Between Neuroscience and the Arts: Where Is the Body?

IWMPost Article

The technological oculo-centric design of daily mundanity has placed the brain far from embodiment and self-awareness. Consequently, the conversation between neuroscience and contemporary art forgets the nervous body. The excluded bodily innervations and sensations that allow us to explore embodiment and self-awareness are neglected to give attention to the brain.

In the evolving landscape of collaboration between contemporary art and neuroscience, the human brain has gained a prime position. The cerebrum becomes for artists a gateway to access the unconsciousness and to develop unexpected forms from our brain waves. It remains the center of investigation for neuroscientists and technicians trying to find new correlations and to explore what visual arts can show of how we think.

Over the past decade, perhaps no other bodily apparatus has been dissected, extrapolated, and turned inside out as extensively as the human brain. In terms of surgery and of philosophy, the brain has moved from structuralism, and a computer-like approach, to being understood as a complex organ, always reshaping itself through the process of neuroplasticity, as Gerald Edelman proclaimed.

The brain’s encounter with art focuses on the certainties of neuroscience, considering hormones part of the brain or focusing on its behavior during sleep or intense activities. The production of visual or sound outcomes evolves into artwork that first stimulates the eyes and the ears, as the first organs to be impacted. And even when the brain is not present, such as in The Brain Without Organs (2022) by Warren Neidich, the output is rather a visual and moving installation. The brain locked in its skull in darkness becomes political and is yet always concerned with what happens above the neck.

In the collaborative realm of neuroscience and art, where the matter and systems of the brain converge with curated gallery spaces, there is a conspicuous absence of the body. The intelligent system of movements and known behaviors often becomes a vessel for the enigmatic network inside our cranium. However, the wonders of our brain and its perceptions are entangled with our body; the lace of its linked synapses with our organs and the rest of the body is complex and rich.

The efficiency and speed of the nervous system to communicate goes beyond the connections in the head; it is extended to all our body. Explained by Antonio Damasio in his Human Brains Discussions talk (2020) for the Prada Foundation, the speed of information running between skin, heart, guts, and intestine is faster than with the brain. The whole body processes and comprehends emotions before they are elaborated in the brain, thanks to the peripheral nervous system.

Why then does the collaboration between the art practices and neuroscience focus mostly on the brain, forgetting the nervous body?

There is no correct answer to this question, but this possibly correlates with the fascination for the visual world and the mysteries of our perceptual capacities, all symbolized by the brain as a conceptual organ. The allure might also relate to the novelty of neuroscientific discoveries on human behavior, neuroplasticity, diseases, and the brain’s response to stimuli and their elaboration. New technology such magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalograms (EEG)enable exploring a particular brain segment, and can inspire the artist to explore and exploit.

Our oculo-centric society has discovered the apparatus behind the eyes, providing product designers and contemporary artists with a discipline to investigate for aesthetic and functional purposes. It is the pursuit of the beautiful, the useful, and the intelligent. Yet, perhaps something essential has been overlooked in this quest for neuro-centric perfection.

Within this neuro-centric perspective, the brain is often reduced to a simplistic black box, failing to encapsulate the true intricacies of the nervous system. In the uncharted territory of unconsciousness and bodily responses, the artist Pierre Huyghe has emerged as a provocateur, posing profound questions about the abstract space of the mind. Rather than delving into the Cartesian mind-brain dualist vision, his work UUmwelt (2018) at the Serpentine Gallery in London concentrates on shaping and visualizing possibilities by translating brain waves into shapeless being.

This relates to the body by creating and intertwining nervous fibers, organs, muscles, and the cerebellum into relatable beings that are far from human, but still represent something visceral and primordial. And yet, a proper inquisition of the body is still missing.

Another poignant example of the brain’s material presence in art and research is found in Neidich’s concept and artwork The Brain Without Organs as the installation concerns the dismantling of the brain, the synapses represented by decomposed LED lights, and a mirror with words mentioned often as concepts and findings in neuroscience. The cerebellum is absent but this piece constantly alludes to the pink and grey, wet organ that is so central to our existence.

What becomes readily apparent is the ease with which we can externalize the sensations of our bodies. Through putting on a cap with electrodes (EEG), we can get a feel for how our body relates to brain activity, exploring a direct connection between the external and internal realms of our consciousness. As consciousness resides only in the brain, does it not?

The embodied carnal approach to the collaboration between neuroscience and art today leaves a gap in considering the complexities of the nervous system underneath the neck.

Future exploratory artistic practices could include the comprehension and awareness of the active participation of the sensitive body, accompanied by its sensorial and regulatory capacities such as interoception and proprioception. The perceptual and responsive nervous matter of the body should become part of the neuro-artistic collaboration to delve further into the liminal spaces of awareness of movements and embodiment.

Delving into the essence of what existed before these technological marvels raises questions about the symbiotic relationship between the body, the skin, and new technologies. Here, we could delve into the depths of nervous myelinations with the body as our guide. But is it merely about observation, thinking, and feeling?

After reflecting on the past Ars Electronica festival, one is left pondering the role of the artist. What should they do in the spaces between the brain and the audience? Installations frequently offer journeys into the mind, navigating the dreamscape and decoding the mysteries of the unconscious. Often Brain Computer Interface artistic production is concerned with making the encounter between the different brain and audience agency into a visual meaningful outcome; however, little space is left for questions and poetical uncertainties. In this exploration, the body often seems to be overshadowed.

In Huyghe’s Uumwelt the body assumes a tangible form for participation, shaping thoughts and collaborating with artificial intelligence. While the human form is not absent, the intelligence of the body and its vital role in shaping our thought processes are frequently overlooked.

As we delve deeper into the realm of thought, we must question whether we have forsaken not generally the rest of the body but specifically touch and its sensory organs in favour of pure mental contemplation. Has the nervous body been pushed aside to make way for the dominion of the brain?

The issue at hand is that, as the brain enters its uncanny world, it severs the vital links that connect the corporeal and the ecological. In the triad of vision, brain, and technology, the body is often remembered and referenced but forgotten when it comes to understanding its sensations and thoughts.

In the ever-evolving exploration of the intersection between art, neuroscience, and self-awareness, the artist’s body emerges as a crucial component. It beckons us to reconsider the boundaries between the mind and the body, inviting us to bridge the gap between them and to acknowledge the profound connection that shapes our existence.

Gerald M. Edelman, Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (Yale University Press, 2005)

Marika Grasso is an artist, lecturer, and PhD candidate in art and design at Sheffield Hallam University, funded by Lab4Living. She was a digital humanism visiting fellow at IWM in 2023.