Adventures at the Intersection of Art and Cognition

July 31, 2017

Indrani Saha ’17 was a member of the Bass Connections project team Art, Vision and the Brain: An Exploration of Color and Brightness, and served as co-chair of the Student Advisory Council. Headed to her “dream graduate program” in September, she took a moment to reflect on her four years at Duke and the continuing impact of Bass Connections.

Indrani Saha

I entered Duke with a deep interest in cognition, perception and art. Independently scouring through writings by scientists and artists, I found there to be a natural space of interdisciplinarity.

As plans to design my own major at the intersection of science and art began to concretize, Art, Vision and the Brain announced openings. The project had a clear purpose: to explore concepts of color and brightness and present them to a larger public. This involved curating an exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art using works from their permanent collection. A symposium placing artists and neuroscientists in dialogue with one another complemented the exhibition.

As I reflect on my time at Duke, it is quite clear that the everlasting impact of this program went deeper than these deliverables.

Art, Vision and the Brain

Art, Vision, and the Brain commenced with a 10-week summer component where my project team spent almost every day together. We learned to look together as we spent endless hours spent pouring through the works both on the walls and in storage at the Nasher Museum. One of my most memorable moments involved a visit to Nasher’s storage to view screenprints pulled from Richard Anuskiewicz’s Spectral Cadmium portfolio. While I had seen thumbnail images of his prints, nothing prepared me for the experience of being surrounded by his dizzying, equiluminant works in person. The museum became a laboratory as we went one step forward by noninvasively ‘experimenting’ on the prints with a spectroradiometer. Meeting after meeting, I found myself approaching art in new ways and reexamining works I had seen before through a new lens I developed with this team.

Slowly, our conversations in front of these works evolved to a point where the neuroscience of perception and the analysis of the art itself were no longer separate discussions. Eventually, this group of individuals from biology, neuroscience, ophthalmology, art history and biomedical engineering began to develop a common vocabulary, and we reached a point where the disciplines once thought to be disparate could be discussed rather seamlessly.

Art, Vision and the Brain

It was not lost on me that such rich, interdisciplinary conversations at the undergraduate level were quite rare. Moreover, our team sought to improve that through public-facing interventions. Through the Nasher exhibition and the symposium, we shared our findings outside. Interestingly enough, in the midst of our journey together as a team, we were hit with the fallout of ‘The Dress.’ The viral image brought our conversation about color perception and brightness out ‘into the wild’ a bit earlier than expected. This engagement with the public, and seeing them go through the initial shock and frustration of realizing the instability of color reinvigorated my passion for the subject.

Towards the end of our project, my experience with this team helped to complete my Program II application in Cognitive Aesthetics. Not only that, but the summer after declaring my major, I joined two of my project leaders in Paris, as a student in Duke’s Neurohumanities in Paris program. After reading about the equiluminance present in Monet’s painting of a poppy field, nothing compared to seeing it in person at Musee d’Orsay.

Neurohumanities in Paris

Building a bond with the faculty who worked on this project remains the best part about Art, Vision, and the Brain. There existed an unparalleled level of encouragement and guidance. This involvement with the Bass Connections program very early on in my undergraduate journey helped to establish a network of support during my time at Duke.

I applied to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship at the urging of my project leaders, and received funding and additional guidance to research this topic further during my junior and senior year. In fact, my experience with the disorientation induced by the Anuszkiewicz prints expanded into a distinction thesis on the topic as it relates to an immersive light installation by Carlos Cruz-Diez.

And finally, I was accepted to my dream graduate program. In the fall, I will continue to study this interstitial space between visual art and neuroscience as a Ph.D. student in the history, theory and criticism of art at MIT. In fact, my advisor will be someone whose work I began to read during the summer of my Bass Connections experience.

Art, Vision and the Brain remains at the crux of my Duke story – at the center of a web of experiences that will continue to grow beyond graduation.

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