Seth Riskin, SM ’89, came to MIT in 1986 to coach the women’s gymnastics team, before applying to the graduate program in Visual Studies at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), then under the direction of German artist Otto Piene, a leading figure in technology-based art.
Today, Riskin is the manager of the MIT Museum Studio and Compton Gallery, a new program that connects the unique learning opportunities of the MIT Museum to MIT research and education through experimental exhibition. An example is the fall 2017 course Vision in Neuroscience and Art.
Funded by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) with a Mellon Faculty Grant, the course is offered through the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and is co-taught in the MIT Museum Studio by Professor Pawan Sinha, Sarah Schwettmann and Seth Riskin.
Vision in Neuroscience and Art introduces students to the core concepts in vision (neural and computational) and the use of art to “perceive perception.” The course concludes with a public exhibition of student projects in the Compton Gallery.
In this interview, Riskin talks with CAST about the course, as well as his passion for vision, his enlightening experience at CAVS and his inspiring relationship with Otto Piene.
A CONVERSATION WITH SETH RISKIN, SM ’89
You are co-teaching a class with Pawan Sinha and Sarah Schwettmann, Vision in Neuroscience and Art. What prompted you to create this course with them? What do you hope to accomplish?
The course brings together two fields that complement each other beautifully: visual art and vision neuroscience. Recent developments in both fields present the opportunity for an in-depth exchange between vision science and the conscious visual perception practiced in art. We can theorize about vision, run experiments and use fMRI, but vision from the inside, that is, awareness of perceptual processes, which is manifest through artistic creations, offers distinct insights. Perhaps nowhere is this “inside” information needed more than in the study of the brain. Pawan, Sarah and I are passionate about the potential of this dialogue and collaboration, and we wanted to give students the opportunity to exercise the full scope of their intelligence that spans the sensory and semantic. Vision is the perfect subject of study for this.
What led to your interest in vision and this course?
I started out developing an interdisciplinary approach to the study of light on the humanistic side. What is the human relationship with light? Embedded in that is the question, What is light? Is it a purely objective phenomenon? Is it subjective? Or is there something in between?
On a Fulbright Scholarship, I did research in Hindu India where I studied with a fire priest from the Vedic tradition. By way of an interpreter, I asked him what the connection was between the so-called inner light of human experience and the outer light of the physical world? He had no sense of that division. The answer was that there is no difference. There is no inner and outer. They are one thing.
In recent years, my work on light has shifted to the relationship between light and vision, because simply said, in my view, if you go into light, you come to vision. And if you go into vision, you come to light. Treating one or the other separately is a dead end. If you really want to get into the nature of these things, you need to talk about vision and light as co-emergent phenomena.
That opened up into discussions with people in vision neuroscience here. Very early visual processing of the human brain is all about the fundamental stimulations and structures, in terms of perceptual construction, architecture of the visual cortex and overall visual system. And it boils down to points, lines, planes, boundaries and edges, luminance and relative differences. These are also fundamentals of visual art.
It has become clear to some vision scientists that some visual artists execute a subjective study of vision in their work, perhaps even unwittingly, by probing the intersection of perception and the physical world. What’s manifest in painting and other visual art forms is a record, an externalization, of internal visual processes. This can be a window onto visual processing for neuroscientists, and neuroscience can be a guide for artistic exploration. So there’s a dialogue that started years ago.
But if you look out there in the world, there’s actually very little of this going on with a balance between the artistic intelligence and the scientific intelligence. Rather, it’s often a reduction of the art to serve the science. And so the whole idea of this course is to put them shoulder to shoulder, and into dialogue, and into co-production and creation, in ways that generate a truly collaborative, in-between space of exploration and discovery.
You have an unusual background for an artist. You were a gymnast prior to earning a Master of Science in Visual Studies at CAVS. What led you to MIT? And when did you become interested in visual art?
I came to MIT through gymnastics. I had been a painter and a gymnast at Ohio State; in fact, I was an NCAA national champion. Following my undergraduate program, I was in Europe. A friend of mine, who had also been on the OSU team and was starting a graduate program at MIT, said, “They’re looking for a gymnastics coach.” Needing a job and wanting to teach outside of the focus of Division I athletics, I leapt at the opportunity. And I got the job. So I started in 1986 as the head women’s gymnastics coach. But all along, I was studying painting and drawing while training as a gymnast. I was doing that throughout my childhood. It wasn’t a sudden leap to connect gymnastics and art.
My experience at CAVS began soon after arriving at MIT. Every day on my way to the gym, I would walk by CAVS, which was then located at W11, and I’d read the posters describing the courses and master’s program. I knew I had to be part of it. I started attending events such as The Artist Speaks series. CAVS represented the role of art in research and society that I had been reaching for.
My experience in the program began around the fellows’ table, as we used to call it. Introducing the new group of grad students, Otto asked, “What are you going to do with [your time at CAVS]?” And that’s how CAVS was. You got an empty studio. And you had to figure out why you were there, what you were going to do, how you were going to get equipment, and money, and whatever else. It wasn’t easy, or for everybody, but it did encourage the formation of an original artistic vision and a pathway through MIT that would foster original art.
At that time, I imagined the art form that I still practice today called Light Dance. It’s a synthesis of my physical ability and my visual art. I began with a set of drawings: a sheet of light extending from my body in an otherwise totally dark architectural space. The light transposed my body movement to the boundaries of the room, and thereby my subjective movement experience would be extended to a collective one.
Movement experience was profound for me, partly because, since a child, I was training in gymnastics with my identical twin brother—watching him and being watched by him. We went to college together, coached each other and competed together. This was a distinct advantage. In fact—true story—we tied for that NCAA title on our specialty, the parallel bars. To see essentially a clone of myself performing was to experience the movement from within and without at once. This raised significant questions about the limits of the self-experience, the boundary between subjective and objective realities, and so forth. I think that’s fundamentally why I wanted to advance my art in this way, to transcend the limits of my body with light and share the twin experience of expressive movement with others.
Could you describe one of your Light Dances?
I choose spaces that lend themselves to light projection. At the old CAVS, there was a space called the pit, which was a 30-foot white cube for performances and art installations. And that was ideal.
Now imagine one light instrument mounted on each limb. These instruments cast specific light effects. There’s no other light in the space; the only light is coming from my body. In this case, there are four fine white-light circles that reach from my body to the boundaries of the room. Those circles would change in size, shape and speed depending on the changing relationship between my body and the architecture. You see my body in silhouette, but what you see foremost are these light forms. They’re very much descriptive of space and time measures.
People experience this environment as a fluid architecture of light that is expressive, because it’s coming from the body, yet it’s not exactly of the body. It’s a dance of architecture. It’s a dance of light. But I think the really significant thing is that the boundaries between the body, light, architecture, space and time, as we perceive them, dissolve. This is the revelation of the artwork.
Were you drawn to the program in CAVS because of the prospect of studying with Otto Piene? Were you familiar with his work at the time?
I can’t say I was very well informed about Otto’s work. I was studying painting and art history, but I wasn’t aware of the history that was represented here [at MIT]. I started looking into Otto’s work as I was working on my application.
I remember becoming very excited about the prospect of studying in CAVS, because I was really looking for that art, science and engineering collaboration. I didn’t even know that a program like that existed. I was pursuing master’s programs in painting at the time.
So, yes, I did study Otto’s work and writing as I prepared the application. It’s remarkable to me that I knew nothing of his Light Ballet work. Now, if you look at his Light Ballet and you look at my artwork, you’d say, “They’re so close.” Different starting points, but in terms of shaping visual perception and changing a person’s inner state with articulated illumination, that’s exactly what the Light Ballet, which he had been developing since the fifties, is about.
My work is different, but it shares that approach and I think origin of impulse. You’ll have to take my word for it, but when I first developed the Light Dance art form, I didn’t know about his Light Ballet. Otto and I were kindred spirits. And I think that’s why we worked together up until his death.
He also made a series of drawings called the Flying People Series in the fifties. The drawings are not only of people flying, but also of celebrating it by performing gymnastic maneuvers in the air. Otto said they were very important to the development of his sky art, held the seed of it and therefore reflected his philosophy and vision.
We were very well suited in our student-mentor relationship. There were a lot of interesting connections and coincidences when I look back on it.
What was CAVS like when you were a student? What was the day-to-day atmosphere?
CAVS was located at W11, where the Religious Activities Center is now. The building has peaked roofs, and the studios had natural light. It was a great space at the time. It had perhaps four principal studios—with two people in each—and a below-ground project and performance space, which I mentioned, called the pit. Giant doors on Amherst Alley opened onto the pit, and we could load equipment and materials in there.
So how many people were in the program when you were there?
There were about 10 people around, including former and current students and fellows. There were research fellows, like Paul Earls, who pioneered laser projection and music composition; Joe Davis, who pioneered bioart; Elizabeth Goldring, whose work centered on visualizing vision loss and the development of a visual language and technologies for low-vision people. And Otto was around. There were four to six students at a time.
Were there classes or was it all independent study?
It was a combination. There was a core curriculum, the focus of which was the seminar with Otto. It was a seminar/studio that was very much about artistic practice and production. Otto studied philosophy in the European tradition, and he had a very rich background to teach. Individual interests shaped each student’s curriculum. I took courses in philosophy, and a lot of people went to the Media Lab and did stuff there.
I preferred not so much the world of media, but more the world of the mind. I was trying to build up my art form both intellectually and practically—how to work with light sources and optics and so on. So, I took a number of courses, as well as workshops and noncredit courses, on the business of light. That ended up being the foundation of my intellectual work, which was humanistic study of light—that is, not only how to work with light as an artistic medium, but also the study of the values and symbols of light in varied disciplinary and cultural contexts.
You had such a long relationship with Otto Piene over the years. Was there a piece of advice that stays with you, or a particular anecdote about him that represents his way of teaching?
Yes, one thing he said that sounds very simple, but does characterize how he was as a teacher and an artist and a thinker is, “One way to do things is to do them.” What he meant was don’t think too much, because in the doing, in the perceiving and in the interacting and so forth, that’s where it has to happen. That’s where the meaning is. That’s where the decisions are made. And that’s where the art gets realized and experienced. All the other stuff—all the preparatory thought, all the reflection, all the discussion—has limited value. The meaning and the making happen in the pure presence of sensory perception. And Otto was ruthless about the importance of that, and his art shows it.
Actually, that’s a good lesson to mention, because I have to remind myself to this day that there’s a manner of intelligence in that kind of activity that often gets overlooked. And I think that’s tantamount to overlooking art. When actually, you can’t measure art by an intellectual yardstick. You have to have the intelligence and the presence to go into the experience of art, and be able to translate between direct experience and intellectual articulation. And then if we care to talk about it, fine.