• Stef Will

Illuminating the Self

I recently came across an exhibition online that I sadly missed at the time. However, when looking at the different online resources, I found it relevant to my own work, so decided to write a blog post on it, although I didn’t actually see it in person. The exhibition I am talking about is ‘Illuminating the Self’ featuring Susan Aldworth and Andrew Carnie. It was placed, both thematically as well as locally at the interface of art and medicine, responding to scientific epilepsy research at Newcastle University and the University's CANDO project (Controlling Abnormal Network Dynamics using Optogenetics). While some of the artworks exhibited dealt with the emotional impact of living with the neurological condition of epilepsy, others explored the neurological processes leading to and occurring during an epileptic seizure, or the impact of technology on innovative new epilepsy treatments.

The exhibition’s two main works were Susan Aldworth’s ‘Out of the Blue’ installation and Andrew Carnie’s projection piece ‘Blue Matter’. The latter was a very large, colourful video projection onto two layers of loose black voile plus a white screen behind, which I imagine gave the work an immersive 3D experience when seen in person. When looking at still images of the work online, it reminded of a garden with curiously shaped trees. These were of course not actual trees but referenced electrical impulses in neurons of the human brain. But only when watching video clips of the work, it came into its own due to the nature of the gently moving voiles the images were projected onto.

Aldworth’s ‘Out of the Blue’ was another large-scale installation, consisting of 106 pieces of Victorian underwear (hanging suspended from the ceiling, embroidered with the personal stories of epilepsy sufferers) slowing moving in harmony, ghostly, wave-like, apparently in the algorithm of an epileptic brain. I wondered what the relevance of the undergarment being from Victorian times was, as the quotes displayed on them were from contemporary epilepsy patients. May this have been a reference to the age-old stigma that unifies epilepsy sufferers from different epochs? While the Victorians believed that the cause of epilepsy was sexual deviancy (which is thankfully not the case any longer…), the disease still has a (undeservedly!) shameful stigma attached that sadly carries on into modern time. The uncanny work filled a whole room and its scale was no doubt impressive, however, I have to say that it was Alworth’s much more understated cyanotypes that I was drawn to most.

These sun-prints explored the electrical synchronisation taking place in the human brain during an epileptic convulsion. She says, “The cyanotypes are made using ultraviolet light, a process which mirrors the use of light in the optogenetic therapies being developed by the scientists.” Alworth makes use of patterns in this work, in order to explore epilepsy thematically, possibly referencing the synchronisation patterns of the electric energy rushing through the brain during a seizure. Aldworth’s cyanotypes are thought-provoking, yet quiet and unobtrusive, especially in contrast to the two large-scale principal works. This did not however make them any less important in my eyes.