Tuesday, 15 December 2009

And So We Close...

At the end of a rich conference on entangled (im)material objects, Sue Pearce does us the honor of giving the closing address.

Neuroscience, and the sciences more generally, is going to have a huge impact upon the arts in the future. Mind, that intangible thing, is a product of the brain, that 'material thing at the top of our head'. What we usually call intellect or emotion has a physical basis. Thus culture, in all its forms, is material. This has been long understood...is the thought behind it material too?

There is no distinction, Sue Pearce argues, between the immaterial and the material. This has huge social and physical implications. We are animals as physical as they. We might consider ourselves more complex - but don't forget the dolphins!

Every human has about a hundred thousand neurons in their brain, each of which can have a hundred thousand connections. These shift and change, due to the impact of the external world through our senses (each of which senses are complex in their own right), through the collation of experience. These determine our almost infinate levels of experiences.

But this is not a computer. The brain is much messier and more complex than that. Because we are all individuals made up of experiences and memories, our neurological linkages and histories are as particular as we are. It is why one and the same person is capable of good and bad, why we irrationally respond to particular things.

One of our most important ways in which we apprehend the world is through sight. Our eyes, it seems, are capable of generating seven basic patterns. These patterns are grids, spirals, zig zags...the patterns that, across time and space, all cultures recognise. It is why we are capable of understanding, to an extent, each other's art. We may have different linkages in our brains, but they work in the same way - with a little help, the worlds of others can become open to us.

If we are all material, are our morals? Science is beginning to pin down where and when 'morals' began to arise. As cultures evolve (the cultures of ALL animals), co-operation for increased security shows that the material world is part and parcel of the way in which we construct our moral universe. We would stop a child reaching for a saucepan - an act which has both practical and moral aspects. But this is not bleak and deterministic materiality. We retain choices.

Beauty. There are some things which are beautiful across cultures - a nicely plaited cord, for example. It is beautiful and therefore good. It is regular, well made, satisfying.

Much work has been done on touch. As a social mechanism, it is different across societies. As you touch things, a particular area of the brain is engaged which reacts to nothing else.

But where does this leave museums in which we are seldom allowed to touch? The above being the case, there are in those institutions certain modes of information which we can never have access to. So a curator would never give an opinion on a thing without handling it.

There is related to this, a new growth of the idea that the material world can be an active agent too - or even a victim of our materiality. Some physicists are beginning to wonder if there are particles of apprehension or sensation. Is is just possible that we might find ourselves back with a material world in the place wherein we once placed the immaterial, spiritual realm?

It makes me think of stories. As in Mythago Wood, we build individual stories based on archetypes, of mythagos and images which are based in some deep part of our evolutionary past. Did myths, perhaps, always understand this on some level?

Arts and Sciences must begin to co-operate. The artist must prove the validity of their evidence to the scientist, and the scientist must show the artist how their world works. We are not either scientific or artistic creatures...we are just us. Just human. And there is something special about that.

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