Saturday, December 29, 2012

“...the trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”

Shivering in my seasonal malaise, I can already feel the pessimistic tendencies rearing their heads (yes: heads - plural - think, Hydra for mental state, and what feels like Hendra for the viral state). All that forced new year jollity and promises fit for breaking. I know I’m supposed to be suffused with the spirit of the age and isn’t arts/health all happy-clappy? NO. I am constantly reminded that whilst of course, creativity, culture and the arts have the power to give us something of the numinous and take us out of ourselves: they also have the potential to help us express/make sense of our frustrations, anger and fear. When I am caught offguard  by grief and loss, nothing helps me more than the pain that song-writers and poets expose me too. Terrible for the heart at the time, but through all that murk and sorrow there’s a sense of being part of the world. Neither happy or in the remotest bit clappy, but cathartic and ultimately providing more than a dose of prescribed sedation ever could. 

So, with baited breath, I read that the Barbican and Wellcome Trust are working together on a series of events around science and the arts called; Wonder: Art & Science on the Brain. Will this be more illustrative art subserviently telling the genius stories of science, or else artists just using the palette that science offers them: a splash of DNA here, or a flickering neuron there? No, I’m being a little glib - this looks damn fine stuff: a series of events that explore this relationship in detail, through art and science.

But might the bright lights and big funding of neuroscience be both appealing and possibly reductive - stripping the essence of being human into a neat set of pulsing signals, or else a heady cocktail of chemical slush? I see science maintaining its place in the emerging coalition curriculum, as the arts get kicked into the long grass. It is very sweet of the Guardian to offer us a neat little box that asks What is Neuroscience, and provide us with answers in five handy bight-sized haikus? I wonder if they can answer, What is Art 
in such neat little packages? 

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system and the understanding of thought, behaviour and emotion.
The discipline predates ancient Greece but came of age with the discovery of electrical nerve impulses in the 18th century.
Tools including supercomputers, brain dyes and magnetic resonance imaging scanners are regularly used by modern neuroscientists.
Neuroscientists aim to explain how the brain works and find ways to treat neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Their work could help tackle conditions including strokes, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, brain injury and cerebral palsy.        

I notice that music artist and DJ James Holden has been commissioned to create a soundtrack “to engender a high state of consciousness in the audience” at the Barbican. Oh, it’s that powerful stuff music again and I have no doubt whatsoever, that this will be superb - perhaps almost profound as Jeremy Deller’s sublime Acid Brass from 2004 that conjoined the beauty of traditional brass band music (imagine, young men and women from working class communities creating, learning and loving music like this) with Acid House* anthems. 

There seems to be lots of arts/health research underway with our genteel older citizens, enjoying the benefits of communal singing - wouldn’t it be interesting to see some research around the long-term benefits of euphoria induced by the music of 808 State and the KLF?

Sooner than the Barbican events which take place in March, the National Theatre have a new play by writer of ENRON, Lucy Prebble, which explores the effects of chemicals on the brain taking into account the nature of love and authenticity of feeling, via the value of sadness and depression as important, everyday life-experiences. Perfect - is the thing we describe as love real, or just a chemical reaction?

I’ve quoted endlessly (for good reason) from both Jonah Lehrer in Proust was a Neuroscientist calling for a fourth culture, where science and the arts, (the twin pillars of society), learn from each other as oppose to just co-opting each others appearance: and Gary Greenberg in the illuminating Manufacturing Depression, telling the story of the pharmaceutical industries grip on our psychic terrain, far more eloquently than I ever could. (...and do remember, in all of this, I am not talking about crippling clinical depression) 

Oxford Professor of Mathematics, Marcus du Sautoy eloquently describes this constant pitching of artists and scientists as opposites, as a false dichotomy suggesting they are both ‘homing in on the same structure.’ I’d take it further than that and strip away what it is to be an artist or scientist, and just ask what is it to be human? To be curious, to love and be aware of mortality? All humans are concerned with these profound notions at certain points in their lives. All people. Artists and scientists can of course, offer us something to meditate on - sometimes these will be conjoined and profound and at other times, quite rightly, they’ll operate from their own unique spheres, but infected by what it means to be alive here and now. 

The Effect
Love is double blind.
A clinical romance that explores questions of sanity, neurology and the limits of medicine. Director Rupert Goold reunites with designer Miriam Buether following their production of Earthquakes in London to deliver a vibrant theatrical exploration into the human brain via the heart. To learn more about the science and the inspiration behind The Effect go to

Keep Breathing 

For those of you lucky enough to be able to see this show, I'm sure you'll enjoy all its elements. If you can't make it, I hope you'll enjoy this song from the performance. 

Infected by both melancholia and some seasonal bug, I discovered a peaty-highland drink, that offered me a level of sedation and a degree of physical warmth! With a modest prescription, I took myself off to see the 1962 ‘epic’ Lawrence of Arabia at the cinema. I wasn’t sure what I’d make of it. Was it jingoistic? Offensive? Not exactly a teenager, I was probably the youngest there - and there were some very dubious stereotypes on screen. But the story was compelling and the landscapes' were utterly, utterly beautiful. It was full of some wonderful T.E. Lawrence quotes too, not least, in not minding that something hurts. Psychic as well as physical I wonder? Isn't a degree of emotional pain a healthy part of our evolution?

As the guilty host reservoir of some vile germ and a seasonal miserabilist, I sat far away from the other humans present and periodically decanted a slug of this peaty-stuff and was taken away into a less self-pitying place and memories of my first exposure to extreme wilderness in the form of the Australian interior and memories of heat and dust.

Now, as my bleary eyes cast a glance over the feudal honours list that bestows fake grandeur on the great and good of our dear little Albion, I notice Tracey Emin (wasn’t she threatening to leave these shores on account of tax rises for the filthy rich?) has been awarded some ghastly gong for her services to culture, alongside Olympians Coe, Wiggins et al. For Queen and Empire eh? Fellow cynics: shall we keep our eyes peeled on the legacy of the Olympic Games over 2013? I will be curious to see the ruddy cheeked young athletes of the future, throwing away their ham burgers and french fries and vaulting into a golden dawn of athleticism. So too, the Cultural Olympiad legacy - will we witness more jubilant dancing in our streets: a slump in high-street (tax avoiding) coffee consumption and a resurgence of bakers, florists and potters? Will all hate-crime against people with disabilities fade into a pre-olympian history? 

When organiser of the Olympic opening ceremony, Danny Boyle was asked on Front Row, if he’d like a knighthood for his work, he replied: "I'm very proud to be an equal citizen and I think that's what the opening ceremony was actually about."

Now that’s what I’d call honour.

*Ghastly eh? Acid House - isn’t that all about DRUGS! But are the self prescribed e’s of club culture any more sinister than the wholesale prescription of sedatives to the disenfranchised and discontented masses? As an e-virgin I have no idea, but I am aware of the ongoing educational campaigns of people like Professor David Nutt to clarify the issues and of course the blindingly obvious fact that you can’t tax the street vendor - but oh boy, you can the big pharma

My only hope is that you are well, happy and enjoying life. I wish you nothing but lovely things for 2013 and all it brings. Thank you for visiting this wintery place...C.P