Impressions

Points of Reference: Embodied Memory

Recent notes on memory, navigation, and embodiment.

I love thinking about embodied cognition (how our mental life is shaped by the physical roots of experience). Recently, a spate of articles has me thinking about where memory lives in the brain, and how the body moving through space is tied to recollection. It’s interesting to consider what impressions you’re embedding physically or mentally. Maybe you’re an art viewer noticing how your eye “moves” through a picture. Or, you’re an art handler “walking through” an exhibition design in SketchUp. Perhaps, you’re an artist envisioning how people interact with an installation or your participatory artworks. I wonder about the many ways in which aesthetic experience is one of navigation, envisioning, recording, and recall.

 

Through the DOT's Adopt-a-Highway program, artist Katarina Jerinic utilizes a parcel next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as land art for site-specific interventions. Katarina Jerinic, PSA for Passers-by #2 (video still), 2014, digital video, 57 seconds. // Source: KatarinaJerinic.com // HT: The Center for Book Arts' Map as Metaphor lecture series.

Through the DOT’s Adopt-a-Highway program, artist Katarina Jerinic utilizes a parcel next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as land art for site-specific interventions. Katarina Jerinic, PSA for Passers-by #2 (video still), 2014, digital video, 57 seconds. // Source: KatarinaJerinic.com // HT: The Center for Book Arts’ Map as Metaphor lecture series.

 

Kim Tingley’s “The Secret of the Wave Pilots” (NY Times, March 17, 2016) is a fascinating look at a Marshallese form of seafaring using knowledge of waves only. She writes beautifully about the neurological and social ties between memory and navigation, as well as the fascinating history of the Marshall Islands. I highly recommend the entire article. My favorite passages to think about for art practice follow.

On how we know where we are in space, and how that shapes who we are and our social relationships:

“[Psychologist Edward] Tolman hypothesized that humans have cognitive maps…, and that they are not just spatial but social. ‘Broad cognitive maps,’ he posited, lead to empathy, while narrow ones lead to ‘‘dangerous hates of outsiders,’ ranging from ‘discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.’ Indeed, anthropologists today, especially those working in the Western Pacific, are increasingly aware of the potential ways in which people’s physical environment — and how they habitually move through it — may shape their social relationships and how those ties may in turn influence their orienteering.”

“…our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future.”

Though journey and destination can be clichéd metaphors (not to mention signposts, road maps, off the beaten track, forge your own path), what Tingley seems to suggest is that these are fundamentally human concepts. It’s part of our evolutionary legacy to think and understand in terms of physical journeys, because we each have this kind of brain in this kind of bipedal body.

On the connections between mapping and memory:

The cognitive map is now understood to have its own physical location, … in the limbic system, an evolutionarily primitive region largely responsible for our emotional lives — specifically, within the hippocampus, an area where memories form. … [neuroscientists] found that our brains overlay our surroundings with a pattern of triangles. Any time we reach an apex of one, a ‘grid cell’ … delineates our position relative to the rest of the matrix… [an] ‘inner GPS’ that constantly and subconsciously computes location….”

“…a new unified theory of the hippocampus [imagines] it not as a repository for disparate memories and directions but as a constructor of scenes that incorporate both. (Try to recall a moment from your past or picture a future one without visualizing yourself in the physical space where that moment happens.)”

I’m always amazed by the peculiar concreteness of dreamed environments: the fully rendered qualities of light, the verisimilitude of prioperception. How awesome that this takes dozens of AI specialists and servers to re-create, and yet our brains achieve this when we’re literally not even thinking about it.

Exploring the world through our bodies is the root of imagination and creativity:

“[Others] hypothesized that our ability to time-travel mentally evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, and that the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story. ‘In the same way that an infinite number of paths can connect the origin and endpoint of a journey,’ Edvard Moser and another co-author wrote in a 2013 paper, ‘a recalled story can be told in many ways, connecting the beginning and the end through innumerable variations.’”

Nobutaka Aozaki, From Here to There, 2012–ongoing, questions, various pens and paper, 10' x 3' 2" / dimensions variable. // Source: NobutakaAozaki.com

A series of hand-drawn maps made by strangers upon request of the artist, who posed as a tourist and refused directions via app. The installation approximates a map of Manhattan. Nobutaka Aozaki, From Here to There (image as of June 15, 2012), 2012–ongoing, questions, various pens and paper, 10′ x 3′ 2″ / dimensions variable. // Source: NobutakaAozaki.com // HT: Nobu is a fellow Center for Book Arts 2016 resident

“…people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost … has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective.”

That’s a good reminder: Be where you are. Don’t worry about the fastest route. Learn about your environment and build up your mental map.

The same can be said about the creative process. I need reminders to stop over-valuing productivity, and to experiment in the studio. This is partly my nature, and partly not—as Barnaby Drabble points out, “the increasing application of time and resource management methods to our personal lives”* is symptomatic of larger forces like neoliberalism, and the conditions of immaterial labor, etc.

Furthering the connection between exploring space and imagination:

“All maps are but representations of reality: They render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships … that are invisible to the naked eye. If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, arose from navigating, so, too, is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity.”**

Maps are subjective, and could be more transparently so.

“Many of our [mapping studios] students began the semester enamored with the sublime, totalizing visions afforded by exhaustive data-sets and sleek visualizations. Yet by the end, nearly everyone’s mission and values shifted – from a pursuit of ‘accuracy’ and ‘exhaustiveness,’ to an interest in the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative. They sought to find ways to express ambiguity, to insert cartographic ‘buts,’ ‘ifs,’ ‘howevers,’ and other qualifying statements to convey the ‘interpretative nature of the mapping process.'”

—from Shannon Mattern’s excellent slide lecture at Maps as Metaphor at the Center for Book Arts. It’s posted online on her equally excellent blog, Words in Space.

 

These subjectivities can work for us. Memory palaces, for example, exploit the connection between memory and environments. It’s a memorization technique of:

“associating the ideas or objects to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined to be at well-known locations (‘loci’), like one’s house (‘palace’)”

Austin Frakt’s “An Ancient and Proven Way to Improve Memorization; Go Ahead and Try it,” (NY Times, March 24, 2016).

I’m most fascinated by how the physical and conceptual interact and influence each other. How we walk the earth shapes our cognitive metaphors, and they imbue the memories that inform our identities. At the same time, we use mental powers to traverse real and imagined spaces, even constructing new spaces to expand our abilities. These interactions blur the boundaries of what is permanent and real:

“[Es Devlin, set designer,] is an architect of temporary space, making images that can survive only in the minds of the people who see her shows. ‘I do all this work and nothing physical remains,’ she told me. ‘So what I’m really designing are mental structures, as opposed to physical ones. Memories are solid, and that’s what I’m trying to build.’”

Andrew O’Hagan, “Imaginary Spaces: Es Devlin and the psychology of the stage,”New Yorker Magazine, March 28, 2016

This resonants with the core of why I’m an artist. I make objects and exhibit them for a few weeks at a time. While a small portion exists in people’s homes, most are squirreled away or no longer exist. I continue to make objects because I believe that  art experiences “live” on as viewers’ memories of firsthand, physical experiences (and secondhand, virtual images on the Web). This speaks to my immense faith in the power of aesthetic experience—a process of viewing, thinking, and feeling—to enrich human experience.

—–

*Barnaby Drabble, “On De-Organisation” in Self-Organized, edited by Stine Hebert & Ann Szefer Karlsen, London: Open Editions / Bergen: Hordaland Art Centre, 2013

**Digression: Here’s an example of how much place and memory are tied. Brandon Brown’s “Limited Access: Art and Gentrification in the Mission” (Art in America, March 30, 2015) mentions Artist’s Television Access and The Lab, two venerable alternative art organizations a few blocks apart in San Francisco. Reading his descriptions of places—even on a small screen, in a noisy gym—flooded me with memories: my first visit to ATA, as a high school student at a Sick ‘n Twisted shorts fest; trading sketchbooks with Erik Drooker at Muddy Waters, where he drew speech bubbles making fun of my slang; as a young art student, viewing Barry McGee’s mural in the labor building; the time I was on a panel with Boots Riley at ATA (and I think Chicken John?) that got hijacked; the doc on Humboldt County tree-sitters; the palpable discomfort of a friend from out-of-town when we met him at 16th and Mission to eat at Taqueria Cancún; Intersection, and how often I’d run into Kevin Chen right in front of the building, day or night, wearing yellow glasses and having a smoke… What makes a space a place are the meanings assigned to it. Personal experiences—pleasant or not, juvenile or formative—are part of what makes San Francisco’s transformation potent.

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Values

Life’s Too Short for Poor Habits of Mind

Recommended: an essay on freeing oneself from energy-sapping forces. It’s inspired by turning 60, but the call to preserve one’s attention for the truly worthwhile and to care for one’s emotional well-being applies at any age.

“Young(er) women, take this to heart: Why waste time and energy on insecurity? … I’m happy to have a body that is healthy, that gets me where I want to go…

What matters most is the work. Does it give you pleasure, or hope? Does it sustain your soul? …I’m too old for the dark forces, for hopelessness and despair…

Toxic people? Sour, spoiled people? I’m simply walking away… Take a pass on bad manners, on thoughtlessness, on unreliability, on carelessness and on all the other ways people distinguish themselves as unappealing specimens. Take a pass on your own unappealing behavior, too: the pining, yearning, longing and otherwise frittering away of valuable brainwaves…

My new mantra is liberating… I spare myself a great deal of suffering… goodbye to all that has done nothing but hold us back.”

Dominique Browning, “I’m Too Old for This” (NY Times, August 8, 2015)
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The Eve Of...

While projects in The Eve Of… are about uncertainty, the process is providing many opportunities to expand my limited tolerance of uncertainty.

Researchers have identified ‘intolerance of uncertainty’ as an important cause of anxiety and anxiety disorders.

If you want to reduce rumination, anxious feelings, and avoidance…

Learn to tolerate not knowing the reasons for someone else’s behavior.

Learn to recognize when you’re avoiding doing something … because you can’t be completely certain of a positive outcome…

Learn to recognize when you’re taking too much responsibility for protecting others from possible negative outcomes….”

Alice Boyes, Ph.D., “Seven Tips for Reducing Anxiety, Rumination and Avoidance,” Psychology Today (March 1, 2013)* [Not the most academic source, but at the right time, this list was useful for me.]

The Eve Of… Residency Lesson #1: Tolerating Uncertainty

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Art Worlds

Workers Are People, Too

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Art labor and working conditions have been on my mind lately–perhaps it’s because I installed at the recent art fairs, where art handlers get access without influence.* For example,  installers at Frieze receive exhibitors’ class “C” passes—which are good only for entry before or after public hours.

A recent op-ed on NYT (Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, “Why You Hate Work”, May 30, 2014) states what many managers, HR people and executives seem impervious to (but anyone with a shitty job already knows):

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

…Put simply, the way people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform.

This seems so obvious to me, yet some excel in failing to consider that workers are people. (In a particularly dense example, I’ve had to explain why “feeling valued and appreciated for [one’s] contributions” means not treating workers as interchangeable and
replaceable by firing them willy-nilly.)

…Partly, the challenge for employers is trust. …many employers remain fearful that their employees won’t accomplish their work without constant oversight — a belief that ironically feeds the distrust of their employees, and diminishes their engagement.

The worst example of this is requiring some workers (but not white collar staff) to use a fingerprint scanning time clocks. (Workers were allowed to choose which finger to scan in with. Guess which one it was?)

Of course, many supervisors get it, and are generous and humane. Their employees are happier and more productive for it, and likely so are they.

* “[Preparator] work gives the perspective of an insider without the credibility of one,” Torreya Cummings, as quoted by moi in “Portrait of an Artist: Wily and Engaged,” Art Practical, May 4, 2011.

 

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Impressions

An Art Fair, Positively Materialistic

Last week I researched a lot of art materials, so when I attended the Armory Art Fair it seemed like the thing that attracted me the most were materials.

Spared from crowds and achey feet, you’ll have to excuse the poor-quality snapshots.

First, some novel materials or presentation styles I found attractive, interesting, or fun. Followed by some examples of exuberance/knickknackery, good ideas, nice techniques, and one lone example of an interest in psychology.

I did attend VOLTA, but my battery promptly quit. On my camera, that is. View a catalog. I loved Patrick Jacob‘s miniature vistas as seen through a miniature domestic set (The Pool, NYC). Also nice to see Ed Pien‘s work at Pierre-François Ouelette Art Contemporain, Montreal. Neat retroreflective paper cut.

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Sights

XYZ: perceptions and spaces

December 7-22, 2011
XYZ:NYC 10 Downing
Leslie Eastman and Natasha Johns-Messenger
presented by No Longer Empty
10 Downing Street, West Village, NYC

A collaborative team since 2004, their work has historically focused on exploring real and perceived space through interventions in interior architecture. For XYZ: NYC 10 Downing, the pair will seek to challenge the perception of visitors through a three-part series of optical site installations designed to force visitors to experience and interpret alternate points of view.

This is a pretty great exhibition, complete with a camera obscura, perceptual mirrors-and-lights spaces, virtual reality goggles, and a Naumann-esque hallway. I heard about the exhibition via a program, wherein an NYU psychologist, the former NY Times Ethicist Randy Cohen, and the two artists shared lots of thoughts about optical and psychological perception, the ethical responsibilities of artists, and biases. It was a great talk. Eastman, in particular, had some prime nuggets:

[The exhibition] doesn’t have footnotes, but it does have references.

and

[On expanding perception through drawing:] It’s like learning to hear the bass and not just the treble.

Looking forward to more programs from No Longer Empty.

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Community, Research

Points of reference

For artists and/or fans of Borges and Calvino:
Cynthia Ozick reading “In the Reign of Harad IV,” a wonderful short story by Steven Millhauser, about making, visibility, and recognition. On the New Yorker‘s fiction podcast.

For fellow cognitive science and psychology dabblers:
“Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life,” by David Brooks (yup, that David Brooks, the NYT columnist), a summation of loads of psychological and cognitive science research, including thoughts about flow and happiness.

For those who need an optimism booster shot:
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, by Dasher Keltner (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009).
The UC Berkeley psychology professor’s theories on how to live a balanced life of “completing the good in others.” Interesting discussion of the intellectual lineage from Darwin to Ekman (a facial expression researcher profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker). The author’s long hair + references to Eastern philosophy = high hippie dippy quotient, but Keltner is an informed and lively writer. Those seeking cynical, burdensome academic texts ought look elsewhere.

For those seeking art that touches on psychoanalysis:
Jonathan Solo: Shadow
Catherine Clark Gallery
January 8 – February 19, 2011
see also: Carl Jung, Shadow

For those obsessed with happiness and/or mapping:
Mappiness, an iPhone app that asks users to rate their level of happiness at random moments throughout the day. Developed by London School of Economics PhD candidates, it’s a fully realized, popular version of what I had hoped to do with Hedonimeter.net, a project I started in grad school and hadn’t yet returned to. My enthusiasm for visual and symbolic systems has not evolved into the motivation to learn more about statistics and programming… yet.

For art-seekers in San Francisco:
Works by friends and supporters:
Three solo exhibitions: Jaime Cortez, Kenneth Lo, and Ginger Wolfe-Suarez
Southern Exposure, 3030 20th St., San Francisco, CA
January 7, 2011 – February 19, 2011

For art-seekers in LA:
Collective Show
January 21-23 and January 27-30, 2011
995, 997 North Hill Street, Los Angeles, CA

For art-seekers in Liverpool:
Nam June Paik
Tate Liverpool
17 December 2010 – 13 March 2011

For typography nerds:
The flyer for the symposium at the Nam June Paik Art Center. Nothing wrong with type-based solutions, no.

For design-seekers in San Francisco:
A show curated by the super-talented, super-humble Jon Sueda
The Way Beyond Art: Wide White Space
January 20–February 5
CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

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