Neural Networks: Ellen K. Levy on her “Meme Machines” and the thinking behind them
Ellen K. Levy is an independent scholar and mixed media artist who channels the inquisitive spirit of Leonardo. Blurring lines between art and science, she enlightens the viewer by weaving the complexities of neuroscience and the visual arts in prints, videos and installations, imaging networks of neural pathways. In this conversation she explains with great passion the neuroscientific underpinnings of her work, including “Meme Machines,” her current show at the Mid-Manhattan Library. This installation explores ways in which the architecture and circuitry of our brains segue to the information systems humans build, and—more importantly— how they evolve as we do, organisms in a constant state of flux through episodes of trauma and recovery.
JOYCE BECKENSTEIN: What sparked your interest in the relationship between art and science?
ELLEN K. LEVY: I loved art and natural history museums from an early age, particularly Wunderkammer collections. My father’s friend, the artist Charles Seliger was an important influence because we would do watercolor painting together. He would look for areas with wild outgrowth, push back the brush and have me select an inch of the landscape. We’d each paint what we saw and then compare our sketches. This way I learned to closely observe nature and monumentalize things not immediately seen. While at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I worked nearby at Harvard Medical School in the pharmacology department. At the time, Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel were researching the neural basis of visual perception for which they were awarded a Nobel prize in Physiology. They led the foundation for work on visual perception, and established that during perception different parts of the visual cortex respond separately to motion, orientation, and color. An important question was called the binding problem: How do these different attributes bind together as one? How do we make coherent sense of what is going on in the world? Those, like David Hubel, working on these problems along with lab workers such as myself, would go to art galleries during our lunch breaks and discuss relationships between art and science, especially perception.
Those relationships have been together since ancient times, through the Renaissance and into the 19th and 20th centuries when technology, beginning with the camera, changed how we see the world. Where does your art fit within this enormous arc art/science curve?
My focus has always been in biology and organisms as opposed to chemistry and physics. I studied art at a time when there was a hiatus in the dialogue between art and science— a period of structuralism and post-structuralism in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when art discussion took place on a theoretical level. At the time I became intrigued with the paleontologist Steven J. Gould’s work, particularly his 1981 book, “The Mismeasure of Man.” It had to do with (mis)judgments people have made. One example stayed with me. Gould related a time when people filled skulls with marbles and then counted the contents to determine intelligence. Gould tried to repeat the experiment filling female and male skulls with marbles. He at first found more in the female skull but then realized he had miscounted— subconsciously wishing to find more marbles in the female brain. Gould exposed this way of doing science, and his work underscored the impact of bias on our judgments. After reading that book I became interested in the way in which attention patterns affect our perceptions. The searchlight effect is a metaphor for the brain’s focus on such patterns: if you cast a spotlight on a particular problem or image it catches your attention, but so does it often conceal what is happening outside that circle.
Your video installation, Stealing Attention (2008-09), is a wonderful example of that. How did that work come about?
It resulted from a collaboration with Michael Goldberg, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. But the two-part back story for the work relates, first, to a talk I attended by one of the directors of the Baghdad Museum about the looting that went on after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. One night a masked man broke into the director’s office with a rifle, but—to his relief—he was not a looter but someone wanting to rescue some of the precious museum artifacts, promising to return them, which is what he ultimately did. Second, shortly after hearing this talk I went to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and saw paintings by Caravaggio and de la Tour of card cheaters. In thinking about “Stealing Attention,” I wanted to stage a reflexive experience for viewers; to have them think they had seen something, and then realize, in the process, that they had not seen something else. I created an image of museum artifacts pictured sitting on shelves. This became a background for a superimposed card game of the con game, Three Card Monti. The viewers were instructed to watch the video and count the number of times the Queen of Hearts appeared on the screen. Over the course of the ten minute game, the ten artifacts in the background disappeared one by one. When people were asked to describe what they had seen, most answered with the number of times they thought the Queen of Hearts had appeared—but they missed seeing the objects removed from the shelves.
Wasn’t this similar to the Invisible Gorilla project of Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris highlighting the phenomenon of “inattentional blindness”?
Yes. Deliberately so. In that experiment people were asked to count basketball exchanges during a game and were oblivious to someone in a gorilla suit walking across the basketball court. But in my installation I wanted to see what would happen to perception if viewers were given some clues about what they had not seen. I also wanted the objects not seen to have emotional import. Walking through a series of rooms after they’d seen the video they viewed an empty shelf with Xeroxes of the ten artifacts seen in the animation. Torn sheets with information about those artworks were scattered on the floor and tacked on the walls. When people leaving the exhibition viewed the video a second time most of them were aware of the background activity in which the depicted sculptural images of the looted antiquities were clearly disappearing.
What does this tell us about perception?
Giving people clues helped them reconstruct the circumstances of the video. Visually the “Stealing Attention” animation plays with the shift between foreground and background space, the most basic art relationship. The brain, however, focuses on one part of the experience or another when assigned a task. If you are too distracted by one small part, you may miss the context the larger picture. But—and this is the mystery of perception— an ah ha moment can occur when everything becomes clear. It can happen in an instant or take time, and is a matter of triggering memory and association. When memory kicks in there is yet a larger picture. The juxtaposition of the card con-game with the artifacts assumes political dimensions: we realize that the con-game we were fed regarding weapons of mass destruction—a political distraction—got the US embroiled in the Iraq war.
Your “Meme Machines” exhibition likens the transmission of knowledge through library systems to neural networks. Can you define “meme” and explain why you chose libraries as metaphor for the brain’s activities as a neurological conduit for information?
According to Richard Dawkins, memes are the cultural equivalent of genes. The difference is that memes are contagious; they are ideas that circulate. “Meme Machines” consist of four painted prints related to four different specialized libraries and an animation that shows you a more global perspective of libraries. Together the animation and still prints relate parts to wholes; each library system is like a node within a much larger information system. The context for this work is the current time of migrations, ecological problems, and military invasions. At the heart of this project are communication and information technologies and how we get this news out to the public.
Are you saying that the focus of each library creates a partial view that temporarily blocks one’s ability to see a full picture? That you need the entire system to create pathways to full knowledge, just as the brain binds clues to take us from one piece of information to another?
In a sense, Yes. Each of the four libraries referenced in this show is a stand-in for a person or organism. Its collection makes it unique because it comprises a separate set of experiences and history. I create imagery to suggest how this history might reflect the impact of social, political and/or ecological trauma. For example, the Mama Haidara library in Timbuktu has a collection gathered in Haidara by a man who traveled along the Niger River contacting people living in tribes who possessed ancient manuscripts. There were religious factions that made it illegal to have these manuscripts, so he collected and assembled them at enormous personal risk. To express this I show what the library looks like, but embed the physical structure in threads of the manuscripts that wrap around the building and transform it. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago is another example that is related to “Stealing Attention.“ This library helps counter the destruction of war by maintaining a database of looted antiquities. My still image of this library has references to archeological sites where looting took place.
What role does the animation play in “Meme Machines?”.
“Meme Machines” was another collaborative project, this one done with neuroscientist Justine Kupferman whose work isolated neuronal paths and dendrites. She believes that the nodes and branches she isolated specify a sites of learning. For me, the animation suggests similar transitions, such as the evolution of libraries over time. For example, the viewer sees threads of manuscripts lifting off the pages and enmeshing the Haidara Library, and sees flows of information emanating from the Patent and Trademark Office. I mimic a neural network in the animation with a visual moving line that is punctuated with each library as a “node” along a continuing route. By contrast, the mixed media still portraits depict a single state.
When artists put their work out in the world they trigger multiple new pathways: viewers’ interpretations of the works become part of their own networks which today often go viral on the internet. What is the impact of that in terms of evolving “organisms?”
I think we are reaching a place where an incipient mass consciousness is developing and we become aware of other people’s perspectives. There are good and bad aspects to this: the negative is that two things are being threatened. One is our attention; we are easily diverted. But I also think we lose our sense of the physical embodiment of things in virtual space. When you hold a book in your hand you have a different sensation than you do when reading online. The old manuscripts I referred to had a distinct odor, texture and sense of place that you don’t have when they are reduced to digital formats.
And for all the available information at your fingertips, so is there a loss of sensation that is related to our lost and misdirected attention. As an artist how do you deal with that?
Much art today has a political dimension. We see the politicization of things that were once not political. I think the subject of attention is now one of those subjects that artists are dealing with.