Brainscapes, Mind Masks and States of Mind

“Betwixt brain and mind is a beguiling if bewildering masquerade. The interplay, between brain and mind, matter and metaphysics, our inner ‘self’ and our public visage, has been a recurring interest in my practice for over a decade.”

Karen Ingham is an interdisciplinary artist-designer and filmmaker, whose primary art form is lens-based arts and hybrid craft. Her approach incorporates theory and practice, and she often works site-specifically, with major themes exploring biomedical discourse and museology

The registration of our head and brain  – the substitution of the reading of one for the other -has a past trajectory. It reflects our underlying, and very human, anxiety that the face can mask true intentions, motivations and desires, and disguise the inner thoughts residing in the brain: in other words, the fears that the mind and brain are not in precise register. 

Marius Kwint and Richard Wingate, Editorial, ‘Curating The Brain’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 38 No. 3, September 2013

“…she (Ingham) creates a series of illusionistic masks, redolent of something that we might associate with a Venice carnival, but which are in fact derived from images of primate brain slices. The visual similarity between sections of ‘grey matter’ and props for an entertaining ritual suggested the final form of the work: a set of masks playfully expressing displaced medical curiosities. Ingham adds a concluding twist to this piece by encouraging her audience to become co-producers of the masque-ball, providing them with an on-line facility to download the masks, and finally inviting them to contribute photographs of themselves wearing the brain-slice masks.”

Ken Arnold, ‘A Strange Crossover’ in Wonder Chamber (Ingham:2012)

Wonder Chamber, mixed media, exhibition and publication, Ffotogallery, Cardiff (2012)

Wonder Chamber, mixed media, exhibition and publication, Ffotogallery, Cardiff (2012)

Betwixt brain and mind is a beguiling if bewildering masquerade. The interplay, between brain and mind, matter and metaphysics, our inner ‘self’ and our public visage, has been a recurring interest in my practice for over a decade. Former collaborator Dr. Richard Wingate succinctly encapsulates the challenge and dilemma for both scientists and artists of trying to understand the complexities at play in his introduction to the exhibition Between: Embodiment and Identity (2012: NP) “How do we define the ‘Self’ in an age of increasing materiality?  The philosophical tensions between mind and body and between human embodiment and identity, is being radically redefined by advances in anatomical knowledge. At the same time, visual imaging techniques make this new knowledge visible, conferring huge explanatory power onto digitized imagery”.

The digitised imagery Wingate speaks of will be familiar to many of us, particularly so fMRI scans, and electron scanning confocal microscopy, the bedrock of neuroscientific research. But I am also interested in hybrid forms of representation and inquiry, for example the use of digital anatomical data as the basis for 3D printing, lending a more haptic and embodied dimension to what can sometimes appear quite clinical and disembodied images, even within an arts context. Within recent practice the latest manifestation of this approach is Facescapes and Physiognomic Landscapes (2015- ) an interdisciplinary work in progress that explores notions of identity in relation to physiognomic typologies, architecture, neuroscience, and facial recognition technologies. Facescapes plays on Jonathan Crary’s statement that Nineteenth Century physiology reinforced the prevailing scientific view of “…excitement and wonderment about the body, which now appeared like a new continent to be explored, mapped, and mastered…” (Crary:79:1992). This is precisely what the project attempts: it maps the human face, in this instance my own face, first by using MRI to strip it down to its basic structural form (keeping the semblance of a portrait), then digitally reconfiguring this data to create a contour map of the face.

Facescapes and Physiognomic Landscapes, giclee prints (various sizes), ‘Crafting Anatomies’, Nottingham, Aarhus University, Denmark, and touring (2015 – on-going)

MRI-Self-Portrait

MRI-Self-Portrait

Hybrid MRI Architectural Facescape1

Hybrid MRI Architectural Facescape 1

Hybrid MRI Architectural Facescape 2

Hybrid MRI Architectural Facescape 2

This is then printed as a 3D model and subsequently digitally reverse printed to create a face more akin to a built structure than a recognisable portrait. The result is a series of 3D printed maquettes and giclée prints. Facescapes builds on collaboration with Dr. Jeremy Tree, a cognitive psychologist and face recognition specialist at Swansea University.  I am a test subject for Tree’s research on prosopagnosia (face blindness) as one of a small percentage of the population who are highly effective face recognisers.  I use the fMRI data from my brain scans for Tree’s research to form the basic hybrid anatomical-architectural templates from which the prints and 3D maquettes are made.

The project was also informed by discussions with architect Dr. Roberto Bottazzi at the Royal College of Art and Dr. Richard Wingate, Head of Anatomy at Guy’s/Kings College London.  When we think of notions of space, perspective and matter we think of the face, and by extension the body, in terms that are usually aesthetic or medical.

But what if we were to reverse engineer our knowledge and assumptions so that we considered the face and body in less medical and artistic ways and more in terms of architectural design.

Facescapes and Physiognomic Landscapes, Hybrid MRI-Architectural 3D printed maquettes in clear, yellow and white, 16 x 12cms, Nottingham and Aarhus and touring (2015 – on-going)

Facescapes and Physiognomic Landscapes, Hybrid MRI-Architectural 3D printed maquettes in clear, yellow and white, 16 x 12cms, Nottingham and Aarhus and touring (2015 – on-going)

Facescapes is a manifestation of my interest in the possibilities of a new generation of hybrid objects crafted from architectural CAD, medical MRI fusions, and rapid prototype printing technologies. In art historical terms anatomy, art, and architecture already share rich histories and entanglements, while in a contemporary context technologies such as 3D printing and rapid prototyping have led to the creation of bespoke faces, or at least face parts, which can now be printed and surgically implanted. The internal measurement of every human being is different, so what role will these rapidly developing technologies have on our understanding of ‘bespoke individuals’ in an age of mass manufactured ‘types’.

The term ‘type’ is a key anchoring point in my research, much of which stems from a long standing interest in work of Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, whose proto-genetic and psychological studies on inheritance led to the dangerous pseudo science of Eugenics. But Galton, although a controversial figure, was a polymath and his legacy to 21st century medical and surveillance technologies cannot be over stated, from finger prints to retinal identity scans, reproductive technologies, bioinformatics and genetics, not to mention his ground breaking work on statistics and psychology. Galton is also of interest to the arts and humanities, not least because of the uneasy beauty of his photographic composite typologies. In 2010-11 I worked with the Galton archive at University College London with the intent of creating an interdisciplinary artwork for the 2011 Galton centenary, focusing on Galton’s typologies research and his composite portrait photography of ‘types’.

The resultant project, Variance, is a short artists film and a series of photographic portraits that used electron scanning microscopy images of brain activity to create a series of  ‘composite thought portraits’.

‘Thought Portrait, Emily’ in Variance, photographic print, 62 x 50cms, Ffotogallery Cardiff, exhibition and publication in ‘Wonder Chamber’, Somerset House London and touring (2012 -13)

‘Thought Portrait, Emily’ in Variance, photographic print, 62 x 50cms, Ffotogallery Cardiff, exhibition and publication in ‘Wonder Chamber’, Somerset House London and touring (2012 -13)

Heavily influenced by Galton’s anthropometric studies of inheritance (all six photographs are of my extended family) and his pioneering research on statistics and biometrics, the project brings into question contemporary neurobiological imaging technologies and interpretations, which allegedly allow neuroscientists to ‘see’ and ‘measure’ many of our thoughts and emotions. If a pain or sensation is not visible as a measurable correlate some suggest it isn’t real: if not in the brain then it must be ‘all in the mind’.

Film still from digital artist’s film Variance, 3minutes with audio, Ffotogallery, Cardiff and touring (2012-13)

Film still from digital artist’s film Variance, 3 minutes with audio, Ffotogallery, Cardiff and touring (2012-13)

Variance questions some of the assumptive language of contemporary neuroscience, which on occasion leads to contestable ‘facts’ about brain activities and conditions that are highly subjective and open to interpretation. Variance was the term coined by Galton to suggest variation, difference, and departure from the norm or characteristic type. Galton’s studies of how characteristic traits are developed and genetically passed on followed the proto-genetic research of Gregor Mendel and his famous pea studies. I had touched on these studies in an earlier related work, Vanitas: Seed-Head (2005-6), which was prompted by what is perhaps one of Galton’s most evocative composite portraits, ‘Father, Mother, Son’, in which he attempts to merge (or, in contemporary terms, morph) the family into a single image in order to reveal the dominant inherited features. My family history is one of allegedly inherited mental illness -acute depression and schizophrenia – and so the idea of ‘madness’ being passed like the proverbial ‘bad seed’ from generation to generation was the impetus for Vanitas, perhaps the most personal and melancholy of my artworks that have a Galtonian reference.

Film stills from digital artists film Vanitas Seed-Head, De Waag, Amsterdam and touring (2005-2015)

Film stills from digital artists film Vanitas Seed-Head, De Waag, Amsterdam and touring (2005-2015)

Vanitas featured a morphed computer animation of myself, my partner and our son in an artist’s video that explored Mendelian and Galtonian theories of inheritance alongside the notion of a botanical seed or bulb being the carrier of inherited traits, only in this case the ‘bulb’ in question was in fact an x-ray of my son’s skull following a head injury. Originally screened as part of an artist in residence installation at De Waag, Amsterdam the project was informed through discussion with neuroscientists and stem cell researchers during my Science and Art Fellowship with Cardiff ‘s Neuroscience Research Group in 2005/6. In his description of stem cell research Kevin Fox describes how: “All cells of the brain are formed from a single initial pluripotential cell, or stem cell, a cell early in this hierarchy that retains the capacity to reproduce copies of itself.’

Vanitas Seed-Head from Karen Ingham on Vimeo.

 

The notion of the stem cell is transcribed to the Dutch floral Vanitas, alluding to an actual plant stem and bulb, referencing the notion of the seed continuing a genetic inheritance even as the parent/plant withers and dies. In this case there is a sense of something unseen or latent with the seed – the ‘bad seed’ of inherited mental illness. There is a final layer of meaning to the work, that of transience and mutability. The images, especially of the child, evoke Galton’s death mask collection, and indeed, the three photographic portraits are in a sense death masks: a Vanitas memento-mori on the fragility and transience of life – body, mind and ‘soul’.

In 2015 I had the opportunity to produce new work in response to mental health issues in the collaborative project States of Mind (2015) as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Creative Exchange’ initiative. Led by Royal College of Art PhD candidate Ben Koslowski with artist and interaction designer Brendan Dawes, Royal College of Art architect Roberto Bottazzi, and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) Liverpool, the project offered a hybrid analog-digital platform that enabled visitors to the gallery to represent and share their individual states-of-mind in response to the question “What does your mental health look like right now?” To hear project partners Koslowski and Dawes explain the project go to Vimeo link: https://vimeo.com/122330273

States of Mind, installation, workshops and film, (Koslowski, Dawes, Bottazzi and Ingham): Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool and associated conferences and symposia. Funded by and part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Creative Exchange’ (2015)

States of Mind, installation, workshops and film, (Koslowski, Dawes, Bottazzi and Ingham): Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool and associated conferences and symposia. Funded by and part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Creative Exchange’ (2015)

States of Mind experimented with a novel way of engaging gallery visitors with the exhibition subject matter of mental distress in a digital age. Importantly, it played with and developed concepts of the ‘phygital’ (physical-haptic interfaces) and philosophically explored the concept of ‘digital phenomenology’, an increasingly relevant notion when exploring the boundaries of neuroscience and the mind-brain discussion. By allowing visitors the experience of communicating abstractly, via a touch responsive digital object that acts as a visual ‘language’, the complex process of articulating ones emotional and mental ‘state of mind’ was externalised, and thus more spontaneous. Individual participants  ‘states of mind’ were shared and publicly displayed on Tilo screens in the public areas of the building, acting as creative ‘prompts’ triggering a dialogue between the artwork and the spectator.  A selection of digital states of mind ‘characters’ were then printed as 3D objects that were used in a mapping workshop, which asked participants ‘What Does Liverpool’s State of Mind Look Like’, as a prompt for exploring their emotional ‘journey’ within the confines of a dense urban environment.

States of Mind at FACT in Liverpool, Tilo screen exhibition display and 3D printed workshop

States of Mind at FACT in Liverpool, Tilo screen exhibition display and 3D printed workshop

States of Mind at FACT in Liverpool, Tilo screen exhibition display and 3D printed workshop

States of Mind at FACT in Liverpool, Tilo screen exhibition display and 3D printed workshop

The digital phenomenology of the artefacts is part of the underpinning research for a new developmental project with Swansea Medical School, where I am an Honorary Fellow. Just as States of Mind addressed the complexities of trying to describe complex subjective states of mind through verbal articulation, the new research project we are developing considers the need for a non-verbal language to help communicate individual experiences and interpretations of depression and suicide ideation. Darkness Enlightened (working title) explores the idea of using hybrid making techniques that allow subjects to recognise, visualise and non-verbally express their individual depressive states or moods via new forms of digital-phenomenological language for mental health that can be created ‘phygitally’ (as a hybrid physical-digital object). This latest project will be a culmination of much of the research I have been involved with over the past decade in relation to brain science, mental health, bioinformatics and hybrid forms of design production. But behind the digital innovation and the ‘customised mood states’ is a real and urgent issue: that of the increasing number of young people suffering from depression and anxiety disorders and the alarming number of young men who subsequently take their own lives.

The final work that stems from my art and neuroscience practice-led research also deals with the need for peace of mind only, this much more playful and performative artwork, takes the expression peace of mind quite literally. Undoubtedly, medical imaging and digital representations of the brain have led to an unprecedented expansion in anatomical knowledge with biological imaging delving ever deeper into the interior of the brain. However, how does this neo-technical enlightenment help us to further our understanding of personal identity and does being able to allegedly ‘see’ our thoughts really give us ‘peace’ of mind, or are we actually only experiencing a ‘piece’ of brain? The Piece of Mind Mask series (2012 – )  takes the brain-mind debate into the ‘theatre of the mind’, an imaginary wonder chamber in which four anatomical brain slices are transformed into carnivalesque masks, reminiscent of the Venice carnival. In addition to the four giclee prints the masks are available as a free download and can be printed and ‘customised’ via an ancillary web project ‘Colour My Thoughts’, so that the participant can create and wear their very own piece of mind.

Piece of Mind Mask, mixed media, Ffotogallery Cardiff and touring (2012- )

Piece of Mind Mask, mixed media, Ffotogallery Cardiff and touring (2012- )

 

References and further reading:

Aldworth, S. and Ingham, K. ‘Between: Intersections in Art and Science in the Practice of Two Contemporary Artists’ in Art, Science and Cultural Understanding, (Ed.s) Brett Wilson, Barbara Hawkins and Stuart Sims, The Arts in Society Book Series, CG Publishing: Chicago

Crary, J. (1992) Techniques of The Observer, MIT Publishing: Massachusetts and London

Ingham, K., (2000) Death’s Witness, Ffotogallery Publishing: Cardiff

Ingham, K., (2012) Wonder Chamber, Ffotogallery Publishing: Cardiff

Ingham, K., ‘Between: Curating Representation of the Embodied Brain’ in ‘Curating The Brain’, Special Issue of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 38 No. 3, September 2013, Maney Publishing

Kwint, M. and Wingate, R. (Ed.s) ‘Curating The Brain’, Special Issue of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 38 No. 3, September 2013, Maney Publishing

Wingate, R. (2012) Introduction to Between: Embodiment and Identity, Kings College London and Somerset House, London

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http://kareningham.org.uk

https://wellcomecollection.org/narrative-remains

https://vimeo.com/135173040

 

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