How can art serve science? New York University answers this question with the opening of the Neurobiology of Cognition Laboratory, a new Center for Neural Science laboratory featuring an art piece that doubles as the facility’s conference table. The work, “Reconfiguring Memory,” by internationally recognized artist Shuli Sadé, will be the centerpiece of Professor André Fenton’s laboratory, which will be dedicated to research on memory.
The Neurobiology of Cognition Laboratory, built within existing space in NYU’s Meyer Hall, opened with a ceremony on Thurs., April 19 at its 4 Washington Place location.
“Reconfiguring Memory” is an artistic affirmation that the best science is not conducted in isolation and through a microscope, but, often, through collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
“The laboratory will serve as a space for communication between scientists, international and local guests,” explains Fenton, a professor in NYU’s Center for Neural Science. “It will grant the scientists a sophisticated ambiance into which they can invite visitors to expose their work and an attempt to make explicit the interlocking efforts of art and science in defining culture. Our intent is to build a laboratory culture of innovation and rigor by providing inspiration and a laboratory infrastructure that broadcasts our respect and continuous promotion of intellectual exchange, debate, and discovery.”
The work, the result of a two-year collaboration between Fenton and Sadé, will not only serve a practical purpose, but also artistically incorporates the laboratory’s scientific focal point--memory.
The 15 x 5 foot long conference table is made of 32 photographic panels, fragments of a single New York night cityscape photograph incorporating urban and natural visual textures. Pixels are digitally removed from the photograph, signifying the loss and gain of information that is fundamental to memory storage. The images are so enlarged that, in the table, their elements become abstract and form visual references to the memory research practice and concepts. For example, building elements appear as immunoblots, a biochemical research technique that is routinely used for revealing the molecules that store and regulate memory. Striping in the images resembles the raster displays used to represent electrical discharge of neurons within brain networks.
“With imagery taken from the city, the lab inhabitants are able to reconnect and to be constantly reminded of life outside of the lab and the purpose of research, human health, and knowledge,” notes Fenton.
An additional visual presentation references “Reconfiguring Memory” and brackets the laboratory meeting space: “Traces,” made of six photographic panels applied to the soffit surrounding the conference table. Its images are based on patterns of identified memory loss and memory gain embedded in the conference table. Patterns of photographic information removed from the same photograph that was used to create “Reconfiguring Memory,” printed on transparent film. “Traces” is made from the retracted particles of the total memory of an image in order to animate the memory cycle of laying down traces of experience, their imprecise reactivation in recollection, and their reconsolidation within which information is gained, lost, and distorted.
“Traces are stretched to new dimensions, creating horizontal panels, a metaphoric reminder of the fundamental plasticity of the brain: it creates a continuous contemplation on the reconstructive nature of memory and the laboratory’s efforts to decode the neural code and syntax, the very language of neural communication,” adds Sadé.
Fenton is an internationally recognized neuroscientist and biomedical engineer. He works on three related problems: how brains store information in memory; how brains coordinate knowledge to selectively activate relevant information and suppress irrelevant information; and how to record electrical brain activity in freely-moving subjects. His recordings of electrical brain activity are elucidating the physiology of cognitive control and cognitive dysfunction in diseases, including schizophrenia, depression, and mental retardation.
Sadé, an Israeli-born, New York-based artist, specializes in working among the interstices of art categories. Most often, her work includes photography and video, but her images also explore the boundaries of two-dimensional and three-dimensional art. She works with elements in space that are ethereal in nature: light, sound, movement, and arrested images. Sadé is a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council/ NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Art Fund for video and sculpture. She has taught and lectured at Barnard College, Columbia University’s School of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, Parsons School of Design, SUNY Old Westbury’s Art Department, and Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Her work is represented by Cynthia- Reeves projects and in the collection of the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, the Israel Museum and the Haifa Museum and in numerous public and private collections including Pfizer Corporate Art Collection, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NH, and Duke Energy Headquarters in Charlotte, NC, among others.