Head on: Art with the brain in mind

A Wellcome exhibition at the Science Museum

15 March – 28 July 200

Co-curated by Caterina Albano and Marina Wallace (Artakt), and Ken Arnold, Head of Exhibitions, Wellcome Trust

Artists and scientists: meetings of minds
From the viewpoint of contemporary art, visual representations in brain sciences such as the psychology of perception, neurology and cognition, have acquired a particular freshness and immediacy. This freshness is guaranteed by the freedom of the images (as in other sciences) from the ready-packaged theories and practices of the art world. A significant number of contemporary artists have chosen to conduct their practice at least in part through procedures of investigation and experimentation that refer to the world of science. More often than not they use processes which echo those of scientists, albeit in a different cultural context, within different parameters and with different ends in view. Concurrently, a number of curators, conservators, and historians are developing their own practice through the promotion of active relationships between artists and scientists. Those who operate judiciously in this field believe that it is crucial that new juxtapositions and parallels between the disciplines of art and science are created at a level that avoids opportunistic or approximate solutions. Head On was born from this conviction.

The points of contact established between the experiments of a number of neuro-scientists and psychologists and the researches of the eight contemporary artists selected for Head On were made possible by the Wellcome Trust, which funded this exhibition as its inaugural one in a new gallery dedicated to the history of medicine at the Science Museum. Dr Ken Arnold, head of exhibitions at the Wellcome Trust, co-curated the exhibition with Caterina Albano and Marina Wallace of Artakt. The artists and scientists collaborations, which have literally given shape to the sculptures, drawings, paintings and multi-media installations included in this exhibition, were made possible thanks to the guidance of Elaine Snell, working for the DANA alliance for the Brain. The historical objects on show, mainly from the Wellcome Trust collections, were themselves placed in dialogue with the contemporary material, signaling the enduring basis of the processes of research in territories that have been of recurrent on-going fascination throughout the ages for at least half a millennium.

Two of the most significant of all general concepts which the artists and scientists in Head On have explored are those of the relationship between mind and body, and of the brain with the outside world. These are crucial questions, posed several times in the ancient world, and repeatedly in the 17th century, above all by Descartes, who famously postulated the separation of body and mind, world and spirit (“res extensa” and “res cognitans”). The problem of body and mind has also formed the basis of much recent philosophical speculation and scientific modelling, from Putnam’s and Turing’s functionalist theories of the mind in the 1960s – linked to the development of computers – to more recent theories of neuro-science developed by Antonio Damasio, who roundly denounced “Descartes' error”. Damasio argues that the brain is not an entity separated from the body, but it is essentially one of the bodily organs, inextricably linked to their mechanisms and functions. As fundamental corollaries to such philosophically orientated investigations of the mind-body problem (though too often separated from them by disciplinary boundaries), the sciences of perception and cognition are in the process of redefining how the relationship between the brain and the outside world is understood.

Concerned as they are with ways of seeing, perceiving and representing the outside world, all eight of the Head On artists, Annie Cattrell, Andrew Carnie, Osi Audu, Tim O’Riley, Claude Heath, Gerhard Lang, Letizia Galli, and Katharine Dowson have, in their own way, and through different routes, tackled these perennial questions. Their accounts of their collaboration with scientists and of their own process of research, is included as “artists’ logs” in the latter part of the Head On catalogue, an Artakt publication with the assistance of the Wellcome Trust. Our facilitation and monitoring of this process, as curators, and our provisional interpretation of it, is also documented in an accompanying publication. In our related future project, another exhibition on the brain planned for Palazzo Strozzi, in association with the Museum of the History of Science, Florence, Italy, for 2003, we are aiming to include rooms curated by scientists, art historians, as well as by artists and curators