Channeling da Vinci

Experimental Art

An unlikely collaboration draws on the neuroscience of perception.

July 30, 2013

There is a cosmic tension in Rachel Watson’s art. Her inkjet creations — digital images she chemically and manually manipulates — retain as much imagery from the material world as they do diffuse it into the abstract.

Scale, too, adds to the tension. A bleeding pyramid, the inky rendering of a pyrite crystal, according to Watson, hangs just as large on the wall as a cranial nebula (reminiscent of the actual “flaming skull” nebula). Although they both allude to mineral and galactic monuments, closer inspection reveals the caustic toil of deterioration. The materials she uses “work against each other,” she says.

Watson’s projects have always drawn upon scientific images. But in Mindscapes, a show of 12 prints at Silent Barn art space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the connection to science permeates the entire process — or so the theory goes.

This mash up of artistic and scientific methods is equally the brainchild of Trish Mackenzie, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at NYU. Mackenzie studies perception with a focus on hearing and vision. She’s the type of person who will talk about brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to change over time, as if it were a music subgenre. She recommends her favorite researchers — Michael Merzenich and Takao Hensch — as she might recommend bands to check out.

She’s also the type of person willing to turn an artist into a lab rat.

Every day for two weeks, Mackenzie had Watson watch 10-minute videos of rat neurons lighting up before creating her art. “I wanted [the videos] to be integrated into her process,” says Mackenzie, “where she could be inspired by them.” At first, Mackenzie edited the videos, but by the end of the experiment, Watson was watching reels of scientific data, straight, no chaser.

Animal studies by Merzenich and Hensch have shown that both sensory deprivation and overexposure during development, when the brain is putty in the researchers hands, can be corrected for later in life. The brain, they’ve found, can reorganize itself in the face of new stimuli. Mackenzie’s inspiration for the project came out of this idea, known as “perceptual enrichment.”

“We know that [perceptual enrichment] changes the representation of information in the brain,” she says. While Merzenich and Hensch are probing therapeutic applications of this phenomenon, Mackenzie is testing for any artistic applications.

But Mackenzie is more curator than artist. In addition to her research, Mackenzie curates the (Scientific)Abstract Art studio at Silent Barn. So she recruited Watson to translate it for her, based on Watson’s previous work — what Mackenzie refers to as the “control” arm of the experiment. “I loved her art and I loved her process,” Mackenzie says.

Mackenzie sourced the perceptual enrichment training she gave Watson from a different area of neuroscience, a recently published paper in the journal Nature. The study suggests that when lab rats are repeatedly tasked to find their way around an environment, their brains will “replay” previously successful routes, even if the start and end locations change. This precognition is visible as neurons fire in the hippocampus, a section of the brain that plays an important role in spatial navigation.

The result? Watson joked that by the end of the trials her images “became more mammal based.” As for whether the sensory and spatial layers of neuroscience showed up in the layers of ink, you just might have to see this experiment for yourself.

Mindscapes is on display until August 15th at Silent Barn, 603 Bushwick Ave., Brooklyn

About the Author

Andrew P. Han

Andy Han studied astronomy and the history of science at Dartmouth College, but his main interests have expanded to include evolutionary biology and genetics as well. Having preferred non-fiction to fiction since the age of six, he is on a mission to find out as much as he can about the Universe. An avid athlete and eater, he’s excited for all New York has to offer, especially SHERP.


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