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Publication Detail
A new paradigm: plastic brains in the post-digital world
  • Publication Type:
  • Authors:
    Novakovic G
  • Name of conference:
    DRHA 2010 Digital Resources for the Humanities & Arts: ‘Sensual Technologies’
  • Conference place:
    Brunel University, London
  • Conference start date:
  • Conference finish date:
  • Keywords:
    interactive art, art and science;art;neuroscience;brain;interactivity
A new paradigm: plastic brains in the post-digital world The concept of neuroaesthetics has recently attracted attention, and this paradigm has opened an entirely new area in which both artists and neuroscientists look at the neurobiological basis of creating and experiencing the plastic arts. Mostly working within the scientific concept of the visual brain, neuroaesthetics is strongly focused on vision and static objects. But the area of contemporary artistic practice that neuroaesthetics leaves unexplored is that of multi-sensory experiences within the growing body of process-based arts enabled by digital technologies, in particular interactive art. Of course, these art forms, engaging multiple senses, operate in an entirely different conceptual, aesthetic, and methodological framework from traditional plastic arts by substituting objects with processes, and introducing a fundamental shift by replacing a passive observer with an active participant in the act of collective creation in network-based artistic concepts, or in an active role in the final unfolding of an art work in an interactive installation. The moment we step from the world of objects into the digitally enabled and facilitated world – whether in life or in art – this step resembles in a way the leap from classical to relativistic or quantum physics. As Virilio observes, ‘We are no longer in the world of Newton, but in the world of Einstein’. Tightly linked to, and enabled by rapid technological development, new media and electronic arts have changed contemporary art with the introduction of interactivity, and with a constant emergence of new art forms and categories. The available artistic media now range from traditional localised art techniques, to crowdsourcing on the distributed World Wide Web. However, they all have one thing in common: they are designed to transform and present digitally processed, generated or manipulated data into forms that our senses can engage with. In the most complex form of interactivity, more specifically in interactive installation, the artefact itself changes as a consequence of interaction; equipped with its own 'nervous system', it 'senses' the participant, processes the received data and reacts accordingly, often using quasi-organic computer programmes. It not a passive reflective object, rather it is a process, or, more specifically, a complex system of interdependent processes, that create a dynamic feedback process between the human body and the system. It is the participant who sets the interaction in motion and induces the process of interaction that depends upon h/er presence and activity. The body, which is in turn mediated by the processing of sensory information, the intervention of the installation in this process can dissolve or alter this boundary. This means that clear boundaries cannot be defined either for the participant's bodily sense of self. On the other hand, an interactive installation is dynamic and emissive, and tends to overpower the human body and mind; through the interaction, the participant can become an almost passive receiver. It is then the case that the installation actively manipulates our perceptions, rather than that we make sense of the perceptual situation. Compared to both cinematographic forms and plastic arts, the dominance of the role of the installation in this perceptual situation could be said to put the participant in the position of replacing the perception of an object by the observation of perception itself. Where can we go from here? A possible new direction has recently appeared with the emergence of the science of brain plasticity, the study of the ways in which the brain can radically reconfigure itself under certain conditions. This has conclusively shown that the brain can no longer be regarded as a fixed, closed, passive receiver of information from the senses – a mere processor for the information that is controlling our body through a kind of one-way communication. We are now seeing the recognition of growing scientific evidence that the brain is in fact almost nakedly open to external influences, and is capable of rapid and radical change by these insights to be extended and explored in the context of art, perhaps in the ways outlined in my Manifesto for Neuroplastic Arts (Novakovic, 2007). But will neuroscience bring the final answers to all perception-related questions, the enigma of digitally enabled artefacts included? Perhaps not, because a new and strong critique that challenges many current dogmas has now appeared from the field of neurphenomenology, a discipline firmly grounded in the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but also embracing recent research in neuroscience. A key figure is Alva Noë, who is part philosopher, part cognitive scientist, and part neuroscientist. Together with Evan Thompson and others, he offers a hypothesis about perception in action which builds on Merleau-Ponty’s idea of perception as a process of interaction between the embodied and situated human and the world. (He also believes that artists should not just be objects of scientific investigation, as they are in neuroaesthetics, but should actively contribute to the fields of perception and consciousness studies.) Noë’s iconoclastic views can be seen in his most recent book Out of our Heads (Noë, 2009) where he says: ‘Our culture is obsessed with the brain—how it perceives; how it remembers; how it determines our intelligence, our morality, our likes and our dislikes. It’s widely believed that consciousness itself, that Holy Grail of science and philosophy, will soon be given a neural explanation. And yet, after decades of research, only one proposition about how the brain makes us conscious—how it gives rise to sensation, feeling, and subjectivity—has emerged unchallenged: we don’t have a clue.’ It will be interesting to see whether and how Noë’s approach, and the broader filed of brain plasticity in neuroscience will affect our understanding of interactive digital artworks in the future. It might be that we are at the doorstep of a new paradigm, both in arts and brain science?
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