As part of a new series of blogs, each member of AXNS has been asked to write about why they are interested in art/science crossovers and their motivations for being in AXNS. This week, it’s the turn of art curator Rachel Stratton.
‘The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely.’
Amiri Baraka, poet
‘Raising Consciousness’. That is where I begin this blog post because that more or less sums up my interest in art and science intersections. Bold statement though it may be, I am of the view that art is both a product of consciousness and has the ability to shift our sense of self. It is, in my view, part of an innate human desire to objectify the self and have it reflected back at us. Art and consciousness are part of a continual feedback loop. At least that is how I regard it.
It seems only natural to me then, that art should be paired with neuroscience and psychology, for it is just another route of inquiry into what makes us conscious beings. Quite rightly, scientific investigation must be reductionist, whereas art has free reign to explore the interrelated phenomena, blurred boundaries and murky grey areas that arise in the actual experience of being. Consequently they have a lot to gain from engaging with one another.
I have been a member of AXNS since its conception in 2012 and in that time I have come to realise that the work being done at the intersection between art, neuroscience and technology is both some of the most fascinating and also complex. There is a wealth of different ways that these vast fields coincide and one never stops trying to navigate through the maze. We are witnessing an age in which neuroscience, art/design, robotics and the digital are coming together in extraordinary ways that are plummeting us into new and undiscovered territories. I feel privileged to be part of a collective that brings these ideas into the public realm. However, as is often the case with rapid advances, there are negative impacts also. Art also has a duty to be critical of the dangers of scientific advancement: the manipulative use of psychology, for instance, or the abuse of Artificial Intelligence for private or warmongering interests.
These conflicting thoughts are partially what brought me to the topic of my PhD research on modern science and mathematics in British art and in the 1950s. I became interested in the immediate post-war decade because different disciplines and fields of research were genuinely talking to one other with the hope that inter-disciplinarity was the means to a better society. And yet the very same scientific advancements that artists hailed for revealing ‘new realities’ at the atomic and cosmological levels were also fuelling the Cold War and the very real threat of mass destruction at the hands of nuclear weaponry. For the young generation of technologically and scientifically savvy artists, designers, critics and architects, their practices became a means of unpacking these complex dynamics and re-appropriating science and technology for the people, reasserting the place of humanity and subjectivity in amongst these warring regimes. The intersection of science and art, therefore, had a deeply social purpose.
As Mark Twain wrote, ‘history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.’ I enjoy being in AXNS because I think we are living through a very similar phenomenon. Great things are happening in neuroscience and psychology, it is a more exciting time than ever to be involved in the field (even as a hopeless amateur). It is an exciting period for art too. Art has been liberated from all material constraints and the tools at the artist’s disposal are vast. However, now more than ever small, non-corporate enterprises with no commercial affiliation like AXNS are important in this growing area. They are required to maintain a critical voice where it is needed, to challenge and expose areas where neuroscience, psychology and technology become tools for power and to reassert the place of human consciousness among all of this.
Image: Nigel Henderson, Photogram to suggest microscopic life, 1949