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profile: andrew carnie by john seven on january 24, 2010 in art science


Artist Andrew Carnie’s pursuits have come full circle — he started out as a student of science, and now he continues his interest through his creative work. Carnie’s installation “Magic Forest” will be featured in “Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain” at the Williams College Museum of Art, starting Saturday, Jan. 30, and running through May 2.

“Magic Forest” features 162 slides projected onto screens and dissolving into each other to create the illusion of a 20-minute animation. The screens are made out of net curtain, so that the light falls on the first screen but penetrates to the other ones, adding a 3-D feel to the work. Carnie’s slides contain images of neurons growing in the brain, resembling trees that transform the projected space into forests. “I hand-drew all of the neurons and all of the images over a period of three or four months, working two or three days a week. It was about all I could stand,” Carnie said during an interview this week. He based his images on Quicktime films from neurologist Richard Wingate. Wingate was growing brain cells in vitro from chickens and filming his efforts with a confocal microscope over a 24-hour period. “You could see neurons growing,” said Carnie. “What he was doing was quite complex science. The movies he makes were just evidence of what was happening — basically he was switching on and off the proteins that control where these neurons go in the brain and their positioning.” Wingate’s video wasn’t of high enough quality for Carnie to use directly, but he was able to utilize them as he fashioned his own images with Photoshop.

“I took one of Richard’s images which has got the blurry green of the green fluorescent protein — the stains that he uses — and I started drawing on top, so all of the neurons are based on my ideas and what is in textbooks — putting things together so it becomes quite abstracted from there,” Carnie said. “The piece is not about real science — it’s based in the science, but it becomes something else. It becomes a work of art. One of Carnie’s biggest influences — one he shared with Wingate — is Spanish anatomist Santiago Cajal, whose drawings of the brain from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are still considered the standard in medical schools. Carnie looked to these works alongside Wingate’s as he fashioned his neuron art. “There was quite a lot of reference to the brain and the neurons being a kind of arbor, a tree-like network,” Carnie said.

“Calling the work ‘Magic Forest’ came out of that — that there was this magic of change in growth but also this reference back to what the early anatomists called it.”

Carnie’s interest in science — behavior and the brain were his two focuses — culminated in the pursuit of a zoology degree as an undergraduate. A personal crisis had him doubting whether his studies would give him the opportunity to do the kind of work he really wanted to do. “I got two years into doing the degree and realized that I’d end up being a kind of research scientist, and there was this other passion that I had, and I was gradually getting worried that without some quite forceful move, I wouldn’t ever do the arts. So I threw out university and left and started making art,” he said. Eventually Carnie ended up in art school, although his two worlds did not immediately come together. It took a while for him to pursue science-based art, and it didn’t happen in a sudden burst of inspiration. “It started creeping in,” he said. “I’d made paintings, I’d made sculptures, and I started to make some photographs, which were kind of science-based. I became interested in histology and slides and the images.”

It was after being contacted by an old friend who was curating an art show built around science-influenced work that Carnie fell into the discipline as his main creative focus. That was in 2000. By the time he began to work on the idea for “Magic Forest” a few years later, he realized the art demanded some expert opinions to push it even closer to hard science.

“When I was making ‘Magic Forest,’ suddenly I had to contact people, because I wanted confirmation of what I was doing,” Carnie said. “I suddenly realized that they, in general, were very keen to talk — especially people like Richard Wingate at Kings College. He was very open, and there was a dialogue that continued. I’ve been talking to Richard for seven years.” He and Wingate have pursued other projects, not all of which have come to fruition, but these efforts did provide a direction for Carnie’s much needed research and drove home the realization that he had access if he required it.

“When I was making sculpture and getting materials, I had realized that if you approached people in the right kind of way, they would be extremely generous with their time and materials and efforts to help — if you could make some kind of contact, and there was some kind of mutual exchange,” he said. “You would talk to them about what you did, and there was a fascination about even quite mundane industrial processes — you get things done and it would be interesting. That happens with scientists. I just started phoning.” As Carnie points out, his work is art, not science, but he has found that, on occasion, working with scientists can create a situation in which no license is allowed in his art if it conflicts with the science too much. If he is concerned with presentation and interpretation, scientists are more correctly focused on facts that can be produced from quantifiable observation.

“One time I made contact with a scientist and it was great,” Carnie said. “I went to his lab — he was a specialist on bone — but I went with the intention of wanting to be artistic about a photograph of bone, and he was very strict in saying, ‘You’re doing a piece of work on the head and the brain and the skull, and this sort of bone doesn’t occur in the skull, and I won’t give you the photographs because it won’t be scientifically true.’

“My whole piece was about a journey through the body. He was very helpful, and he gave me a lot of time, but he wouldn’t give me those images. He gave me lots of other images but not the very ones I wanted. I had to go and source them elsewhere. He was just quite pedantic, really. He wanted to keep his bit correct. He didn’t want there to be a mistake, and yet my piece is based on the science, but in a way that they’re poetry about that and other wider things about who we are and self.”

Carnie’s collaborations have led to further work, most recently “Seized Out of This World,” an installation that delved into temporal lobe epilepsy, which has affected creative people such as Vincent Van Gogh and Fydor Dostoevsky, as well as — allegedly — Thomas Mann and Lewis Carroll.

The idea is that electrical storms in the head set off intense creative inspiration born from ideas in different functional parts of the brain. The work stemmed from a meeting with neuropsychologist Paul Brookes, who had at the time just published a book on patients with brain traumas. After a couple years of correspondence, they decided to collaborate on a book project that has not been published, though separate works by each man resulted.

As Carnie looks to the future, he thinks his next work will concern itself with Asperger’s Syndrome, which he says ties in well with the focus of his previous work. “It’s about how the conditions and the science have affected how we reflect on ourselves,” he said. “In all our states, we all vary quite a lot.”

John Seven 2009


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