What’s going on in this picture?
Marina Abramovic is being introduced. She is about to stand in front of 47 Russian “re-performers” in green jumpsuits, talking about the speed of life, the constant external stimulus of the communication age, and how this engenders a need for slow art. I am sitting stage right, with part of the team that put together the data collection and visualization for Neuroscience Experiment I: Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze, which will run in parallel with the bonus-sized reprise of her MoMA retrospective. Marina is about to say that slow art creates space for quiet contemplation, and reveals layers of the self and different ways of seeing that we do not experience in our hyperkinetic lives.
The speed of life, and its impact on consciousness, have never been more apparent to me than when meeting with Marina about this project, especially in the days before the opening, when we were all camped out in the cavernous Garage complex in Moscow dealing with a blizzard of last-minute details. That all of this frenetic activity would culminate in a show centered on performances in which people do not move at all only struck me as ironic as I sat on this stage, fiddling with the buttons on the lab coat they lent me for the press conference.
(In my life as a scientist the only other time I’ve worn a lab coat was when working with zebra finches, and then really only when I would go into the aviaries, to prevent their shit from getting on my clothes. So I am self-conscious about wearing one for this project. It’s hard not to be self-conscious, I guess, on a stage in front of an auditorium full of Russian journalists and art critics.)
The piece we collaborated on involved drawing participants from the audience, and having them make eye contact with one another while we measured the electrical activity of their brains with EEG caps. While they sat, displays describing their brain activity were shown behind them: wire-frame brains, rotating in space, with throbbing patches of light indicating the position and frequency of the strongest activity observed on the scalp. The project was based on The Artist is Present, a piece in which Marina Abramovic herself sat on a stage at MoMA and maintained eye contact with participants from the audience for as long as they were able.
One of the striking things about Marina’s descriptions of these sittings is the connectedness she experienced with many of the participants. She described experiencing other people’s sensations and emotions. Could this possibly be associated with synchronization of brain activity between them? It is a crazy question, but it got us thinking about how to measure and visualize correlated activity across individuals. For the performances, we collected data using wireless EEG headsets, and basically set a threshold for correlation between the activity observed at different recording sites in different frequency ranges across the participants. We then displayed waves connecting the two brains whenever this threshold was exceeded. Later, the data would be analyzed more formally, in order to explore, among other things, whether these periods of correlation across brains happen more often than would be expected by chance, and whether they are related to anything in the participants’ experiences of sitting together.
As an experiment it clearly has problems, the least of which arise from the museum environment: One day a performance for children let out in the hallway behind the space where the experiment was being run, the next a piano tuner, brought in for the gala dinner scheduled for after the opening could be heard running through scales. Of course this kind of salient stimulus is going to drive correlated activity across participants, but that’s not what we were going for. We had to train gallery attendants as research assistants. They actually got very good in the short time we had to work with them, but they didn’t have the kind of background, supervision or training in scientific research you’d really want someone to have before leaving them alone to collect data for a few months. Then there were the parameters of the experiment, which were fixed largely by the logic of the art piece, meaning that many controls we would have liked to have were not possible. The deeper problems are conceptual. We still don’t know how to ask the questions that fall most naturally from the phenomenology of sitting with someone, gazing motionlessly and wordlessly into one another’s eyes. In short it’s still not clear yet what the “right” experiment is to do here, even under more controlled laboratory conditions.
So the data collected at the museum are not going to lead to any great scientific breakthroughs, but the experiment is part of a worthwhile creative process. I didn’t get involved with this project because I thought it would produce great science, but because I think it’s important for scientists and artists to talk to one another, and try to work together. Both disciplines require one to view the world from a unique perspective, and to communicate this vision somehow. Further, scientific work often proceeds in an intuitive, creative mode, even if the finished product is presented as if each step logically followed from the last. Increasingly, the necessary time for exploration and play is cut short by the demands on professional scientists’ time, e.g., the pressure to generate preliminary data for grant proposals. It’s only under unusual circumstances that we get to tinker around and try things out just to see what happens.
These were unusual circumstances.
We have some general ideas about the questions the data might allow us to ask: about brain states that people experience when engaged in eye contact, about how this might differ from other forms of meditation, about — and this is a long shot — whether the nonverbal communication established by eye contact can generate correlations in activity across individuals’ brains, or interact with other phenomena that we know to increase these correlations from prior work. Figuring out how to ask these questions appropriately is going to require a lot more thinking.
This is another point of contact between art and science: Sometimes science has to be slow, too. So it’s funny when the questions we would get from artists and the art audience about the experiment generally amounted to some version of “did it work?” Just as Marina calls for slow art, there is a need for slow science. We live in an age where more footage is uploaded to YouTube in a month than anyone could watch in a lifetime. Scientific production sometimes feels as if it is approaching a similar level of imbalance. What would be harmed by taking some time to contemplate, to pursue daydreams, to try something without worrying whether it will “work?”