When artists and scientists work together: Self-portraits, consciousness, and the brain (Discussion with Nicole Ottiger and Olaf Blanke)

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Portrait of an Artist: Mind's Eye, 2010 Projected Slide Image Still
When artists and scientists work together: Self-portraits, consciousness, and the brain (Discussion with Nicole Ottiger and Olaf Blanke)

800 Chestnut Street
San Francisco , CA 94133
November 10th, 2011 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM

Artist talk
Financial District/Wharf
415 749 4500
Tue 11-7; Wed-Sat 11-6; Open until 7:30 pm on lecture nights
San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)



As part of the current exhibition Think Art-Act Science at the Walter and McBean Galleries, SFAI presents a conversation with artist Nicole Ottiger and neurologist Olaf Blanke of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience, 
Brain & Mind Institute, EPFL. They will discuss contemporary self-portraiture, the virtual self, and self-perception through external perspectives.


That feeling of being in, and owning, your own body is a fundamental human experience and tightly linked to our subjective, first-person perspective of the world. But where does it originate and how does it come to be? Is this of relevance for artists and painters? How do painters make self-portraits and why? What is special about self-portraits in the past and today? Today’s contemporary self-portraiture likes to extend the self, fictionalized to transpose an autobiographic relation, yet simultaneously point at, challenge and display the artist’s awareness of external perspectives on them; the virtual self is increasingly being engaged.


From the scientific side Professor Olaf Blanke, a neurologist with the Brain Mind Institute at EPFL and the Department of Neurology at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, will describe recent advances in decoding the phenomenon and how they may relate to painted self-portraits. Blanke’s research started out from the detailed analysis of “hallucinated self-portraits” in patients with migraine or epilepsy who saw another self standing in front of them. This led to a series of studies in which his research immersed subjects, via virtual reality settings, into the body of an avatar, or virtual human while monitoring psychological responses and brain activity. Perturbating such fundamental aspects of consciousness in their subjects, such as “Where am I localized in space” and “What is my body?” they even swapped perspectives from first to third person, all the while measuring the change in brain activity.


From the visual arts side, Nicole Ottiger, a Swiss-British artist, explores how these scientific findings can be of relevance for the making of self-portraits and especially for painting one’s own body? The artist's depiction of herself in works of art is the fascinating attempt to localise the self. Paintings and photographic self-portraits often capture the act of making the image (i.e. mirror reflection) looking straight out at the audience at the same time, in other words such artworks often engage directly with the body of the beholder. Self-portraiture also embodies an actualizing of self as ‘other’, an experience that can be uncanny. The artist will present some drawing experiences and artworks that were created while she wore a virtual reality setting that immersed her into the body of her avatar while drawing her self-portrait (“Video Ergo Sum” series).