The Conscious Brain

March 8, 2010

Image courtesy of Hanna Damasio / Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center, USC

Wednesday night I attended a synapse-crackling lecture by Antonio Damasio at REDCAT titled “Art and the Conscious Brain.” Dr. Damasio is the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, and is known as an international leader in neuroscience. And on top of all that impressiveness, he focuses on the elements of consciousness that speak to the most personal in our daily lives: creativity, emotions, memory, decision-making, and communication.

Dr. Damasio admitted that he accepted the invitation to speak at REDCAT in a moment of weakness, for to scratch the surface on the subject of art and the brain could take weeks of lectures and more. However, he succeeded in delivering a lecture about the brain, mind, and consciousness that even I could understand—and I know as much about neuroscience as I know how to drive the space shuttle to Jupiter.

One subject that set my brain alight was the element of consciousness that Dr. Damasio described as “Cognitive Expansion,” which is “expanded memory, imagination, reasoning/intuition, problem solving, language, planning, and navigating the future.” During the Q&A I asked Dr. Damasio if he saw any room for expansion of cognitive expansion—a sort of super-intuition, if you will, or hyper-memory and computer-speed problem solving—or if he sees mankind’s creation of intelligent machines that mimic our daily processes, like computers and smart phones, as causing our cognitive space to collapse in on itself. In answer, Dr. Damasio said that one of his concerns is that we have created machines that process very quickly, and though they are doing the work that we would normally have to do, we don’t just sit back and have some tea while they chug away—we follow along with them and in turn have become more adept at multitasking and processing multiple sources of information. The potential downside of this is that each action we process should elicit a feeling, and the more actions we undertake at once, the less cognitive room there is for those feelings to fully form, thus our emotional state could be compromised in the process.

So what does this all have with do with art? According to Dr. Damasio, one explanation for art is that it’s a side effect of the brain’s compensation for a loss of balance in socio-cultural homeostasis—or, the ability to maintain stability throughout all social and cultural stresses. Putting two and two together and after processing all that the brilliant Dr. Damasio had to say, it pleases me that art and creativity keep our minds on track, and I think that art may well give the brain what it needs to do some exciting cognitive expanding.

Sarah Bay Williams

Six Questions with Damian Kulash of OK Go

March 5, 2010

Grammy Award-winning rock band OK Go performed a rare acoustic set at LACMA Friday night in the LACMA West Penthouse. The show was a fundraiser for LACMA Muse and a celebration of the release of the band’s latest video, “This Too Shall Pass”—featuring an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine and filmed in a single take. The clip premiered on the web on Monday night, and by Tuesday had received more than a million views on YouTube. Friday’s concert featured pieces of the Rube Goldberg machine, a Q&A with the band, and a DJ set by OK Go member Tim Norwind. Before the concert we got a chance to talk to OK Go’s singer Damian Kulash.

With the success of your previous videos [“Here it Goes Again” and “A Million Ways”], how much pressure did you feel to raise the bar with this one?

DK: You know, we do these videos as creative projects; we do them because they are fun to make, and we take great pride in doing it. Measuring ourselves only by numbers or by beating ourselves on any scale would become frustrating very quickly. Things on the internet change so fast that judging yourself by numbers—by the way that things spread on the internet—is deceiving. What we take pride in is the video itself. We really enjoyed doing it. It’s a very fulfilling process.

What brought to mind the Rube Goldberg machine?

DK: There were a few scenes that we were passing around among the band members that were really the inspiration. There was a British Rube Goldberg machine set in a print office, and there was a Japanese show, Pythagoras Switch, in which every episode starts with this machine. When we all agree on something that gets us all excited, we know there’s an idea to be uncovered there. There’s an incredible sense of satisfaction to watching this type of contraption. It’s so invigorating to watch a machine that doesn’t seem like it should work, finally work. It’s kind of like watching life go right for once.

Given how intricate the work was, how long did the process take?

DK: The process took about five months total. I [got in touch with Syyn Labs, who collaborated on the video] in late August. By September, we had the team assembled. By October, we had the basic design laid out. We had the song broken down into six-second chunks. We outlined the general parameters for what sort of feeling each section should have, and perhaps had keyed a few specific points. For example, we knew where we wanted the Kabuki screen section to be and where we wanted the paint cannons to be—that kind of stuff. By the end of November, the build started. January and February were construction mainly, and then we shot the first week of February. The final take was done two and a half weeks ago.

Having watched the video a few times—and this is definitely a question that stems from being raised by a Jewish mother—what were you thinking waiting until the last second to put on your goggles before being blasted with paint? Everyone else put them on with plenty of time, but you waited until the last second!

DK: If I didn’t have total and utter faith in things working down to the split second in that machine, there would be much scarier situations to deal with than paint in the face. You know, there was a several-hundred-pound stove hung above my head for a lot of the shoot, and I was shot across the room by a man-made sling shot. If I didn’t have total faith in the Rube Goldberg machine working the way it should, I would have failed long before the paint cannon.

You’re celebrating the video’s release at LACMA with an acoustic set and a special screening. What made you think to bring the party to an art museum?

DK: Frankly, I feel like this video is more an art project than a rock video. I am very thankful that the cultural spot for music videos has broadened so that we can make these crazy art projects and have a reason for them.… The premiere event that we did here [in New York] was really low-key and informal, and that was really nice. This [event at LACMA] is actually a much better way to premiere a video because having a little bit of advance hype—like watching it run around the internet—makes people so much more psyched.

Do you have any surprises for us tonight?

DK: What will be a surprise for everybody from Synn Labs and the team, the band, and my family, is simply the idea that we will be knowingly enjoying ourselves. It has been all work up to this point. It has been such an incredible charge, and there were dozens of people working together, 24 hours a day; but up until now there was a feeling looming over our heads of, “You know, we’ve got a certain number of minutes until this thing has to have run fully from top to bottom.” There was this electricity in the air. We shot this video at 3:30 in the morning, and then the band was on a flight to Kansas City, so we didn’t have any time to celebrate. I can’t wait to just see all of these people again and just bask in the glory of our efforts.

Jason Gaulton, Muse Coordinator

Ferus Gallery Revisited

March 4, 2010

Sometimes you can go home again, even to a home you never had. Or (with apologies to the New Yorker’s “block that metaphor”), you can take a trip down memory lane even if you never walked there in the first place. I didn’t live in Los Angeles in the 1950s or ’60s or even ’70s, but recently I’ve had several first-hand experiences of the LA art world from those years.

It was fun to hear the old-timers reminiscing about “back then,” trying to remember if they usually came in via the front or the side of the original Ferus Gallery—which opened in 1957 at 736A North La Cienega Boulevard—as we entered the recent recreation in exactly the same spot.

Masterminded by dealers Tim Nye and Franklin Parrasch, the recreation included early works by many of the original Ferus artists, including, I’m happy to say, a number who have been left out of the mythology that currently surrounds the gallery or who have otherwise been unfairly neglected by history (e.g. John Altoon, Jay DeFeo, and Sonia Gechtoff).

In 1958 Ferus moved across the street to 723 North La Cienega, the space made famous by the classic installation photograph of Andy Warhol’s first solo exhibition anywhere, his July 1962 show of Campbell’s soup can paintings put together by Irving Blum.

While I felt as if I knew the 723 space from that installation shot, it was intriguing to experience it “for real” in the current Billy Al Bengston show at Samuel Freeman in Santa Monica, where Sam has recreated (at what he calls “close to scale”) Bengston’s 1960 exhibition at Ferus (the artist’s second solo turn at the gallery). The show includes some of the actual paintings from the original exhibit, some very similar works from 1959–60, as well as an evocation of his 1970 Mizuno Gallery exhibition of dentos—paintings Bengston made in the second half of the 1960s on purposefully dented and otherwise distressed sheets of aluminum. Lit only by candles at Freeman as at Mizuno, the highly reflective, distorted yet beautiful surfaces of the dentos create an eerie and otherwordly atmosphere fit for a baroque church in the Old World. Mizuno Gallery’s history and impact, like the dentos in this distinctive installation, are still to a great degree in the shadows and warrant further research.

It was eye-opening for me to realize how small both Ferus spaces were—particularly compared to today’s many warehouse-sized galleries—yet how major the impact.

Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art

[Editor’s Note: want more Bengston or more Ferus? Head over to our Reading Room to read the out-of-print LACMA catalogues Billy and Late 50s at the Ferus.]

First Look: Young Directors Night

March 3, 2010

In the spirit of Oscar weekend, LACMA will be hosting our ninth annual Young Directors Night, an event that highlights the emerging talent of the Los Angeles film community, on Saturday night. This year, LACMA received over eighty film submissions—the highest ever in the event’s history! From those we selected six shorts that will be competing for the Art of Film award. Here’s a sneak preview of what you’ll see on Saturday:

Overnight Stay/Ubernachtung is an animated short film, hand-drawn and painted by director Daniela Sherer. This documentary retells the vivid memories of an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor whose interactions with strangers in 1941 in Krakow, Poland, evokes the horror of the World War II era and poses questions about the dichotomy of good and evil in human nature.

In playful mockery of young love, director Eddie O’Keefe has created Sun Sessions, the quintessential American coming-of-age tale of Henry Marsh. After a bad breakup with Jane, his high school sweetheart, the Elvis-obsessed Henry enlists the help of his band mates, the Guffmans, to win her back with some unconventional tactics. For those of us who still long for the drive-in diners and squeaky clean teenyboppers of the 1950s, Sun Sessions is an entertaining take on growing up after losing your first love.

Created almost entirely with real food, Sweet Dreams is a stop-motion animation film about a stalwart cupcake yearning to find something beyond his world of sugar-cube skyscrapers and frosting-covered friends. When his makeshift boat crashes on foreign shores, he makes a shocking discovery that changes him forever. Director Kirsten Lepore’s immense talent for stop-motion storytelling shines in this endearing tale of friendship and community.

Set in Paris in 1939, Dance With Me takes us into the lives of Pierre, an older man working in a swing dance club, and his wife, Violette. When Pierre’s dream to dance again comes true one magical night, he must choose between his newfound agility and his love of fifty years. In celebration of the couple’s anniversary, Pierre and Violette prove that sometimes love is all the magic you need.

Lintscape, animated by director Caitlin Craggs, tells the story of… killer lint! A woman does the laundry. Dust and suds, hair and fibers move through the room: is it voluntary or not? Benign or malicious? Lo! Something is moving with undeniable intent, but will she see it in time?

Mixing narrative, experimental, and vérité footage, director Yu Gu explores themes of exile, art, hope, and family in her documentary film, A Moth in Spring. Yu returned to China in 2009 intending to shoot a script based on her childhood memories of her own father’s struggle for artistic freedom. When she and her family are forced to leave the country by China’s National Security Bureau, Yu discovers that the desire for freedom of speech is a force that unites three generations of her family, spanning China and North America.

Tickets for Saturday’s Young Directors Night are still on sale. More info on the event can be found here.

Jason Gaulton, Muse Coordinator

Measuring Arts Education, Part II

March 2, 2010

Encouraging children to engage with art is a big part of what we do here at LACMA. Recently, Jane Burrell wrote about our LACMA On-Site program that reaches out to engage youth in classrooms, libraries, community centers—and, of course, here on site at the museum. This time, I’ll share some insight into how we measure the impact of that initiative, because it speaks to the depth of our commitment to the communities we serve.

In 2008 and 2009, a team of LACMA educators and independent evaluator Susy Watts developed an evaluation methodology and conducted an eleven-month evaluation of the project. At the heart of this work was determining the learning impact as well as the social impact on participants. In particular, we sought a way to show the effect of the work. We were curious about what they know and show us, what they are able to do as seen in their art and the processes they use to talk about art, and their habits of mind—the way they act in specific conditions.

We chose an evaluation method called Theory of Change to help us refine our understanding of our purpose and attach specific outcomes and indicators. Specifically, our goals were that participants would talk about art using detailed and descriptive language, make art using a range of materials and applying specific skills and techniques for each material, recognize personal connections between their own art, their own life, and LACMA artworks, and integrate arts programming with language arts development.

The evaluation comprised a wide array of qualitative and quantitative tools including student, parent, principal, and librarian interviews, teacher evaluations, teacher focus groups, teaching artist observations, teaching artist self-reflections, and revised data collection systems.

A unique feature of this evaluation was the high level of involvement by the staff throughout the evaluation period. Formally called participatory evaluation, this meant that staff advised on the pragmatic focus and use of the evaluation, internalized the evaluation systems into everyday work, and could train teaching artists to plan, assess, and refine their teaching strategies to meet program goals as soon as the evaluation notes a specific trend.

Over eleven months, the evaluation studied 400 classroom workshops at seven elementary schools and four middle schools (reaching 8,649 students and resulting in 51,894 contact hours for the students), 570 workshops at libraries (reaching 6,367 children and adults for 12,734 contact hours), and professional development sessions for 378 teachers to support student learning in the arts.

Next week, we’ll be sharing the evaluation’s main findings.

Elizabeth Gerber, Manager, School & Teacher Programs

Hanging Watson

March 1, 2010

A few weeks ago, I showed the last slide identification in the midterm for my American survey: Copley’s Watson and the Shark. Two hours later, beating the traffic odds, I was at LACMA overseeing the unpacking of the real thing—the centerpiece of the first room of American Stories. There is no thrill like watching a painting come out of the crate. It becomes an object, a real thing, not just an image like the fuzzy slide my students saw.

But then there are practical decisions that follow. I knew where it was to hang, but how high up? A big painting like Watson and the Shark takes up a lot of wall space, and this painting in particular takes more because the man who commissioned it, Brook Watson, placed a large wooden label along the bottom explaining what the painting meant to him, when he gave it to a charitable hospital on his death. Too high, and it would make the other paintings on the wall look like postage stamps; too low and there’s always a risk that someone might bump into the frame accidentally.

I consulted with our team at LACMA and emailed the National Gallery, asking them how high it hangs normally—the response wouldn’t come for a few days because of snow. In the meantime, the art handlers marked various options on the wall, and I taped out approximately where the other paintings would hang. But as they lifted Watson up—it takes five people—and it rose past the lower line, I stopped them. It was clearly going to look too high. And then I realized that at the NGA it hangs on the wall all by itself, and it doesn’t matter how high it is there. Context is everything.

So now we’ll use a stanchion to keep people back a little and keep the label from getting bumped. It won’t be as clean a look for the gallery but it’s OK, because now the wall has settled down as a group and all three paintings will work together.

Bruce Robertson, Consulting Curator, American Art

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