The SciArt Residency is over and it is a good time to look at where it led me. Before embarking on this journey with Darcy, I had a few vague ideas that I wanted to coalesce into 1-2 projects. A lot of people talk about art being both a playground - where we can let go of our daily inhibitions, and a way of expressing our true feelings. The exact meaning may not be clearly evident to others, but at the end of the day, the art allows us to at least get something off our chest.
Due to some personal circumstances, I was feeling lost. I felt like I am losing a big part of what I consider to be my identity. I was losing a sense of self. Before starting the program, I did some brainstorming, took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and came up with a couple sketches for a potential new project.
As I have written in a previous post, I use my sketchbook only to jot down the "bare bones" of a project, which come down to the general composition and some ideas on engineering the necessary structures. I wanted to portray the idea of a dense network or forest, representing the complex composition of a large city. Although I have lived in New York for the vast majority of my life and I love it, sometimes it can be a bit difficult to navigate. And I don't mean geographically.
When Darcy and I started working together, I explained my idea and suggested that we use an image that came from my lab work for inspiration (shown mostly in red). Darcy manipulated the original image in Photoshop, resulting in a novel set of colors (mostly in light blue). Her adaptation also emphasized the texture of the image, giving the neurons more volume.
Beyond creating the network, initially I also wanted to emphasize the constricting environment by putting a layer of string art on top of the neurons, depicted in orange in the original sketch on the right. But when I finished beading the neuronal network, I realized that it would be too much and ended up shelving that idea for another project.
One of the original sketches had a circle with a question mark in the middle. It took me a long time to decide how to portray myself among the challenging environment. I wanted it to be a small entity in this sea of connections, yet it needed to be different enough from the rest of the structures to stand out. Finally, I decided to follow the theme that I used in "Hope" and incorporate a single white jewel, slightly hidden below the rest of the network. This would allow me to put a positive spin on the sense of feeling lost.
Finding the right place for the white jewel took some time and playing around. About midway through the project, I felt like I could not proceed without making this decision. Especially, since a lot of the blue cells and connections needed to be positioned on top of it, it had to be put down pretty early on.
After letting it stew for a couple weeks, I ended up going with a gut-based decision. It felt very unlike me. Once I placed the white jewel on the bottom and slightly off center, I started layering on the neuronal connections. They would represent the jungle gym that we need to maneuver in both the city and life in general. I wanted them to be very tangled and interdependent, but elegant at the same time. Outer complexity leads to inner complexity, yet our brains can sort and organize information in an interpretable manner.
It was particularly challenging for me to start filling in what I considered to be empty areas. The network was physically growing in density, making it very difficult to thread the wires from cell to cell. Initially, I was planning to make the longer connections using thread, but ended up using wire throughout the project, making it more sturdy and uniform. Uniformity of technique gives me a sense of peace.
To fill in the empty spots, I had to populate the landscape with connections that did not correspond to the original image. Despite this being a creative process, introducing elements that are absent in the original always leads me to a sense of internal conflict. It almost feels like falsifying data. But I followed the patterns that could have formed in nature and hoped that the connections would arise organically.
There can be no limit to labyrinths and tangles, but at some point a project must come to an end. So after creating what I considered to be a sense of balance, I brought it to a conclusion.
This project has made me step out of my comfort zone in many ways.
This residency has been inspiring and artistically productive for me. In broadening my understanding of SciArt it has pushed me to explore and redefine the connections my art practice has with my love of science. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Yana and we are already planning another project together. There are endless avenues we could pursue together with neuroscience images and their expression in visual art.
During this residency I have wandered through some great books, some for the second time such as Ernst Gombrich (“The Story of Art”), that I have been reading on and off for years. Relatively recently I have come across, Eric Kandel (“The Age of Insight”, “Reductionism in Art”) and Robert Sapolsky (“Behave”). My last two reads were the rediscovery of Alexander Von Humbolt in the passionate voice of Andrea Wulf (“The Invention of Nature”) and then, “The Age of Genius” by a favorite author, AC Grayling. All of these brilliant writers and many more have influenced my ideas and found their way into my own writing repeatedly.
Then there are the artists, who I don’t refer to as often in this blog series because I was really grappling with how science and art inform each other in the less obvious ways. However, they need to be mentioned here too. How can I choose, there are so many...Ernst Haeckel, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Picasso, Franz Kline, Brice Marden, Mark Tobey, Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly, Arnulf Rainier, Richard Serra, Eva Hess, Sol LeWitt, Lee Bontecou, Frank Stella, Thomas Muller, Gerhard Richter, Julie Mehretu and, and, and…
The truly interesting thing is to try to remember what my thoughts looked like before my encounters with the rich worlds of science, art, and ideas. Impossible, even though I “feel” like the same person I was at 16 years old or even 10. The intricate reordering of the mind that happens when we corroborate our worldviews with others is so pervasive that it is impossible to tease apart. This is a collective understanding that emerges from our social nature, our ability to learn from and influence each other. I value this above everything. It is the hope for the future. To be clearer in our understanding of ourselves, our species and the gorgeous complex living plant to which we are completely connected and dependent.
This residency has fulfilled many of these desires and concerns. Yana is an accomplished neuroscientist with the rigorous mind of a scientist and also practicing in the more nuanced inquiry of art. Our collaboration has brought up ideas I have not thought of before and a rich body of imagery that Yana has provided in her microscopy work. The most recent images she has shared with me show cancer cell membrane markers. When I have time to get back into my studio, I want to play with all of the ideas these images inspire.
In conclusion, I want to mention that none of the artists I have listed above except Ernst Haeckel do SciArt. I think this is because I look for artists that express the most fundamental desire to understand human perception and our expression of the unique yet still collective internal worlds we all possess. This residency has encouraged me to look deeper into the SciArt community for ideas and understanding about the highly varied work that comes out of this burgeoning field of art. Thank you all for this experience.