Here’s a scary proposition: modern science knows very little – almost nothing – about the way in which the human brain works and the origins of consciousness. For artist Jack Stahel, this is an exciting black-hole of exploration for his research-based art practice. For him, the function and nature of consciousness is an area awaiting scholarly analysis by practicing artists, and science and art are partners in a united project, “humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation”. Writer Lauren Carroll Harris spoke to Stahel about what he is discovering.
LCH: What are you thinking about at the moment as being the main focus of your practice?
JS: It all starts with the human mind, which is the case with everything anyway I suppose. It is our only mode of experiencing the world, so it only follows that I would start there in my artistic practice too. It’s an infinite well of fascination. As for the more physical focuses of my practice, its my compulsive drawing and collecting processes that I use as a framework for my personal methodology of research.
I was thinking there is tremendous possibility in conceiving your work as an alternative way of generating knowledge about currently unexplainable phenomena. One of the main questions your work seems to ask is: how do we explain what hasn’t been proven yet?
…It’s an experiential knowledge and one that can’t be explained reductively. I think that’s pretty important to remember when you’re studying something like the mind. The best comparative model for studying the mind is a world that is experienced.
The question is, in the absence of empirical knowledge what other kind of knowledge can we accept? In lieu of that scientific knowledge, perhaps that is the role that art can play: to step in.
Perhaps there are two different planes of knowledge operating parallel in your work: the plane of empirical knowledge and the plane of instinctive knowledge. You don’t counterpose the two. You look at how they co-exist.
Absolutely. That is how our brain works. The division of the brain is the result of an evolutionary need for two incompatible types of attention on the world at the same time. Take for example a cat that is hunting for food. It needs to have a broad attention on the world around it to watch for predators, yet also needs a focused and narrow attention directed towards specific needs and uses of things. You have to be careful what words you use to describe these types of attention though, words like empirical and instinctive can be too broad. Pretty much all of the ideas from the 60s and 70s about brain lateralisation are completely false, which has made it a bit of a taboo area of research for a long while. Theres obviously still so much to learn too, but brain division is real and the implications of these different forms of attention are astronomical. Different types of attention don’t provide us with different ways of thinking about the world, they provide us with different ways of being in the world. The type of attention we give something changes how that thing comes into being in our experience.
I’m trying to combine those two types [of attention and being in the world] together. Because the brain is divided [into hemispheres], it has two different ways of understanding itself. I wouldn’t want to say that one side is empirical and one side is intuitive, because that’s way too broad and reductive. There’s the right hemisphere, which is a vehicle and a filter for everything new that’s coming through into our experience. The left side, which is generally purported to be the empirical side, actually takes the experience of the right side, breaks it apart into pieces and fits it back together to make sense of it. I’m going to be able to explain it way better if I just type it in a few sentences.
I just had an idea. Offering a separate verbal description and written description to each question would be a good way of illustrating these two side-by-side but linked ways of thinking and understanding and computing information. We’d show two responses to each question: the way you explain it, and the way you write it. Left brain, right brain.
Exactly. It is difficult to explain these ideas that are so tied up with the fact that some things can’t be explained in words.
Yes, that’s the essence of your work. And that’s why you make art and why you’re not a writer. How does the research into the brain’s operation influence your art-making?
To start with, there’s a few obsessive processes that fuel my practice. They’ve been the starting point of my research, and I’ve incorporated them into my research methodologies. Drawing and collecting are both fascinating ways of gaining information – they’re simultaneously an experience and a record of that experience. They’re also uncannily relatable to what I’ve learnt about brain lateralisation. In aesthetic terms, I always aim for an ambiguous outcome, and I’m interested in drawing’s capability to communicate the mutable and the implicit. Drawing is the oldest form of language in human history and it all began with the need to communicate personal and mutable experiences to others.
From the beginning, what I was interested in – the mind – was connected to my process already, and my research became about trying to understand that process and get to the bottom of it. Instead of simply making a drawing that was a documentation of a [thought] process, I added an examination of that process as part of the work.
The language was one of the starting points for my project, the Museum of Imaginary Science. I thought, ‘what if I translated my drawing process into writing?’ I never made the same symbol twice. The fact that they’re all different was important. It connected up with the division of the brain and that right hemisphere that is never fully grasped because its always changing and experiencing new things. It never really holds onto what it’s experiencing in a constant stream – it’s the left side that make sense of it. If I see a pot plant, my left brain will say, ‘I know that’s a pot plant, and every time I’ve seen that thing I’ve been told it’s a pot plant, so I’ve been given an explicit grounding’.
In terms of the brain, its function, its relationship to ourselves and identity and how that relationship operates, we don’t know how those things work, and we don’t have a language to describe it either, so your language is a way to enunciate the inexplicable.
Language is a left hemisphere [thing] to ground us. To name something sets it apart from that fluctuating experience.
Yes, language is an abstracted anchor.
Oh yeah, it’s definitely removed from the world. That’s why creating my language, which is always different, is important – grasping something, but grasping something intangible.
I’m curious about your work’s relationship to theory and how knowledge is generated in the university environment. The purpose of postgraduate study is generating new knowledge. I know that you are a compulsive drawer and a process-driven artist. What’s the relationship between your art practice and the process of theorising it?
What think is one of the most valuable assets of a fine arts research degree, is that there is essentially no limits in what you can research and what connections and comparisons you can make. My research spans psychology and neuroscience, a variety of philosophy topics in both epistemology and metaphysics, more art related theory of objects and aesthetics, museums and history of science, quantum physics, and other contemporary artists practice of course. I may not be an expert in any of these fields, but I’m more interested in discovering the relationships and connections between totally different and seemingly unrelated area.
There’s the question of how you ground such lofty ideas in static forms. You’re not trying to offer a solution as much as pose the question.
Yes. If I can capture a certain sort of movement in static image, that’s when I know I’ve done what I wanted to do. When you realise we have two different ways of understanding reality, which are incompatible, a cohesive portrayal of that needs to be contradictory. The whole idea that I’m trying to get across is that words are not insufficient to describe certain things because they’re not accurate enough, it’s because they’re too accurate. To put words to something that is constantly changing, ambiguous and fluctuating suddenly cuts away everything that was intangible and inexplicable to some core root. You’ve shed away all this stuff and it becomes nonsense in an attempt to make sense of it.
I try to avoid explaining what I want the work to explain itself. I often get asked why I don’t focus on smaller and more digestible ideas, but I’m not interested in coming up with a definite, neatly packaged response to something. It’s gotta be left open-ended, otherwise it’s boring and ultimately leads me nowhere to go next.
i. Tim Minchin, ‘Occasional Address’, University of Western Sydney, www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-addres. Accessed 30 September, 2013.
Daniel Dennett, 2001, ‘Are We Explaining Consciousness Yet?’ Cognition, Vol. 79, pp.221-237.
Eberhard Fetz, 2012, ‘Artistic Explorations of the Brain’, Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. Vol. 6, No. 9.
Werner Herzog, 2010, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 89 minutes.
Iain McGilchrist, 2009, ‘The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.’ Yale University Press: London.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1632, ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp.’ Oil on canvas, 216.5cm x 169.5cm.
Oliver Sacks, 2010, ‘The Minds Eye.’ Picador: London.
Jack Stahel, 2012, ‘The Museum of Imaginary Science’. Installation, drawing and sculpture. Mixed media, dimensions variable. COFA Annual, Sydney.
Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and artist in Sydney. Her monograph ‘Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem’ is available through...