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VIDEO: Professor Teams Up With Local Artist to Study Aesthetic Experiences in the Brain

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Audrey Grayson

It’s rare to find science and art so inextricably tied together. It’s rarer still to find yourself playing the role of scientist, artist and art observer all at the same time.

But patrons of the Menil Collection will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that at Houston conceptual artist Dario Robleto’s exhibit, The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed.

Each Saturday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. through January 2015, visitors to Robleto’s exhibit will be met by a team of researchers from the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering led by Jose “Pepe” Luis Contreras-Vidal, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor of electrical and computer engineering. The research team will give museum-goers the option of wearing an EEG skullcap to record their brain activity while they observe Robleto’s artwork.

Pepe's research team consists of Jesus Cruz, Sho Nakagome and Justin Brantley, all electrical and computer engineering Ph.D. students working within Pepe's Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interface Systems Laboratory at UH.

Pepe’s team will then use these EEG results to map the neural networks activated by aesthetic experiences – that is to say, what our brainwaves look like as we observe and experience works of art in a public setting.

This is where the line between science and art becomes blurred. “In this case, Dario is inviting visitors to become a part of his artwork, just as we are inviting Dario and those coming to see his work to be a part of our research,” Pepe said.

Conducting this research will bring Pepe’s team one step closer to achieving one of his laboratory’s ultimate goals: to reverse-engineer the human brain by mapping individual experiences, thoughts and emotions.

Pepe, a world-renowned expert on brain-machine interface systems, hopes to use this research to create thought-controlled robotic exoskeletons so seamless that people with disabilities will be able to not only regain movement functions such as walking, but also to communicate their emotions through movement.

This research also represents a first-of-its-kind in terms of setting and scope, Pepe added. Although previous studies have looked at the human brain’s response to art and aesthetics, such research was conducted in a laboratory setting wherein research subjects were asked to perform specific tasks or consider certain pieces of art while their brain activity was measured.

“As far as I know, this is the first time this research has been attempted at an art exhibit inside of a museum,” Pepe said. What’s more, this will be the first time that a study has looked at the brain activity of potentially hundreds of freely behaving subjects in a public setting

Dario Robleto: The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed is a culmination of three years of work, first inspired by the seemingly mythical story of the Voyager’s Golden Records – one of which contains “arguably the most important EEG ever recorded,” Robleto said.

The first-ever recorded brainwaves to be launched into space belong to Ann Druyan, executive producer and writer for the Emmy-nominated series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Her EEG was taken in 1977 as she reflected on her love for her new fiancé, famed cosmologist and author Carl Sagan.

Sagan was chosen by NASA to lead a committee tasked with creating a time capsule of human life to stow aboard the Voyager spacecraft – the first probe with a trajectory that would send it outside of the Earth’s solar system.

Much like Robleto and Pepe’s collaboration, the inspiration behind the Golden Records was some parts art, some parts science, Robleto said.

As Robleto saw it, the art of the Golden Records could be found in the symbolic gesture itself – to send a small piece of our existence here on Earth into the dark and unknown expanses of universes beyond. The science was in the small sliver of hope that perhaps one day, light-years away in the stretches of interstellar space, extraterrestrial life might encounter the Voyager 1 space probe and uncover this artifact of human love in the form of Druyan’s EEG recordings.

In addition to Druyan’s brain activity, the Golden Records contain recordings of her heartbeat (as recorded by the EKG) as she thought of Sagan, to whom she secretly became engaged only a few days earlier. Although impossible with technologies at the time, Druyan and Sagan hoped that a future technology would be capable of deciphering human love within these recordings.

“Ann and Carl assumed it would be millions of years in the future and some alien technology that would ever have the capabilities of deciphering emotional content within these brainwaves,” Robleto explained. “I wanted to update the story, which is why I sought out Pepe.”

Robleto said he began researching experts in the field of mapping neural networks and deciphering brainwave activity within EEG recordings. As a Houston native, it didn’t take long for Robleto to stumble upon Pepe’s research taking place just a few short miles away at the University of Houston.

“I knew if there was anyone that could answer this question that Ann and Carl first asked more than 30 years ago – if it was possible to listen to an electronic recording of an EEG and decipher that it represented human love – it was Pepe,” Robleto said.

Interesting, Robleto pointed out that much of the narrative that inspired his Menil exhibit filters through the city of Houston. This story began three years ago, Robleto explained, while he was studying the first artificial heart implanted in a human as an art-research fellow at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The so-called Liotta-Cooley heart was successfully implanted in a patient in Houston in 1969.

“That’s when everything started connecting,” Robleto said. While studying the engineering of this mechanical heart, Robleto said he was filled with questions: “How did we ever obtain the technology where we could record ourselves at all? It reminded me of Ann’s story and the Golden Record, and while I was meditating on that, I began to wonder: Where is the first heartbeat ever recorded? Whose heartbeat was it? Why did it happen? Is the recording still accessible?”

When the search for answers to these questions led him to Pepe’s research, Robleto said he felt as though he had come full circle with his exhibit. “Pepe is the present tense of the history that I’m laying out here – of the quest to first record the heartbeat which led to the quest to then record the brain. These events are all interconnected, but Pepe represents where the technology and the future are headed. It’s very appropriate that he would be in the show,” he said.

To truly bring the narrative full circle, Druyan will be visiting Robleto’s exhibit at the Menil Collection on Tuesday, Sept. 23 at 6:30 p.m. to engage in a public discussion with the artist about the creation of the Golden Record and the relationship between science, art, emotion and the human desire for long-term preservation.

Robleto will also be giving a lecture on The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed at the University of Houston’s Dudley Recital Hall on Friday, Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m.

To the Menil Collection’s curator, Michelle White, this kind of active engagement with the sciences and the science community is precisely what sets Robleto apart from other artists and makes his work so profound.

“What’s so unique about Dario is that he’s not only reflecting on science but he’s acting as a researcher, too. He’s producing knowledge alongside what Pepe and his team are doing,” White said. “That’s really quite special.”

The exhibit, presented by the Menil Collection and the UH Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, is open to the public until Jan. 4, 2015. Robleto was inspired to develop this exhibition and the accompanying public programs through a two-year joint research residency with the UH Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

For more information on The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed as well as the schedule of public programs accompanying the exhibition, please visit: https://www.menil.org/assets/dario-robleto_the-boundary-of-life.pdf

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