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DARE Art Prize winner Anna Ridler on Learning the Brain

Six months into her year as DARE Art Prize winner 2018-19, we catch up with Anna Ridler as she explores the meeting points between art and science at Opera North and the University of Leeds.

“The proposal I submitted in my DARE Art Prize application was to look at the brain and to explore the idea of memory and remembering. What is it? How does it work? What can we do to trigger memories? How and why do we forget? These are not new questions to explore in an artistic practice, but I was hoping that by understanding more of the neuroscience and psychology behind the subject, I would be able to bring a deeper conceptual depth to my work.

I am a visual artist and work through wide variety of disciplines – photography, drawing, technology, literature, writing, installation, sound and generative design – but recently I have been working more and more with machine learning and artificial intelligence, both as a medium and a process.

As artificial intelligence is becoming so core to my practice, it seemed important to understand what human intelligence was, how it functions and how it is being mirrored in this artificial way. What are the similarities and what are the differences? How can it be that something so fundamental and yet so ephemeral be captured in lines and lines of code?

Artificial intelligence is relatively new as a way of making work, and although there has been a flurry of interest in it recently, there is little critical thought about what it might mean within an artistic context. The research I am doing as part of the DARE Prize is allowing me to explore this.

My intention is to make work that is not about technology for its own sake, but which rather uses these technologies as a tool to talk about other things, or to augment or change the narrative in ways that otherwise would not happen. In order to do this it is important for me to understand how things work. Through research I can use machine learning properly as a material, to identify the associations and contexts that can be brought into my work.

The right hemisphere focuses on the relationship between things. To take an example, when there is damage to the right-hand side of the brain, it can leave perception of music profoundly disrupted.  Music is all about relationships and connections: notes don’t mean anything by themselves, they only make sense when put together with other notes, with silence. Notes only make music because of context (interestingly this is also the case with drawing).  Speech is principally a left-hemisphere function but singing words in song is associated with “a wide activation of the right hemisphere”. Where a patient might not be able to speak following a stroke (aphasia), studies show that they may still be able to sing a song.

It is the schisms that I have been exploring and researching – talking to a wide variety of psychologists, neuroscientists, artists and historians – to make a work that explores comprehension in its fullest sense. To do this I have started working with two scientists from the University of Leeds, both of whom specialise in the interaction between language and memory: Dr Charity Brown and Dr Ekaterini Klepousniotou. Charity’s work is concerned with verbalising memory and part of her research looks at how describing things immediately after an event has occurred can interfere with the ability to recall or imagine those things later on.

Artist Georgia Ward Dyer, tenor Rafael Rojas and panellists at the DARE Memory Sandpit, September 2018

This led to a wider conversation into the notion of trauma and the brain in a ‘Sandpit’ (research meeting) that also included Prof Max Silverman, Prof Griselda Pollock and Dr Helen Finch from the University, tenor Rafael Rojas and the artist Georgia Ward Dyer. We spoke about the way that verbal language is so ingrained in our way of remembering and how hard it is stop language in our mind (one of the only ways is to show stimuli that cannot be described in words). Language provides structure and helps us to hold on to a memory but also language will also fundamentally change what we remember.

We spoke of voluntary and involuntary memory and the temporary suspension of memory, and how it is impossible to try to remember everything, all of the time. We touched on the way that memories can be encoded into objects and what that might mean, and started to raise questions around collective memory and the ethics of memory.

These ideas and conversations have pushed me into thinking about memory in a different way: rather than thinking about memory and the way the brain works as a subject matter for the piece, I really want to embed these concepts into a framework for making the work. Questions of who is remembering and why, and what is being forgotten, will all be explored in the coming months as part of this process.”

To find out more about Anna Ridler’s work, visit her website. For more information on Opera North and the University of Leeds’ pioneering partnership, news and forthcoming events, visit the DARE site.


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