Interview with Warren Neidich: When scientists make art

Trained as a neurobiologist, his art is about ways of seeing both physiological and as affected by the high-tech visions around us


Warren Neidich is an artist who lives in New York and Los Angeles and works in an ambitious, ambiguous zone between the tropes of photography, architecture and advanced theory. He graduated from Washington University, St Louis, in psychology and biology and went on to a Research Fellowship in neurobiology at the California Institute of Technology.

This academic grounding in neurobiology underlies much of his artistic experimentation. His “Camp O.J.” installation has recently been shown at the Bayly Art Museum, Virginia, the Laguna Art Museum, California and the Pittsburgh Center for Contemporary Art. It was much reviewed, most notably in the Los Angeles Times and Art in America. Recent exhibitions also include the groundbreaking digital show “Bitstreams” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His collected writings entitled, Essays in Neuro-aesthetic Theory, will be published by DAP and the Ford Foundation in the spring of 2003 with an introduction by Norman Bryson.

“ #2”, the web site he co-founded, concerns art, culture and the brain and was launched at the last Basel Art Fair. This year Neidich will have had one-man exhibitions in Berlin, Geneva and the California Museum of Photography at Riverside.

This month he opens a major intervention at The Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City.

The Art Newspaper: Tell us something of what you have planned for the exhibition at Storefront for Art & Architecture?

Warren Neidich: Part one will be my “Remapping” photographs as shown at the Whitney’s “Bitstreams”. These are 10-foot long photographic strips made by collaging four or five images of the same mirror-building in LA together seamlessly with Photoshop. “Re-mapping” is a term used in neurology to describe the way one part of the brain takes over the function of another. I use it in my work to talk about the way cinema gets mapped into architecture. These photos are basically long strips of film with repeating frames and a time code at the far left corner. The building itself becomes a large photographic apparatus that continually documents the flow of life streaming past its mirror/shutter. Part two will be a looped video called “Blind Man’s Bluff”. It recounts the repeated story of a blind man who at a certain time and place throws away his cane and dark glasses, stops traffic, pulls out a gun, and points that gun at an unsuspecting driver dressed in a clown outfit and wearing a clown head. Next I wake up in a dark motel room with the radio announcing that it is 5am in Los Angeles. It occurs over and over again.

The looped activity becomes a metaphor for an obsessive act caused by a faulty neural feed-forward neural loop without inhibitory influences. The apparatus of the video loop is connected analogically to a loop in the brain.

TAN: How does your work relate to architecture?

WN: Architecture is the physical manifestation of immaterial relations such as psychological traumas, sociologic disruptions, economic re-habilitations, and cultural upheavals. The Pompidou Center looks different from the Louvre because the conditions that surrounded and formed the context for the Louvre—an aristocracy, agrarian economy, materials such as stone and wood—were very different from those that helped create the Pompidou, such as a leftist government, the advent of cinema, the use of steel and glass.

Of course, if you believe in genealogies, then the Pompidou Center is an extension of the Louvre. You can say the same thing for optical apparati. The genealogy of optical apparati begins with the Camera Obscura, continuing with the Camera Lucida, Claude’s Glass, the Daguerrotype and photographic camera, the Stereo Card and viewing apparatus, the Zootrope, the Phenakistascope, the cinematic camera, virtual reality and today’s computer games. This genealogy concerns each culture’s desire to make visual and optically accessible to the sense of the eye the same immaterial relations that architecture has in a very physical way in stone. The analogy of the camera/cinematic device is interesting for the eye and brain. The natural material of both is light; light bouncing off the surfaces of buildings, fashion, objects. Light is a more immaterial substance than stone and glass. This same light is the messenger for the eye and the visual cortex of the brain about how that outside world is changing. The changing visual landscape we witness in our example of the Pompidou and Louvre has implications for how the neural networks of the brain are configured.

There is a Nobel prize-winning neuro-scientist called Gerald Edelman who has written a book called Neural Darwinism. He suggests that we are born with an overabundant neural substrate called the “primary repertoire”. After we are born, through a process of selection, certain neurons, neuron groups and networks are competitively selected by objects, object relations, and contexts while others which do not have counterparts in the outside world die through a process of aproptosis. Gradually the brain is pruned like a fruit tree and is sculpted by the world it encounters.

Now this is extremely simplified. However, if one believes the 17th century looks different from the 20th century, and one believes this idea of Edelman, then perhaps the neural network configuration of the 17th century person is different from that of their 20th century counterpart.

TAN: You were trained as an opthalmologist; what did that involve ?

WN: Actually I was a research fellow in the Laboratory of Roger Sperry at California Institute of Technology doing research on differences between the left and right hemisphere of the brain before becoming an ophthalmologist. I retired from this in 1993 to devote myself to my art practice.

TAN: Your work seems in many ways to deal with issues of memory in the largest sense. You once called your concept of memory “an accretion of superimposed conventions of seeing”?

WN: Actually I am writing an essay called “Blow-up: photography, cinema and the brain”. The essay is about the essential question in Antonioni's “Blow-up” which is the construction of a 20th-century observer. Thomas’s breakdown at the end of the movie is the result of his growing distrust of his own body and memory system and the substitution of it for one that was artificially conjured.

He had two competing memory systems vying for his attention, one of his body, accumulated through his life journey, and the other the memory-system of his photographs.

Photographs and cinema and computer games are engineered to capture our attention. The brain pays attention to them more than those naturally occurring. Eventually, as the visual field is littered with these images they become a field of signifiers and actually begin to compete with each other. Just think of the special effects in the latest “Star Wars” versus earlier “Star Wars”. They are becoming ever more spectacular. Gradually the selective processes at work in the shaping and sculpting of the brain will select these phatic images.

Eventually what I call “real” memories will be displaced by artificially contrived ones. We are all first cyborgs in our brains.

TAN: Is there any distinction today between a photographer and an artist?

WN: In the 1960s “Conceptual photographic” practice opened a large chasm in the history of photography that would take 30 years to re-approximate. These conceptual artists, in their desire to create an anti-aesthetic, to make their work un-collectable, chose photography as their media. Photography was formally annexed into art practice.

Their aims were the opposite of those entrenched in “fine art photography”. They no longer cared about the perfect print, the unblemished surface, the archival nature of the medium, the modernist trope of not interfering with the image’s arrival through the lens and on to the film.

They wanted just the opposite. They wanted a cheap material that was infinitely reproducible and could be enlarged. It’s really funny how the Bechers have recently been incorporated into the field of “fine art photography”. We all know the story of Ruscha and Baldessari but isn’t it equally obvious that the Bechers were minimalists whose interest in photography was driven by their desire to create a typology of infinitely reproducible photographs that could be easily formatted into grids.

After the conceptual artists, other artists used photography for documenting performances and art that could not be appreciated by the public because they were out somewhere in nature. How many people saw the Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in person, how many saw the picture?

Artists such as Rauschenberg and Kline used photography to inform their paintings, by finding real world examples of the formalistic strategies they used in creating their canvases. Such is the distinctive lineage that eventually led to Cindy Sherman and other Post-Modern artists of the Eighties.

TAN: Your dramatic reportage on “Camp OJ” in Los Angeles was subtitled “Beyond the vanishing point: media and myth in America”. What do you feel can be the relation between fine art photography and the mass media?

WN: I have always been interested in the meta-document. For me Camp OJ was the most concrete and formal description of a trend that started years before. That is the news media’s desire to enter the entertainment business. Perhaps CNN coverage of the Iraq war was the first example but Camp OJ was a kind of Rock and Roll concert with the announcers as performers.

Many people ask me why I cross-processed the film. That means that you take slide film and develop it as negative film, so the colours become hallucinogenic. Cross-processed film is used all the time in fashion shoots, in Spin Magazine and MTV.

I never understood the idea of documentary photography. Besides being so old fashioned, didactic and part of an institutional vision, it really has nothing to do with how we are seeing the world now, because most of what we are seeing is on TV, billboards, magazines and the computer screen. I wanted to make “documents” out of the same material our brains see most of the time. I also used a super wide-angle lens to give a kind of “skate-boarder-dude” look to this uniquely Californian landscape. Camp OJ was also a kind of nomadic culture that existed within the stationary domesticity of American Life.

TAN: Do you fight against creating any “trademark” style for your work?

WN: Yes, I like to think that every idea has a specific material gesture. This is not good for an art career. Each gesture and form allows an idea or a group of ideas to be investigated in specific and different ways.

TAN: It seems important to know more about your big current project “The Journal of Neuro-aesthetic Theory” or as it’s called on the net.

WN: evolved out of my curatorial and art practice. It was a natural place to go. The web is not fashionable anymore but for us, Nathalie Angles who co-founded the site with me, it was perfect. It was cheap, it gave us the potential for using cinematic images and it could be seen by a lot of people.

It is important to have a place where artists, writers, architects, film makers, philosophers, dancers, poets, and others inspired by the possibility of the brain could post their work. The humanities must have a voice in discussion concerning the brain.

If we allow only science to have that voice we may end up with a kind of dystopia of pharmaceutical mind control, penal mind manipulation, and possibly political suppression at the neural network level. God help us all if that kind of shit comes down.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Brainy'