Venice Symposia 2009

Making worlds // Fare mondi

Neuroscience and Art in Dialogue

June 4th, 2009, 2 – 5 p.m.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection – Library
Dorsoduro 704, 30123 Venezia

On June 4th 2009, during the opening of the 53rd Venice Biennale, the Association of Neuroeshetics (AoN) together with the the Marino Golinelli Foundation and the Ernst Schering Foundation, organized a symposium in the library of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation. 

A selected group of neuroscientists, artists, and critics were invited to address the possibilities of new interactions between neuroscience and the arts, considering the most recent interdisciplinary approaches. 

Daniel Birnbaum entitled this year’s Biennale “Fare Mondi”// Making Worlds,” and explained “the title  expresses my wish to emphasize the process of creation. A work of art represents a vision of the world and if taken seriously it can be seen as a way of making a world.“ Neuroscientists on the other hand have come to understand that their object of study, the brain, is not a passive chronicler of what happens in the external world, but an active participant creating the world that we experience. Both the neural processes, which give rise to unique subjective experiences, as well as their artistic products, are intertwined in perpetual remaking of reality. Therefore, the Biennale’s title was an ideal starting point for the organized symposium. 

At the table, from left to right: Johnatan Fineberg, Anna Detheridge, Johnatan Cole, David Freedberg, Vittorio Gallese, Ludovica Lumer, Semir Zeki, Alexander Abbushi, Pae White, Heike Mertens, Ivana Franke, Eva Runhau, Marino Golinelli.

Alexander Abbushi, director of the AoN, introduced the event presenting the mission of the association “to work towards a shared new language between contemporary art and neuroscience” and thanked the guests and the sponsors. Heike Mertens, arts & culture director of the Schering Foundation, and Marino Golinelli, president of the Golinelli Foundation, expressed their wishes in engaging in such an experiment.

AoN’s roundtable discussion developed the theme in a debate over a three hour period, divided in the three sessions. 

First session: Pae White and Semir Zeki, moderated by Ludovica Lumer.
Second session: Vittorio Gallese and David Freedberg, moderated by Elena Agudio.
Third session: Christine Macel, Davide Balula and Ernst Poeppel.

The first session of the symposium started with a presentation by the artist Pae White, who introduced her work showing images of her recent installations and projects. “All I can do is present my work and listening to some of the questions that may come up from the scientists about my research”. 

Semir Zeki, professor of neuroesthetics at the University College of London, focused on the capacity of the brain to combine elements in an whole. “For a century – from 1860, when the visual cortex was first discovered, to 1970 – neurobiology was assuming that vision was a unitary process. Now we know, instead, that many different and separated processes are together giving the unified result of the perception of an image. Artists are able to give attention to the particulars and as well to the unity, they have the capability to bring this particular into the whole” . The dialogue with Pae White focused on the analysis of the creative artistic act, on the possibilities of unification of many different particulars. “I conceive my work – stated the artist – as always related with something speculative, but I like to have the unknown happeningThe component of surprise and contingency is always important for me.

The second session focused on the theory of mirror neurons and on the implications of embodied perception. Vittorio Gallese, professor of human physiology and part of the team of Parma that came to the discovery of these special neurons, gave a clear demonstration of what can be done by neuroscience toward the arts. “What I think that neuroscience can contribute to our understanding of aesthetic experience is rediscovering the role of the acting body in intersubjectivity, even when intersubjectivity has to be considered in the mediated forms of the artworks.” Recalling the idea of the practognosia of Merleau Ponty, Gallese underlined the fact that we are bodily-self and that our perception of the world is related to our motor system and to the somatosensory part of our brain. David Freedberg, art historian director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, assessed that “what engages us when we look at a work of art is not the beauty – he does not think it is possible nowadays to speak about beauty in art –, but the way in which our prefrontal cortex modulates bottom-up responses, that responses that spring up from our limbic area and have to do with motor reaction. What neuroscience can help in our wish to understand aesthetic is to look at the connectivity between pre-motor cortex and pre-frontal areas.”

The third session of the panel has been given by Christine Macel, Davide Balula and Ernst Poeppel. Macel immediately underlined that for her “art cannot be reduced to the aesthetic experience. An art work is about meaning that goes beyond the forms and the colours we perceive in a work of art.” The overview on the work of the young artist Davide Balula had been used as an example to demonstrate how much could be necessary nowadays to redefine what an aesthetic experience of art is. Not easy to be defined, art is human activity that had evolved since the Reinassance, and its understanding is not only dealing with the contemplation of an object but as well with the idea of fiction and plurality of meanings. The neuroscientist Ernst Poeppel, professor of medical psychology in Munich, concluded the symposium opening the circle to literature, music and other form of art that are not only visual, and speaking about the importance of anthropological universals. 

The problem and the risks of reductionism were constantly addressed during the dialogue between the invited neuroscientists and artists.Yet, the symposium seemed to be a further development of  the dialogue between neuroscience and the arts and a starting point for several new interactions of the two disciplines.

From left to right: Anna Detheridge, Johnatan Cole, David Freedberg, Semir Zeki, Vittorio Gallese, Elena Agudio, Daniel Margulies, Heike Mertens.

Event curated by Alexander Abbushi and Elena Agudio.


Alexander Abbushi, Neurosurgeon, Charité Universitätsmedizin, Berlin

Elena Agudio, Art historian and curator

Davide Balula, Artist

Jonathan Cole, Clinical Neurophysiologist, Poole Hospital and University of Bournemouth, UK

Anna Detheridge, Art critic, President of Connecting Cultures

Jonathan Fineberg, Director, Illinois at the Phillips, The Center for the Study of Modern Art, Phillips Collection, Washington DC and Professor of Art History, University of Illinois

Ivana Franke, Artist

David Freedberg, Pierre Matisse Professor of Art History, Columbia University; Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

Vittorio Gallese, Professor of Human Physiology, Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of Parma, Dep. Of Neurosciences

Florian Hecker, Artist

Ludovica Lumer, Neurobiologist and gallerist

Christine Macel, Curator, NMAM Centre Pompidou, Paris

Riccardo Manzotti, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Institute of Human, Language and Environmental Sciences, Milan

Daniel Margulies, Ph. D. student at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig

Jorge Otero Pailos, Architect, Professor of Architecture, Columbia University, New York.

Ruggero Poi, Education administration, Cittadellarte (project by Michelangelo Pistoletto, artist)

Ernst Pöppel, Professor of Medical Psychology, LMU Munich

Philippe Rahm, Architect

Eva Ruhnau, Director, Human Science Center, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich

Sissel Tolaas, Artist, Professor of „Invisible Communication and Rhetorics“ at Harvard Business School

Pae White, Artist

Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroesthetics, University College London



Berlin 1 – Berlin 2, a smell installation by Sissel Tolaas

Neues Synchrophon, a sound device by Florian Hecker