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ECE Brain-Machine Interface Expert Teams Up with Artist at Menil Collection
Melanie Ziems
Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal (right) demonstrates his non-invasive brain-machine interface exoskeleton in 2013.
Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal (right) demonstrates his non-invasive brain-machine interface exoskeleton in 2013.

Jose Luis “Pepe” Contreras-Vidal, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Cullen College, is widely known in the medical community for his work on thought-controlled robotic exoskeletons. Now he is taking his work out of the hospital – and into an art museum.

Contreras-Vidal is working with local artist Dario Robleto on a new exhibit to be held at the Menil Collection near downtown Houston. Robleto’s art will be exhibited at the Menil next month, and Contreras-Vidal will hook museum patrons up to a non-invasive EEG skullcap to record their brainwaves as they view Robleto’s pieces.

Robleto's exhibition is presented by the UH Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and the Menil Collection, commissioned and developed through a joint research residency.

Houstonia Magazine recently profiled this unique collaboration between artist and scientist, wherein the line between art exhibit and cutting-edge research study is blurred. The ultimate goal of the study is to observe common patterns in the visitors’ brainwaves in order to isolate the effects of an aesthetic experience inside of the human brain. They hope to scan hundreds of patrons’ brainwaves on a few select weekends at the Menil Collection -- a scope that no previous experiment has undertaken before. Small studies of a similar sort have been held in laboratory settings, but this will be the first of its kind with such a large sampling of freely-behaving museum-goers. This study will provide Contreras-Vidal’s team with one more piece to a puzzle he's been putting together throughout his research career: to reverse-engineer the brain and map thoughts and neural networks inside of the human mind. In doing so, Contreras-Vidal hopes to create a brain-machine interface system so seamless that users will no longer even have to consciously think about walking in order for the robotic exoskeleton to follow the command.

Read the Houstonia Magazine article here.

In addition to the exhibition, which will be on view at the Menil Collection Aug. 16 through Jan. 4, 2015, public programs include:

Opening Lecture: Dario Robleto
6:30 p.m., Sept. 12
UH Dudley Recital Hall, Fine Arts Building (Free)
Robleto has explored love, loss, grief and other universal aspects of the human condition throughout his career, often distilling these complex states into meditations on fragility and change. “The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed” revolves around his most recent area of inquiry: the largely unexplored history of the human heartbeat as sound. This lecture draws on his extensive research into the earliest attempts to record the heartbeat as sound and image, the heartbeat and brainwave recordings on a probe currently headed toward the edge of the solar system and recent developments in the evolution of the artificial heart.

Conversation with the Artist - Ann Druyan and Dario Robleto
6:30 p.m., Sept. 23
The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross (Free)
In 1977, Ann Druyan, an author and producer specializing in cosmology and popular science, became the creative director of the Golden Record. Formed by her soon-to-be-husband, astronomer Carl Sagan, the team of seven created a portrait of Earth from natural sounds, images, musical selections, spoken greetings, and recordings of Druyan’s own heartbeat and brainwaves that was launched aboard the unmanned space probes Voyager 1 and 2 on a billion-year journey into space. Thirty-seven years later, Voyager 1 is just now exiting our solar bubble and entering interstellar space. In this program, Druyan joins Robleto in a discussion of the creation of the Golden Record and the relationship between science, art, emotion and the human desire for long-term preservation.

Conversation with the Artist - Patrick Feaster and Dario Robleto
6:30 p.m., Oct. 21
The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross (Free)
Prior to Thomas Edison's groundbreaking invention of sound recording and playback technology in 1877, the ephemerality of sound meant that it only existed in the moment of its creation. To "record" sound before this time meant it appeared as oral or written descriptions or musical scores. In 2008, Patrick Feaster, a researcher and educator specializing in the history and culture of early sound media, and his colleagues revolutionized the field of historical sound recording by suggesting that attempts to record sound waves as visual tracings almost two decades before Edison's breakthrough could be "played back" today as sound. In this discussion with Robleto, Feaster speaks about his work and their recent collaboration on "playing back" the earliest 19th-century attempts to visually record the human pulse and heart.

Film Screening: Man, Art, Machines
6:30 p.m., Nov. 18
The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross (Free)
Quests such as visualizing the mysterious movements of the human pulse and heartbeat, building a mechanical heart from scratch, landing humans on the moon, or sending a vessel past the edge of the Solar System embody a sense of technological optimism and wonder that defined American idealism in the 1960s. It was also a driving force behind “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” Organized by Pontus Hulten, the exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, before traveling to the Rice Museum, Rice University, in 1969. Featuring appearances by Dominique de Menil, Pontus Hulten, and sculptor Jean Tinguely, “Man, Art, Machines” explores the evolution of the exhibition in Houston.

Conversation with the Artist: Mimi Swartz and Dario Robleto
6:30 p.m., Dec. 2
The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross (Free)
In her upcoming book, Mimi Swartz, an executive editor of Texas Monthly, traces the history of the artificial heart. The first artificial heart was implanted in 1969 at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, and much of this tale of ambition and innovation focuses on the work of surgeons living and working in the city today. Robleto and Swartz have been in dialogue since the early stages of their respective projects and invite the public to join them in a layered conversation about the past, present, and future of this technology.

About the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts
The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts is dedicated to interdisciplinary collaboration across the performing, visual, and literary arts. Based at the University of Houston, the Mitchell Center commissions and produces new works, presents public performances and exhibitions, offers curriculum and scholarships, and hosts residencies with renowned visiting artists from throughout the world. The Center is home to the Mitchell Artist Lecture, an annual event featuring a pioneer in contemporary art-making, as well as CounterCurrent, an annual spring festival of new performance. The Mitchell Center forms an alliance among five departments at UH: the School of Art, Moores School of Music, School of Theatre & Dance, Creative Writing Program, and Blaffer Art Museum.

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