Neuroaesthetics and the Imatronic Festival of Electronic Music

by Robert Barry, December 16, 2012

source: frieze blog

Hermann Cuntz, 'The Neuron's Turing Test', 2012

Standing in a circular room roughly the diameter of a small church bell tower, though my feet are anchored to the floor, I feel as if I’m shooting through space. Lime green dendrites burst out toward me in a computer-generated neural landscape spanning almost 360 degrees, vertiginously spinning and whirling forward at the speed of thought. This is Dr. Hermann Cuntz’s video installation, ‘The Neuron’s Turing Test’ (2012), specially created for the PanoramaLab at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany. The work is apparently a remarkably faithful representation of the interior circuitry of a human brain. Its bright, spidery networks of neural pathways resemble a lysergic counterpart to the criss-crossing maps of rural lanes or the arterial cartographies of Renaissance travellers, but this is no walk in the country – it’s more like a dizzying, high-speed rollercoaster ride through a neon city.

Imatronic Extended is one of Germany’s largest festivals for electronic music and media arts, and this year it came packaged with a diversely programmed symposium on ‘Neuroaesthetics’. As one of the artistic contributions to the festival, artist Helga Griffiths, who has been working for a number of years on immersive multi-sensory installations wrapped in science-fiction narratives and evoking the crossmodal sensory pollination of synaesthesia, offered another view of the human brain. For Brainscape (2012), she worked with Dr. Lars Muckli from the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt to transform a tomographic image of her own brain (i.e. photographed in sections by a penetrating wave, as in a CT scan or MRI) into a video driftwork in cloudy shades of grey. We float here not through the axons but along the surface of this encephalon, which seems at once both fragile and strangely insubstantial, like wisps of smoke upon cut glass. In her lecture during the symposium, Griffiths explained the film was made by combining scans of her brain with the image of a Patagonian glacier to create a ‘synonym for the topographical history of the earth.’

Visuals from the Neurosaesthetics symposium at the Imatronic Extended Festival, ZKM, Karlsruhe

For centuries we’ve been strangely fascinated with the brain of the artist – ever since, perhaps, Beethoven’s autopsy revealed that his neural ‘convolutions’ were ‘very much deeper, wider, and more numerous than ordinary.’ (from Thayer’s Life of Beethoven). The French phrenologist of the July Monarchy period, Broussais, believed that the Maori people lacked the proper organ for producing great painters or poets. Upon the death of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Soviet scientists, eager to discover the roots of his genius, weighed his excised brain: it measured some 300 grams heavier than average. As I discovered during the three days of the Neuroaesthetics symposium, modern neuroscience may wield considerably more sophisticated tools, but some of their assumptions may be just as blunt as their 19th-century forebears: that artistry may be quantified statistically and organically located.

Professor Eckart Altenmüller, to cite one of the more egregious examples at the symposium, spent five years hunting for the root of what he calls the ‘chill effect’ of the shivers down the spine we experience when listening to music. ‘I wanted to have the recipe,’ he says of his unfulfilled plan to create the ‘ultimate chill music’ and take his results to North Cameroon and wow the natives. ‘It did not work out,’ he admits, as the only similarity he found after countless fMRI studies was that the so-called chill always occurs during some change in a piece of music – but that change could take practically any form.

For philosopher Alva Noë, also speaking at the symposium, neuroscientists like Altenmüller make the mistake of regarding art merely as a form of stimulus. In presuming that there is no gap between the work and the thing represented, they are doomed to miss art itself. He granted, however, that there need not be anything wrong with artists themselves taking their inspiration from where they find it – and if neuroscience drives an artist to develop novel approaches to his or her work, then that can only be for the good.

A performance at the Imatronic Extended Festival, ZKM, Karlsruhe

The neuroaesthetics meme seems to have begun with a trio of lectures by American artist and former eye surgeon, Warren Neidich, at the School of Visual Arts in New York, back in 1995 – some years before the term was appropriated by neuroscientists to describe their own aesthetic investigations. For Neidich, neuroaesthetics provides the opportunity to launch a series of ‘artistic researches’, employing the means and wares of artistic practice to investigate the ‘knowledge spheres’ of natural science, with the aim of finding not constancies and correlations, but ‘new paradigms’, new ‘singularities’ (as he put it in his talk). Neidich’s was a recurrent voice of dissent throughout the symposium, questioning the scientists’ seeming desire to systematize the unsystemizable. In his own presentation, however, the idiosyncrasies of his singular pursuits were laid bare, to reveal, in works like his The Education of the Eye (2010) – in which the colour palettes of various expert copyists’ examinations of a contemporary, Chinese-made replica of William Hogarth’s 1757 self-portrait are compared, a colour chart of their collective ‘unchoices’ exhibited – a compelling narrative of perceptual instability and a sideways critique of cognitive capitalism.

Robert Barry is freelance writer and composer, based in Paris. His music can be heard at