materia: a dialog between an artist and neuroscientist
A conversation between artist (Greg Lindquist) and neuroscientist (Nicolas Preitner) about thought processes and creating
Greg Lindquist (GL): Has there been any studies that you are aware of that have explored the role of neurological processes in the decision-making process of design or art making?
Nicolas Preitner (NP): This is an extremely vast and actively studied question. A central component of the creative process is the discovery of novel solutions, novel orderly relationships, and this may require communication between regions of the brain that are usually not strongly connected. Not everyone is equal at this task. An intriguing study shows that when you put people in front of a screen with just image noise and no real pattern, some people—let’s call them “the creatives”— often believe that the image contains distinct patterns such as faces or objects, while others (the “skeptics”) rightfully just see noise. However if you now introduce actual (faint) patterns in this noise, the “creatives” are very successful at seeing these existing patterns while the “skeptics” often miss them.
Creative people are highly receptive to new patterns that others tend to ignore. One of the main actions of the brain is to constantly filter information and ideas that the brain itself generates or that come from the environment. Filtering information is important to be able to focus on specific ideas but can be inhibitory when exploring new possibilities. There is an accumulation of studies showing that people with no history of artistic production or talent acquired new artistic abilities following the degeneration of their left temportal lobe (frontotemporal dementia), perhaps because the deterioration of the left side of their brain disinhibited the right -more creative- side of their brain.
GL: I’m curious– in the study of “the creatives” seeing patterns in static– is there a relationship/similarity to Rorschach studies there? And from certain perspectives, could that be seen as delusional behavior or a misperception, like a hallucination?
NP: It is indeed tempting to speculate that the creation of patterns out of mere noise could perhaps rely on brain mechanisms that are similar to sensori hallucinations (a perception in the absence of a stimulation). In this regard, it is intringuing that the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is known to stimulate arousal, free associations and artistic creativity, can also provoke hypomania and hallucinations when in excess. In fact, dopamine-like drugs (eg L-dopa) are known to be used among artists to maintain or enhance their artistic creativity.
GL: In the book The Universal Traveler, which discusses creative problem solving, a “problem-solving journey” is outlined: Accept situation, Analyze, Define, Ideate, Select, Implement, Evaluate. Is there any study that might support or refute this creative process?
NP: These steps sound very reasonable to me but I haven’t specifically come across studies that would comment on that.
GL: When we last talked, you mentioned that often during studies researchers found neurological evidence to suggest that patients had made decisions even when they were consciously unaware of the decision or its outcome. Can you talk a little more about this?
NP: Most of the brain processes underlying our actions and decisions are unconscious, much like a computer screen that only displays a small fraction of the computer activity at any given time (there can be programs running in the background without you needing to pay attention to them). While nobody is surprised to hear that the brain remains extremely active when we are unconscious during sleep and dreams, the notion that even awake we are only aware of a small fraction of our brain activity raises questions about how much control we have on our behavior and decisions. In fact, a growing number of provocative studies using brain activity scans (FMRI) indicate that your brain has often made decisions before you are aware of it even when you are convinced that the decision process was a conscious one.
GL: Do you believe this comments on the philosophical debate of free will at all?
NP: The notion of free will has been controversial for millennia among philosophers, in part because of the variety of definitions attributed to this term. In everyday life people often use the term “free will” to describe the decisions we make consciously, without being forced by someone else. We have the capacity to make decisions that can drastically change the path of our lives and this give us the feeling that we have a relative control over our fate. What many neuroscientists and philosophers argue is that these choices are not totally free of constraints. Decision making rely largely on unconscious brain processes and is constrained by the properties of our individual brains (architecture of connections, biochemistry etc) and by our personal experiences.
There is a lot of resistance against the idea that our moral decisions are not entirely free because it undermines the notion of individual responsibility, which is so central in the functioning of our society. If free will doesn’t exist, and our actions are the mere products of genetic, stochastic and environmental factors, how can individuals be held accountable for their actions? In doubt, perhaps the wisest choice for society is to accept its share of responsibility by offering better education and social support to all its individuals.
GL: In doing research about the brain and the mind’s working, is there anything remarkable you’ve learned about the way your own brain works?
NP: One interesting paradox that I have experienced in the process of conceiving and analyzing experiments is that, while emotions and intuitions are essential for creative thinking, they can sometime also limit the exploration of ideas. When having to choose the best approach among many alternatives, your mind sometime ignores or doesn’t consider fairly certain possibilities for reasons much less rational that you would hope. The more complex a choice is, the more you may have to rely on intuition, especially if time is a limiting factor. Unfortunately you may avoid exploring the most powerful strategy because superficially it seems too challenging, or conversely, being somewhat a risk taker, I have sometime preferred high risk-high reward strategies in situations where safer approaches may have eventually gone farter. We all have biases in the way we explore ideas and I found that they can often be avoided by “plugging” several brains together in brainstorming sessions. If you find colleagues you respect and trust, this can work spectacularly well. Individual’s biases cancel each other’s out and the resulting “brain network” is much more powerful. This may sound trivial for professionals in other fields, but academic scientists tend to be very individualistic and become so specialized that they may believe that other people’s opinions cannot be helpful because nobody knows their work as well as they do.
NP: As an outsider, I imagine art as an investigative process (conscious or unconscious), in which the artist observes the world, extracts meaning and esthetic principles, and attempts to communicate them to an audience. Do you relate to this description? Does art have other important functions for you?
GL: Your description is very well articulated and I’d like to expand on the ways in which an artist may communicate. An artist emotes and expresses, I find that extremely important. Also, I believe there is also a cathartic quality to creating, relating experience, whether this experience is emotional, intellectual, physical, or sensory. And an artist assigns aesthetic value to this experience. In addition, making art involves not only the extraction of meaning, but also the re-synthesis of this meaning. It’s a process of constructing and deconstructing, taking things—literally, figuratively, metaphorically— apart and reassembling them, reconfiguring and retranslating. I think of the Greek myth of Prometheus, who, punished for stealing fire, was bound to a rock and an eagle ate his liver by night only for it to regrow by day. But also, I’ve learned for me personally that making art commands the illusion of control. That one has “mastered” a medium, subject matter or content is often simply a perception in the eye of the creator or viewer. Artists struggle both with content and medium in their pursuit of expression. I’d argue that once they gain mastery, it robs a certain challenge from the process. And finally, there is a total, all-consuming obsessiveness to the creative process, the desire of “getting it right” although that certain rightness is in the eye of creator and is constantly changing.
NP: How do you think this process may differ from one artist to another?
GL: Process is fascinating, it involves a series of translations of perceptions, observations, materials. Indeed, each artist’s processes vary, just as much as the products. No one artist’s language is the same, just as every individual has his or her own unique voice, literally and metaphorically. How do they vary? It’s difficult to make a generalization, but the differences are somehow based on each artist’s specific experience, skills, interests and goals that he or she brings to developing an aesthetic vocabulary.
Also, every artist digests external/internal stimuli differently. I find this phenomenon similar to in art school when an entire class is asked to draw the same still life arrangement, but no two drawings are exactly alike. It’s about how every person internalizes and expresses collective experience in different ways. Also, process must be adaptable, elastic, and have an acute awareness—it depends on what one is investigating, on what levels (formal, aesthetic, semantic, art historical, etc)—otherwise the process of making becomes predictable and like an assembly line, a trap which many successful artists fall into in the peak of their careers.
NP: Do you value having specific conscious goals in your artistic work, or do you see it as a more open-ended or intuitive process?
GL: Both. Specific goals may be a specific feeling, character, atmosphere, memory to evoke but the open-ended, intuitive process is how I get to the goal. It’s like having a set of directions (steps/translations/transformations)– sometimes exact, sometimes more vague– and then being open along the way to detours, unreasoned serendipity, remote possibilities, unexpected criticisms. And these specific goals change and evolve in the process. It’s a moment of surprise sometimes to back up from something I’ve done and try to experience it as if for the first time. Like writing, it requires observing (or extracting as you say), organizing this data and then exploring with active awareness and openness through the process and not forcing a conclusion.
NP: Do you have a particular audience in mind when you create a project? Do you intend to reach your peers and the general public equally?
GL: That’s a difficult question. For example, this project is different than my painting practice. Whom am I doing it for? Well, first of all, myself. But also, the venue, Cabinet, hosted the project based on their interests and I’d imagine they have developed their own audience. Funny, I was telling an artist friend about this project and she was immediately intrigued, telling me these subjects are a huge interest of hers.
Who is the audience is something I ask myself sometimes when making work, although it may not be the best thing as it can lead one to feeling trapped in certain well-received subject matters. My earlier work quickly picked up a kind of wistful hometown acceptance and following because it was about Brooklyn, it was accessible and was easily related to. From a certain standpoint, the imagery aestheticized the urban blight and fringe, making it more easily digestible. The recent work attempts a larger conceptual arc in subject matter, addressing the phenomena of architectural decay and entropy rather than assigning it to a specific place. I culled much of my subject matter from the remote town of Rustavi, in the Republic of Georgia, the former Soviet Bloc country.
My mother was one of the first to question the commercial audience of the work: “Who is going to buy images of this far off place, it’s not Brooklyn,” was something of her point. It was a valid concern to take such an abrupt turn in subject matter. It turned out to be a good risk to take, because I felt locked into one way of painting and one location for inspiration. I feared that if the work was not painted on a metallic surface and be about Brooklyn, that it would be ignored and un-sellable. The last exhibition proved that fear completely erroneous.
Who is my audience is a question that I am constantly asking and is constantly changing. Are my peers the friends from the art world, music scene, high school, college, childhood, family? Who is the general public? Collectors, critics, curators– the art world at large? And what about the average person, however that might be defined? The average person in a general American public, I would say, has little education in art history and I wonder: how does that affect their experience and understanding of art. (I get the impression this is different in Europe, but Europeans live in art history.) Also, the art world can be very exclusionary in its narrowing and often biased taste-making tendencies—institutions are run by trustees who, some adamantly believe, generally decide which artists get retrospectives based on which artists’ work is in the trustees’ collections.
A funny thing happened when I was in my gallery last weekend, a collector came in and said, “I can’t enjoy your work, it’s too close to my job– I’m a real estate developer.” I replied: “Funny, because several collectors of my work are developers and connect with my work because of their profession.” Also, my Brooklyn body of work developed a large audience of Italians, several collectors and also some journalists from Milan did a piece about my work. This audience formed curiously not long after spending the summer in Tuscany being obsessed with the work of Italian painters like Piero, Morandi and Tintoretto. Is that simply coincidence? Kindred spirits? Who knows, exactly.
NP: In your opinion, how cross-cultural should be a piece of art? More generally, is it important that a piece of art can be appreciated by people ignoring the background and intentions of an artist?
GL: If by cross-cultural, you mean that it can be understood without a verbal explanation, that the visual language is sufficient enough, that a work can be appreciated without a backstory, then I’d say perhaps that’s a distinguishing characteristic of great art from just good art. Duchamp once famously said, “the viewer completes the work,” suggesting that the backstory or wall text was not as important as what they viewer brings to the work, which becomes a Rorschach or static television screen in some way?
I once asked some critics, for example, whether they read gallery press releases (which by the way are more times than not poorly written). Most critics said that only if they are looking for factual information. I was curious because I had started writing criticism and was interested in learning the process of seasoned critics, ones I admired. One told me after I related how I felt needed to read everything I could about an artist before writing something, that he used to do the same thing and now he doesn’t bother: from the start, he knows exactly what he wants to say, and/or perhaps, the work is resolute and clear enough for him to articulate the ideas he needs to explore in his criticism without looking for something instructing him what to see.
On the other hand, as I was saying before, how much art history/ context does one need to understand in order to appreciate a work of art (or create it, for that matter)? It’s a strange, fascinating thing to imagine the worlds that are centered around their specialities professors, critics and artists live in. In this sense, the art historical world, even in contemporary art, can be just as specialized (and sometimes off-putting) as academia.
Nicolas Preitner obtained his PhD in molecular biology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied how brain clocks control our behavior. He is currently conducting research on brain development and plasticity at Harvard Medical School. He is interested in understanding how connections in the brain are established and remodeled throughout life with the hope that this knowledge will help develop therapies for patients with damaged or degenerating connections.
Greg Lindquist received a dual masters degree in fine arts in painting and art history from Pratt Institute in 2007. He is the 2009-10 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grantee and the Sally & Milton Avery Arts Foundation Grantee for the 2009 Art Omi International Artist Residency. His work has been written about in various publications, including Art in America , ARTNews , Harper’s Magazine , The New York Sun , The New York Observer and The New York Press . Lindquist lives and works in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Lindquist most recent work addressed architectural decay and entropy through an immersive installation of painting and sculpture.
This dialog is available in the form of an artist book and was made for the occasion of Materia, a group exhibtion organized by Suzanne Stroebe and Matthew Wilson from April 20- 24, 2010 at Wilson at Cabinet magazine’s exhibition space, 300 Nevins Street, Brooklyn, NY. The accompanying blog is investigativecollaborations.wordpress.com.
 Here are a few articles summarizing some of these studies