Artist of the month, SciArt Center of New York.

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See the complete interview with Emma Snodgrass here. Interview published the 1st of December, 2015.

Was it an interest in computational models, the brain, or art that came first for you while cultivating a path for your work? 
I understand the creative process (not only in art but also in research) as a loop rather than a line; with no beginning and ending points. Let me give you a specific example of what this creative process looks like to me.

A few months ago I had the opportunity of visiting for a couple of weeks the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. A really nice experience for young researchers from around the world to present our research on decision making and behavioral science. One afternoon, during the Q&A in one of the conferences I was attending, someone next to me whispered: “This computational model they just presented is like love. Love is a stopping rule”. At that moment I had a “revelation”. There was a painting there. A painting with that sentence as a title. And it had to be a pair of metallic scissors suspended in the air. Why? There is a concept in our field of research that we call bounded rationality, which is the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the available information, the tractability of the decision problem, the cognitive limitations of their minds and the time available to make the decision. Decision-makers in this view act as satisficers, seeking a satisfactory solution rather than an optimal one. Herbert A. Simon, a leading academic in the field used the analogy/metaphor of a pair of scissors, where one blade represents “cognitive limitations” of actual humans and the other the “structures of the environment”, illustrating how minds compensate for limited resources by exploiting known structural regularity in the environment.


Love is a Stopping Rule. Oil on canvas (60 x 49.5cm). Summer Institute on Bounded Rationality 2015 – Tribute Painting. Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin (Germany). Image courtesy of the Artist.

Was it my passion for art that led me to interpret the comment of my colleague the way I did? Or was it my passion for research that brought me to those pair of scissors?

You have a number of works that reference Surrealism. What role does the unconscious have in your work (both academic and artistic)? 

I find strong links between cognitive science and surrealism. Scientific knowledge has made glorious and significant advances since the Freudian studies on irrationality and the unconscious (fundamental pillars in the manifestos of this artistic movement). My work proposes a reinterpretation-actualisation of the surrealist movement through the contemporary knowledge about the human mind (i.e. my academic research on decision making and behavioural science).

The unconscious affects my (our) everyday perception and behavior. Thus, unconscious processes are present in all my work. As an artist, but also as a scientist doing research in decision-making, I’m aware that unconscious processes must heavily influence the way I perceive, make judgments and behave. Experiences from my past (memory), my current mood (emotions) or my goals (decision making) appear involuntarily/unconsciously in my paintings. The piece The Awakening of a New Day represents a good example of this.


The Awakening of a New Day. Oil on canvas (60 x 49.5cm). Image courtesy of the Artist.


Journey Of and From the Mind. Oil on canvas (40.6 x 50.8cm). Courtesy of the Artist. 

In general, my works normally discuss conceptual excesses, melancholy, wonder, reflection and sensitive violence. This labor arises from the pursuit of scientific objectivity, but expressed figuratively through experiential subjectivity. The pieces Journey Of and From the Mind and The Origin of Species are a good example of that.


The Origin of Species. Oil on canvas (50.8 x 40.6cm). Image courtesy of the Artist.

What is your approach to putting your many fields of interest into a dialogue with each other? 
I cannot imagine Science without Art or Art without Science. The combination of both is not an option but a necessity. Knowledge and its expression must coexist. As a researcher and an artist I use my artistic work as way to explain and disseminate science. Some months ago I had the fantastic opportunity to put in practice this approach giving a talk at TEDxYouth@Barcelona with the title “Painting Contemporary Morality” (English subtitles available). Sometimes, in order to explain in a profound way everything that happens in our brain when we make ethical and moral decisions, neuroscience doesn’t seem to be enough. That is when surrealist art can help us. Are we prepared to understand and confront morality in the digital-virtual age? Why should we update and reinterpret the surrealist movement? I tried to answer all these questions in my talk.


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