Animated meditations on mortality: the work of Andrew Carnie
By Marius Kwint
Animated meditations on mortality: the work of Andrew Carnie By Marius Kwint Representations of the human body provide the main narrative thread within the history of art. From rudimentary Neolithic fertility goddesses to the idealized physiques of the classical tradition, visual artists were celebrated (and sometimes reviled) for their quasi-miraculous ability to simulate an aspect of life, so providing images by which some existential truth might be grasped. Renaissance masters such as Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) worked as anatomists who revolutionized understanding of bodily structure. For at least four centuries after that, however, the detailed appreciation of life far outstripped the capacity of medical science for beneficial intervention, and anatomy served more as the edifying grammar of medical education than as a basis for effective experimental science.
Things have changed since the nineteenth century, and today the biomedical sciences produce such an abundance of specialized knowledge and extraordinary imagery that many artists have abandoned the empirical tradition altogether. Partly thanks to his own educational background, however, Andrew Carnie remains an unapologetic communicator of scientific discoveries, but not without assimilating them to his own subtle brand of humanism. A draftsman at heart, and a lecturer in graphics at Winchester School of Art in the UK, Carnie spends much of his spare time sketching in notebooks in a crisp, diagrammatic style, and working on a brace of computers in the study of his Victorian terraced house. Though adept with the latest graphic and animation packages, he harbours affection for the mechanical legacies of a bygone age: the trams that whirr through many European cities; and 35mm slide projectors, those obsolescent workhorses of art-historical and medical education. He is also a keen cyclist. Indeed a wry, almost melancholic fascination with certain objects – suitcases, rashers of bacon, trees – runs as a subtle leitmotif of his work, although they are always fashioned into eloquent analogies or visual puns. In his earlier work, the suitcases transform themselves into fretted silhouettes of songbirds in foliage; the two slices of bacon on a light box resemble a scan of foetal twins; and a photograph of a wintry chestnut tree, flipped upside-down, becomes a pair of lungs in an x-ray. Explorations of the dendritic, or tree-like, forms within the body – nerves, blood and lymph vessels – continue into his more recent work, visibly linking the most delicate areas of the self with the principles of flow and distribution that govern nature.
Like several other contemporary artists, including Annie Cattrell, Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, Carnie works within the prolific and problematic tradition of anatomical art: the illustration and dissemination of discoveries through dissection that helped to set medical science on an exploratory road after many centuries of adherence to doctrine. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, circular anatomy theatres, where concentric ranks of medical students could watch human cadavers being dissected and listen to the surgeon’s commentary, were established in many major European university cities, several of them modelled after the Paduan original of 1594. For the purposes of comparative anatomy, the famous example built at Leiden three years later displayed the skeletons of other animal species such as horses, cattle, and birds, whilst vanitas emblems, including a tableau of a skeletal Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, reminded visitors of the transience of human glory. Similarly, in Vesalius’ masterpiece, On the Fabric of the Human Body (1543), many of the dissected cadavers were shown in allegorical or classicized poses.
The dreadful fascination of seeing one’s innermost parts brought to light as anatomy, then as now, would also often serve a more overtly entertaining purpose, and the settings and techniques of Carnie’s time-based work evoke some of the technological romance of eighteenth and nineteenth-century show culture. The draped gauze screens between which children can dash, and the dark chambers and spectral images, resemble the grandly-named dioramas, panoramas, Eidophusikons, phantasmagoria, magic lanterns, camera obscura, peep shows and zoopraxiscopes of pre-cinematic multimedia. Visitors to Carnie’s works often enjoy the freedom of movement associated with the fairground, but the imagery is none the less captivating. Carnie’s classic Magic Forest (2002), for example, is a sparing, lyrical display of growth and necessary decay within the brain, with exquisite, multicoloured drawings of neurons projected onto voiles suspended in the middle of a darkened chamber. The story is one of marvellous interior complexity and fragility, with each neuron perfectly individual in its detail, but simply structured. Not only is time manipulated by the 25-minute cycle of generation and degeneration, with the stretching and compression of processes that actually take between milliseconds and days, but the scale of the exhibit also miniaturizes the viewer into becoming a microscopic voyager within the human brain, although without the naturalistic B-movie clichés of that idea. The hum and cadence of the automated slide projectors are integral to the experience, creating a lulling mechanical pulse.
Artists have always played with time, but the ability to do so analytically was exponentially increased by the nineteenth-century invention of photography and cinema. The proto-cinematic pursuit of chronophotography, pioneered by Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) and his more buccaneering exact contemporary, the English-born Eadweard Muybridge, was of particular importance in helping to generate Modernist sensibilities that became widespread after the mechanized carnage of the First World War. Using multiple still cameras and early movie cameras, they separately published stop-motion studies of commonplace human and animal movements that influenced Cubist and Futurist visions of reality as fragmented, and of the human as a virtual machine. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1902), for example, refers directly to one of Muybridge’s most famous works. Carnie’s historical interest here is partly informed by his previous association with Kingston University, in the town of Kingston upon Thames in Surrey, birthplace to Muybridge and home to one of his major archives. Throughout his work, and not only in the piece Muybridge (2000), Carnie gently humanizes such self-alienating representations of modernity, by making their apparatus pleasurably visible and audible, as part of the exhibit. His choice of media also means that most of his works are reassuringly cyclical and susceptible of reinterpretation.
Images of journeys run throughout Carnie’s work, as he pauses to consider particular stages and possible detours along the way. In Disperse (2002), for example, the slide dissolve technique is aptly employed to explore different customs of post-mortem disposal. Carnie’s own nude figure, at times foreshortened like Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1480), is shown being cremated, devoured by vultures, or simply, since these are patently mere images, being erased by hand. The vanitas theme surfaces more fully in his panoramic 451, in which various ponderously bourgeois household goods are consumed by flame. The idea is similar to Michael Landy’s actual destruction of all his possessions in the anti-consumerist London stunt entitled Everything Must Go (2001). However, for Carnie, the dispensability of the objects is secondary to the mortality of the body, underscored not only by the proximity of his anatomical work, but also by the odd element of a lamb roast going up in flames. In Conscious Brain; Spreading Arbour (2004), Carnie studies the process of neuronal integration in the brain, with video images cast by revolving data-projectors onto an arena of curtains. Recumbent figures in negative at various stages of childhood development swim like quicksilver across the uneven surfaces, criss-crossed by axons and more neuronal dendrites, and deforming intriguingly as they follow the contours of the room, like a hall of mirrors. By various means, they exhibit all the plasticity and mutability essential not only to our physiological mechanisms, but also to the very idea of art. Carnie enjoys the ingenuity and characteristics of the animation software and other media he uses, exploiting the potential of digitized video in I Am Through The Day (2006), and probing the science of genetic mutation in Things Happen (2006), while hinting at a darker history of freak-show exploitation.
Like much of science, anatomy also has its ghosts — of bodysnatching, vivisection, and the exploitation of the poor, prisoners and the non-consenting — many of which have not been laid to rest. The associations of anatomy with abuse were memorably satirized in William Hogarth’s engraved morality tale, The Four Stages of Cruelty (1750). The series of four plates shows the boy who tortures cats and dogs — a common sight in eighteenth-century London — progressing to flogging his horse, murdering his lover, and, after conviction and hanging, anatomization by the sadistic professors of the Royal College of Surgeons, his entrails being eagerly devoured by a dog.
By contrast, Carnie’s view of anatomy is respectful, informative and understated, but he does not neglect the cruelty, death and suffering upon which modern science has depended for much of its information, but whose realities are glossed over by modern communications. For example, Carnie’s Slice (2004), another slide dissolve work, resembles aspects of the controversial Visible Human Project run by the US National Library of Medicine in the mid-1990s. The male cadaver used in the Visible Human project was donated by Joseph Paul Jernigan, a 38 year-old petty thief and murderer executed by the State of Texas in 1993, and whose family allegedly could not afford his cremation; the cadaver was then sliced away at 1mm intervals to provide a high-resolution dataset for anatomy visualization applications. The Project prompted protests from the University of Vienna — where, during the Third Reich, the bodies of executed political prisoners had been used to make a definitive anatomical atlas — — that the images should be withdrawn on the grounds that the medical profession should have nothing to do with execution. Made purely for instrumental scientific purposes, and cheerfully displayed as an object of wonder on various educational websites and in national museums, the Visible Human Project shows how the thrilling drive for knowledge and technological wizardry, even if the end is beneficial, can make one morally casual at best. Carnie’s approach to anatomy, however, exacts its ethical price. In Slice, the body has no name, no Hogarthian biography, but its trunk, with all its vital organs detectable, is flanked by ordinary photographs of living forearms and hands. In cadavers, these are the parts that medical students often find contain the most ‘personality’, and find hardest to dissect.
Dimensions In/Of Perception
By Richard Wingte
Sometimes it seems as if the answers to the important questions that we would like to ask about perception lie within the grasp of neuroscience. After all with new functional scanning techniques, we can see which parts of the brain are active when we discriminate, recognise and recall the external world. Using functional magnetic resonance images that trace patterns of oxygen consumption, we can witness the brain fight to comprehend and respond to stimuli. We can also spy on cellular events at the limits of optical microscopy and watch the branching forms of the neurons shift in structure and ion permeability as neural networks engage in sight, touch or hearing.
Rendered in fantastic pseudocolour, such forms are totemic of a complexity that must be at the heart of our brain function. These functional images are a new iconography of mental space that define that the imaginative arena of scientific endeavour.
Rich as they are, however, these images are still only fleeting glimpses of the underlying machinery. The blobs of activity in a brain scan encompass vast populations of brain cells. The microscopic images of neuronal activity represent a fraction of computational sophistication of the ghostly microscopic forms. Approximation and fragments are still the substance of our understanding of perception, much as they were a hundred years ago. Between these levels of analysis lies a complexity of organisation over orders of magnitude of scale. While our theories of perception are more sophisticated and models better predictors, brain science is still wrestling with an enduring issue dating from the first investigations into cellular neuroanatomy. How can we ever approach more than a partial understanding of processes such as perception with information that can only ever be fragmentary: How can we fully understand the wood for the vast complexity of the trees?
Looking at Andrew Carnie’s images brings to mind a quote from the physicist Richard Feynman about the need for scientists to be reminded to issues in the neighbourhood of problems. The imaginative neighbourhood that these pictures explore is the gulf between the macro and microcosmic worlds and broaden the imaginative arena of the scientist.
If perception involves a reconfiguration of the architecture of brain activity and connections, this internal reconfiguration must be at least as complex as the form it perceives. The tree we see is an internal reflection sculpted in the intricate forms of individual brain cells that is every part as complex as the outside world. What is more, it is reproduced multiple times in a hierarchy of reiterated forms instantaneously configured and reconfigured through the layers, nuclei and dendrites of nerve cells. It is constantly refreshed as our eyes search out new detail, driven by subconscious motors that choreograph the precise high speed dance of eye muscles via an array of motor nerves.
At some point the shifting retinal images, the multiple representations in different brain areas, the memories of other trees, the smell of a forest and the sun on your face amount to the perception of the image in front of us. And in that moment lies a final mystery. There is never a lag between seeing and perceiving. We know, or construct a reasonable theory about what we see, the moment we see it. There are no gaps and there is no “down-time”. It is this obligate connection - the yoke that ties our internal world with the external - that is perhaps the essence of perception.
Andrew Carnie’s pictures seem to capture this feeling. They are also a simple assertion of how much we do not know and may never know about how the nature of perception. In his hands the retina is a point of reflection where the virtual image is the product of our physiology. This is a physiology is written in subtle fluctuations in membrane shrouds of voltage wrapped around each neuron. His images convey the restless acquisition of information by the brain. They hint at the distance that we have to travel before we fully begin to understand the mechanism behind the essence.
Rubbing Shoulders and More. A few thoughts.
By Andrew Carnie 2011
A few thoughts - Making good work and rubbing shoulders. I am not concerned with the promotion of a new movement in art, it seems irrelevant to me in someway, it will happen or it won't happen, it is not my job, my vocation has been for about 25 years to make artwork. This is not to say that something very interesting might not arise, a third way of making art and science work in the next decade or so. To see how the ways of doing this might be improved is only an adjunct which I find time for now, because I am in a hotel room with time to spare having just installed a work in the show 'Images of the Mind' at the Hygiene Museum, Dresden.
Certainly after a period of specialization in many disciplines, numerous areas of scientific research and other disciplines seem to be 'talking' to each other. Without doubt arts and sciences can converse and interact more and in doing this, a more permanent established processes and systems of collaboration my form. That would be good, maybe, and to some degree has been happening for hundreds of years, from Da Vinci, to Kandinski. So can there be a new movement if it has existed for sometime. From the interactions that have happened so far lessons can be learnt.
My own interest is to try and make good and meaningful work, a difficult enough task in itself. What the movement is, or if there really is one is not imperative, what it is called is not essential, what is vital is the chance to make effective work and to have a platform for debate. Present times are hard and it is complicated to manage ones life, to support a practice, to have the ability to concentrate on the thinking about the work, and be 'in the moment of connectedness with the work', when making it, which is so necessary. Making art needs a blend of elements, a good content, and an emotional thrust, a handling of the right materials in the right form for the content with the right skills at the right time. Maybe though through a better-blended art and science platform one could find this balance.
Equality and Need
To develop any pact or third-way between artists and scientists requires equality between the parties. Art practice is a very precarious occupation and having more equality of opportunity in terms of workspace, finance and general support would allow a superior input from artists into the world of science, and also into many other arenas too. A personal view is that artists are rather an underrepresented group with a lot to give but with a very poor professional structure to operate within. Many artists are trained at great expense without ever really being able to participate properly in the cultural milieu. The current model of practice, which primarily relies on galleries and buyers to support work, is antiquated in many ways. The types of work that are being generated today are experimental and hardly likely to be properly supported by the gallery model where a collector or individual is purchasing work for his home. In many ways artists need to be supported by an academic or more public framework as well as a commercial set up. The sciart debate might give us new models of practice, where currently much of the commercial art gallery world fails to promote this interesting work. New types of work are time and money hungry, they need new levels of intense research time, and access to increasingly complex forms of technology, and even new types of venues to exhibit the work in. GV Art and its team seems to be helping artists to develop these new models by adding to the debate in a unique way, as a focus for discussion, as an access point to academics and their institutions. I think here of the current round of visits to brain dissections at the Hammersmith Hospital, to the hosting of Art and Mind forums and to increasing negotiation with organizations over projects, and project funding that GV Art is undertaking. This is very useful and should be praised.
I think there are important matters that derive from this discussion and the link between art and science and in fact any other arena. For quite a time the 'content' in artwork has been missing and suddenly there is a chance to reinstate this in art production. We have moved on from the somewhat indulgent debate of process in art of the 1970's and 1980's, art talking about art. We learnt many lessons in this period, but we failed to interact with and 'talk' to a lager community of viewers. Personally this period of work has had a large influence on my work; the notion of 'truth to materials' of this period has been an important starting point for me, and artist's like Carl Andre and Joel Shapiro amongst others remain important influences on my work today.
Hard science is just one form of interesting content that can be utilized, social sciences can also provide a rich source of data to work with but so also could geography, history, philosophy and other subjects. Of course this is not the only type of work and debate around and is not the only way forward; it is though a strong contender for further development.
One matter that does seem to be crucial to me in the discussion about ways forward in art science collaboration is that artists amongst others be able to reinterpret data, and particularly scientific data. The right to do this and for the material not to be entirely under the control of scientists would be positive. This should be especially true when so much of the science that produces the data and accompanying ideas is undertaken through state funding. Art can be and is part of the debate and interface that happens in the human 'forum', between science and the community. Artists amongst many others can help with how the discoveries in science are to shape our lives and how will they affect how we see ourselves.
In looking for data, content, we must avoid the trap of art and visual work becoming to subject to the authority of the written word. Visual responses are very powerful and meaningful and we must put our confidence in their effectiveness. Too often now artists are required to complete applications for projects like science-art ones in words alone when primarily they are highly accomplished visual thinkers. Reading data in the form of words is not the only way forward. However we do need access to this data and the visual material that accompanies it, the experience and discussion in the lab, to make work in this arena.
What also seems to arise when we look at the juncture between art and science is the important question of the role of 'artists', and where do they 'fit' in society and to what effect. We produce large numbers of good artists in this country, and across the world, through a strong art education system. The talents of these artists are often underutilized in society as a whole. The models of inter-disciplinarity that science-art practice can develop might show how we could use more artists to develop more sophisticated ways of working in numerous fields. The result, the humanization of labs and working environments, and the ongoing discussion arising should be very valuable and encouraged. This extended model of artistic practice could be developed as part of any 'third-way' forward. Artist and their practice should be incorporated into various organizations, and not just sciences ones, to develop a more sophisticated and nuanced society.
Rubbing shoulders with scientists gives us useful insights into our own methodologies; their strengths and weaknesses, and how they can be improved. The notion of teamwork in science is key to its method. From my time spent with scientists and in labs this has been an element I have appreciated and learnt from. I certainly like to work as part of a team. As art practice develops team working could be a useful model. Life as an artist is often too introspective and joint effort can be refreshing. Any future practice for an artist would seem to necessitate such cooperation with so many new technologies available it would seem to be essential to have this type of expertise at hand.
Important for my own work has been the interdisciplinary relationships between Dr Richard Wingate a developmental neurologist, working at Kings College London and Dr Marius Kwint a cultural and art historian based at Portsmouth University. This three-way debate has been a positive input as to how I think about and develop my own artwork; three four or five or more way interactions would seem to me to be very beneficial way to advance.
It is difficult to see the future but it would be silly not to see artists and scientists and others fully entwined in future developments, making work and blending work using scientific and biological tools. The work would still need the same principals a relationship tot eh community it was being made with in a resonance for the viewer. This would take a certain sort of individual and might not just involve rubbing shoulders; this is perhaps just the start.
Art and Science. A few Thoughts
By Andrew Carnie
Ultimately I am an artist and make art, the topics I make art about, the subject, often derives from contact with science, scientific ideas, and scientists, either through reading their papers, looking at the I data or talking to them. For me I remain separate from the practice of science, I am an interloper. For me the subjects will remain distinct, I like to come into contact with a particular realm of science, make-work and move on. This might be different for others who might form much stronger relationships, and there is the possibility for some both strategies might be fused.
What I am interested in from the science is a 'spark', an idea that will make a work, the little 'nub' of an idea, that will allow me to make an art work that has a resonance in the cultural domain.
Scientists have to be endlessly specific mining down into their research topic to find an understanding of the world and how it works; to find a piece of indefectible knowledge. I think I skit across the surface to some degree making interconnections, taking an idea out and making it into a work. What I do is look across the disciplines and translate the idea into a material existence; a painting an object, a film an installation. A scientists looks for understanding and knowledge I look for connections, to make something new, to explore the world to make a piece that allows us to have purchase on our feelings, that sets us to reflect on how we think about the world. What I make is not a piece of knowledge, but it might be a mirror to how we are, what we are, and what we might become. I make a 'mirror object' to help us think, a sieve to bring clarity, a map, a device of some sort that allows us to reflect, ponder on the world.
I have a shared link with a group of artists who have comparable ways of working. Their methodologies are somewhat similar. The topics they have an interest in are alike, and the way they operate to make their work, especially in the 'research phase' is related. They too like to talk to scientists, read science. They are clustered together because they have common interests their paths have crossed and they get on. It is like a shared interest group.
Since this way of working is research intensive, it does need to be supported in different ways, it does need help. The time researching and exploring is long and the cost cannot necessarily be recouped through sales. The loose grouping is helpful in supporting each other through this sometimes-tricky practice. There maybe other ways of making art work it could be that the materials an artists works with could be biological material, it could be shaped by scientific or technological processes. They are though different worlds the artist is all ways going to make something 'speculative' while the scientist seeks a piece of knowledge. Maybe we are spending too much time thinking about how the matter is classified rather than getting on and doing the science and making the art.
There are lots of reasons why the two subjects should be associated. Art needs themes and science needs interlocutors as the art is disseminated into the cultural forum.
andrew carnie cv.
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