Venice Symposia 2011

Neuroscience and Art in Dialogue 

June 2nd, 2011
Peggy Guggenheim Collection – Library
Dorsoduro 704, 30123 Venice, Italy


Publication with contributions from Alexander Abbushi, Elena Agudio, Anton Burdakov, Jimena Canales, Moran Cerf, Olafur Eliasson, Ivana Franke, Vittorio Gallese, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Daniel Margulies, Markus Miessen, Ida Mommenejad, Tammo Prinz, Raqs Media Collective, Ulrich W. Thomale and Semir Zeki.


On the occasion of the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, the Association of Neuroesthetics (AoN) was invited to organize a symposium on art and neuroscience by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Marino Golinelli Foundation. Following the success of this event, the AoN has been asked to continue holding this series at the library of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection during the following three Biennales. In resonance with the curatorial focus of the 54thBiennale: IllumiNations, our upcoming symposium on June 2nd, 2011, will explore the theme: SEEING WITH EYES CLOSED.  

The symposium takes its title from an interdisciplinary project by artist Ivana Franke and neuroscientist Ida Momennejad, conceived through the support of Alexander Abbushi and the AoN. The project concerns the visual experience of flowing images induced by stroboscopic light behind closed eyes. Being aware that the seen images have no foundation in external reality, one experiences them as hallucinatory. This ‘conscious quasi-hallucinating’ challenges our sense of the real in its alternation and its permeability with the imaginary. Each person’s experience differs from that of others, and each ascribes different dimensions to the perceived space in constant transformation. Communicating the content of this ephemeral flux of unpredictable percepts stretches the limits of acquiring subjective report to extremes, and challenges the scientific aspiration to precisely measure the timing of conscious phenomena.

Both neuroscience and art face ambiguities and uncertainties while chasing the unknown. Both disciplines encourage doubt regarding our habitual experience of reality, but they seem to employ opposing methods to produce knowledge. Whereas the scientific method strives to disambiguate, explain, and tackle the unknown with precision, the arts have no intention of disambiguation and often strive to escalate the uncertainties in order to reexamine our experience of reality. The methodological limits of both disciplines are challenged when experimenting with ambiguous and extreme conscious phenomena. Such experiences, as those explored in the project, can serve as the meeting point of the two modes of knowledge, where genuine interdisciplinary experimentation and dialogue can stretch the boundaries of our conceptual tools and methods.

In dialogue with the project, during the symposium a panel of experts from the disciplines of art and neuroscience will reflect on the limits of our internally generated perception of visual reality. How do we make sense of what we see without knowing what it is that we are looking at? Can we construct spatiotemporal forms purely based on ‘imagination’? To what extent may different brains show similar activities in spite of differences in subjective experience? To what extent is our perception of reality constructed and altered by the intrinsic build-up of our brains rather than neural responses to stimuli that is strictly ‘out there’? 

Installation by Ivana Franke and ongoing neuroscientific research by Ida Momennejad will be presented during the symposium. The installation will be on view from the 1st to the 6th  of June in the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

Bar plots of subjective reports (n=52) to the questions: a. in which dimensions did you experience the visual percepts (plot above); and b. what kind of motion did you perceive (plot below)? 

From top: Ivana Franke, Untitled (2), 2008, metal ring, LED, monofilament, diameter 95×8 cm; Ivana Franke, Latency (sala Colonne), 2007, aluminium construction, LED, monofilament, 500x700x50 cm. Installation view: Croatian pavilion, Palazzo Querini Stampalia, Area Scarpa, 52nd Venice Biennale; Ivana Franke, Boxed-in infinite polyhedron, 2010, acrylglass, monofilament,80x80x80 cm. Courtesy of Gallery Niklas Belenius.