Saturday, 12 June 2010

Art, indeterminacy and consciousness

One of the functions of the brain and perceptual system is to categorize data from the world into discrete meaningful chunks and so impose distinctions on the world that are consistent with the biological needs of the perceiver. However, under certain conditions such as deep meditation, when afflicted by particular agnosias, or when faced with visually indeterminate stimuli, these object distinctions break down or disappear altogether. The world can then appear as indeterminate, i.e. devoid of the objective distinctions that characterize our habitual engagement with the world (a mode of perception termed ‘nirvikalpa’ in Indian psychology).

I will show that artists have long understood this contingent nature of objective distinctions and tried to create works that evoke indeterminate perception by dissolving the hard, deterministic boundaries around objects. This has resulted in varying degrees of visual indeterminacy in art movements such as impressionism, fauvism, cubism, and abstract expressionism. I will discuss my own paintings, which attempt to induce a visually indeterminate state in the viewer, and the collaborative work I have done with psychophysicists and neuroscientists to investigate the effect of indeterminate artworks on subjects’ responses and brain functions.

This indeterminacy in visual experience is analogous to the inherent indeterminacy operating at quantum levels of reality, according to the standard Copenhagen interpretation. I will suggest that the viewer who interprets an indeterminate image is attempting to ‘collapse’ many potential states into an actual state in the same way states of quantum superposition are said to collapse during observation of sub-atomic events. This, I will argue, suggests a role for consciousness as the process by which the inherent indeterminacy of nature is resolved into the more determinate world we experience.

I will close with the claim that the experience of trying to resolve visually indeterminate states demonstrates how the conscious mind acts to bring the world into being for us.

Paper at Towards a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, April 2010