eva frapiccini in conversation with alfredo paternoster
moderator: clara madaro
In your artistic and philophical research how do you relate to the knowledge that come from neuroscience?
alfredo paternoster: my connection with neuroscience might be defined “ambivalent” or, probably better, of “critical attention”. On the one hand, the results of the neurosciences, as well as being a potential source of ideas for philosophical fantasies, establish some restrictions to the theories of mental phenomena. Therefore, in my research areas, today, ignoring the results of the neurosciences would entail the risk of formulating theoretical hypotheses without empirical evidence, of saying simply false things. On the other hand, I think there is an unwarranted inclination to overestimate the importance of these results to the issues questioned in philosophy and psychology. Essentially the reason is that what neuroscience teaches us today concerns the localization of psychological functions: which areas are activated when we are occupied with this or that process. But localize it is not explain how it works, for example, the comprehension of the language (or perception), is only the beginning of an explanation. Note that I’m not the only one who says it: one of the most eminent Italian neuroscientists, Carlo Umiltà, asserts this explicitly. To this I might add that I am annoyed by the proliferation of pseudo “neurodisciplines” as Neuroethics, Neuroesthetics, Neuroeconomics etc. These are just new advertising labels potentially misleading for investigations, subject of cognitive neuroscience, concerning the cerebral basis of some of our abilities. For example, one thing is ethics and another thing is the neural basis study of our ethical judgments. There is no neuroethics. So, to sum up everything I have said in one formula: the brain is important, but let’s keep it in the place they should be, without calling into question for each question. For example, one thing is ethics and another is the study of the neural basis of our ethical judgments. There is no neuroethics. So, to sum up everything I have said in a formula: the brain is important, but let’s keep it in its place without refering to it for any matter.
eva frapiccini: my relationship with neurosciences theories is the same as an inquiring self-taught. To the detriment of the name, that scares people like me who does not touch upon math from high school (even if Second Level College of Science), Neuroscience studies the mind operation from a scientific point of view, and I think this is interesting, as any discipline focuses on the human knowledge. Probably a part of me expects sacred answers about the operation of some mechanisms that fascinate me, such as memory or the role of emotions. My artistic research has always been crossed by different humanities or scientific disciplines, they are part of our lives, so they come naturally in the conceptualization of some works, sometimes they show new level of reading. Recently I was reading an essay on creativity and the operation of the mind by Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error, 1995) and I found myself in his concept of emotions as necessary to the knowledge and recording of reality. I think our society has been too conditioned by the rational thought of Descartes, the cogito ergo sum, relegating all that is rational on a higher step than the unconscious.
When we talk about mind, we easily oscillate from some kind of “neuro-enthusiasm” to some form of Cartesian dualism between mind and body. As emerged from your answers: there is another possibility. A critical attention to the knowledge from the neurosciences and the explanation of the psychological functions of conscious processes that leads us to consider the ego or self-consciousness not as a primary element or thinking substance, but as a result of the interlacing of many neurocognitive and psychosocial subconscious and conscious heterogeneous processes as sensations, perceptions, emotions, memory, language use. The subjective identity is characterized by being a in a body, for its precariousness and its defensive nature.
Alfredo Paternoster, as all the issues you have faced in “Sentirsi Esistere” may change the way we see ourselves and the world in the philosophy and in everyday life?
Eva, you have dealt with this theme in works as Dreams’Time Capsules and you will manage it in your next exhibition Selective Memory | Selective Amnesia, how the wide-ranging awareness is integrated in your works and in your artistic practice?
ef: I agree about overvalued of “neurodisciplines” explained by the yearning of that part of the cultural machine that enriches the spin doctors and reporters on the blogs. New communication media have changed our perception of time, and therefore the memory. We are crushed on the present and what happened two months ago seems happened years ago. What does this removal mechanism influences? To mention Israel Rosenfield, “if people are isolated, if they don’t have sensory inputs, they can’t remember anything”, so inputs are memorymaker, but at the same time he says “without context is not possible to have specific memories”. If our senses are limited to the view of a screen, touch the computer keyboard, to live always in the same environment (home, office) how does the way we remember and catalog the memory change compared to past generations? Memory, like everything in the human body has a specific function, to supply information for action, so we might ask how does its way of storing information today, may affect our actions tomorrow, shall we have the same ability to read the evolution over time?
My audio archive Dreams’ Time Capsule starts from here, from this question about the possibility of dreamlike memory of being matrix of experience and humanity. The idea came at the beginning of 2011, when we talked about the Maya theory of the end of the world, the idea of collecting people’s dreams across different continents arises from the question of which archives or traces a visitor-alien in the day after the humankind passing would find, what resources would he has to understand the operation of our mind, our fears, desires, mental connections, … To this is added the fascination for the Jungian theory of the collective unconscious, the possibility that there are correspondences between the dreams of people from different countries, religions and cultures. At least also the theory of “mirror neurons” by the scientific team of Giacomo Rizzolati confirms, in terms of emotions, the presence of some kind of people behavioural empathy. And this universalist theory seems confirmed by Christophe André, according to which the original culture has a role only in the expression of emotions, but not in their experience, from that point of view we are the same.
on the left: Eva Frapiccini, Dreams’ Time Capsule Project, The Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, Egypt, 2012; on the right: Eva Frapiccini, Dreams’ Time Capsule Project, transcriptions of dreams recovered
1200 people I met in different cities and contributed to the creation of the archive, have decided to record the memory of a dream and deposit it for a while. As a timer memory, or a vault, they will receive their recording by mail after a few years, in 2016. And perhaps the interest of this deposit will be the impressions, the possibility that the memory has been modified over time. And now, I connect to the exhibition Selective Memory | Selective Amnesia. After work on memorial sites, as Pierre Nora had called them, research on places of deaths related to the left of centre terrorism in Muri di Piombo and the creation of an archive of dreams that proved the possibility of a collective unconscious, now I investigate the transformation of recollection caused by the narrative. I’d like to understand with Professor Paternoster what does he think of this aspect of the mind, the dynamic dimension of memory.
on the left: Eva Frapiccini, Muri di Piombo (Walls of Lead), 2004-07, Permanent Collection Museum Castello di Rivoli, Italy, 2014 / photo by Renato Ghiazza; on the right: Eva Frapiccini, Muri di Piombo (Walls of Lead), 2004-07, Installation view from the exhibition History I Never Lived (Indirect Witness), curated by M. Beccaria, Museum Castello di Rivoli, Italy, 2012 / photo by Renato Ghiazza
ap: I agree with Eva on the universality of emotions. It seems very interesting the starting point on memory, which is connected to the concept of extended mind that I alluded in the response that I gave before reading Eva (and which is written little later). It is hard to imagine which modifications our memory may suffer in the conditions assumed by Eva. Of course, un unchanged life, an eternal present, could erase episodic memory, the memory of personal events, which is obviously linked to the emotional charge related to the event. While the memory of the facts (our knowledge) could vanish completely delegated to machines. But I can also think of you, the film by Spike Jonze: the protagonist’s life resembles an eternal present, in spite of this, how much emotion there is in his relationship with the operating system, alias Samantha …
We could return to this point. For now I’m stopping here, reporyting my original reply.
I start by saying my philosophical research is the analytical one, hardly it gives birth to revolutions or upturning in the way we look at the world and ourselves. And the critical attention of which we spoke earlier immunizes, for better or for worse, astonishment. Said this, I think there are two ways in which the vision we have of ourselves as inhabitants of the world could change in response to scientific discoveries about the brain and mind. The first is that the mind is not in our heads, it is not something individual. What happens in our head is only part of a wider process, extensive, which involves more people, computers, real and virtual objects. Minds are networks that are dynamically shaped and reshaped. This is, after all, a technological version of a not new idea, not too vaguely Hegelian. Much more explosive to our lives is instead the possibility that free will does not exist as suggested by some experiments on what happens in the brain when we are engaged in decision-making processes. Actually it would be puppets manipulated by the puppeteer that is our brain. Clearly, if this were true, and we believed it, our social and juridical organization would radically upset. Moreover I do not believe neither in this case nor in the extended mind hypothesis.
from left to right, up to bottom: Eva Frapiccini, Selective memory | selective amnesia, Alberto Peola Gallery, 2015, installation view; Eva Frapiccini Lamine (Foils), 2015; Eva Frapiccini, Velluto (Velvet), 2015; Eva Frapiccini, Golden Jail. Discovering subjection, 2014/2015, installation view; photo by Cristina Leoncini
even if free will does not exist, it would explain why we deceive ourselves to be able to choose and how does this illusion work. Even if the mind were extended, we should nonetheless account for how from non-intellingent and unconscious processes could derive something we call “mind”, is it in our head or extended to computers and collective. What I’m referring to is precisely this fact for which from mental processes don’t derive what we call “mind” and that has not been addressed and implemented in all areas of research yet, but I won’t draw out on the issue of naturalism.
Going back to the relationship between context and memory, are we sure that there is no context in the web or in the computer? Is there any ecology or environment of images, video, and several alias that triggers emotions, perceptions and desires, the change in the perception of time could be a consequence of adaptation to this environment? After all, doesn’t our mind evolve in relation to natural and social environment?
In this regard, I would go back to the nature of memory that seems to call into question the accumulation of heterogeneous elements. How are sensations, perceptions, emotions, images, concepts, categorizations, personal narratives, and social policies interlaced in the memory? Can we speak of a mental process of archiving? Are there similarities between the criteria of mental and public storage (public records, artwork, software, social networks)?
In Velvet (2015), her first photographic archive, Eva compares with images that have lost their documentary value to become, through a emotional and aesthetic research, pure emotional memory. How in your works from the memory of unmediated emotion do you get to the construction of the political narrative with its amnesia? How the personal level is intertwined with the social one?
ap: Of course, even the virtual one is a context. But is not clear to me what does Rosenfield mean in the quote cited by Eva, we miss… the background! I think the point was that a purely virtual environment of this kind condemns us to a sort of eternal present, which is clearly incompatible with the idea of memory …
We do not know much about “mental archiving”. The cognitive psychology research, very influenced by artificial intelligence, used, as memory model, public memories, the computers. This is especially evident in the language used to describe the models of human memory functional organization, they speak of storehouses, serial access, catalog researches, content-addressable memories … But these are only metaphors: we do not have a clear overview of how the processes of memory operates, even if, for example, we know the specific brain mechanism of spatial memory (the one that allows us to orient ourselves in space), which is based on the release of a specific neurotransmitter in the synapses of the hippocampus, a brain area particularly important for memory.
But I think, more of this kind of knowledge, for us are important the differences between types of memory: short-term, semantic, episodic, autobiographical (all these three are long-term kind of memory). Emotions are inextricably intertwined autobiographical memory, and can be, in varying degrees, also episodic and semantic memory. On the one hand the memories are memories of emotions or other situations that may recall emotions; on the other, as it is in common experience, the activity of remembering triggers emotions.
ef: I would go back on some points debated by Alfredo before answering the question of Clara. Alfredo mentiones the film by Spike Jonze Her and refers to the condition of an eternal present. In a way this would respond to the desire of modernity that every man feels by its nature, but in another way it would delate our ability to evolve: live in an eternal present means to be reset of the information which we need to act. Let me give an example, if I meet a friend and I don’t remember anything of our past I won’t know how to approach to him/her. What degree of confidence do we have? What I know about him/her? I would be destined to have the same conversation typical of a first met. Instead our mind has the ability to continuously update the information, and weave the story of every person, as if each had his/her own folder, will always be partial and personal, but it will provide a useful comparison to relate to him/her. The quote of Rosenfield in fact was referring to the general operation of the memory based on sensory impulses and the necessity of a context, I have deliberately declined it in relation to the technological devices that we exclude from the spatial context, to understand if the change from reality to a virtual context will modify the way we think.
The “mind archiving” has been studied by cognitive psychology and structuralism, and there are many definitions of memory, semantic, sensory, episodic, transient, permanent (…). The definition that takes into account the duration is, perhaps, the most observed, but what most fascinates me is the recovery mechanism and the possibility of deviation from the original fact.
In recent years, many artists worked with memory understood as a system of repression or archiving, I think of a Heman Chong’s performance, in which the artist repeats his text of 499 words to a participant until he has learned by heart the text, and then he does the same with another attendee. It is a clear reference to Fahrenheit 451.
I also think of Anri Sala and his work Ravel Ravel Unravel presented at the Venice Biennale, in the French Pavilion, in 2013. In that work the bolero composed by Ravel, suffering from mental dementia and wrote few days before a brain surgery will kill him, is reinterpreted by a DJ that shortens and lengthens the notes of the song. The disoriented times complicate the piece, stretching and shortening, pushing and pulling the ears of audience in an attempt to collectively and independently unravel, re-ravel the song, to return to its initial form, unified and harmonious wide-reaching. Sala challenges the audience to mentally recall the memory of the original symphony, behind the deformed notes by the performance of the DJ.
The language plays a crucial role. In my work, this has turned in the action of selection, which involves both the operation of the memory, and the storage systems. In Velluto (Velvet) I selected portions of images in search of a different interpretation of my past. I decided to forget about the elements of the the context, where and when the picture was taken, to capture a colour fragment referred to a sensation. I make a parallel narrative of its, again, I recall the memory.
The recovery and memory deformation mechanism back to the role of the narrative and the conditioning of the social context, as demonstrated by the recent studies about the false remember syndrome, which, in the legal field, have been useful to question the evidence on cases of sexual abuse, but even without going to the pathologies, the reconstruction of memory in general is a delicate and long procedure, and I wonder if you nourish even the sensory memory, we were talking about before.
Collectively, I believe that, in this period of reformulation of diffusion systems as in any small epochal revolution (eg. Gutenberg, Industrial etc ..) there is a difference between the before and after in our ability to perceive us and mentally tell us, so in the awareness.
I would like to deal with several points we touched in terms of the quality of the memory or of its resolution. What role does the fineness of grain or the vividness or sharpness of memory play in the process of bringing to mind an experience? For “fineness grain” I mean the perceptive characteristics of experience. Seeing an apple can not be qualitatively enclosed in a description of the apple, a description of an apple won’t make me see the apple. Are there memories more closely related to the perception than others? Is the perceptive aspect relevant for all kind of memory? The computer model of memory treatment as information storage does not work because it makes dimension of the perceptual and physical memory. Are there atypical perceptions which look like memory? For example, the case of amputees who continue to feel the phantom limb, or in cases of the loved one’s death with whom we had a close physical proximity relationship in which the body has to get used to not perceive anymore him/her as next. Can we think of these abnormal perceptions of something absent as a sort of “what is like” of a potential particularly vivid memory? Can the removal of elements of experience in the memory be seen as a removal from the element strictly perceptive and its description? When does the distance or the fineness grain of perceived and known reality cut become fiction or ideology? In building narratives archive what is the relationship between the fineness grain of the document and that the reality of the experience?
ef: it is difficult even to say how much willpower there is in the inability to remember all of an event, but the point is understanding whether we really want the perfect definition of a memory. Following Rosenfield’s theory, in fact, emotions are the main elements for memory classification, and certainly their intensity will decrease over time, but never disappear completely, while other details can. So this means that our point of view, what we felt at that time has priority over the information. We purchase and codify a given situation according to personal parameters, and according to external stirring, therefore the perception plays a central role. We often observe different memories of the same event, because everyone sees things differently. The storage that is the stabilization of information in memory allows us to absorb the memories. The PsychologistFederica Artioli noted that the members of large families have greater ability to remember their childhood, because the narrative, the establishment of a mythology around the past events allowed them to hold more memory. I’m also interested in how and why, at this stage, memory changes. There are defense mechanisms or some kind of pragmatism, how does it change? These may seem like speculation, but these mnestic mechanisms are studied by governments for marketing research to understand what the citizen/consumer recalls and to implement a directional or distractive communication.
In Bahrain, the Al-Khalifa regime arrived to remove a monument and transformed the Pearl square in a road intersection, right where, in 2011, thousands of people had decided to challenge the emirate with peaceful demonstrations. A physical removal process to erase the memory of those protests. Today, even the intersection/square is monitored by the military to arrest anyone who stops to take pictures. The memory is dangerous too, memory must be controlled.
ap: I agree and I would add a few reflections. Episodic memory and autobiographical memory are often perceptive. When I remember I won with my classmates, the basketball tournament of my high school, I recall those moments in perception-mode -it is like I saw myself from the outside moving to the field, throwing etc. In other cases, more rare, the memory could take the form of an actual reliving of an experience, feeling again the sensations experienced once. Some scholars think, moreover, that the whole of our knowledge is stored in a perceptive format, reviving a perspective beloved by the eighteenth century British empiricism.
Without reaching this radical thesis, it does not seem impossible to say that the contents of consciousness are always perceptive, even when they arise like language. For example, when I think about what a friend told me yesterday, this thought typically occurs in acoustic form, as sequences of sounds that have (for me) a meaning. What has not perceptive nature doesn’t emerge to consciousness: we are aware of a word (sound) which expresses a concept, not of the concept as such. All these considerations show the preponderance of the perceptual dimension of memory. Certainly, you can lose a lot of detail, but what remains is still a format perceptive. All these considerations show the preponderance of the perceptive dimension of memory. Of course, we can lose a lot of detail, but what remains still has a perceptive format.
It is quite correct affirm that the computer model of memory is related to a abstract, intellectual and disembodied vision of mind. This model is in fact imposed in a theoretical context in which it was assumed that our knowledge were represented in a symbolic format, like-language (language without sound). However we can not exclude the possibility of adapt this model also to vault of perceptive images – after all the model concerned the access to the memory trace and not how the trace is made.
The experience of the phantom limb is not a memory, because,for instance, when a person with an amputee leg feels an itch where once there was the leg, she is not remembering, she is feeling a sensation here and now. sometimes in the past, when she had the leg, tried similar feelings, but it is not recalling those feelings. This experience is explained by the fact that the brain has kept a map of the body, which can be activated even in the absence of peripheral signals coming from the body. Perhaps one could erroneously say that is the brain which “remember” the presence of a leg.
Last but very important, I want to emphasize that often memory deceives us. The the original trace is changed using materials that may come from the most disparate sources and, as Eva emphasized, a very important role in this process is played by other-people narratives.
Alfredo Paternoster teaches philosophy of language and philosophy of mind at the University of Bergamo and the Consorzio di Dottorati in Filosofia del Nord Ovest in Turin. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the journal Sistemi intelligenti and of the scientific committee of the journal Philosophical Inquiries. His areas of research are the analytic philosophy of language and mind, particularly the theories of concepts, philosophy of perception, cognitive semantics, mental simulation, the epistemological foundations of cognitive science, theories of consciousness, self-consciousness and the itself. Among his publications we only mention the monographs Sentirsi esistere. Inconscio, coscienza, autocoscienza (with Massimo Marraffa, Roma-Bari, 2013); Persone, menti, cervelli. Storia, metodi e modelli delle scienze della mente (with Massimo Marraffa, Milano, 2012); Introduzione alla filosofia della mente (Roma-Bari 2010); Il filosofo e i sensi (Roma, 2007). He has curated several anthologies including Scienze cognitive: un’introduzione filosofica (with Massimo Marraffa, Roma, 2011) and Tyler Burge: Linguaggio e mente /Genova, 2005).
Visual artist Eva Frapiccini was born in Italy in 1978. She experiments the language and its invisible ways of expression using a variety of media and methodologies: slide projections, sound installations, film, photography, narrative fictions staged, participative projects. Frapiccini has exhibited has exhibited widely in solo presentations and group presentations at Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, Swedish Museum of Architecture and Botkyrka Konsthall (2012), Castello di Rivoli (2014,2012), MAMbo Museum of Modern Art of Bologna (2009), Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation, Turin (2014), Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam (2011), Museo Bilotti, Rome (2007), Maison Europèenne de la Photographie, Paris, Museum Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin, Casino Luxembourg, Luxembourg (2006). She was included at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, Italian Pavilion (2010) and the Festival of Public Art Alwan 338 Foundations in Bahrein (2014), as well in international festivals of photography such as Festival Internazionale di Fotografia in Rome (2006-2007), PhotoEspana (2006).
italian version below:
MODELLI DI ORGANIZZAZIONE FUNZIONALE DELLA MEMORIA UMANA