First thoughts from 2015 for Every Thought There Ever Was
“ Consciousness is at once the most familiar and the most mysterious feature of our existence. Long considered the exclusive preserve of philosophy, over the past two decades a new and productive science of consciousness has taken shape. Unravelling the biological basis of consciousness will not only lead to a wholly new understanding of our place in nature, but also promises major advances in the treatment of psychiatric and neurological disorders.” (Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science)
The difficult and broader question of this project is what is consciousness and what can science contribute to understanding it? Through gaining this knowledge will we potentially be able to fully understand mental health problems through the scientific methods of neuroscience.
Specifically the artwork addresses schizophrenia (one of the most common serious psychiatric disorders, which effects one in 100 people). The study of this condition is contributing to neuroscience’s understanding of brain functioning. Schizophrenia shows the brain believing in hallucinations. Studies have shown that the brains of people suffering from Schizophrenia show a reduced volume of grey matter especially in the temporal and frontal lobes. Recently neuroscientists have detected grey matter loss of up to 25%.
The relationship between genetic inheritance, life situations and chemical imbalance has yet to be defined.
Extract: The Independent 2014 (references Michael O’Donovan, Cardiff University)
“ The huge international study by the Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium analysed the DNA of about 37,000 schizophrenia patients and compared the smallest mutations with those found in about 113,000 healthy people. The scientists identified about 128 independent genetic variants of 108 locations on the human chromosomes that contribute significantly to susceptibility to schizophrenia.” […]Some of the genes identified which are published in the journal Nature are known to be involved with the controlling of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that was long suspected of playing a role in the illness.”
The method by which I make works is framed by trying to make them embody how I observe my brain functioning – hence the lateral eclectic quality of the works and the desire for an embodied experience when viewing the works – through sculptural, physical objects that frame the projections.
I have been very influenced by the work of Professor Julian Leff and his evoking of avatars that embody 'the persecutors' found in sufferers of schizophrenia as a means of treatment. These avatars are exceptionally real and present for the patient.
This capacity to take absolutely for real a film/digital images is also what Anil Seth has been working on with the virtual reality headsets, but with healthy minds. Anil demonstrates with this technology that we can relocate our body in space and take the fiction of this relocation as reality (so body awareness, where we are in space, is no longer a reliable register for our idea of reality).
How do we know then what is spatially and temporally real? Or is everything equivalent in perception, what is imagined and seen – or is it mere Cartesian thinking to divide time and space up into what seems to be spectral, and what seems to be spatial and concrete. Given that real space time is always overlaid with virtual images (ie from our own past experiences) where are we then with reality and consciousness? Perhaps more specifically with self-awareness and self-consciousness. The future will find out…, especially as more and more objects will have the semblance of a very basic consciousness – smart objects.
Biographically the work will be framed around James Barry as a robot/avatar– with Barry having a literal difference between in an inner and outer world (presenting herself as a man in order to be a surgeon) and a practice (surgery) which literally cuts between the inside and the outside. The work I am proposing uses the text of Merleau-Ponty ‘The Visible and the Invisible’ to frame thinking around ‘skin’ – the skin of the screen, of a story, of history, of memory, matter and so on.
The question of breaking down the interiority of the subject and the seeming exteriority of the world has been long considered and made porous by philosophy but has in some senses remained stagnant in our experience of theatre and cinema – in which the sensation of the passive observation of an unfolding spectral world leaves us in an undeniably Cartesian space. Merleau-Ponty uses the term dehiscence, its use in biology refers to the splitting apart of fruit, seedpods or organs to bring forth a flesh which differs from but is of their flesh.
There is an interiority or depth of being within flesh that comes to the surface in the chiasm, as an opening of the perceivable world. The arising of sense is a fleshing out of embodied existence, with flesh disclosing its (in)coherence or carnal meaning in its differentiation of itself.
Like Bergson, Merleau-Ponty draws on the sensation of a person’s hand touching the other hand as defining a kind of mobius strip of interiority and exteriority in which the sense of a continuous surface breaks down the dichotomy of subject and object. How to bring this collapse to the screen?
What is important about these concepts in my work is that they meet science and also how they find themselves realised ontologically and physically in space – that they find a narrative, an embodied form.
The Georgian architecture where the work will be shown in Talbot Rice has a doubling and mirroring that suits the subject – it presents a fold – a repetition and difference found in Merleau-Ponty’s thought but also perhaps somehow in the life of Barry – a theatricality and a sense of ‘seeming’ order which hides another reality. This desire for order is a requirement for the human mind that causes Bergson to refer to how the mechanism of the camera creates a false but expedient representation of reality that mirrors how the mind itself works – the camera exposes the limitations of the mind in that it needs to delimit perception.
After further research into Barry at the Wellcome Library it seems that it is not at all certain that Barry was female – she may have possibly have been hermaphrodite. Her body was never seen by a medical professional and the only solid report of her as a woman is from a ‘charwoman'.
What is useful to connect her into my work is that as Inspector General of Hospitals one of her principle concerns was what were then called 'lunatic asylums', she had an unusually humanitarian approach to the patients and understood that conditions were responsible for some of the mental states of patients (they were chained and beaten). Colonialism and madness are also philosophically of interest me and readings of schizophrenia through Deleuze and Guattari. This has led me conceptually to a proposition of the Neuro-image as made by Patricia Pisters in her book of 2012 which rethinks how we perceive film as very close to the nature of brain functioning itself.
Barry, it seems from the reports of those that met her that she had extreme mood swings particularly when her authority was questioned. It is impossible to know her mental state but her constant need to disguise herself must have delivered certain consequences to her mental life. It is reported that despite her effeminate size and voice she wore an exaggerated sword and large spurs and even challenged someone to a dual over a woman. I would like to re-imagine her as reborn in our time in this work – a visitor from the past. Although equality for women has been addressed in Europe – globally women are still persecuted and exploited. (Even their presence in neuroscience seems very low?). Barry's presence in Mauritius (where I grew up), also in Jamaica, Malta, South Africa etc puts her in a global context to reflect on issues of gender in neuro science. I will talk to Julian about his work on schizophrenia in other countries such as Africa, he has been very interested in cultural influences of mental health and also Anil's perspective on this. There certainly are comprehensive reports of the cultural impact on schizophrenia (I have a number of papers on this and used them in my work for Hayward – specifically reports of schizophrenia of local people in Zanzibar).
With Barry I do not intend him/her to answer the medical neuroscience questions per se, as a character. I will set him/her in the future as an avatar/robot which has acquired consciousness. This is will be a result of Anil's work, built on in the future by Barry's avatar/robot creators) . The robot's manufacturer will be related to the child who the historic Barry delivered by Caesarian, named after Barry. This future scientist discovers his ancestry through DNA profiling.
With regards to the Caesarean I am interested in studies in consciousness and proposals for when consciousness arises. The mirror test, used as a marker takes consciousness as being around 18 months in children (Gallup 1970) has also been applied to robots – ie that if a robot can recognise itself in a mirror it is conscious, it seems that this basic passing of the mirror test is not comprehensive as an indicator – but a full passing of this test would require full body image and a mental self image to confirm self awareness, but the robot as conscious will be implied in this work. I have been speaking to Edinburgh Informatics department who are modifying medical robots to teach them to think, at least to be able to perform a diverse set of tasks that respond to the environment/situation that they find themselves in. There are many connections I would like to make with this department – including use of synthetic voices and sound and light activated movement. Hopefully we will be able collaborate.
Neurological studies into the foetus have shown unexpected levels of awareness of sound and light in the brain; can we register consciousness as even being present in the womb? I am wondering if birth by surgery might fundamentally change neuro networks? The question of birth seems very relevant, at what point are we born? In Imperial Japan it was believed that a child was not really human until the age of 7 – when it had acquired consciousness, because of this it was not considered unreasonable to abandon a child before this age (C.Blakemore).
This avatar/robot featured in the installation will address neuroscience questions on consciousness and brain functioning in the film through his/her thoughts/narration. She/he muses on what mistakes we made in the past before we understood the brain.
The synthetic character of Barry will address theories of neuroscience filmicaly in an implicit way by creating a character with a sense of non-contiguous space, with multiple references across history and connections that elide across time (this is a typical model for neuro-networks/brain functioning).
I will use the ideas present in the work of Chris Frith, Anil Seth and Julian Leff that demonstrate how a person can transpose their own body awareness into an avatar/digital image, so strongly that their own physical body becomes unconvincing, in comparison to their avatar body. The outcomes of this capacity to lose accurate body awareness poses troubling questions ethics and for self awareness. (Anil and CF discuss 'out of body experiences' as neurologically identifiable). There will evidence of catharsis in the work relating to the healing of the patient through speaking with avatars (Julian’s work).
The robotic screens will relate to the future avatar/robot of Barry (the screens become part of Barry the avatar, as robots with a non-human form) – the screens are therefore also 'characters' in the work. At times they are entities that seem to have their own consciousness, but then also they are a membrane for Barry's robotic consciousness. The screens will move in the space and seem to react to sound and light. Images will fall on them and across them. Potentially they may change shape.
The ideas of doubling often present in my works can be followed through in the two screens which are meant to be conscious (they stand as a membrane between inner and outer data). The robot brain is also part of this doubling or reproducibility
– it can learn and have specific individual qualities but its mind comes from a common structure. The brain itself we know has mirroring, doubling and chimeras. It is all already there in brain functioning as well as in perception – I will make this evident in the film (it will be implied in the character who stems from an historic double, she/he will be entangle with this past other).
Using robotics will bring up other considerations as to the nature of subjectivity and consciousness and the notion of freewill which will be pinned back to Barry’s biography and reference observations from the work of Chris Frith as a content.
There will inside the body/brain animation/ imagery in this work projected onto these physically animated screens. The two brain hemispheres and their different ways of processing the same information will be very much an influence on this work. Split brain studies have been very influential on medical science and understanding the brain.
The most contemporary forms of surgery will also be considered (nano-technology).
Literary texts such as L'Ève Future by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1886) will be an influence – the rampant misogyny seems important but also this early manufacture of a robot.
“The narrative nucleus of the novel, in which Edison dissects the female android Hadaly, has been discussed as a critical link between the spectatorial Gaze cultivated within the Anatomical theatre of the Renaissance and that of cinema.”
de Fren, Allison (2009) "The Anatomical Gaze in Tomorrow's Eve"
The Whitworth Outsider art collection will also be an important influence. I hope to find an artist in the collection with schizophrenia and following his/her biography potentially make a different avatar/robot of this character for this other episode (i.e write another related narrative as I have done in other episodic works).