Tag Archives: science


16 Nov


Human brains have two small but important regions named for their respective discoverers. Broadly speaking, Broca’s area processes the syntax of language (i.e. its structure and form), while Wernicke’s area is for semantics (i.e. language comprehension and meaning). Wernicke and Broca work with each other, with structures like the angular gyrus for abstractions of language and interactions of syntax and semantics, and of course with the brain as a whole. There’s a lot that’s still unknown about how it all functions and why, but what is well known is that damage to Broca’s area can lead to a person’s speech being halting and fragmented, a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron.


“Geddoodachoppah!”, “Geunzidderdadabidorze”, “I’ll beebeck azzhurl”, etc.

Damage to Wernicke’s area, on the other hand, creates a form of aphasia in which Broca’s area and the rest of brain keeps playing by the rules of syntax but the resulting language is meaningless. The best comparison is to a spambot or chatbot, software which can algorithmically generate texts that mostly make sense without any intelligence or understanding of meaning whatsoever.

Valid syntax but gibberish content, as in Noam Chomsky’s famous example “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”? Sounds like a pretty succinct and accurate description of about half of the conference papers, artist statements and gallery press releases I ever read in my whole career. I could provide numerous examples that I’ve written about on this blog, without even needing to go elsewhere– although I could just as easily do that and find some egregious instances of artspeak within minutes, if not seconds. Anyway, some examples of the worst artspeak that I’ve castigated are here on this blog and excerpted below. They’re all real, and they’re all apparently serious. Try to fight the urge to commit homicide and/or suicide after you’ve read these:

“… a speculative aesthetics of discovery, which is contemplated, interpreted and distorted through the space-time vortex of a mimetic mirror. When the space is not delineated, it is its attempted discoveries which give rise to projects.”

“This is a sort of Schwittersian accumulation of material and void that subsequently creates different spatial architectures – connections. Pure, at first sight simple, spontaneous and rough interventions – gestures (situate, bend down, put, attach, move, cut off) create plasticity of surfaces.”

“… an experimental, rarefied field for the art exhibition which collapses form (the collectivity requisite of the Chain and any performative work) and content (collective consciousness).”

“… exquisitely detailed aesthetic forms hovering between energy and mass.”

“… an instance of collapse to an oblique point of fact, a known feeling… The hook looks like a lemniscate but it feels like a ball bearing… It is in the gap between these understandings and their relentless riffing, where (the artist who wrote this shit)’s drawings take shape and its narratives unfold.”

Even more here, if you think your poor, battered Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas can stand it:




14 Nov

I’ve been reading neurologist V.S. Ramachandran’s interesting (and occasionally, slyly funny) book The Tell-Tale Brain. There are some unexpected and cogent explorations of art in it, including a great anecdote about the Nobel Prize-winning Dutch ornithologist/ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and his experiments in the 1950s with seagulls. Some of Tinbergen’s most groundbreaking work was on what he called supernormal stimuli. In short, living creatures have inherent, instinctive preferences for certain things that play an important part in their lives, especially their reproductive lives. Birds like eggs in their nests and birds like sitting on eggs because if they didn’t then there wouldn’t any more birds. But these instincts can also be thwarted because a bird also usually prefers a giant, artificial, gaudy egg with exaggerated markings to anything nature can create. Male butterflies want to mate with female butterflies, but they will often choose an unreal, perfect model of a female butterfly instead of its– by comparison, anyway– boring and imperfect real-life counterpart.

Tinbergen also found that female herring gulls have a red spot underneath their beaks, which is a target for gull chicks to peck at when they want to be fed. The chick pecks the red circle, opens its mouth, the mother regurgitates some food, and they repeat as necessary or until the supply of seagull vomit is exhausted. It turns out, though, that chicks are not terribly bothered if it’s their actual mother who feeds them. A head on a pole, or a disembodied beak, or a red dot on a stick will all provoke a chick to peck for food. Evolution and daily life both tend to favour quick reactions and ad hoc solutions; as Ramachandran mischievously puts it, in nature a chick is unlikely to ever encounter “a malicious ethologist waving around a fake beak” so it makes sense for the hardwired seagull rule to take a relative short cut like “if I’m a baby, then red dot=mother=food”.

My diagram of the herring gull experiment is better than Ramachandran’s. OBJECTIVE SCIENTIFIC FACT.

What’s really fascinating is Tinbergen’s discovery that if you put three red stripes on the end of a stick, the chick goes into a frenzy of pecking; this abstract supermother promises far more than any real biological mother can. It seems there’s an addendum to “red dot=mother=food”, some as yet inexpressible rule that’s being exploited by this amplification of what nature offers. Ramachandran:

“Imagine that seagulls had an art gallery. They would hang this long thin stick with three stripes on the wall. They would call it a Picasso, worship it, fetishize it, and pay millions of dollars for it, while all the time wondering why they are turned on by it so much, even though (and this is the key point) it doesn’t resemble anything in their world. I suggest this is exactly what human art connoisseurs are doing when they look at or purchase abstract works of art; they are behaving exactly like gull chicks. By trial and error, intuition or genius, human artists like Picasso or Henry Moore have discovered the equivalent of the seagull brain’s stick with three stripes.”

It should be noted that Ramachandran is just throwing this idea out as a plausible hypothesis, and he isn’t dissing or dismissing abstract art here. Neither am I. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen a theory of abstract art’s appeal that makes some kind of objective sense and isn’t smothered in academic artspeak claptrap to mask all the things we don’t know, and in many cases can’t know.

PS: Abstract Supermother is the name of my new band.


13 Apr


People familiar with this blog will already know I get excited whenever there’s a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, and that I find endlessly inspiring the permanent displays of Henry Wellcome’s original (and brilliantly insane) collections of medical tools, weird sexual paraphernalia, mannequins, ex voto paintings, and so forth. Brains both does and doesn’t live up to this pedigree. It doesn’t in the sense that the customary offering of interpolated contemporary art works is very disappointing, tokenistic and weak, overly reliant on the obvious and figurative (it’s a brain! made of glass or bronze or plastic!) and on bringing in the usual artist suspects like Annie Cattrell. I like her work, but come on, I think we can do better than just Googling “brain artist”: there are loads of young artists (and scientists) doing fascinating, exciting sci-art work. There are also existing works that deal in much more evocative and illuminating ways with the interplay of intangible mind and physical brain matter than does any of the contemporary art in this particular exhibition. It all just seemed a bit of an afterthought, unlike previous exhibitions in which the contemporary work was genuinely cogent and intriguing– and often by artists many people would not already be familiar with.

The historical element of the exhibition, by contrast, deals very well with what could have just been a parade of brain after brain after brain. This aspect was indeed as fascinating and inspiring as I would expect from Wellcome, although it still felt a little sparse by comparison with its predecessors. Even so I usually get more ideas, excitement and inspiration from spending a hour in one of these exhibitions than I get from a month of contemporary art private views; Brains was no exception. Perhaps excessively and dangerously inspiring to me, because now I really have a burning desire for a wax dog brain replica with a turned wooden handle like the one displayed in this exhibition. Hint to the Wellcome shop: Pens, postcards and magnets are crap. I would, however, buy from you without question a wax dog brain replica on a convenient Victoriana handle.

There are the expected brains in jars, to be sure, but with intelligent context that steers us away from any hint of just gawping at human bits. I know I have a macabre sense of humour, so I may be projecting something that isn’t really there, but I also very much enjoyed and laughed about the insouciant comments on various morbid items, like a highly disturbing Victorian trephination set described with a hint of envy as “fine gentlemanly possessions” or the brain of “gentleman, scholar, murderer” Edward H. Rulloff spoken of- with endearingly boyish enthusiasm- as being “one of the heaviest extant preserved brains.” It felt to me as if many of the statements would benefit from an exclamation mark. ONE OF THE HEAVIEST EXTANT PRESERVED BRAINS!

Presumably these texts were written by the curator, Marius Kwint, and they’re certainly a far cry from the art world’s curatorial statements that I often castigate here on this blog, being everything a curator’s explanation should be: brief, informative, factual and unpretentious. I do wish, though, that he’d dug properly into the incredibly rich seam of material in popular culture, film and literature about brains, brain transplants, brain anxiety, brains detached from bodies, etc. rather than just whacking up a few (un-annotated) B Movie posters at the end.

PS: I saw the noted neuroscientist and total-bloody-raving-right-wing-lunatic-who-thinks-video-games-destroy-children-and-society Professor Susan Greenfield at this exhibition. She wasn’t at all interested in Edward H. Rulloff’s heaviest extant preserved brain, despite several attempts by her companion to engage her in discussion about it. Another damning mark against her character. I bet she wasn’t excited about the wax dog brain either. I feel sorry for her. Tragic.


26 Jan


The exhibition space at the BFI on London’s south bank, like a Samsung TV showroom, is a black box full of streaming, uncredited content. I can’t remember when I last saw such shoddy, lazy staging of video work by a major institution. I often castigate superfluous, anxious over-explanation of art exhibitions that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Unfortunately at the BFI they’ve gone to the equally unproductive opposite extreme. Unless a credit or title is embedded in the work itself (which is rare), there is absolutely nothing to tell visitors what they’re looking at or who the artists are. The black box is the star here; Samsung gets all the credit, the artists get little or none.

Even the printed schedule taped to a wall outside was completely out of whack with what was actually being shown… and it was physically impossible to see the schedule and the exhibition at the same time. Both of the invigilators appeared to be asleep for the entire duration of my visit, which was about two hours long. One of the tablets used in Erika Tan’s installation was bleeping in a very annoying, disruptive manner and showing an error message about a “critical power loss” for about fifteen minutes before finally despairing of attention and switching itself off. Only by a lengthy, patient process of Holmesian analysis, deduction and elimination does one begin to understand what is being shown and by whom. The accompanying website is extremely basic as well, and I had to scour elsewhere on the internet for the names and authors of some films that were being shown but are not credited anywhere, not even on Samsung’s site and certainly not on the BFI’s. In short, the staging of this show is crap and there’s no excuse for it.

And again, what the hell is wrong with some video and new media curators? Have they ever actually tried watching video art in a gallery? Even experiencing two or three from the selection of videos available is a matter of perhaps half an hour or more and yet there are just two small, narrow benches to sit on. Again the scratchy, grimy carpet is the only alternative if you don’t want to (or physically can’t for reasons of age or disability, for example) be on your feet for long periods. Remember that we’re in the BFI, a complex full of cinema auditoria and dedicated to the cinematic arts, a place where one would imagine it would be blindingly obvious that people can’t watch long form moving image work properly when they have to squat on the floor. Come on, this is really basic stuff. Continue reading


26 Sep

To be completely frank, although some of my best friends are Welsh and they have such lovely teeth and a natural sense of rhythm and excel at running and everything, their culture is so vibrant etc., Wales’ pavilion is in an out-of-the way and nigh impossible to find cluster consisting of itself, Bangladesh and Iraq. Therefore I couldn’t be bothered to waste my time in tracking it down. Is some big cheese at the Biennale sending a passive-aggressive message by exiling these strife-torn and dysfunctional countries to the Venetian equivalent of Siberia? Only joking, of course: Bangladesh is hardly dysfunctional at all.

I’ll also be honest and say that I walked past Karla Black’s effort for the Scottish pavilion by chance. I went in with an unseemly glee, almost wringing my hands and swishing my cape like a melodrama villain. I fully intended to hate it and knew I would write a load of nasty shit about it because I already know that I loathe her work vehemently. You won’t catch anybody admitting to that in Art Monthly or The Guardian… even though every reviewer, writer or critic does precisely the same thing sometimes. She’s yet another repeat offender from the British Art Show and clearly another flavour of the month, or more accurately “oppressive soapy stink of the month”.

Did you think I was going to announce a dramatic change of heart when confronted with the shattering beauty of Karla Black’s sculptures “rooted in Kleinian analysis”? Sorry, Nimrod. This exhibition was shit and it made me angry. Continue reading

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