Connections Essay


Daniel Laforest

We can say connections are beautiful because they open up an innumerable future. Certainly, that’s true. But the connections that make us are perhaps even more beautiful for having no discernable origins in the past. A crucial lesson from philosophy is the idea formulated in the 17th Century by Baruch Spinoza. He said humankind constantly falls prey to the fallacy that we can know the primary causes of any phenomena. In reality things are made of smaller components as far as the microscope can see. At a certain level, matter exists in vibrations and waves. The very idea of “cause” becomes hazy, almost fictional. Instead, wouldn’t it be more fitting to look at the connections that hold things together? This is what every artist taking part in Connections set out to do.

For us, alive in flesh, bones, blood, electrical currents and vulnerability, and forever fluttering between joy or sorrow amidst the turmoil of everyday life, the reality of connections might just be the most solid foundation of our world. Indeed, how could we truly know the source of the ebbs and the flows of our biological life, with their permanent and unceasing intensity? We cannot even think of the brain and speak of the brain without our thoughts and our words being the results of manifold connections already performed by the brain. When it comes to connections, we are de facto in the realm of infinity. Your brain will one day disappear with your body but the connections at the confluence of which it stood throughout your lifetime won’t necessarily do so, at least not in the same way. People will miss you and remember who you were. Their brain, their whole biological being will be involved in doing so. This means the connections that created who you were for them and who they were for you, in a concrete, physical sense, will remain very much alive. Our connections are imbedded in a density of time the passing of which none of us can truly fathom. The brain is the larger nodal point we possess in our body, but in its overall physical existence it is like a tree. It reaches out, above us and beneath us, in the macroscopic and the microscopic realms. And just the same, our brain is also molded by the exterior environment. Every sensation, every thought you have happen inside a world whose shape and reality are the results of all thoughts and actions you’ve previously had as well as those of others who laid the path for you. Your body, your brain, know the world much better than you do. They know it in a much deeper way.

The artworks you’re about to see have been created by artists who possess a real and immediate experience of what I just described. Many of them use medical imagery such as PET or MIT scans. They display images of neuronal networks and molecular biology which are strangely comforting in their myriad colours, but which can also leave us a little unsteady. What are these intimate internal landscapes of neurons and dendrites without which there would be no meaning in the world, and yet for the contemplation of which we require the exteriorization enabled by massive mechanical scanners and digital modeling? There lies one of the many bridges built between science and art in Connections. Medical imaging reshapes our experience of reality in a manner that’s quite similar to art. It produces images that trigger thought processes and emotional responses just as much as they show real, actual organs and physiological functions. How could it be otherwise? Thought processes are part of the physical world because the brain and the body are. Furthermore, medical imaging teaches us that it’s the entire organic world which exists in connections, not just our brain. The body is never immobile. No parts of it. Never ever. It constantly shapes and reshapes the connections that make it a part of the lived world, along with our selves. In acknowledging that, we are already in the realm or art.

Most digital images of neuronal connections presented here are from animal brains, some show lab-grown cells. In their artistic treatment they look like blossoms in the new Spring, like mineral concretions, like exploding stars, or like abstract paintings. But we are looking at artworks drawn from images of the biological parts of living, breathing, emotional beings. Try keeping both ideas in your mind at the same time. This demands new focus, a displacement in your habits. But your imagination will be ten times rewarded. Other works in Connections display or evoke moments in a person’s path to recovery, some of them still heavily imbued with trauma. Intimate struggles of ill bodies and resilient minds, or vice-versa, are shared by artists with abandoned openness, and in each of them the hope for increased, life-giving connections glows brightly. Such hope is the thing that you, as spectators, will probably feel first and foremost. It is an appeal for connection over and above a suffering that can otherwise not be measured. Perhaps that is the thing we risk forgetting about most easily when looking at the artworks gathered here. When facing art, we tend to search for natural correspondences within the scale of our own experience. Connections rather demands something of you which at first might appear counterintuitive: that you ‘disconnect’ in order to see the beauty of true connections. The kind of beauty presented here is one that rests in the defying of proportions. And we’re talking about an exponential act of defying. You go from neuronal entanglement to bodily embrace, and the world you perceive seems to move along. There’s tremendous emotion in such defying of proportions in art.

The ill brain and body, as well as the ageing ones, are first and foremost assemblages of unforeseen connections. They are foreign and strange in the purest sense of those words. To think of them as being deprived of something, or as being lesser in some way or another, is to think of them as opaque objects out of reach of connections. It amounts to denying their reality. But art never denies. In fact, this could serve as a definition for art in our contemporary times. Art does not deny suffering, and it does not deny that what lies at the bottom of pain is but a different set of connections than the one that give us joy. That’s why art creates empathy. It takes empathy not to see another person as a distant story, or as an ersatz of our own experience. The very idea of connections is the antithesis of a straight line. If you focus on the connections you see the line for what it is: a fiction that requires work, or luck, or intuition at every step of the way. The life we live is not a hero’s journey; it is not a linear progression. The nature of our shared world is to be in perpetual reconstruction, which is to say in perpetual reconnection. It bears repeating that this is also the exact nature of our brains. Art has the unique ability to teach us how to breathe together amidst all that.

You will be transformed by this art exhibition and collection. Your mood will very much change, which means the brain that you have and that is you and also more than you will experience, if for a fleeting moment, radically new connections, unlike any, perhaps, that have been or will ever be. Because yes, you are unique. So are your brain and the connections that make it exist. And Connections is your brain on art. Desiring art is the same thing as desiring more connections in the brain and beyond. When you think of it that way, it’s also the same thing as therapy: a re-enchantment of lived time drawing on the realization that the connections that defined you so far can be modified, enhanced, and lived anew. We often hear the sensationalist claim about our entire cellular fabric renewing itself every seven years or so. But when do we hear about the galaxies of connections we never cease to give birth to during our passage in this life? Some flicker in and out of existence, others contract and expand over years, and others we never get to grasp fully in our conscience. American writer Annie Dillard wrote that “were the earth smooth, our brains would be smooth as well; we would wake, blink, walk two steps to get the whole picture, and lapse into a dreamless sleep.” Neither the earth nor our lives are even remotely smooth. We truly contain multitudes. And that’s just the beginning of the story.