andrew carnie


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magic forest. text for williams college museum of art          


Magic Forest. 2002. Was made for the exhibition Head On in 2002, a show at the Science Museum, London, on neurology and the brain. The work was produced in collaboration with Wellcome Foundation, London and an AHRC award. The final work is a dream-like journey through a sea of developing neurones, expanding and expanding in number. The work was dependent on research about the Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramon Y Cahal and on the contemporary work of Dr Richard Wingate of the Medical Research Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, Kings College, London.


What inspired the work was an ever-growing awareness that the brain is not a static organ. In my youth I always remembered being told the brain was ‘fixed’ after the age of 18 or 19 years of age and didn’t change but all the current research I looked at suggested a very different picture. I was particularly impressed by the work of Prof Eleanor Maguire, Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, Institute of Neurology, University College, London. She by the use of MFRI brain scans of London taxi drivers was discovering the growth and development of the hippocampus late in life as these taxi drivers gained the ‘Knowledge’; the ‘Knowledge’ being an unbelievably thorough acquaintance of London streets that every black cab driver has to know. The hippocampus is the brains centre for mapping and spatial awareness.


I too was impressed by Richard Wingate’s work on the developing brains of chicks. It was the ongoing conversations with Richard that really made the development of Magic Forest and later Complex Brain possible. What I saw in his QuickTime movies was the structuring of the brain and it’s neurons over time; an amazing flowing of neurons into their working places in the brain. It was incredible to think that despite conception to the hatching of the chick being only 21 or 22 days, that within a few minutes of a chick pecking it’s way out of the egg it can stand see and move around as we all have seen. All this mass of neurons that make this possible have been made and guided into place over this incredibly short time to allow the chick to do this.


So Magic Forest was made as a response to this amazing development that also goes on, in us, for what goes on in the chick goes on in us too; the proliferation of neuron cells, the movement of them, the refinement and organisation of the cells within the brain and its continuation over our life time. The work references all these changes as it develops, as the projected images slowly sweep from one side to the other on the voile screens. The screens in a way correspond to the layers of the brain as seen down the sophisticated microscopes that let us see this world. It is fitting that the screens move as viewers pass giving more life to the work. The end of the work is envisaged as a collapse of the brain to let the cycle of life restart, a stroke or some other trauma to the brain.


Richard uses a confocal microscope to see the neuron cells stained with GFP’s, Green Fluorescent Proteins, with in the sections of brain. The sections are kept in vitro for some 24 hours, they are kept alive and growing and as they do so he takes sets of sequential photos through the microscope of the pattern of the neuron development in the chick brain. Then these photos are stacked and made into QuickTime movies; when shown these movies show how the neurons are moving into position in the brain. Hundreds of ‘glowing neurons’ are moving through the brain matter, like in a speeded up film of car headlights streaming through a up city at night, to their destinations. Richard’s real work is to see what controls the movement of these neurons and he does this by switching on and off the particular proteins that attract the growing neurons at different times in the development. The movies act as the evidence for what effect switching on and off any such protein has. When particular proteins are switched off at particular times the cells are seen to get lost and do not know where they are to go in the developing brain. The wiring goes hectic. Eventually understanding this may lead to cures for some debilitating human disorders. Whatever the final outcomes his work is an extraordinary glimpse into the developing brain.


Magic Forest was shown at the Science Museum in March 2002, at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Rotterdam, Holland, 2003 and at the Natuurmuseum, Rotterdam, a show called Mensbeeld, in 2004, in Simply Complex at the Design Museum in Zurich in 2005, in Neuroculture, at the Westport Art Centre, Connecticut, USA in 2006, and in Exit Art, New York in 2008. Two articles have appeared in the science journal Nature that refer to Magic Forest. A static version of the time-based piece is now housed at the Wellcome Trust Headquarters, London.


magic forest pdf of blog for williams college museum of art



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