ISEA2011 PANEL: NeuroArts


Chair: Jane Grant
2nd Chair: John Matthias

Rather than considering the aesthetics of art and music as a way of approaching an understanding of perception and brain function, NeuroArts emphasizes the direct use of Neuroscientific models and materials in artistic practice. In NeuroArts, neurons and neuronal models are examined outside of the body/brain emphasizing an artistic-engineering approach with either the physical material of brain, or the adaptation of biological models of spiking neurons. In using models of spiking neurons within art, sound and music, the internal structure of the brain becomes external, its plasticity exposed, its pathways and networks malleable. This gives us a standpoint from which to critically engage and question multi-scale concepts such as the importance of the cell, network topology and plasticity, self-hood, memory and consciousness.

The first International NeuroArts conference outlining the new subject area which took place in February 2011 at University of Plymouth.

NeuroArts at ISEA develops key themes from the first International NeuroArts Conference, and will consider two main themes:

Philosophies of scale within NeuroArts: from the scale of the single cell to the mesoscopic scale of brain emulations through to emergent large-scale phenomena including self-hood and consciousness.

What are the relationships between plasticity, stimulation and firing patterns in small brain circuits? And, how can their adaptation in artistic projects alongside synaptic plasticity, and cellular topologies be exploited to make adaptive art?

We hope that the explorations of these themes will help to define the boundaries of this new subject within an interdisciplinary environment.
Agency in a Dish – Supposed a Semi-Living Brain be Art (Maker)
by Oron Catts

In the year 2000 The SymbioticA Research Group (SARG) embarked on a project that intended to culturally scrutinise the possibility of embodying engineered neuro-assemblies. The idea that neurons cultured over electrodes can act in the world, and that the world would have a direct affect on the neurons, suggest that with increased complexity these engineered neuro-assemblies will require ethical consideration.

This paper will describe the concept of the semi-living, in particular that which respond;  Neuronal tissue can be cultured and grown independently from the context of the biological body and then engage in rudimentary two way information exchange with the world around it.  Some of the main issues that this notion raise will be explored by following the trajectory of the neuroengineering related research at SymbioticA – from SARG’s Fish & Chips to Neurotica’s Silent Barrage.
Between a thing and a thought – the neuropsychology of selfhood
by Paul Broks

Neuropsychology is coming of age. Traditional ‘lesion studies’ – the painstaking method of observing the effects of localised brain damage on behaviour – have been augmented by brain imaging technologies allowing direct observation of the living brain. We are now building maps of the brain’s functional architecture that, in scope and detail, could scarcely have been imagined 50 years ago.

And yet, it seems to me, something fundamental is missing from the scene. Where is the ‘person’? Where is the ‘self’? How do the various systems and subsystems of mentality (perception, memory, emotion, etc.) collude in the construction and maintenance of the conscious, introspective, unified and continuous sense of individual identity that we take as the bedrock norm of human experience? Until recently such questions were simply not on the scientific agenda.

They are now, and as this century unfolds the neuropsychology of personhood is going to stir up questions of profound concern not merely for neuroscience but for society at large. In this presentation I offer my own, sometimes personal, reflections on the neuropsychology of selfhood from the perspective of a scientist-practitioner with a background in clinical neuropsychology, but one who also has lately spent as much time exploring memory and identity through theatre and film.
Neural Ghosts and The Focus of Attention
by Jane Grant

Consciousness as attention to memory is a term that neuroscientist Eugene Izhikevich uses to describe a phenomenon in which the cortex re-lives or re-visits a specific pattern of neural activity in the absence of sensory information. The model brain or cortex, deprived of stimulation, journeys around its own temporal architectures conjuring past ‘experiences’ or ‘memories’, pulling them into the present. Evidence that these pathways continue to be re-visited once stimulation occurs again is compelling.

Referring to recent research in developing the sonic artwork Ghost, and two earlier works: Threshold and The Fragmented Orchestra, all of which have at their core the Spike Timing Dependant Plasticity model of Eugene Izhikevich, I will discuss the phenomena of ‘sonic ghosts’ a term I have used to describe the buffering up of the neural past with the neural present.
The Sound of Small Brain Circuits: Plasticity and Synchronisation in the Neurogranular Sampler
by John Matthias

The Neurogranular Sampler is a software musical instrument designed by a collaborative team, which triggers grains of live sampled audio when any one of a network of artificial spiking neurons ‘fires’. The level of synchronisation in distributed systems is often controlled by the strength of interaction between the individual elements. If the elements are neurons in small brain circuits, the characteristic event is the ‘firing time’ of a particular neuron. The synchrony or decoupling of these characteristic events is controlled by modifications in the strength of the connections between neurons under the influence of spike timing dependent plasticity, which adapts the strengths of neuronal connections according to the relative firing times of connected neurons.

In this paper we will show how we can ‘neuroengineer’ the collective firing behaviour of small networks of artificial neurons by exploiting spike timing dependent plasticity rules in a sonic context.
Models of Spiking Neurons
by Magnus Richardson

Starting with the work of Galvani in the 18th century and ending with modern, super-computer approaches, this talk aims to give an overview of the basics of how neurons underlie the natural computation that takes place in the nervous system. I will cover some of the techniques that have been used for measuring activity in the nervous system at different spatial and temporal scales, how it came to be thought that neurons are the basic computational unit of the brain, how information flows through neurons and how neurons wire together to form synapses – the changing strengths of which are thought to represent the storage of memories. The talk will end with a discussion of some recent speculative theories of how the neocortex – the brain region where our high level thought processes take place – might work.
Bios of the Participants
Oron Catts is Director of SymbioticA- The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia, and Visiting Professor of Design Interaction, Royal College of Arts, London.

Oron Catts is an artist, researcher and curator whose work with the Tissue Culture and Art Project (which he founded in 1996 with Ionat Zurr) is part of the NY MoMA design collection and has been exhibited and presented internationally. In 2000 he co-founded SymbioticA, an artistic research laboratory housed within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia. Under Oron’s leadership, SymbioticA has gone on to win the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica in Hybrid Art (2007) and became a Centre for Excellence in 2008.

In 2009 Oron and Ionat were recognised by Thames & Hudson’s “60 Innovators Shaping our Creative Future” book in the category “Beyond Design”, and by Icon Magazine (UK) as one of the top 20 Designers, “making the future and transforming the way we work”. The latest show he curated was Visceral – the Living Art Experiment at the Science Gallery, Dublin, 2011.

Oron has been a researcher at The University of Western Australia since 1996 and was a Research Fellow at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston from 2000-2001. He worked with numerous other bio-medical laboratories around the world. In 2007 he was a visiting Scholar at the Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University.

Some of his past art projects include tissue engineered food and leather, in which the “steaks” and “jackets” were cultured in a laboratory setting to interrogate the possibility of victimless animal products; the Pig Wings Project, in which several pairs of wings made from pig bone marrow stem cells were grown, and Extra Ear-1/4 Scale, in which a miniature replica of Australian performance artist Stelarc’s left ear was grown using human cartilage cells.

Paul Broks is a neuropsychologist based at the University of Plymouth. He gained recognition as a writer with his first book, Into the Silent Land (Atlantic Books, 2003) which mixed neurological case stories, fiction and memoir in an extended meditation on selfhood and the brain. A second book, The Laws of Magic, exploring memory and imagination, is forthcoming. Paul’s theatre work includes two plays, On Ego (Oberon Books, 2005) and On Emotion (Oberon Books, 2008) co-written with the writer/director Mick Gordon for Soho Theatre, and he has recently completed a new play commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His film work includes the writing and narration of Martino Unstrung, a feature-length documentary about the jazz guitar virtuoso, Pat Martino (Dir. Ian Knox; Sixteen Films, 2008). He is currently collaborating with the filmmaker Hugh Hudson on a documentary about brain injury. Paul is a regular contributor to the culture and current affairs magazine, Prospect.

Jane Grant is an interdisciplinary artist and academic. Her work often draws on scientific ideas, both contemporary and historical. Her collaborative work with scientists, musicians, composers and designers has resulted in award winning projects including, The Fragmented Orchestra with John Matthias and Nick Ryan which was winner of the PRSF New Music Award, 2008 and received an Honorary Mention at Prix Ars Electronic 2009, Hybrid Arts Category. The Fragmented Orchestra was exhibited at FACT and 23 sites across the UK. Recent work includes Soft Moon and Leaving Earth, both films influenced by astrophysical science and literature with specific reference to the written work of Italo Calvino and Stanislaw Lem. Her forthcoming projects include the interactive sonic artwork Ghost, one of the developments of The Fragmented Orchestra. In Ghost the temporal, topological networks and pathways of the brain are explored in conjunction brain hallucination or ‘sonic ghosts’. Other new works include a series of photographic drawings regarding dark matter that seek to explore ways to represent the unseen in art and science. She was awarded an AHRC grant for the project Threshold – Merging the Human Voice with Neurological Time Patterns, and she has received funding for her work from the Arts Council and the British Council.

Jane is Associate Professor (Reader) in Digital Arts in the School of Media and Photography, Principal Supervisor, CiiA Node, Planetary Collegium, and co-director of the art + sound research group, University of Plymouth.

John Matthias is a musician, composer and physicist. In 2008, he won the PRS Foundation New Music Award (the musical equivalent of ‘The Turner Prize’) with Jane Grant and Nick Ryan for the development of a huge sonic installation entitled The Fragmented Orchestra which also won an Honourary Mention at the Prix Ars Electronica 2009. He has released three albums, Smalltown, Shining (2001) on the Accidental label, Stories from the Watercooler (2008) on the Ninja Tune/ Counter label and Cortical Songs (2008/2009) (with Nick Ryan), a work for string orchestra and solo violin on the Nonclassical record label, which was listed by Time Out (Chicago in the top-ten classical albums of 2009. He has worked with many recording artists including Radiohead and Coldcut and has performed extensively including at the Wordless Music Series in New York, The Pompidou Centre in Paris and at the Union Chapel in London.

He is Associate Professor in Sonic Arts and co-director of the art + sound research group at the University of Plymouth and is currently developing new instruments and compositional processes relating to sonic events and spiking neurons. These initiatives include orchestral composition, distributed systems and the development of a new Neuronal Music Technology and will form the basis of many new works and artistic collaborations.

Magnus Richardson took his undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Oxford, where he stayed on to complete his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1997. After three years of postdoctoral research at the Weizmann Institute in physics and mathematics in 2000 he moved to the Ecole Normale Superieure to study the cellular origins of oscillations in neural networks. Following four years at the EPFL Brain Mind Institute from 2002-2006, he took up his current position of Associate Professor at the Systems Biology Centre, University of Warwick where his research aims to understand emergent states of activity in networks of neurons.

Posted by:  Ebru Surek