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Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.
Gayil Nalls Ph.D.

Cynthia Pannucci

Probing the common ground of art and science

Cynthia Pannucci Portrait, © 2014 Gayil Nalls

In 1988, the artist Cynthia Pannucci founded Art and Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI), a non-profit organization that gave a community to creators in the blossoming art and technology movement. Twenty-six years later, she remains the director, and ASCI is considered a pioneer of the space where Art and Science meet, often referred to as ArtSci or SciArt. What has emerged is a new culture encompassing a growing number of people that have experienced what Arthur Miller describes as a “coalescence of processes”—a merging of artistic and scientific practices. Speaking about how alike artists and scientists are, Pannucci said, “I do believe the curiosity quotient is so similar and the processes of trial, error, and experimentation…it’s all there.”

Deep in our brains are areas where we experience the emotion of pleasure. It is there, in the orbitofrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens, aided by neurotransmitters such as dopamine, opiates, and cannabibens, that we also have aesthetic experiences. “We evolved our responses to beauty because they were useful for survival,” says neuroscientist Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, the Elliott Professor Chief of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He and Stephen Nowlin, the Director of the Williamson Gallery at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, co-curated The Brain, the 16th annual art-science juried exhibition organized by Art & Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI) at the New York Hall of Science.

At a time when two large-scale research projects using advanced neurotechnologies are underway delivering breakthroughs in our understanding of the human brain, ASCI has mounted this compelling new exhibition of otherwise marginalized works that navigate from what is scientifically known about the brain to engaging us with the unknown. But how did this thought-provoking exhibition come about?

The Brain presents single digital works of 29 artists that blur the boundaries of art and science. The exhibition, however, only serves as a taste of the bigger story. Behind each small image on view, is a potential treasure trove, an extensive and important body of work developed by each artist over the past decades and defines this hybrid field. These works are, for the most part, invisible to the larger art world. To some extent, although engaging, this exhibition is like a symbolic decontextualized poster for the in-depth journeys of these creators. This exhibition is just a touchstone for the magnificence left in the studios. Multimedia installations, moving collages, films, animations, still images, paintings, prints and weavings inspired by the roles different areas of our brains play in thinking, memory, and learning, but also probing sensations, movement and emotion. These artists utilize brain-imaging data to illuminate and provoke questions about the centrality of brain connections and how they shape our lives. Visualization is a big part of science study and the heart of visual arts. Today's advances in brain imaging technologies and other data landscapes are redefining the how we view the nature of creativity, consciousness, and perception.

For example, take the work of Valeriya N-Georg who, in part, creates monotype prints on a layered gel medium. Her work in the show looks only at the Axon, a basic part of the human’s brain structure. Standing in front of the image, she talked to me about the work’s relationship to her larger practice where she explores the area between the physical human body and the invisible human spirit. She explained, “I’m interested in exploring the boundaries between the inner and outer body; between the physical and metaphysical; tangible and intangible, by exploring the tactile and the optical image. My process of printing on layered gel has been born in my experiments and references the gradual peeling of human skin, exposing and suggesting the materiality inside the human body.” When she told me this, I felt I wanted to know and see more, and it was a shame that there wasn’t a more encompassing representation of her explorations.

Should we consider Chatterjee’s posit that aesthetics is a means of survival? That images contain the behavioral narrative of everything we are? A range of advanced brain imaging techniques allows doctors and artists to view activity, processes and neurological maladies of the living brain. It is not surprising that there is aesthetic fascination with the brain. It may be here more than anywhere that science and art have common ground.

With regard to this bridging of art and science, Arthur Miller says in Colliding Worlds, “Its creators are artists and scientists working together to create images and objects of stunning beauty, along the way redefining the very concept of ‘aesthetic’—of what we mean by ‘art’ and, eventually, by ‘science.’”

The various fields must be bridged to solve the problems we face today. Organizations such as ASCI, Brown University, and the Rhode Island School of Design see the overwhelming benefits of art and science integration. They champion evolving the STEM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to include art, turning it into STEAM. ASCI’s achievements have not only helped support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary art and science, their website continues to provide an index of examples of innovative thinking that has benefitted all disciplines.

Pannucci explains, “My favorite works in the exhibition are those that use metaphor. For instance, Roger Ferragalo’s piece envisions the cosmos. There’s a large brain floating in space amongst the planets as if it is the ruling force of this whole cosmic universe. There’s a shining light that comes from the brain onto a primordial sea. Many scientists believe that cosmic dust came to the earth somehow creating life in the oceans. I like his juxtaposition of all of these different images together into this one big cosmic brain.”

Again The Brain exhibition offers only a glimpse into this rich and varied terrain unseen by the public sphere. Organizations like ASCI require more support to mount in-depth, extensive, and nuanced exhibitions that can illuminate the importance of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary artwork. Major contemporary art institutions should be looking here, at the intersection of art and science, for their next big blockbuster. It is in bridging this gap that we may discover the true depth and value of this work. It begins with really looking at the large bodies of work that art-science individuals have created and bringing that work to the public in a substantial way. Now, with rapid advancements of science and technology, an abundance of digital data and images everywhere, we need art-science individuals as guides, interpreters, and creators to lead our evolution into the next era.

To find more information on the artists and artworks from The Brain exhibition, click here:

To see the full interview with Cynthia Pannucci, Finding Digital Common Ground, click here:

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is the author of "The Sensuous Immortal" featured in the book, Rendezvous with the Sensuous: Readings on Aesthetics.

Find her at, @olfacticinkblot and @themassinglab

© 2014 Gayil Nalls

About the Author
Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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