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The Art Between Your Ears

Julia Polaroid_1Julia Buntaine is a New York-based visual artist. An MFA student at School of the Visual Arts, Julia has been artfully crafting brainy renderings of our headspace since she discovered her love of neuroscience in college. Taking her passion for science-based art one step further, she founded SciArt in America, an online magazine dedicated to all things at the intersection between art + science. Just before meeting up to discuss our upcoming SciArt Speed Date // Collaborate event, Julia was kind enough to share some of her personal art works, as well as the spirit journey that led her to the science + art juncture.

How did you find your way into making science-based art?

I entered college having done art for a long time, and I knew I wanted to pursue it, but I also didn’t want to limit myself to just that. So I just started taking classes kind of randomly. I took an intro to neuroscience course, and for some reason it just clicked in a way that nothing else academic really had previously. At first I was in complete awe – I loved knowing that when dopamine is swirling around my brain it is because and making me happy. And then the more I studied, the more I came to deeply desire exploration of those Big questions—about what shapes perception, what it is to be conscious, what is the feeling of seeing red? So I spent half my time in college still doing art, and the other half getting deeper into cellular and molecular biology and the neuroscience of consciousness.

But in our final year everyone has to do a thesis project. I realized I couldn’t just keep double majoring, but I didn’t want to give up art or science. In one of my insomnia-induced freak-outs about my future, I realized I could just do art about science—pursue science on my own, while pursuing art more professionally. So I used the forms in neuroscience—making neurons and G-protein coupled receptors and ion channels—integrating them into more visual, metaphorical pieces. And when I started doing science-based art, I began realizing that science was important to convey artistically. It gave me real purpose as an artist.

Neural Correlate Of Concrete. 2009, insulation board, concrete. The very first of Julia's neuroscience-based art pieces.

Neural Correlate Of Concrete. 2009, insulation board, concrete. The very first of Julia’s neuroscience-based art pieces.

And how did that trajectory lead you to founding SciArt in America?

Over the last three years since college, I had been searching for a sciart community. But if you Google “science art” or “sciart” you won’t find a lot of it. I knew there was a lot of sciart in the UK and in Berlin, so when I moved to New York to start graduate school last year, I knew it had to be here too. I was really lucky to go to the School of Visual Arts where Suzanne Anker, who has been a bioartist for the last 40 years and a pioneer of sorts, teaches. She was really the first person I met here who did science art as seriously as I did.

As a science artist, I work with things that cannot be found in an art store. I might want to use a microscope, but how do I get one of those if I can’t afford to buy it? So I was sitting in class one day thinking about how frustrated I was that I couldn’t find other people to at least problem solve with and talk to about these things. And I realized the solution was probably to create the thing that I was looking for in all my Google searches—a place where artists can be featured, and where artists can learn about each other and get in touch with each other.

Could you talk more about some of the neuroscience-based art you’ve made over the years, and how it has evolved?

During my final year of college I was working only in concrete. I was very material-driven back then, meaning I was very interested in getting dirty with plaster, and the really studio heavy, labor-intensive process was very much a part of my practice.

Chemical Play. 2010, 8'x16'. insulation board, concrete, astroturf, golf balls, bricks, putter.

Chemical Play. 2010, 8’x16′. insulation board, concrete, astroturf, golf balls, bricks, putter.

Chemical Play [2010]. I had a thesis show at the end of my senior year and this was one of the pieces in it. These are the G protein-coupled receptors made out of white concrete. I wanted to talk about how we play with pharmaceuticals, or how we play with neurotransmitters generally. So I had all of these different colored golf balls representing not only neurotransmitters that move around that we putt in this direction or that direction, but also just how we play with the brain. So I had a golf putter, and during the opening these little kids just jumped in because they didn’t know that rule that you’re not supposed to touch art. It was great because then other people started getting in there, and even adults were taking turns putting. It was a great piece since something happened that I really didn’t expect to!

Recently my work has gotten really concept-driven. Generally, there are two ways to do artwork. One is to start with the material and see how the piece forms and what it turns into, and the other is to start with the concept and find the appropriate material. I made the switch from the former to the latter after realizing that with the complexity of ideas I was begging to have, an arbitrary choice in material would end up competing with the concept I was going for—this is because materials are concept laden things, and that point can’t be overlooked while making. For other artists with more open ideas, this isn’t a problem at all, but that’s just not my case. I also find it really fun, to dream of a project in a medium I’ve never worked in, and the learning process that goes along with making it. It’s brought me to learn many things I never thought I would a few years ago.

Brodmann's Subways. 2013, 5"x5"x5". papier mache, complete NYC subway map

Brodmann’s Subways. 2013, 5″x5″x5″. papier mache, complete NYC subway map

Brodmann’s Subways [2013]. One bigger concept I come back to continually is the conceptual connection between brains and cities. If you look at a subway map, you can think of the way subways serve the city to connect different parts of it—helping one part literally, physically communicate with another by carrying information or people. Then you can think of the brain as having all these communication tracks that connect different areas in certain ways. I that idea like a lot—brains and cities and maps. I also think a lot about the way the brain is represented, is organized visually, in the way that cities are visually organized into maps. Korbinian Brodmann was the German anatomist this piece is named for—he created a map of the brain’s cortex based on cell type. I decided to apply this idea to the subway map, divide the map into squares and arrange by “type”, and cluster them on a brain from by likeness the way Brodmann did.

What We See. 2013, size variable (103 pieces) // images acquired from visual perception Neuroscience and psychology studies

What We See. 2013, size variable (103 pieces) // images acquired from visual perception Neuroscience and psychology studies

What We See [2013]. I framed stimuli from visual neuroscience studies—103 of them to be precise—and put them on a wall. I was thinking about neuroscience studies and what they show the subjects in order to measure a reaction from them in the brain. I’ve done this myself. I’ve run studies and read a ton of papers, so I’ve known these images for a long time, and they are kind of weird looking—a series squiggly lines in a row, or blurred faces, or a weird alien face that has some strange expression on it. So I wanted to use them as the art objects, not only because I think they’re very interesting pictures, but also because it brings up this larger issue: neuroscientists use these images to test our visual system in the lab, to understand what happens in the real world. Since you can’t test in the real world, these images must act as real world approximations in a sense. But when I look at them, I think are these really real world approximations? Or are these just really weird looking pictures. So I have a certain level of criticality when it comes to neuroscience. I do love it, but I don’t love it without also thinking of these sorts of problems too. All these neuroscience studies are out now that tell us how our visual systems work based on these images. So yes this is what we see in the lab, but is this how we see in the real world?

How have you gone about presenting art that is very much rooted in scientific concepts, some of which may be completely foreign to your viewer?

the spaces between

The Spaces Between. 2013, 3″x6′. clay. “In charting the connections between every neuron, neuroscientists accidentally charted the space between the neurons.”

When I exhibit my work it’s repeatedly been a question for me whether I should offer an explanation in a press release to my viewer, or as a paragraph on the wall next to the piece. So for instance in the piece The Spaces Between, if you looked at those sculptures without knowing what they were, you would just think they were these weird looking objects on a shelf. I want people to know more than that. I want them to know that this is the negative space made positive inside your brain between the neurons. Because that’s what interesting to me. So I just give out just the scientific information, not what you should necessarily be getting from the piece or how it should impact you. And I don’t want my reader to have to read something in order to enjoy it. Aesthetics are a huge concern of mine, not just the concept. I like making things that are beautiful, so the hope is that you look at it and you have an experience of pleasure. And then, if that happens, you would be interested to read further. And reading further, in my experience, enhances the work and doesn’t detract from it.

For the last year I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!