Saturday, 23 February 2013

Art and Distributed Cognition

Corban Walker (b.1967 Dublin) is a talented New-York based sculptor whose minimalist work encourages viewers to reexamine the way they conceptualise, navigate, and interact with their surroundings. The work pictured to the left is called "Please Adjust" and was a hit at the Venice Biennale 2011 where it was exhibited in the Irish Pavilion alongside some of his other work. He describes this sculpture's meaning as twofold; it is both a representation of the recent economic instability and resulting chaos in Ireland, and also, on a more personal level, an externalisation of all the mundane challenges that he encounters in his everyday life.  At 4 feet tall, Corban's experience of his built and social environment is quite different to most, but he is aware of the power that art and sculpture have given him to communicate his perspective to the world.

With Corban in mind, I recently delved into an essay entitled "Art and Cognitive Evolution" by Merlin Donald from The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity (2006) which has some great insights into the "cognitive engineering" processes by which artists materialise two- or three-dimensional forms. According to the author, "Art is always created in the context of distributed cognition"...

Donald goes on to describe how human culture constitutes a vast distributed cognitive network, and how artists through the ages have tapped into this network to acquire, improve and disseminate their social currency; art: "In a sense, they are at one with the network: they derive their most basic ideas and techniques, as well as their inspiration, from it, and must operate within the limitations it imposes".  

The common symbolic currency of art within this cognitive network is the very embodiment of the dynamic between the individual and the social brain to integrate perceptual and conceptual material over time.  He uses the term metacognition (in a slightly unconventional way) to denote "art's crucial role as a collective vehicle for self-reflection and as a shared source of cultural identity".

However he makes the point that as art is and always been technology-driven so "it is far from being a natural or pure expression of our collective need to represent reality" and also that "the media of artistic expression affect what can be represented and these media differ tremendously between societies".
I'm not sure where this is leading me, but it occurs to me that given the potential of digital technology and neural enhancement for a multi-dimensional, multi-sensory "art-as-experience", the possibilities are only limited by our imagination.   However as we are becoming more enmeshed in our Matrix-like distributed digital framework, spending 80% of our day facing a screen, with social lives that are more virtual than real, and robots as our pets, companions, even our soldiers... I have to wonder if we really want Art to propel us so relentlessly into the digital future? Should Art remain in the analogue (physical) domain? I must ask Corban what he thinks about that...



  1. Great stuff Eileen. If you like Merlin Donald, I recommend this essay: Donald, Merlin. (1993) Precis of Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16:737-791. It is available here:

  2. Very interesting. Thinking of extended cognition emphasises just how important the environment is for cognition and the very important benefits that artwork and aesthetics can have on wellbeing.