Guilherme Cunha
“Science has two obstacles that block its advance: first the defective capacity of our senses for discovering truths, and then the insufficiency of language for expressing and transmitting those we have acquired. The aim of scientific models is to remove those obstacles.”- Étienne Jules Marey1

The Heart/Brain connection

Krzysztof Gutfrański

According to 19th century French physiologist and inventor Étienne Jules Marey, the sensual imperfections and limitations of language were obstacles on the road to scientific truth; the causes of serious methodological mistakes and the base of noisy disturbances in the flow of information. The graphical method which Marey established, as a theory and practice serving to fulfill his dream of a science freed of linguistic burdens, still “speaks” from his time, through mechanically generated wave and vibration recordings, hyper-fast shutter photography, as well as through a whole range of consecutive inventions and research methods such as magnetic resonance or popular neuro-imaging procedures. Marey had dream of a machine that could overcome human “weaknesses” and limitations, a machine that would “utter true statements” concerning the human body, doing it in a “language” free of interpretation. Guilherme Cunha, a representative of Brazil’s young artistic generation from Belo Horizonte, enters into a dialogue with an outlined 19th century narrative, turning “barriers” and “limitations” into research potentialities and substituting communication noise between body and machine for a space of creative exploration and an alternative form of dialogue.

Imaginary Dialogues [Diálogos imaginários] stands out as one of Guilherme Cunha’s main artistic preoccupations. In his work, he oscillates between the poetics of medical vivisection and probing the potential of the human mind. Employing many different artistic media from photography to performance, while working in a mode of a consistently realized artistic attitude, his practice evades many contemporary artistic fads and fashions, loosely referring to what Aby Warburg once termed a “life after life” [from the German: Nachleben]. Nachleben marks the process of a recurrence and regeneration of visual forms, returning in Guilherme Cunha’s case to the modified contemporary form of technological inventions (and their specific relations regarding mind and body).

In his installation Module of Intra-Organic Communication [Módulo de Comunicação Intra-Orgânica] (2013), the artist employed a special architecture that amplified the sounds that emanate from the human body. By creating an enhanced and modernized version of the stethoscope, he initialized a space and a tool enabling its users to get involved in a peculiar dialogue. The heartbeat as a message (heard in one of two cabins that the artist erected for this explicit purpose) is received by means of auditory organs through specific cortex areas in a listener’s brain, but also (predominantly, in this particular case) by his or her heart. The personal rhythms of two people seated in two separate cabins who are about to come into contact, synchronize with each other, and either mutually accelerate or slow down. It resembles an experimental therapeutic session employing the biofeedback method, where return information as the heartbeat rate “flows” between two bodies, influencing their respective blood pressure levels, biochemical processes, and also their emotional state, mood or even reciprocal relation. Guilherme Cunha enables the users of his installation to communicate based on a sound sequence which is generated by an organ that is hardly controllable by consciousness or reason, with its reactions resembling “automatic writing” or a “code” with a rather rationally designed and purposeful message. At the same time, in an indirect way (through a variation on the subject of the stethoscope as a medical appliance) the artist presents the history of the human heart as a medium, an organ that has been listened to for many centuries in order to obtain primary and, at the same time, ultimate proof for the “vitality” of a living organism. The heart and brain, the hot and cold organs, were for many ages juxtaposed with each other and imagined in their multiple contradictory aspects, fighting over hegemony; over intellect and psyche. Aristotle, one of the more devoted cardio-centrics, thought that the fact that the heart existed in all animal species, and the brain only in a select few, is to the latter’s definite disadvantage. Besides, the heart is formed in an earlier phase of development than the brain – a heart beat is an intra-corporeal, “organic” message sent to an unknown addressee, a bit of multisensory information that tells us that life has begun, the sound that begins to be instantly traced by a sense of touch (for the beating of this organ is tactile and can be felt), a phenomenon that triggers entire sequential chains of bodily and extra-bodily responses and reactions.

However, today it is not the cessation of heart activity, but brain death, the rupture of the communication channel between the central nervous system and an external world that informs us of “life being extinguished.” Ancient metaphors seem to retain their importance though – the warm, life-giving heart that not long ago determined the presence of “spirit” in matter, continues to beat against the cold, jelly-like structure of the brain, entirely inaccessible and impossible to be felt as an organ, still incomprehensible as a transmitter, but nevertheless treated as the ultimate oracle. These days, we learn of death (understood as “brain death”) from the abstract lines of an electroencephalographic (EEG) recording. In a revolutionary year, 1968, it has ceased to be defined in terms of heart activity, while irreversible stoppage of breathing and blood circulation have been accepted as death-defining norms. Greek word psychein (to breathe) lost its life-related meaning, but it is still breath and the heart beat that remain available to the human senses as signs of a properly functioning organism. And, while a technology-based verdict on the continuation of an individual life has become more immaterial and abstract, a “transfer of trust” from the ear and eye to an electrode is becoming increasingly the cause for growing unrest, similar to the one caused by the parallel process of exchanging money in its material form (based on gold dividends) for a virtual currency. For more than 50 years now, a simple graphical “message” has appeared as a simple isoelectric EEG line that has become so deeply in our collective consciousness it now tells us that objectivity’s measure has been transferred from that of the mind to a machine. Word and suffix graphs have appeared under numerous names from 19th century (up to today’s) technologies such as photography, cinematography, cardiography, the phonautograph, the graphophone, heliography, telegraphy, the ideograph, the phonograph, the seismograph, myography, and so on. Marey, the principal proponent of the graphical method, described it as the language of phenomenon in itself. In more or less the same period, G. Stanley Hall, returning from his studies in Europe, wrote enthusiastically: “The graphic method is fast becoming the international language of science… In Germany, where it is most developed, it has revolutionized certain sciences by its unique logical method, and in one or two cases at least has converted the lecture room into a sort of theatre, where graphic charts are the scenery, changed daily with the theme.”2 Thus, technological images became much more than just useful tools used to describe natural phenomena – they became the words of nature herself. According to Marey and his contemporaries, it was precisely through machine-generated images and automated recordings of various powers and energies, that the moral order of objective representation could have finally been attained. The natures of movement, air temperature, geological activity, blood pressure etc., were examined by means of a circulation of electrical current. For example, the portable polygraph has been designed with the intent of measuring, inter alia, the heart pulse rate, respiratory cycles, as well as the systoles and diastoles of cardiac muscle. This device and other appliances that produce automatic images were, to Marey, important for two reasons: first, they were overcoming linguistic limitations, and second, due to automatic recording system, they produced an image free of belief and partiality. The latter were (and continue to be) principal flaws in human longing for many fundamental questions. Abstract images generated by increasingly advanced equipment that serve to “verify” the imperfection of an examination based solely on the interpretation of an expert/medic do not have any intrinsic value, in and of themselves. The result obtained by means of an electroencephalograph, magnetic resonance or computer tomography becomes a diagnosis/message only thanks to its interpretation, at best an outcome of the collective work of several specialized minds.

It is precisely the problem of “intermental” or “intercerebral” communication which employs technological media, as well as the motif of interpretation and the potential of the body as a transmitter, that shape Guilerme Cunha’s domain of artistic-scientific experiments. In 2012, inspired by the EEG technology work by another Brazilian artist and dissident, Paulo Bruscky (he has been experimenting with instruments of notation since the 1970s) Cunha began a series (also with Bruscky’s participation) of performances with intercerebral communication as its goal. In a work titled Bra(in to) Brain, electroencephalograph becomes for the artist a tool for augmenting the field of perception and, subsequently, the diversification of the machine’s functional scope and scientific imagery which it produces as a measure of objectivity. At the same time, it researches the possibilities for transcending the viewer-interpreter’s subjectivity. For a while, the artist takes on the guise of a doctor (from the Latin word doctor, meaning teacher) initializing a specific situation by means of specialised equipment. It is safe to describe this situation as located somewhere between a medical experiment and performance, where brains of “disciples” (patients) are exposed to a procedure of mutual activity in the form of an EEG (the graphical recording of brain waves), becoming sensory stimulation, and a stimulus for inciting intercerebral organic dialogue. In this vegetative conversation, mind and imagination serve as mediators – both faculties are still impossible to be physically located by medicine and psychology (in spite of their “neuro-” prefixes) in spite of some highly advanced methods of neuro-imaging being employed. As a consequence, a highly constitutive idea of functionalism gets discarded, along with the notion of the body as a machine. This thread has been further developed in a work entitled Incomplete Mutation [Mutação Incompleta], where the names of respective colours, being read out from several loudspeakers, becomes the point of entry for communication between various locations within the brain, while language is almost instantaneously translated into an image – visualization (or mental stimulation) of a colour, which involved parallel action on the part of imagination and experience. As in graphical method, one type of a coded message (the audible sequence of names) is “translated” into a sequence of images and visual associations.

The interpenetration of messages transmitted and received by organic structures in the human body is, to Cunha, not only an area of possible exploration and experiment, but also a starting point for a discussion on “border phenomena”. In Imaginary Dialogues, a pair of people positioned opposite each other underwater make an at attempt conversation. The watery environment, not entirely alien to a human being (resembling as it does the pre-natal period) becomes a barrier, as well as a medium triggering – by means of an extra-verbal and non-intellectual code – a memory of an embryonic life that is encoded within the corporeal memory and is read out in a state of semi-consciousness. The mediacy of mind and consciousness, including the imaginative faculty, in intra-organic communication (as it has been termed by the artist himself) is a thread that comes up continually throughout many of Guilerme Cunha’s works. Using equipment designed to decode the brain or heart’s “speech” in order to make alternative and nonverbal forms of communication possible, the artist hovers around problems of potentiality and a “limitation” of a human mind which gets amplified by a current proliferation of neuro-imaging methods (not only in science but also in, among others, marketing or advertising). As a famous neurobiologist and representative of the embodiment approach Antonio Damasio writes, “Body and brain are engaged in a continuous interactive dance. Thoughts implemented in the brain can induce emotional states that are implemented in the body, while the body can change the brain’s landscape and thus the substrate for thoughts.”3 He defines consciousness in terms of feeling the body, perceiving what is going on within it. In the context of the age old debate on the exact site of the mind, consciousness or imagination, also regarding questioning which organ is the principal transmitter or mediator of messages, the abovementioned solution seems to be surprisingly simple. Paradoxically, without the mediacy of new technologies, this “simplified” answer might not have been defended with enough force and commitment. Stimuli, transformed by senses and medical equipment (such as the stethoscope or cardiograph, or magnetic resonance and tomography in more recent times) into more or less comprehensible messages, lead in the work of Cunha to their own internal dialogues that remain hidden from consciousness but more and more often get “intercepted” and “viewed” not only in the context of medicine but also in medical poetics. The flipside of scientism is a fear of fiction. Through the dialogic work of Gui Cunha we may be entering a phase when the heart and the brain can become more comfortable bedfellows again.

Translated from the Polish by Jacek Staniszewski
Proofreading Judson Hamilton
Special thanks to Magdalena Jawor for psychological & medical consultation.
1   Quoted in: Marta Braun, Picturing Time. The Work of Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1994, pp. 12-13.
2   H. Gray Funkhauser, Historical Development of the Graphical Representation of Statistical Data, “Osiris”, Vol 3 (1937), pp. 331-332.
3   Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, Pantheon Books, New York 2010, p. 96.