Monday, 10 December 2007

Failing to learn from mistakes

Our ability to learn from making mistakes may be linked to whether or not we carry a particular gene variant which affects our brain's reward system, according to research published last week in the journal Science. The discovery may help to explain why the variant has previously been linked to addiction, say the team.
When we carry out an action with positive consequences, it triggers our brain to reward us by increasing levels of a pleasure chemical called dopamine, thus helping us to learn to repeat that action in the future. In the absence of such triggers, dopamine levels drop removing the incentive to carry out that action again.
Individuals carrying the gene variant - called A1 - have less dopamine docking stations; reducing any reward that they may experience in response to a beneficial action and, in theory, making it harder for them to 'learn from their mistakes'.
The researchers, based at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, looked at 26 men - twelve of which had the A1 gene variant. The ability of each volunteer to learn to repeat a beneficial action was tested by asking them to choose between pairs of random symbols on a computer screen and asking them to work out which had positive consequences. After each selection, either a smiling or frowning face would appear to signify whether their choice was positive or not.
The researchers found that those with the A1 variant found it harder to work out which symbols triggered positive consequences, suggesting that they were less successful at learning to avoid mistakes. Brain scans indicating that areas of the brain thought to be linked to learning were more active in those lacking the A1 gene variant supported these findings.
Although the research suggests that 30 per cent of people carry one copy of the gene variant and three per cent may carry two, it is important not to jump to any conclusions says study co-author Tilman Klein. 'One has to be cautious be saying that 30 per cent are affected - we just found that they have problems in learning to avoid negative action outcomes. But thesituation we tested them was an artificial laboratory setting. Therefore more research is needed to show how our findings apply to real world situations', he told The Daily Telegraph.
The discovery may help to explain why the variant has previously been linked to addictive and compulsive behaviours, but it is by no means the full picture said Klein. 'It's our strong belief, that the variant we investigated here is not the only cause for example of an addiction - but maybe it contributes to a predisposition for developing an addiction'. he explained to The Daily Telegraph.

By Ailsa Taylor

- The Daily Telegraph 7/12/2007 'Failing to learn from mistakes is
- The Daily Telegraph:

- Nature 6/12/2007 'The gene that makes us once bitten, twice shy'
- Nature:

Friday, 16 November 2007

Tensions and Ambiguities

Images taken from the Electronic Atlas of the Developing Human Brain.

I recently completed the first part of my a placement at PEALS - which is the Policy, Ethics And Life Sciences research Centre, based in Newcastle upon Tyne.

'The Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences (PEALS) Research Centre was established in 1999 as a partnership between the Universities of Durham and Newcastle and the Centre for Life. PEALS aims to research, inform and improve policy, professional practice and public participation in the life sciences. We particularly promote research and debate on the social and ethical aspects of genetics and other life sciences.'

Text taken from the PEALS website

Part of my placement has been spent in the lab, looking specifically at gene expression in early human development. This is research led by Prof. Susan Lindsay and goes under the name of DGEMap

'Developmental Gene Expression Map. (DGEMap) DGEMap is an EU funded project which aims to define the organisational structures, ethical framework, and technologies for molecular genetics and informatics necessary for a proposed new infrastructure for research on gene expression in early human development. This particular field of research uses embryonic or foetal tissue recovered from legal elective termination of pregnancy or miscarriage. Clearly, cultural and social attitudes to research using such material vary significantly throughout members of the European Union . Thus, the ethical framework for using these tissues in a pan-European research facility needs to be carefully evaluated and assessed. PEALS is exploring the social, legal and ethical issues associated with science that uses such tissue, with the aim of providing a framework of considerations for an ethically robust research governance framework for the proposed new infrastructure. We have conducted a review of the social science and bioethics literature in this area, in addition to identifying the, often complex and contradictory, legislation and regulatory guidelines in place for working with human developmental tissue throughout the EU. We have also conducted a survey of some scientists in the field and identified a strong desire for the provision of ethics training to staff at all stages of their careers. We will follow this up with a number of interviews with senior scientists engaged in human developmental research, in order to elicit their views on the strengths of the existing systems of governance under which they operate, and the challenges they encounter. A symposium of invited scientists, lawyers, philosophers and social scientists was held in early 2007, where the issues identified in the literature review were discussed and other areas of concern and interest identified. Two topics were thought to deserve particular attention; consent for the donation of tissue to research and engagement with the wider public on the value of this research.'

Text taken from the PEALS website

Below are links relating to this research:

I have to say that, so far, this hasn't been the easiest placement. On entering the lab environment, I found myself coming up against quite a few unexpected challenges; much of these were simply to do with a misunderstanding of 'lab etiquette'.

I initially spent two days at PEALS immersing myself in the ethical issues - the needs and arguments for and against, the ways of talking about genetic research and attempting to get to grips with the super sensitivity needed when approaching work that involves the use of embryonic tissues.

After this short time, I entered the lab environment, spending time as an observer. Almost immediately it felt as though problems were arising - I felt that in some ways I was treated with a sense of suspicion, a little like an intruder and also, that little was understood of potentially how the role of artists within industry, etc could be beneficial. This was initially all a bit of a shock - I had been anticipating that these different practices could meet and inform one another - I felt (and still do) that it's possible to make artwork that can facilitate the raising of issues that are more often written about, collected as data or that become a headline in a tabloid, through the more accessible impact of the visual. These initial difficulties led me to feel that there was an air of defensiveness shrouding the lab and its practices.

I felt that it needed to be acknowledged or explained that the lab dealing with such sensitive work, is not the place to discuss ethical issues or to attempt to enter any personal discussions that working with such rare material evokes. It seems, very predictably and understandably, that it is a necessary to make an emotional and intellectual 'separation' here.

Many of my points here, are obvious in hindsight. Lots of 'stuff' has come out of this: for the lab - how to engage visitors, and for me, how to address and engage in 'separation'. Which oddly enough, appears to be becoming a mutually beneficial relationship.

Friday, 19 October 2007


If there were a theme for yesterday it would have been dreams...

I looked on a friends website and saw they had made a series of digital works, that were interpretations of artworks that he had encountered during his dreams. This reminded me of the works I had made inspired by my own vivid dreams - mainly to do with crawling down streets because the heels I'm wearing have grown so much I can no longer walk, or an endless bumpy journey in Victorian carriage with people who don't really have faces.

I remembered the passage from William Burroughs - My Education: a book of dreams - where he speaks about seeing through his mouth and eating through his eyes...How he is always hungry in his dreams - but never gets to eat - and how this indicates to him that he is dreaming and not in real life. Burroughs also says that it has been proven that dreams are as necessary as sleep itself, that dreaming is a biological function and that without dream sleep you would die within two months.

In the evening I watched The Science of Sleep by Gondry- which mainly seems to be about a boy who 'inverts' real life and dream life, and can't control either, he becomes increasingly frustrated as they entwine...

In my own dreams it is often the rooms that I visit that strike me more than anything else - the spaces my mind conjures up - significant of something...It seems to be these rooms that stay with me more than anything else - I have wanted to try to recreate them somehow - but it seems to be one of those projects where the vastness and the impossibility to get it right, put me off before I start. Although projection seems ideal, images in light, transparency.

Burroughs - '...artist's show people what they know and what they don't know they know' from the Commissioner of the Sewers.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Eye Candy

My Education: a book of dreams. Burroughs

'Meet two naked angels about sixteen. They say it's their first solo flight. The city spread out underneath us about a thousand feet down, in beautiful pastel shades...all quite idyllic. I acquire some liquid nourishment in a silver trough. It is creamy and custardy and tastes delicious...I absorb some through a sort of osmosis.

The proprietor brings out a bar like a gold ingot, about eight inches long and brown on the outside. He cuts off one side and inside is a creamy filling...looks like creme brulee, clearly delicious and I am eating it with my eyes. It's known as Eye Candy...breathing it in through my eyes. (As a child of three I thought that one saw with one's mouth. My brother then told me to close my eyes and open my mouth and I got the idea I couldn't see with my mouth...but people do feast with their eyes)'

Collaboration With Manuel 2007

I thought I'd post these as I was thinking about documentation. Although these are not documentation, it's even a little too difficult to call them documentation of a collaboration - as works they are complete, finished... I was having some difficulty trying define exactly 'what' they are and had go back and look at something I wrote at the time they were taken:

'...By collaborating in a way that engages with my concerns but also brings a new artistic perspective, we have created something beyond the sum of its parts. These works are not documentation or portraiture – they are a hybrid of skills, concerns, resources, ideas and intuition.'

The images were taken at Belsay, during the fellowship - it felt to be an ideal site to re-investigate some practice/performance concerns, initially influenced through classicism and the histories of painting, the tradition of the female nude, but also symmetry, pattern and form - body and architecture. They have been published in Manuel's new book Encounters.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

attempts at documenting

This is a little video I made at Dartington, in an attempt to document one-to-one. Its funny to see the work like this - from the outside, as such. Changes how I feel about the work - but I'm not sure what to yet.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

performance at dca

My end-of-year performance for the MA took place in two different locations, the first in Catherine House doctor's surgery in Totnes, and the second, on-site at Dartington College in a more 'traditional' black box space. Both pieces were one-to-ones. The work itself had been developed through previous works, my dissertation research and experiences of everyday one-to-one encounters.

The action performed in these works, directly related to the work I showed at the NRLA in 2007. The piece was called pulse, during which I introduced touch to my one-to-one 'tools' - I placed two fingers on the participants neck, feeling their pulse at the Carotid artery, for approximately ten minutes - whilst the participant held a hand mirror in which they could view either his/herself or me.

Reviews -

The new performances were greatly influence by my dissertation: Power-shifts: a response to the dialogues in one-to-one performance through a comparison with the doctor-patient interaction. But also a recent doctor's appointment, where a young doctor took my blood; there was a point where we both sat in silence, staring at my arm - concentrating, a needle connecting my body to the doctor's, I could watch and could feel the blood leaving my body. When the moment was over - I immediately missed it.

The pictures above are of the room where I performed, but also where the doctor took my blood.

The new pieces involved the participant taking my pulse, in some of the engagements I washed their hands, in the piece on-site at Dartington College I also took the participants pulse at the same time as they felt mine. In both pieces I used a static mirror, which meant we could share eye contact - but not see our own faces.

Most participants came to both performances, which meant we had an extended relationship - rather than the usual 10 minutes. (I would like to try this over a longer period of time.)

I'm still mulling over and filtering the experiences. I really enjoyed the doctors surgery piece - the participants were required to turn up ten minutes before their time, notify reception and wait in the waiting room as if a patient. Then the receptionist would send them up to me. Waiting became a noted part of the experience.

In using two different spaces, it felt the work happened somewhere in between - the two performances opened a dialogue between each other. The main difference for me, was exactly how much the space effected the performances; in the doctors surgery, I was a little more nervous - the black space provided me with a familiar environment and a bit more confidence. Using the doctors surgery took the work away from my usual aesthetic and context for my tools - and re-located it in a different place both familiar and foreign, everyday and but also strange. I think this was the most exciting thing about the work.

power structures - one-to-one

Although power structures are present in maybe all one-to-one encounters that we experience in the everyday - it is the Live Art one-to-one encounter that allows an open examination of this relationship, specifically as subject of the work.

If one-to-one is successful it is maybe because of it's ability to use, and in turn expose power structures - uncovering the weaknesses and flaws of the power structure itself. This vulnerability revealed, opens up a gap in which the individual and subjective exploration of the relationship between performer-participant can occur.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

more thoughts on intimacy in one-to-one

Just thinking over my last post - for me the problem with 'intimacy' is that it implies a symmetrical (in terms of power shifts) engagement, an informal engagement - more similar to that you would have with a friend etc... However, in performance, particularly 'audience of one' or 'solo spectator' pieces - this is practically impossible. These are formal interactions, with a pattern, a structure and to some extent, an anticipated/predicted/or intentional outcome - however unstable.

Unavoidably the performer, as creator, commands dominance and is held accountable for the encounter, however obscured or presented as dis-empowered, for example. The strategies of asymmetrical dialogue are present here - however they can also be used as a way to overcome themselves; they too are breakable and in fact, not fixed – merely tools to conjure an emphasis of connection on the individual level of performer and viewer.

‘Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it’

Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction.

This is not a direct link to power-shifts - but a quote I find personally very useful :

‘The individual is obsessed by the obligation to act as a function of “the other,” obsessed by the obligation to exhibit himself in order to be. The over-riding desire is to live collective ethos and pathos, to grasp the existent in all of its brutal physicality, to communicate something that has been previously felt but is lived in the very moment of communication, to return to the origins without leaving the present, to lead the individual to relationship with both himself and others, to lead the individual, in short, back to his specific mode of existence.’

Virgine, L. The Body as Language. Body Art and Performance.

Friday, 12 October 2007

intimacy / empathy

This year, during my MA at Dartington College of Arts I began to explore the one-to-one performance interaction through writing. Although I have practiced this particular format for a while, and felt that I understood the physical/psychical mechanics of it through process - through research I had not found many written references, and could have predicted - that really not much has been written about this strand of performance specifically. Which could be seen as an advantage when starting a dissertation!

Eventually, my focus (after some trial and error) became to center on the shifts of power or initiative, between the 'audience of one' and performer within the one-to-one encounter. I used the well documented everyday interaction of the doctor-patient engagement to compare and contrast the different instances, drawing upon some of my own experiences as a performer, and a participant of one-to-one works. The doctor-patient sociological model is asymmetrical in terms of power-shifts - which allowed quite a clear comparison, and to a point a 'demystification' of the Live Art interaction - simply through the overlaying of terms of a known and developed interaction discourse. However, I am aware that this is quite a dry mechanism for interpreting one-to-one - which relies on our own subjectivity, and choice of level of engagement (of both performer and collaborator) to allow it to be 'successful' as an artwork.

Here are a couple of links about one-to-one:
Lyn Gardener, 'I didn't know where to look' -,,1432995,00.html

Rachel Zerihan, Intimate Inter-actions: Returning to the Body in One to One Performance -

Because of the nature of one-to-one performance, the word 'intimacy' tends to continually crop up. I personally have real problems with the use of this word. Yes - the nature of one-to-one, the 'alone time' needs to be acknowledged - but within the performance interaction itself, empathy makes more sense to me. Speaking as a performer - there is a constructed sense of intimacy, not the intimacy that you experience with your family, lovers and friends - people that you know and know you back. For me, during performance it becomes more about empathising with one and other - connecting on a negotiated level, understanding similarities and differences, making a memory. I am quite possibly talking about a very marginal difference here - but if the intention of the work was to perform intimacy, to be intimate (where I committed to give all of myself ) - I don't think I could. The word is far too easily used as a blanket statement. And this, is a pet hang-up of mine!!

This is too literal, but here is another of my favourite things! - a couple of dictionary definitions!

intimacy |ˈintəmə| noun ( pl. -cies) close familiarity or friendship; closeness : the intimacy between a husband and wife. • a private cozy atmosphere : the room had a peaceful sense of intimacy about it. • an intimate act, esp. sexual intercourse. • an intimate remark : here she was sitting swapping intimacies with a stranger. • [in sing. ] closeness of observation or knowledge of a subject : he acquired an intimacy with Swahili literature.

empathy |ˈempəθē| noun the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

video work 2003-5

staring at the sea 2003

myth 2004

Les Fleurs du Mal 2005

video sketches 2007

Two little video sketches from this year. The first one uses time-lapse and mirroring through editing. The head is simply a series of MRI scans - also used within corollarium. I'm very happy with this little sketch, I like the way you can miss the changes through the duration of the piece (when projected - doesn't quite work the on same here) - almost contradictory or subliminal video - thinking too about peripheral vision, memory, duration, speed, after image - all things to return to.


, Picture House. Belsay Hall, Northumberland.
Here are views of the animation itself and an installation shot.

So, in brief (very brief!):

Myself and Mr Tim Dollimore (who provided sanity, technical support and altogether helped to realise and install the project,) were very careful to make the animation fit the scale and design of the upper bedroom and (maybe more importantly) the original 1930s wallpaper.

The animation began as a series of photographs of the wallpaper, the individual features of the design were carefully cut out, and placed to emulate the reoccurring pattern - these were then animated in various painstaking ways - helped along by copious amounts of strong coffee! We brought this together with footage and images gathered through various clinical and scientific processes - from live plant samples from Belsay Gardens, or internal investigations of the human body.

The installation itself, used two mini macs talking to each other over a wireless network - prompted and synchronised by a Max/MSP program.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Picture House at Belsay Hall, Northumberland.

These are a few pictures of corollarim, commissioned for English Heritage in 2006/7. Last year I was awarded the Belsay Hall Fellowship, the piece I created was called corollarium, and responded to the internal and external realms of Belsay. Initially I took inspiration from the remnants of wallpaper around the building, and began to work on creating a projected wallpaper that attempted to carry the life of the gardens back in to the house. I used specimens collected from Belsay gardens, which were then processed for use with various different micro and electron microscopes, combined with internal body footage, x-ray photography, time-lapse videography and animation. The results from these processes were integrated and sewn together to form an evolving, slow moving wallpaper, held by the original pattern already present within the upper bedroom. The exhibition, called Picture House and was on for a mammoth six months, including artists such as The Quay Brothers, Mike Figgis, Antony Hegerty and Hew Locke.

Belsay itself is an English Heritage site -

Here' a link to the Picture House website

and below is my catalogue text which explains a little about the Fellowship:

The Belsay Fellowship was established in 1997 after the first, successful design event called Living At Belsay. Funded by the Arts Council England it allows a recently graduated artist the same commissioning opportunity as those who are established within their field. For the last two exhibitions, the Fellowship has been supported by Northumbria University and awarded to one of their previous students.

Visual artist Francesca Steele has been commissioned to create a new work for Belsay, responding to the artists’ brief to consider the architecture, history and narratives that lie within this exceptional historic site.

Steele uses video, installation and one to one live performance in most of her work. This is mostly concerned with the concepts of beauty, mortality and presence and she uses a visual language that is heightened by the use of mirrors, objects or furniture to cite another time or to suggest an unworldly space.

For Belsay, Francesca Steele has created a new work that relates specifically to the site. The artist felt drawn towards the fragments of wallpaper that had been left on the walls of the room known as Stephen Middleton’s bedroom. The large, open flower heads printed in indigo and cream flow across the walls, creating a dense, sombre patterning. Steele voiced a need to continue the paper’s journey across the walls but to fuse it with her own design, made from microscopic film footage.

Francesca Steele has spent months collecting microscopic cellular film footage of the plants that grow in the Belsay gardens. It is important to her that the pattern you see is directly connected to the site, that the work is rooted in time, place and history. Yet the footage does not only contain plant imagery, the artist has also merged human organs and cellular structures within the patterning so that it becomes a visual portal that breathes a presence back into this old bedroom.

Francesca has created a video installation that seeks to carry a series of intimate botanical and anatomical portraits back into the architectural severity of this place. Breathing a presence back into the building, bringing a strange life into the now unoccupied house.

Judith King
Curator of Picture House