The desire to understand consciousness is a human need. For some of us, this need presents as a fleeting sense of curiosity every now and then, often becoming buried under the preoccupations of daily life. For others, pursuing this need can become our life's purpose. This is the case for British visual artist Susan Aldworth.
On a cold winter's day in 1999, Aldworth was working tirelessly in her studio to fulfil a batch of Christmas orders that had been commissioned at a recent exhibition. After suddenly collapsing, she was rushed to hospital, where doctors suspected a brain haemorrhage.
Aldworth found herself undergoing a series of brain scans. A former philosophy student at Nottingham University, she was no stranger to confronting notions of Self and identity. But as she watched her thoughts materialize on the computer screen – blood mechanistically thrusting through the vessels of her brain – a cognizance arose. She recognized that her identity – everything she was in this life – was being constructed by biological matter, right before her eyes.
Doctors soon dismissed any concerns over Aldworth's health; the collapse was attributed to a combination of cold weather and overexposure to white spirits. But the experience in the hospital that day had fastened itself to her psyche. It had jolted a new-found appreciation for the physical aspect of consciousness and Self that would become her artistic muse for years to come.
Contemporary neuroscience: A novel medium to work with
In the 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci drilled a small hole into the brain of a dead ox, injected hot wax and molded a cast depicting the anatomical cavities of the ventricular system.1 The analytical toolbox of 21st century neuroscientists is somewhat more avant-garde, gifting the ability to visualize, analyze and quantify brain phenomena without relying on dissection. Consequently, our understanding of neurobiology has advanced in leaps and bounds. It has also provided artists with a novel medium to work with, explains Aldworth: "Contemporary scans such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and cerebral angiograms allow us to see the living, human brain in action. When this [technology] first emerged in the 1990s it was incredibly exciting and inspirational for artists."
Aldworth has been an artist-in-residence across several institutes, including the medical school at York University, The Sleep Disorders Centre at Guy's Hospital in London and the University of Newcastle. Recognized as a prominent contributor to the Art and Science movement in the UK, she works closely with neuroscientists, clinicians, philosophers and patients to utilize these scientific advances to create artwork that explores what it means to be human.
"I tend to follow science that interrogates specific problems in the brain in order to try and understand how this organ gives us our sense of self and consciousness," – Susan Aldworth.
Most projects are born in a similar way: Aldworth pursues a line of enquiry by identifying a clinician or basic researcher specializing in that field and writes to them. On location in a hospital or a research lab, she pays close attention to the environment and people around her, constructing experimental drawings and taking interviews. The position of artist-in-residence only emerged in the last 20-30 years, but Aldworth firmly believes it offers a different ear for patients; an outlet to share often unheard insights into the human condition. “I seek to make visible and audible experience that is described as 'invisible' by patients I have spoken to," she says. "One told me 'It is interesting that you are interested in something like this. My narcolepsy is sort of invisible.'”
She is careful not to lead patients in a particular direction or offer judgement of any description. "It's not my job. My job as an artist is to present and to give voice to people, not to put a heavy opinion out into the world."
Exploring identity in the flesh
Over the years, Aldworth's work has directed public attention to a variety of brain phenomena and clinical conditions, such as identity, consciousness, sleep, schizophrenia and epilepsy. But there are two particular projects that Aldworth recalls as being the "most important projects" of her career: Transience and Out of the Blue.
In Transience, Aldworth created the ultimate portrait of being human: a suite of etchings made directly from human brain slices. The idea was conceived when she attended a dissection at Hammersmith Hospital and was permitted to hold a preserved brain in her hands; an experience that she describes as hugely moving: "I knew that it was a piece of flesh, but it also contained somebody completely." Aldworth decided she wanted to print directly from brain tissue.
Portraits are intimate pieces. The artist interprets another individual, observing their unique attributes and qualities, and uses the portrait as an outlet for their interpretation. Arguably, there is no greater level of intimacy than creating a portrait from a person's brain.
Aldworth proposed her idea to Professor David Dexter from the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital, and received ethical approval to work with a series of cross-sectional brain slices for two days.
Transience 6, Susan Aldworth, etching and aquatint, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
Aldworth decided not to use drawn marks on the plates. Rather, she wanted the form of the brain to emerge through the etching process in a transient manner. After testing the method using sheep brains, she worked alongside long-term collaborator Nigel Oxley to create an etching series detailing the complex architecture of the human brain. The process was emotional and brought the pair to tears at certain points. "I still look back on it as one of the most important projects in my career," Aldworth reflects.
Transience was first shown at GV Art in London in 2013, and later in Realisation at The Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge in 2017. Transience perhaps best epitomizes Aldworth's fascination with the physicality of the brain as a vessel for human consciousness. She explains, "The prints are unique, and we will never be able to get those marks again. They are important to me in that they bridge my interest in both the philosophy of mind and the physical human brain. Originally my intention was just to look at the brain as object, but the brain, in a funny way, turned from object to subject as we were making the work. So, it is not just work about anatomy, they are about the transience of Self. “
"The René Descartes notion of the mind and body being separate is nonsense. We are embodied selves," – Susan Aldworth.
Transience also raises the important topic of tissue donation for biomedical research. Parkinson’s disease is a debilitating neurodegenerative movement disorder for which effective therapeutics are limited and symptomatic at best. The Brain Bank is a precious resource for scientists that are working to develop novel treatments and relies on the generosity of individuals with and without Parkinson's disease that choose to donate their brain at the end of their life. Aldworth hopes that Transience pays respect to the "unknown heroes" that choose this path.
Out of the Blue
Aldworth's most recent exhibition, a kinetic installation called Out of the Blue, was the most complex undertaking of her career thus far, she says. The project also involved artist Andrew Carnie and was commissioned as part of the public engagement project Illuminating the Self by Controlling Abnormal Network Dynamics using Optogenetics (CANDO).
CANDO is a cross-disciplinary project that is working to address an unmet need in the treatment of epilepsy. Dr Fiona Le Beau, lecturer in the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University and a leader on the project, explains: "30-40% of patients do not respond to antiepileptic medication, meaning their quality of life can be quite limited."
CANDO is developing a cortical implant to provide optogenetic control over excitatory and inhibitory interneurons. A fairly novel biological method, optogenetics – derived from the Greek word optikós (to be "seen" or "visible") – involves genetically modifying neurons such that they express light-sensitive ion channels. "We are testing whether optogenetics can silence or at least shorten seizure activity in the brain," says Dr Le Beau. The device is currently in preclinical studies, with human implants being the ultimate goal.
Aldworth chose to depict the human impact of the project. People have implants inserted into their body all the time, be it a pacemaker or a new hip joint. But the notion of adding an implant to the brain feels different. "How would it affect your sense of self? Is there a feeling of, am I a human hybrid if I have an implant in my brain?" she wondered.
She interviewed over 100 epilepsy patients through a collaboration with the Epilepsy Society, gathering poignant testimonies on the experience of living with the condition. She was curious to know whether they felt their condition formed a core part of who they are, referring back the theme of self and consciousness central to her artistic style. If so, would silencing the seizures also silence the patient's sense of self?
Out of the Blue, installation of 106 items of embroidered undergarments, Susan Aldworth, 2020. Photograph by Colin Davison at Hatton Gallery.
The words were stitched on to 106 antique Victorian undergarments, suspended in a block from the ceiling of the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle and illuminated by ultraviolet light. Aldworth emphasizes that epilepsy is often a hidden or stigmatized condition: "Underwear is worn beneath clothes. The idea was that it would be displayed out in the open with all of these beautiful, poignant statements there for the world to see," she says.
A pulley was programmed by researcher Alan Bannon, working with Professor Timothy Constandinou at Imperial College, London, to move the garments in sync with recordings of electrical activity from an epileptic brain. "I wanted to reference the fact that epileptic patients in Victorian England were often incarcerated in institutions. The pieces of underwear hanging from the ceiling almost looked like people trapped, both in incarceration, but also in the activity of their brainwaves," Aldworth says.
The exhibition premiered at the Hatton Gallery and Vane in Newcastle in January 2020. Visitors described it as "stunning" and an "extraordinarily ambitious work". Sadly, the exhibition was forced to close its doors after six weeks due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. "It was a tragedy. The project deserved a bigger and longer showing," Dr Le Beau recalls.
"Susan really takes what it means to have a medical condition to the patient and brings it to the public in an artistic form, " – Dr Fiona Le Beau.
Out of the Blue provided a public voice for some of the most vulnerable people in society. Its impact extends beyond its brief time on display and can be heard in a letter that Aldworth received from a parent that had recently lost their epileptic son: "It made me wish I had realized how difficult some things in his life were," they wrote.
“Art, unlike medicine, can't cure people," says Aldworth. "But it can give voice to people, change minds and address stigma. By listening, I learnt a great deal about the lived experience of epilepsy. Using these testimonies in the artwork brought them into the public domain in a unique way to challenge stigma. Epilepsy is not just a medical condition to be treated, it is a lived experience to be understood and respected."
A wonderful melting pot of disciplines
Alongside her role as artist-in-residence, Aldworth is also an associate lecturer on the MA Art & Science at Central St Martins London, where she teaches students from different parts of the world that come from both science and art backgrounds. She encourages her pupils to discover their own paths as artists and to utilize novel techniques to explore their ideas. It is the techniques, Aldworth says, that liberate her artwork: "I am interested in the human mind, but many of my students are producing brilliant work about climate change and the environment."
Aldworth describes the course as a "wonderful melting pot of disciplines, talent and ideas". When counselling other artists that wish to pursue a career in a similar field, she simply advises them to follow their hearts. "What are you passionate about? Who could you approach in the science or academic world to talk to? There are so many brilliant people out there. Don't compromise – there are no formulas for success apart from producing the best work you can."
Appreciating the instability of Self
The COVID-19 global pandemic may have pressed pause on the public showcasing of her work, but it has not halted Aldworth's creativity and pursuit to understand the human brain. Looking to the future, she continues to contemplate ideas for her next project, with inflammation being a potential focus. "We're beginning to see inflammation as something that causes great damage to the body. And – it is red! I have never worked purely in red before. I'd like to see what's going on in that [research] frontline."
Aldworth's pursuit of enquiry into the human condition has taught her to see her sense of self as an embodied thing, and to appreciate the instability of it. "You wake up each morning, and if your brain has not been damaged, you feel like the exact same person that you were yesterday. You hope that you are going to be that same person tomorrow. But that can be snatched away, by a stroke, or an accident," she says. "Our sense of self is so fragile – it really is precious."
She describes her career as a privilege and expresses sincere gratitude to the brilliant scientists that she has worked closely with: "They have generously invited me into their world, and into their laboratories, and shared their knowledge and imagery with me. But the best times have always been our conversations over a glass or two of wine, when we explore the depths of what they are doing, its human impact and their hopes. How lucky I have been, and what friends I have made."
1. Pevsner J. Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of the brain. Lancet. 2019;393(10179):1465-1472. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30302-2.
The work of Susan Aldworth is held in many public and private collections including the V&A, the British Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum, the British Library and The Wellcome Collection Library in the UK, and Williams College Museum of Art in the USA. Aldworth has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally. She is represented by TAG Fine Art.