In Dialogue with Art and Science

“Science and art both seek to observe, record and explain the world around us, just using different means. Both have their theoretical frameworks, evolving techniques, and schools of thought. Above all, both scientists and artists need to be creative and insightful in order to make meaningful contributions to their respective fields.”

Amanpreet Badhwar is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre de Recherche de l’Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Montréal (CRIUGM), Université de Montréal , where she works on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and related dementias. Her research combines structural and functional imaging with clinical and genetic assessments to relate variations in brain connectivity to clinical status, and to develop early markers of AD pathology. She is also an artist. In this exclusive interview she discusses her relationship between art and science.

Interview with Richard Bright (Editor: Interalia Magazine)

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Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Amanpreet Badhwar: I was born in rural West Bengal, India, and then spent my childhood navigating the urban jungle of Kolkata. As far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated by art, and started painting as a child. In my early teens, I was sent to relatives in Canada to pursue a better education, settling in a small town in Ontario. Separated from my immediate family by half a world, my art became my emotional outlet and companion. I came to Montreal on a scholarship to study Biology at McGill University, and then pursued a Master’s degree in Human Genetics, specializing in cross-species genomics. I went on to obtain a Doctorate in Neurosciences at McGill, studying Alzheimer’s disease and the effect of therapeutics on memory and learning-associated neuroanatomical plasticity, the cerebrovascular proteome, and neurovascular coupling at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre de Recherche de l’Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Montréal (CRIUGM), Université de Montréal, and continue to work on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and related dementias. My research combines structural and functional imaging with clinical and genetic assessments to relate variations in brain connectivity to clinical status, and to develop early markers of AD pathology. Late-onset, sporadic AD is a complex and heterogeneous disorder with a number of underlying pathologies contributing to symptoms. However, AD has generally been studied in silos, with individual laboratories focusing on specific aspects of the pathology. Holistic, multimodal approaches that are sensitive to the multiple dementing pathologies as well as the concurrent mechanisms of brain aging are needed to understand AD. I hope to make distinct contributions to the study of AD by applying “big data” methods to integrate observations from multi-modal, large-scale datasets such as in-vivo brain imaging and ‘omics’ (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics). 

RB: You are an artist as well as an academic in the field of neuroscience. How do these two worlds combine?

AB: Science and art both seek to observe, record and explain the world around us, just using different means. Both have their theoretical frameworks, evolving techniques, and schools of thought. Above all, both scientists and artists need to be creative and insightful in order to make meaningful contributions to their respective fields. In one direction, I use painting as a means of communicating ideas from my scientific work to the public using the more visceral, emotional language of art. In the other direction, when grappling with a thorny scientific problem, the distinct focus required while painting frees my subconscious mind from conceptual boundaries and dogmatic ideas, and allows me to return to my scientific work with fresh eyes.

Some people have told me that one cannot be a scientist and an artist at the same time, and that it is necessary to choose. Personally I find that art synergizes with my academic endeavours, and provides me with a clarity that is sometimes hard to find in the barrage of scientific data. Many of my colleagues in science also have artistic tendencies, expressed, for example, in painting, music, sculpture or writing novels. I find that we all share a passion for novelty and discovery.

RB: You are trained in neuroscience. Did you find yourself encountering things you didn’t know about the brain as you create your artwork? How have the works changed your own conception of the function of memory? Also, do you have any specific examples where your artistic explorations have helped to guide your academic thinking?

AB: My prior work used model systems to focus on specific aspects of Alzheimer’s disease pathology and memory impairment in order to reduce the complexity of the problem and generate interpretable results. My artistic explorations have had a broader focus, trying to tie together distinct, but related, concepts. These have ranged from questions regarding what remains of forgotten memories, to the transmittance of oral history across generations via storytelling and folklore, and to the merger of fiction and memories in the shadowy undergrowth of the dream world. To some degree, this has encouraged my shift towards the study of brain connectivity and networks, and the holistic analysis of vast amounts of interrelated data rather than the reductionist approach of isolating specific processes. Both approaches are valid, of course, and complementary, both in science and in art.

RB: Memory, emotion and time are intrinsically linked. Your academic research focuses on the study of Alzheimer’s Disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. What role do these aspects play in your artwork?

AB: A person’s memory is a complex, evolving thing. What you recall of the past is ever morphing – it changes with every act of remembrance. While, on the one hand, we are the sum of our memories and experiences, these memories in turn are the product of our current emotional state or mood. Memories consistent with our present mental framework are reinforced, while inconsistent or inconvenient details grow dim. Our future memories of the present may shift and evolve to be quite different from what we see before us now. This interplay of memory, emotion and time is a common thread that weaves through much of my art. I especially like to experiment with moods in my artwork. It is well established that colors have an emotionally arousing effect. I find that the right palette of colors can not only succinctly capture various facets of memory, but can also unlock the information stored in the viewers own memory system. In fact, research has shown that memory retrieval is facilitated when a person’s current mood matches his or her mood when the memory was encoded. In patients with Alzheimer Disease, vivid color cues can help to enhance short-term memory performance, or stimulate the recall of an older (long-term) personal memory.

RB: Can you say something about your series Flashback-Flashforward and Where the Wild Things Live?

AB: The series Flashback-Flashforward addresses the adaptive nature of memory and its illusions through both decisive and spontaneous applications of paint, playing with color and texture to capture the uncertain borders between the real, the remembered and the constructed. Using mixed media applied in many layers on paper, my process recapitulates the layering of memory itself, creating a cohesive whole from heterogeneous elements. Even the paper, recycled and often hand-made, has a voice in this process, being carefully chosen to have the right weight, texture, strength or fragility for the specific work. A representative selection of paintings that highlights these relationships is provided below.

Hyperplane; Separating space into two half spaces, a hyperplane, in mathematics, is a subspace of one dimension less than its ambient space. Do hyperplanes (or boundaries) exist in the landscape of memory? Or do the real, the remembered, and the constructed just fold into each other?

Hyperplane

Hyperplane

Separating space into two half spaces, a hyperplane, in mathematics, is a subspace of one dimension less than its ambient space. Do hyperplanes (or boundaries) exist in the landscape of memory? Or do the real, the remembered, and the constructed just fold into each other?

The Other Lands

The Other Lands

The Other Lands

Dame Margaret Drabble writes, “The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become.” Sometimes, all that remains is the poignant memory of having belonged there, the only tie that pulls us back to these lands

Memory Traces

Memory Traces

Memory Traces

Alluding to the historical neuro-anatomical illustrations of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, this painting depicts an abstract representation of the physical encoding of memory or memory traces in neural tissue. Based on our current understanding, memories are not statically represented in specific areas of our brains, but rather must be actively put together from a variable number of memory traces pulled from multiple locations in the brain.

Urban Timelapse

Urban Timelapse

Urban Timelapse

Buildings rise and buildings fall. In time-lapse mode, one cannot deny that change is the only constant in the urban landscape. However, the traces of the past live on in our collective urban memory, as well as the structures and artefacts beneath our feet.

The series Where the Wild Things Live focuses on remembering early childhood, … in this place of all possibilities, a world of fairy tales and mental imagery charged with emotion, awe, adventure and discovery. It is curious how certain present day stimuli can still transport us back to the days where stories recounted by the spoken word would conjure up wondrous worlds, such as the one at the top of a well-known beanstalk.

To the Realm of Giants

To the Realm of Giants

To the Realm of Giants

An arboreal pathway to a realm hidden in the clouds, this work represents the dreams and aspirations of childhood, when anything is possible, no matter how fantastic. I used layer upon layer of paint to create the sense of depth and distance. The painting was difficult to get just right, and required many adjustments along the way. My aim was to capture the richness of childhood fantasy while avoiding caricature.

Sands of Time

Sands of Time

Sands of Time

An abstract, deconstructed representation of an hourglass. While time may be precisely measureable, our perception of time shifts dramatically with context and age.

Pele’s Wild Child

Pele’s Wild Child

Pele’s Wild Child

The volcano goddess of the Hawaiian Islands, Pele, recalls the birth of an island as it rises out of the ocean in waves of fire and steam. Often our strongest memories are formed in times of high emotion.

RB: Our human brains interpret information through pattern recognition and re-arranging pattern, which is an evolving dynamic process. What importance does pattern play in your artwork?

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All Images - Copyright © 2016 Amanpreet Badhwar. Atl rights reserved.

 

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