“Seeing / Sounding / Sensing” was an intensive two-day event at MIT that invited creative artists to join with philosophers, cognitive neuroscientists, anthropologists, historians and scholars from a range of disciplines in an open-ended discussion about knowledge production.
Keynote – Bruno Latour
Friday, September 26, 2014 / 5:00–7:00pm
Media Lab E14-674
Immanuel Kant founded a philosophy on the notion of a “common sense.” Through sensory experience we would slowly accumulate knowledge of the world, and in sharing it, form human culture. But is there a common sense, or merely convention established through language? Does science form a genuinely alternative way of knowing the world, or merely establish different practices for describing it? In his philosophy and sociology of science, Bruno Latour has established a profound social difference between “matters of fact” that science can produce and “matters of concern” that communities of non-scientists agree on.
Bruno Latour, Professor, Sciences Po Paris
David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics, MIT
Tomaso Poggio, Eugene McDermott Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT
David Kaiser introduces Bruno Latour and recounts the ideas Latour put forward in several of his many publications, including Laboratory Life, We have never been Modern, “Why has critique run out of steam?” and his latest book, Inquiry into Modes of Existence. Listen to an overview of some of Latour’s key concepts, such as the crucial distinction between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern.”
Bruno Latour reminds us of what aesthetic means in its etymological sense – “to make oneself sensitive to” – and how we can cultivate this sensibility in order to address the vast and seemingly unapproachable problem of climate change, which is equally possible using scientific instruments or through the arts. Latour gives several cross-media comparisons to illustrate these two pathways, including his own work Gaia Global Circus, as well as works by Tomás Saraceno, Adam Lowe, Oliver Morton and Philippe Sqarzoni. His prescription for cultivating sensitivity to the world involves a dynamic approach that takes into account the unfixed nature of things, including the planet. The climate crisis and the challenge of responding to Gaia loom large in his Keynote address.
Tomaso Poggio talks about research at the MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines which is focused on the problem of intelligence: how the brain works and how to build intelligent machines. He explains the Center’s current work on machine learning, and on how the brain makes sense of the complex world around us, consisting of physical objects and of social interactions. Starting with current technologies that give vision to cars, recognize individual people and beat humans at chess and Jeopardy, Poggio describes how scientific research and teaching Institutions such as MIT are the engine of human evolution.
Read the full transcript of the Keynote.
Image: Bruno Latour, Holberg Prize. Credit: Manuel Braun.
SEEING – Color
Friday, September 26, 2014 / 1:30–4:00 pm
Media Lab, MIT Building E14-674
The visual pathway has been mapped more comprehensively than almost any other perceptual process. Given vision’s privileged status in forming knowledge (“I see”), science has considerable confidence that we are beginning to “know how we know.” But if we focus on a single aspect of sight – proprioceptive sight, or so-called “blindsight,” or color, or synesthesia, or the plasticity of mind that takes haptic signals and “remaps” them onto the visual cortex – we encounter much more complicated terrain. Artists are tireless empiricists when it comes to visual cognition; this session puts them in discussion with scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers to engage new questions about sight, beginning with color.
Caroline Jones, Professor of Art History, Theory & Criticism, MIT
Tauba Auerbach, Artist
Bevil Conway, Associate Professor of Neuroscience, Wellesley College
Caroline Jones moderates the panel “Seeing/ Color,” giving valuable background information about color as a symbolic or language game and color as an emotional symbol. Jones points out that while vision is the best-mapped cognitive process in the brain, color is the most mysterious of our perceptions. She has organized this panel to break down traditional dichotomies in which scientists discuss things like wavelength and artists discuss things like hue.
How do I know if your red is anything like mine? Tauba Auerbach discusses questions related to embodiment and the boundaries of consciousness through color and dimensionality. Auerbach discusses how her interest in 4-dimensional space, topoology and tetrachromacy inform her work and shares information about her Fold Paintings, books and a recent series of Woven paintings.
What are the computational goals of color (i.e. what is color for?) and how does the brain achieve these goals? Bevil Conway presents a new integrated theory in which he argues that the primary role of color is not simply to aid in object segmentation, but rather as a trainable system that facilitates the rapid detection of behaviorally relevant objects. He covers a range of topics, including how spatial-color contrast is computed in the cerebral cortex, color-emotion associations, and the color experiments of the artists Josef Albers and Henri Matisse. He also discusses his research about the different, parallel tracks in the brain responsible for facial recognition and for color.
Alma Steingart provides commentary on the “Seeing” panel, questioning the role of color in mathematics as a purely heuristic device. Steingart also addresses the four-color map theorem, Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color, the bond between math and color, psychology of perception, David Foster Wallace’s notion that the language of color is built on consensus, and Charles Hinton’s writings on the fourth-dimension.
Read the full transcript of Seeing– Color, Part 1.
Read the full transcript of Seeing– Color, Part 2.
Image: Tauba Auerbach’s RGB Colorspace Atlas, 2011.
SOUNDING – Resonance
Saturday, September 27, 2014 / 9:30 am–1:00 pm
Media Lab, MIT Building E14-674
Metaphorically, in English we “sound out” an idea, a person, or a vessel – sonic explorations of subjectivity or tests of worth. That “resonance” has extensive cultural and cognitive significance. How do we know what we hear? How do we know what is inside our heads and what is outside? Following on the previous day’s session on color, which asked about the relation between the subjective, objective, mathematical, and intersubjective apprehension of color, this session asks about the quality of sound as experience. What is the relation between auditory perception and hallucination? What are the boundaries of hearing? Why does it matter, and to whom? Engaging music and noise, artists and live musicians, installations and recordings, computation and human sensory capacities, acousmata and precise directional signals, this session will explore the ethical and aesthetic components of sound, and why “noise” of many kinds is so central to scientific exploration and the human arts.
Stefan Helmreich, Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology, MIT
Alvin Lucier, John Spencer Camp Professor of Music, Wesleyan University
Brian Kane, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, Yale University
Mara Mills, Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University
Josh McDermott, Assistant Professor, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT
Alex Rehding, Fanny Peabody Professor of Music, Harvard University
Stefan Helmreich explains resonance in the key of the acoustic and vibratory, and then expands into the realm of the tactile, haptic, and ultimately, cultural. In introducing the “Sounding” panel, Helmreich begins with a history of how philosophers have sometimes compared human attunement to the world as akin to the resonance of an Aeolian Harp. He moves from there to discussion of cybernetics, sound and electronic music, and then introduces the performance series MIT Sounding.
Alvin Lucier in conversation with Brian Kane
Alvin Lucier speaks about his experimental music and some of the technology employed in its creation. His interview transcends the topic of sound to address the creative process itself. Lucier describes his work, Music for a Solo Performer, in which he sonified his brain waves. His iconic works I Am Sitting in A Room and In Memoriam Jon Higgins were highlights of the evening’s concert, and Lucier gives context and insight into the works’ creation. Lucier shares anecdotes about fellow composers John Cage and David Tudor, scientist Edmond Dewan, engineer and MIT Professor Amar Bose and the Judson Dancers. He also discusses the aesthetic experience of the audience and his thoughts on the terms “experimental music” and “sound art.”
Mara Mills charts the history of the term “modulation,” beginning with phoenetics and deaf education in the 19th century and ending with pulse code modulation. Mills also discusses telephony and technologies for speech transmission. Alexander Graham Bell and his student Theresa Dudley prove a fascinating case study for her analysis of 19th-century speech studies. She covers linguistic concepts (e.g. articulation, resonance) and technological devices for recording sound (e.g. phonautograph, electroacoustic equipment, multiplex telephony).
How do we derive information about the world from sound? Josh McDermott discusses auditory scene analysis – the process by which the brain infers events in the world from the sound signal that enters the ears. He explains “the cocktail party problem,” in which the brain receives sounds from multiple sources and manages to extract the content of one of them, for instance when following a conversation in a restaurant. This problem is ill-posed, and the brain appears to solve it by taking advantage of the statistical regularities of the sounds that occur in the world. McDermott then presents a second scene analysis problem in which sound from a source interacts with the environment on the way to the ear, profoundly altering the source signal by introducing reverberation. He explores both the challenges and uses of reverberation and discusses his lab’s work in measuring reverb in real-world conditions.
In his commentary on the “Sounding” panel, Alexander Rehding notes the changing status of music among the arts and its importance to the German Idealist philosophers Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer, who understood music as sublime. Seeing music as a strictly temporal art, they connected it to the central philosophical problem of the finitude of life. Rehding describes the invention of the mechanical crank siren and the responses contemporary scientists, composers, theorists and poets had to this novel device, as an example of the convergence of science, art and technology.
Read the full transcript of Sounding — Resonance, Part 1.
Read the full transcript of Sounding — Resonance, Part 2.
Image: Alvin Lucier, Music On A Long Thin Wire, 1977.
SENSING – Actions
Saturday, September 27, 2014 / 2:00–5:00 pm
Media Lab, MIT Building E14-674
For many scientists, “sensing” is the final endpoint of numerous pathways of cognition; for philosophers, it has often been the first step in the process of reason itself. Current debates center on whether neuroscience can understand cognition if the subject is constituted through an ongoing negotiation with stimulus grasped by a moving and active body, in which one signal is constantly checked against another, rather than the long-cherished binaries of excitation/inhibition, push/pull, or on/off. In short, some theorists assert that much thinking goes on outside the skull. This session will explore the scientific and cultural basis for prodigious feats of muscle memory, bodily thinking, on-the-spot decision making, and human action.
Natasha Schüll, Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, MIT
Alva Noë, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley
Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Associate Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies and of the History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University
Tomás Saraceno, Artist
Leila Kinney, Executive Director of Arts Initiatives and the Center for Art, Science & Technology, MIT
Josh Tenenbaum, Professor of Computational Cognitive Science, MIT
Natasha Schüll moderates the “Sensing” panel and traces the history of the metaphor of the brain as a computer beginning with Gottfried Leibnitz, to Alan Turing, then to Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch, John von Neumann, Herbert Simon and Alan Newell. Schüll links this analogy to technological evolution showing depictions of the brain as factory, telegraph, switchboard, film and tape recorder. In conclusion, she discusses neuroeconomics in relation to this metaphor and the question of how to compute the value of choices in time.
As part of his ongoing “Cloud Cities” development, artist Tomas Saraceno speaks about his installation On Space Time Foam in HangarBicocca, Milan, (2012), a multilayered, inflated membrane construction in which participants can crawl, slide, climb and try to move by any means possible on the unstable surface. Saraceno shares preliminary drawings and animations for the work. He mentions his fascination with “the butterfly effect” and the notion of proxemics (from The Hidden Dimension) in discussing the interactive, co-dependent nature of his installation. He notes the necessity for participants in the installation to act with “responsibility, solidarity, and synchronicity,” as they negotiate the unfamiliar environment. He also brings up the importance of the ecology of space (environmental ecology, mental ecology and social ecology) and some of the practicalities of the work, such as insurance issues and public safety.
Leila Kinney describes the experience of being in Saraceno’s work On Space Time Foam in HangarBicocca, Milan (2012) and its relationship to his residency at MIT. She frames her remarks around the Russian formalist concept of defamiliarization, or “making strange,” an artistic device that presents common things in a strange or displaced way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. She characterizes her own experience in Saraceno’s installation as one of “full-body disorientation” and “full-body participation.”
Alva Noë discusses organization, reorganization and the relationship between those ideas and the work of art. Pictures shape perceptual consciousness, just as writing shapes our experience of language. Art provides a way for us not only to under the ways we find ourselves organized, but also to reorganize ourselves.
Josh Tenenbaum addresses the topic of reverse engineering the common sense core and how modeling the brain as a simulation engine using probabilistic programs is beginning to let us answer questions pertaining to the origins of knowledge. He explains that human thought is structured around a basic understanding of physical objects, intentional agents and their causal interactions – an “intuitive physics” and an “intuitive psychology.” He discusses his lab’s work in answering such questions as how common sense develops from some combination of innate primitives and experience, how we can expand common sense in childhood development, education, policy and the arts, and how can we replicate it in machines that interact with humans.
In her commentary on the “Sensing” panel, Carrie Lambert-Beatty asks, “How do scientists, artists and engineers help us comprehend perception?” She elaborates on the idea that we are not our brain, discussing the limitations of thinking about consciousness as the product of a brain machine and pointing out that neural activity is nothing without its interaction with the world. She asserts, “Consciousness is infinitely complex and infinitely relational.”
Read the full transcript of Sensing — Actions, Part 1.
Read the full transcript of Sensing — Actions, Part 2.
Image: Tomás Saraceno, Cloud Cities, 2008. Observatory/Air-Port-City, Hayward Gallery, London. Credit: Studio Tomás Saraceno.
Saturday, September 27, 2014 / 7:00 pm
Media Lab, MIT Building E14-674
Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting in a Room, performed by Alvin Lucier
Alvin Lucier, In Memoriam Jon Higgins, performed by Evan Ziporyn
Arnold Dreyblatt, Turntable History, performed by Arnold Dreyblatt
Alvin Lucier, John Spencer Camp Professor of Music, Wesleyan University
Evan Ziporyn, Faculty Director and Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music, MIT
Arnold Dreyblatt, Professor of Media Art, Muthesius Academy of Art and Design
Evening Performance Summary
The symposium culminates in this concert by Alvin Lucier, Evan Ziporyn and Arnold Dreyblatt. Alvin Lucier performs his 1969 work I Am Sitting in a Room, followed by Evan Ziporyn’s performance of Lucier’s In Memoriam Jon Higgins. Lastly, Arnold Dreyblatt performs Spin Ensemble.
Image: Alvin Lucier
Thursday, September 25, 2014 / 7:00 pm
MIT Museum, MIT Building N51
265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA
Free and open to the public, no registration required.
Tomás Saraceno, Visiting Artist
Markus Buehler, Professor and Head, Civil and Environmental Engineering, MIT
John Ochsendorf, Class of 1942 Professor of Architecture and Civil and Environmental Engineering, MIT.
MIT Professor Markus Buehler and CAST Visiting Artist Tomás Saraceno discuss their research about materials and structures inspired by the intricate geometry of spiderwebs.
Read the full transcript of Reverberations: Spiders and Musical Webs.
Friday, September 26, 2014 / 12:00 pm
List Visual Arts Center, MIT Building E15 Lobby
20 Ames Street, Cambridge MA
Free; no registration required.
Explore Boston-born artist Sergei Tcherepnin’s multiple-channel sound pieces in a guided tour led by the staff of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center.
Note: pre-conference events are not included in the CAST symposium registration and are on a first-come, first-served basis.