“Working with a human brain was a transformative and emotional experience. The images revealed themselves gradually… and the prints, although taken from a dead cross-section, seemed to expose a consciousness at work.”Susan Aldworth
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite a number of contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning and philosophy, and how those are expressed throughout their creative process.
This week I talk to Susan Aldworth, an associate lecturer on the Art & Science MA at Central Saint Martin’s, London, and a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Her work is held in numerous collections, including the V&A, the British Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum, the British Library and The Wellcome Collection Library in the UK, and Williams College Museum of Art in the US.
Following a suspected brain aneurysm, Aldworth uses her artworks to explore consciousness and what it means to have a sense of self through a series of etchings and prints, many of which are developed from brain scans. In our interview, she describes how this process has influenced her own sense of self, what it’s like to witness the brain working in real time, the philosophical questions she finds most intriguing, and the extent to which she believes there are limits to human creativity.
You describe your subject as “the relationship between the self and the physical brain”. How would you describe the ways in which your own relationship between yourself and your brain have developed since beginning these projects?
One of the interesting questions which arise when you are working on ideas about the physical brain is that it is both object and subject. The brain is a functioning organ of the body which we all have and so can be studied as such, but it is always ‘someone’s” brain containing the discrepancies and peculiarities of someone’s life. Also you are using your brain to think about the brain – consciousness on consciousness on consciousness. Is it possible for a brain to understand itself? We are certainly inquisitive enough to do this – philosophers and neuroscientists have for centuries explored the nature of the mind.
The brain is extraordinary – it is 3 pounds of jelly which creates something as marvellous as consciousness, runs our bodies and gives us a sense of self. How does it do this? I want to understand what scientists know about the brain – neuroscience in the 21st century is a hugely developing field, and the invention of new scanning techniques has pushed the frontier of brain science forward. Prior to these new imaging techniques the only access to a brain was via surgery or dissection – it seemed obvious to me that I should try and work with neuroscientists and neurologists to explore the relationship between the physical brain and out sense of self. Human identity. Neuroscientists are looking at the brain in detail – both in scans and in the flesh – to try and find from where consciousness might emanate.
As an artist I am interested in questions about human identity and human consciousness. What turns matter into imagination? How can meat become mind? But these questions are huge to interrogate and to make artwork about, so I approach them by breaking them down into smaller investigations about human experience: questions like “why do we sleep?”, or “what does it feel like to have epilepsy?”. By breaking down my interests into these focused enquiries, I hope to present different narratives of what it means to be human in my work. What I have learnt is that the question has to be about individual lived experiences – it is always SOMEONE’s brain, someone’s consciousness. My work then looks both the inside and the outside of a human cerebral experience, and is, I think, a sort of portraiture made from the many different narratives of our lives.
I am not sure how to answer your question about how my own relationship with my self and my brain has developed through this art journey. I suppose I have gained a great deal of knowledge from my research, my collaborations and investigations about the human brain and about what it feels like to live. My research has led to some fascinating collaborations with scientists, and has given me access to their laboratories. I am intrigued by the similarities between the laboratory and the studio as sites of experimentation. The question I CAN answer is how I have developed and learnt as an artist through my investigations into the human brain and human experience, and through my collaborations with scientists, clinicians and health workers, and people living with different medical conditions. I have worked with some amazing people, and learnt to respect their methodology, their curiosity and their rigour and to listen to extraordinary stories of lived experience.
Drawing is how I think – it is central to the way I develop my ideas for my work. I always have a sketchbook to hand, and love the journey from first idea to final resolution. It is never a straight path. Recently I have been making small models of my installations but they always start as drawings. I also love to experiment with new materials, paper surfaces and new processes – even if they don’t work at first. Mistakes are an important part of the process.
The medium I work in depends on what I am exploring. I often work in print as I love the generosity of the medium in the sort of marks and textures you can create. Also, the process allows serendipity and happy accidents. I also work in video as time based media allows me to explore memory and lived experience. Recently I have been making some large scale installations, the most recent of which, Out of the Blue, involved 100 antique garments embroidered with the words of people living with epilepsy, being suspended from the ceiling of Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery in a single block of one hundred, lit by natural and ultraviolet light. The garments moved on pulleys programmed by computers to correspond to the algorithms of electrical activity in an epileptic brain. It was ambitious in size and content, and involved an army of embroiderers, writers and scientists. The work emerged from research and the testimonies of people living with epilepsy.
You described feeling “incredibly moved by imagery of the brain”. Could you expand more on that feeling, what was it like to witness the brain working in real time?
This is an extract from my diary written at the time I had a cerebral angiogram on Christmas Day in 1999:
“I had been lying very still and frightened in a hospital bed for five days following a suspected brain haemorrhage in my studio. I am about to have a diagnostic cerebral angiogram to see if I need brain surgery.
Imagine being told that you are going to have a procedure done which might cause a stroke, but is essential to diagnose a potentially fatal condition. You sign a piece of paper to give permission. It is Christmas afternoon, and the doctor on call has left his family to come to help you. You are scared. You are lying on a bed beneath a bank of television screens. It is surreal. An injection of local anaesthetic into your groin and somehow your artery is accessed. He tells you that you will feel a warm sensation behind your ear as the dye goes into a specific area of your brain. And you do.
You are looking up at the television screens and you are seeing the inside of your brain. You are seeing the inside of your brain with your eyes which are getting messages from that very brain in order to see the brain scan. You are thinking about what you are seeing with what you are seeing on the screen. You are looking inside your head whilst thinking, seeing, feeling – your brain is working whilst you are looking inside it. It is some sort of philosophical conundrum. The mind/body problem literally illustrated. I will never make sense of that moment. And on top of all that I am seeing and feeling (don’t forget there is a chance that I could have a stroke from this procedure) I am having an aesthetic reaction. The inside of my brain, the blood vessels are overwhelmingly beautiful – beautiful in the way early Chinese paintings and prints are beautiful. I can never forget what I saw in those scans.
It turned out there was nothing wrong with me. But as the images for new pictures started to take form in my imagination, I realised that central to everything I was thinking and drawing about was what I had seen on that brain scan. I had seen my mind working – I had seen inside myself from the outside. I had to go back and see it again. So I tracked down the consultant and worked alongside him, making drawings and paintings of the brains of others, in the hospital for the next two years. It was the beginning of a huge body of work. ”
Which philosophical questions raised by neuroscience do you find most interesting or inspiring?
What is consciousness?
What turns matter into imagination?
How can meat become mind?
What does it feel like to be YOU?
How far do you feel you have come in being able to answer those questions yourself?
I have become wiser in how I go about exploring those questions. I do not set myself up to offer answers in my work. I am interested in exploring the relationship between the physical brain and our sense of self through investigating lived experience, science and philosophy. I have made work about consciousness, schizophrenia, dementia, epilepsy and sleep; each offering different narratives of what it means to be human. But my art is not illustrative. I do not seek to illustrate science, neither do I accept everything it offers as the truth. My work might question scientific assumptions. Once I have finished my research, I retreat into the studio and experiment, hoping to bring a poetic and visually rich response to the ideas I am exploring by using a variety of techniques from print to video, from drawing to large scale installation. I like to suggest things in my work, and to elicit empathy and emotional responses in my audience.
What have been the greatest challenges you have faced working within this particular framework?
My greatest challenges are always at the beginning of a project – will I find a way to make artwork about a chosen subject? I always start with a blank canvas, no pre-conceived ideas, and wait for the ideas to emerge from the research. It is always scarey.
The most challenging artwork I have ever made was the suite of Transience etchings which were printed directly from a human brain. I was invited by the Parkinsons’ Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital to watch a brain dissection. Seeing a real brain is very different than seeing a digital scan of one. During the dissection of a brain, the slices were arranged in a very formal way on a metal tray which made me think of a zinc etching plate. What marks could I get from the brain slices? I sought and was given ethical approval to make a suite of etchings printed directly from human brain tissue. This work would be the culmination of more than a decade of research and experimentation. These prints – Transience – would reflect my obsession with the dependence of the Self on the physical brain. They would push the boundaries of what a portrait could be; an imprint of the person. It would be a definitive portrait of someone– an image of the self composed solely from the marks of the brain itself. But I had no idea if I could produce an etching from human brain tissue. The idea was theoretical at first, and I had to make a great number of experiments with lambs’ brains before working with human tissue.
Working with a human brain was a transformative and emotional experience. The images revealed themselves gradually through the very ancient process of etching and aquatint and the prints, although taken from a dead cross-section, seemed to expose a consciousness at work.
The Transience prints are unique. They are important to me in that they bridge my interest in both the philosophy of mind and the physical human brain. Originally, my intention was to just look at the brain as object. But the brain, in a funny way, turned from object to subject as I was making the work. So, they are not just anatomical works, they are about the transience of self.
Do you believe there are limits to human creativity?
Theoretically I think there are no limits to human creativity – as long as we survive as a species. The main limiting thing for humans at present is taking responsibility and action for climate change and making the necessary adjustments in our global life to sustain the natural world. For now, we seem to be limited by our own greed/selfishness and inability to see and acknowledge what we are doing to the world. However, creativity offers us hope to change this.