharted territory during the period between 1958 and 1962, which emphasized a collective creativity lead by the example of John Cage and other counterculture artists who valued collaborations, communities, mail art, Fluxus intermedia practices, friendship and networks operating outside financial and profit interests. This panel combined the witness testimony of oral history with scholarly analysis grounded in poststructuralist theory.

The large Cognitive Forum on Saturday afternoon included besides the conference host Joseph Tabbi, Dr. Gerald Edelman, scholars Barbara Maria Stafford, Cary Wolfe, Katherine Hayles, and artists Warren Neidich, Alison Knowles and James Tenney. Joe Tabbi began the session with a brief overview of the themes cognition and emergence pointing to the convergences and possible contentions in the conference up to that point. Given the caliber of the panel, the interest of the colleagues in the audience, and the urgency of the multiple questions, the forum discussion could have easily continued for the rest of the afternoon.

The last large forum was the Saturday evening plenary in which keynotes Eduardo Kac and Cary Wolf explored the challenges and complexities posed by non-human forms of life in different experiences and modalities of perception. With witty, humor, and a lively performance Kac examined the creation of his GFP Bunny project along with the global media controversy generated by its reception, while Wolfe delivered an in-depth analysis of Kac’s works making reference to further transgenic and telepresence works by the artist.

Examining particular representational strategies and ethical positions in contemporary art in relation to animals, Wolfe contrasted Kac’s work to that of graphic artist Sue Coe, as polar opposite approaches to the use of animals in art. For Wolfe, Kac interferes into the natural world and displaces the human point of view. Coe uses more traditional and direct media such as drawing and prints to expose, as a witness, the abusive and often grotesque relations between humans and non-human animals. Kac’s work is difficult to locate since the artist undermines scopic habits emphasizing the irreducibility of visual works to their perception. Wolfe observed that Kac employs a digital visibility/invisibility in very savvy strategies that have not been picked up by art criticism. Further contrast was made in relation to Sue Coe’s ethical positions, which are stated in visible images, as opposed to the complex network topology, which Kac explores. "Where is the network?" Wolfe asked. Kac can’t show viewers everything. He does not present new forms of visuality but a decentered vision submitted to a new logic. His ecologies displace the human point of view as he explores new relations between vision and meaning. Kac’s complex telepresence networks such as Rara Avis (in an aviary, 1996) and Darker Than Night (in a bat cave, 1999) introduces sounds from human viewers into the animal’s environment. The media employed is less under control and involves multiple participants among humans, animals, plants and machines. Another example given by Wolf was Kac’s Time Capsule (1997) a media spectacle in which the visual is everywhere and the meaning not there. According to Wolfe, the work is to be found in no place, the viewer can’t see it. Quoting Derrida, he observed that the invisible is not the opposite of the visible and that Kac has made a spectacle of our prosthesis: the harder you look the less you see–"the meaning of the work is everywhere but in the work."

The relevance and depth of the research presented as well as the high level of energy and collegiality throughout the conference were remarkable. Being new to SLSA, I found it certainly one of the most intimate and productive conferences I have participated in. For two decades the SLSA has provided a core community for interdisciplinary science studies and has created a reputation for discussions of works in progress. I only wished the richness of these multidisciplinary dialogues would reach beyond the mainstream academic community of expert scholars, artists, and scientists, as a way to revitalize public knowledge and public media.
The Society meets annually in the USA (Autumn) and, since 2000, biannually in a European country (Spring). The upcoming 4th European SLSA meeting will take place between June 13 and 16 in Amsterdam.



Updated 1st February 2006

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