Abstract- Michele Barker

http://hdl.handle.net/10002/454 (FULL PAPER)

From Life to Cognition: Investigating the Role of Biology and Neurology in New Media Arts Practice

This paper offers a critical analysis of the relationship between new media arts practice and science occurring at two specific junctures: the migration of key concepts from the life sciences into digital arts during the 1990s and, most recently, the engagement with concepts from the cognitive sciences. I will argue that artists were less critical in deploying metaphors from the life sciences during the 1990s and often literally conceived of digital phenomena as processes of growth and forms of life. By being more self-reflexive and attuned to the implications of scientific images and metaphors, artists now working with concepts drawn from the cognitive sciences can critically explore the visual representation of brain functioning and processes of perception.
An aesthetic framework can be identified for the conjoining of biological and digital metaphors within the fields of artificial life (a-life) systems, interactivity and generative art. Throughout this period artists frequently used concepts drawn from the life sciences – evolution, DNA – to describe processes and outcomes for their practice, laying claim to evolutionary growth and/or behaviours. An investigation into the field of artificial life and its influence over interactivity reveals the emergence of artistic practice dominated by conflicting and reductivist biological metaphors – predominantly ’life’ as (digital) information. This paper will demonstrate the ways in which the convergence between the life sciences and digital theory influenced digital arts of the 1990s and problems that arose when artists allowed the literal migration of life science concepts into the digital realm, neglecting the fact that the aesthetic value of these concepts as metaphors.
Having evaluated the role of this ‘genetic’ umbrella as the dominant metaphorical framework for new media art in the 1990s, I will turn to the emerging role that the cognitive sciences and theories of perception have begun to play within new media arts. A broader conception of the relation between neurology and art has become popular, which we can term neuroaesthetics. This has its origins in the field of neuroscience where it is used to describe the underlying functioning of the brain in relation to perception. Outside of the neurosciences, the concept has been rearticulated in the work of artist Warren Neidich. Neidich’s critical inquiry and practice in the field has identified that artists are interested in “strategies of seeing” rather than reducing vision to neurological function. Through the use of artists working in the area, I would suggest that neuroaesthetics can describe the conceptual and visual response of artists to the imaging processes used by the neurosciences. Neuroaesthetics in new media arts, then, is not a simple migration of cognitive concepts into artistic practice. Rather, it represents a strategic investigation into the ways in which the brain and brain functioning can be visually represented and interpreted.