Art, psychology or empty room?

gallery_space_recall_image.jpgI arrived in Cardiff on Friday to give a talk with artist Simon Pope on our art / science collaboration Walking Here and There to find the exhibition made the front page of the South Wales Echo with the headline “It’s an empty room… So why on earth do they think it is art?”.

The exhibition, entitled ‘Gallery Space Recall‘, is indeed an empty gallery, with nothing but the words ‘You are invited to recall from memory a walk through a gallery space’ written on the wall.

The only other component is that we’ve trained the gallery assistants to use a few psychological techniques to encourage people to expand on the impact and significance of their memories while they take visitors around the gallery. Vistors are encouraged to recall a previous gallery space they’ve visited, as if their remembered exhibition were in the space of Chapter Arts Centre.

With all credit to Simon, while the work is part of Walking Here and There, the wonderful idea for this part was all his.

The exhibition aims to highlight the role of memory and location in how we understand and appreciate art, and relate to our environment.

Artists aim to convey meaning with their work, communicating concepts and invoking ideas in new and challenging ways. However, psychology and neuroscience has known for over a century that meaning is something which is constructed and reconstructed by the mind and brain (Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts‘ experiment is a famous example).

baby_gallery_space_recall.jpgThe perception of everything from the simple visual world to complexity of visual art is directly dependent on our past experience. This is known as ‘top-down’ processing [pdf], and is obvious in the brain where the visual system is massively connected to memory areas.

Also, the personal significance of art depends on your memories. A piece might invoke strong emotions because it connects with past experiences, in turn making it more memorable, as emotionally arousing events are recalled better than others.

So where does the meaning in art actually lie? In the object itself, or in your interpretation of it?

Gallery Space Recall removes the object and relies entirely on your memory. So where does the art exist here? In the visitor’s mind? In a past gallery recalled by the visitor? In the mind of the gallery assistant who is listening to the visitor reminisce? In Simon’s idea? Or, perhaps, all of them?

This is exactly where Simon’s work and my work overlap, as we’re both interested in how memory and its distortions affect our understanding of the world.

It’s interesting that none of the artists interviewed for the outraged South Wales Echo article actually objected to the idea (in fact, they seemed to quite like it), but just to the fact that an empty gallery got funded.

gallery_space_recall_conversation.jpgI think we can confidently say that this is the cheapest exhibition that the gallery has ever put on, actually leaving more money for other artists. Consequently, it’s probably the cheapest publicity they’ve ever had too.

Further stages of the collaboration look at how the breakdown of memory, in delusions and psychosis, highlight the importance of remembering in our perception of reality.

The slides from the talk are online [powerpoint format] if you want more information, or keep tabs on the Walking Here and There website to see how the project progresses.

We’ll also be discussing the project at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, this Wednesday at 4pm (details here) and the exhibition is on until November 5th.

Link to Walking Here and There website.
Link to description of Gallery Space Recall.
Link to photos of opening.
Link to ‘Art? Or just an empty room?’ from the South Wales Echo.
ppt file of powerpoint slides from gallery talk.

SfN special edition of Synapse

neurocontrarian_sfn_photo.jpgFor those wanting to catch the vibe from the recently ended 2006 Society for Neuroscience annual conference in Atlanta, the latest edition of The Synpase psychology and neuroscience writing carnival is an SfN special.

There’s also been some good coverage on reanimated Nature Neuroscience blog Action Potential if you want an alternative slant on proceedings, and some photos of the event have been put online by Neurocontrarian.

2006-10-20 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


Cooking with sleeping pill Ambien!

ABC Radio’s science show Ockham’s Razor compares behaviour across the animal kingdom and asks ‘What counts as intelligence?’

New Scientist reports on a wonderfully designed study suggesting that facial expressions might be inherited to some degree.

Apparently, I am not pictured smoking a large reefer on mental health blog The Trouble with Spikol.

A correlation between TV watching and autism causes a stir. Original paper here.

Was Agatha Christie’s previously unexplained temporary disappearance due to a ‘fugue state’? A rare memory disorder.

The Guardian looks at recent research suggesting a link between omega-3 intake and violence.

The New York Review of Books has philosopher John Searle reviewing Humphrey’s “Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness”.

New Scientist reports that the initial trials for gene therapy reduces Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

“Psychological harm is not a disease of the mind”

When the law and the mind come together…

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith appeared on the Today programme this morning, promoting his call for a new law to be introduced to punish people who drive their partners to suicide. He says the current 1861 Offence Against the Person Act is inadequate because it requires a retrospective diagnosis of psychiatric illness in the person who killed themselves.

Enter criminal barrister John Cooper who believes the current Act works perfectly well. He says the law already states that psychiatric harm is assault. He explains:

“It’s very difficult to prove psychological harm. Psychological harm is not a disease of the mind. A psychiatric condition is a disease of the mind. But the law has to have clarity in this respect. We can section people under a mental health order. We can say a person is unfit to plead if they are psychiatrically troubled. That’s because we can prove it by a disease of the mind. It all gets very woolly when we bring in psychology”.

Well that’s cleared that up then.

Link to audio file of the discussion.


brains_rule_logo.jpgBrainsRule! is a neuroscience website for kids.

It’s along the lines of the University of Washington’s Neuroscience for Kids but focuses more on interactivity and has sections for teachers and professionals.

There’s plenty of great resources there, although the talking brain on the front page is a little bit disturbing. Maybe it’s the lipstick which does it.

You can even get neuroscience merchandise (some of it for free) including a BrainsRule lunch bag!

Link to BrainsRule! website.

Reclaiming imagination: art, psychosis and creativity

dysart_starry_night_image.jpgABC Radio’s All in the Mind has just broadcast a panel discussion on psychosis and creativity by three artists who have had their own experience of altered states.

The discussion was part of an exhibition and conference entitled ‘For Matthew and Others: Journeys with Schizophrenia’ that is being held at the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales and includes a number of artists influenced by schizophrenia.

The panel consisted of artists James de Blas, Simon Champ and Martin Sharp, the latter famous for a number of landmark psychedelic album covers from the 60s and illustrations for the notorious Oz magazine.

They cover a wide range of topics, and largely avoid the hackneyed discussion about whether madness and genius and different sides of the same coin, and don’t always agree on mental influences on the creative process.

Link to audio and transcript of ‘Reclaiming imagination: art, psychosis and the creative mind’.