Art and the Conscious Mind Workshop – Artists intentions and Audience Self Awareness

I found this such a helpful and interesting workshop, it really inspired me to consider a different approach to how I direct my work.

Our discussion began with the theory of embodiment, we are able to navigate and experience the world because we are made of the same material as the world. However, we are consciously aware of very little and a lot of our experience is processed subconsciously. The element of surprise often prompts our conscious awareness, for example seeing a chair on the floor, beside a table is most likely going to be processed by our subconscious as it is a ‘normal’ occurrence – however, if we were to walk into a room and see a chair on top of a table, with someone sat in it – our conscious mind is drawn to the unexpected event.

Artists have a lot to offer in the debate on consciousness and can generate ways to draw out the awareness of an audience.

Richard Serra is a good example of an artist who has worked specifically to create a sense of audience awareness within his work. His large metal sculptures draw the viewers attentions to their presence next to the large scale pieces – becoming dwarfed and aware of their vulnerability, they may also become aware of the softness and frailty of their bodies next to the hard, solid metal structures.

We also had the opportunity to experience our lecturer – Craig Thomas’s own installation work, which also looks to explore a new way of allowing an audience to experience their own presence.


The work Labyrinth, exists as a maze of netted material, with projected lines of light shining through. Navigating through the piece was such a distinctive experience, the lines move up and down and generate a real feeling of being pushed down and lifted up. The space was disorientating, but created a real sense of awareness of your own presence within the space, almost in a way that was dreamlike – but very distinct from any other experience I’ve ever had.

This workshop was really enjoyable, and from it, I have begun to consider how I approach my own practice and what it is that I actually look to do with my work. Often my work looks to explore a theme or idea, in quite a metaphorical way – but I can see that I very rarely consider the actual audience experience of my work, it tends to instead be a reflective exercise. Following the discussion in this workshop I am beginning to consider how I can re-frame my intentions with my work, giving much more thought to the actual reaction or experience I want to give the audience. Instead of a passive act of reflection, I would like to start considering how I could create work that can create an experience.

Unity and Rationality

To what extent are our brains unified? Rational? Coherent?

In this lecture we discussed the unified experience of consciousness that exists. It was interesting to consider the complexity and expanse of the mind, contrasted with the unified way that we experience it – it is also interesting to note that what binds the various sections of the mind is still unknown.

Another really interesting point that I took from this lecture was the insight into rationality, that when we probe into our decision making, it becomes apparent we aren’t as rational as we’d like to think. Kahneman and Tversky (1979) assert that human beings have a tendency to act out of what ‘feels’ to make sense, rather than what actually makes sense. For example, if something happens a lot then in our minds we often assume that the opposite will happen next, eg. a game of heads and tails is very much based on chance – this does not stop people from making assumptions that have no rational basis.

We then applied our discussion to how we view art. Looking at the painting ‘Rouen Cathedral’ by Claude Monet – how it exemplifies the discussion we were having on unity and rationality. Within the painting there are many different elements, yet we view it as a unified experience.

The painting and the cathedral are different. But it is not just paint, and it not just a cathedral. It is a painting of a cathedral.

We see the paint, and the paint is as stone – but not stone.

We see flatness and depth

We see something that is distinct from us, but viewing the object constitutes what it is to ‘be me’ at this moment.

It becomes apparent that a painting offers us many contradictions and can be seen as quite a paradoxical experience. We see very separate things in a painting – the object that is painted, and the paint as itself, yet we see these things together.

Mindfulness and Flow – Workshop

In this workshop we began by exploring how the mind can be likened to an iceberg. The most of an iceberg is hidden beneath the water, whilst only a small amount of it visible. Similarly with the mind, consciousness – the part of the mind that we are aware of, plays only a small part, whilst much of the brains functioning continues without our knowledge of it.

During the workshop we practiced mindfulness and meditation, exploring that relationship between subconsciousness and consciousness. As a group we took part in a meditation session – becoming mindful of our breathing. Specifically breathing, as this is done unconsciously and automatically – by becoming mindful and conscious of an unconscious activity we are able to bring the subconscious and conscious parts of the mind together.

We looked at consciousness form the perspective of Eastern philosophy. It was fascinating to see how the understanding from this view point is incredibly influential in allowing insight into brain function.

I was particularly interested in the philosophical depth of ‘Ensō’ symbolism.

This Buddhist symbolism carries so much depth. The mark requires preparation and planning, but is carried out instinctively in one movement. I am particularly interested in its address of boundaries, absence and presence, emptiness and fullness. Its such a simple shape, but carries so much weight philosophically.



During the workshop we also looked at the impact that mindfulness and awareness can have on benefiting our creative flow. It was so helpful to discuss in groups, our approach to work and how we felt we experienced creative flow and also creative block. It was beneficial to have a cross-disciplinary discussion about different experiences.

One point that I felt was particularly interesting was talking about allowing external happenings to influence the creative process, we briefly discussed that there is ‘no such thing as original thought’ and so its important to acknowledge the difficulties that may arise if you rely on yourself to come up with ideas – if you do not feed it with information from a variety of sources. A way of combating creative block, can often be to go off and explore other areas, talk to other people, investigate other artists, in order that you might find stimulus in other places – not just recycling your own thoughts continuously.

We were also given the task to respond visually to the workshop, particularly the first part. This was my response to the discussion.


The Conscious Mind – Where Is It?

This was another really challenging lecture that challenged us to really question and inspect the difficult reality of locating consciousness. I know personally it was not something I had ever questioned before, and on the face of it the answer seems simple. We were challenged however, to dig into the difficulties of locating anything really that simply.

We discussed the two leading theories on the location of the conscious mind.


Held by theorists such as William James, Chris Frith and Helmholtz, internal-ism holds that awareness and consciousness is located only in the brain. Some theorists have proposed that it exists within a small section of the brain – involving highly specialized neurons , others have proposed that consciousness exists throughout all of the brain. Despite these proposals, at present the conscious mind has not been located within the brain.

“…I am firmly convinced that I am a product of my brain, as is the awareness that accompanies me” (Chris Frith, ‘Making up the mind’)


External-ism holds that the world is not just held inside our heads – that the mind is not something solely dependent on our cognition, but that we rely on factors external to the body also. We are able to project activity into the outside world. Near death experiences, psychic phenomena and instances where damage to the brain has not generated any outward abnormality, are given as possible pointers towards consciousness existence beyond the brain.

“…the actual local operations that realize certain forms of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body, and world. The local mechanisms of mind, if this is correct, are not all in the head. Cognition leaks out into the body and world.” (Clark 2008)


A helpful summary that Rob Pepperell put forward

Altering the brain does alter consciousness – so brains are important But brains don’t do much on their own – they need the body and world


Where is the boundary between internal and external?

When looking at the circle, is the boundary between the black circle and white background, black? Or white?

Our discussion on ‘boundaries’ was really insightful, it helped us to consider the difficulties in pin pointing the exact place of a boundary. We function with physical boundaries, understanding that there is some form of physical difference between us and ‘otherness’, however exploring this more in depth it becomes apparent how difficult it is to actually pin point where one thing starts and another ends. Especially mind blowing is the thought that essentially the world is composed of mainly nothing, as each atom contains 99.9% nothing. Understanding this, it becomes very difficult on  an atomic level to separate things with boundaries.

We covered two main types of boundaries

Fiat Boundaries – Boundaries applied to the world by societies

Discussing fiat boundaries really opened up some interesting ideas. As these are constructed boundaries, they do innately, physically exist. Rather they find their existence distributed through various organisations, laws, agreements and minds.

Bona Fide Boundaries – Boundaries marked by physical discontinuity

Bona Fide boundaries offer more of a physical existence, yet are still subject to the question where does one thing start and another end?

We explored theories of quantum physics in relation to the question of boundaries, particularly focusing on the indeterminacy that exists on such a small scale. The further you look into the fabric of the universe, the more difficult it becomes to make physical measurements and pinpoint boundaries.


The theory put forward by Rob Pepperell to view this difficulty in pinpointing boundaries.

He proposes that we ought to recognise that the dimensions of objects extend indefinitely throughout time and space. They can not be given exact locations, but instead occupy a much more extensive existence. Pepperell suggests that this can influence how we look at ‘the conscious mind’, he argues that it becomes difficult to locate a specific boundary between the mind and the world – rather, we can think of the mind as neither internal or external but as an extension of both.


Surrealism Workshop – Art & the Conscious Mind

In this workshop we explored the relationship between different modes of consciousness and how it related to creativity.

We took surrealism and dadaism as a starting point for the workshop. Surrealism and dadaism responded to the rejection of a logical approach to life, they saw that the scientific, technological and logical pattern of thought often led to the justification of horrific wars. The dadaists and then surrealists looked to reject the logical narrative of life. Artists were released (with the help of the rise in photography as a process) from realism, and were able to engage in a much more creative and exploratory approach to art.

The surrealists, engaging in ideas of Freud and psychoanalysis, began to explore the use of games to unlock chance, humor and inconsistency  – allowing these things to be used as tools to create artwork.

During the workshop we looked at the game ‘exquisite corpses’ and as a group generated a number of ‘characters’. It was enjoyable to allow our art to be led by uncertainty and humor, with a time limit forcing us to draw before thinking – we were hopefully able to engage more with our subconscious minds, rather than making precise and planned drawings.

Here were some of the outcomes

We were then challenged, in groups, to create our own ‘surrealist game’ – which was actually surprisingly difficult!! Our pair (myself and Gweni) were fortunate enough to be able to play our game with the whole group – and were really excited to see the outcomes! Our game consisted of the following rules:

  1. Fold the paper in half
  2. On the top half, write an instruction (drawing response – e.g. draw something that smells)
  3. Pass the paper to another person
  4. Carry out the instruction on the paper that you have now received, draw your response on the bottom half
  5. Add another instruction to the top half of the paper you have just drawn on
  6. Pass the paper to another person
  7. Modify the existing drawing according to the latest instruction on the paper
  8. Repeat steps 3-7 for as many times as agreed

It took us a while to establish a proper set of rules, understand them ourselves and then explain them to the rest of the group. But we tried it out – and the responses were actually really interesting.

Visual Indeterminacy


When or where do we become conscious of what we see?

Ambiguous cues – when a visual cue can be taken more than one way, the brain forces you to process the image one way. You are consciously aware of one way of seeing an image at a time. The image that you are consciously aware of changes based on your focus.

Visual agnosia – visual perception can often be better understood by looking at times when it goes wrong. For example, visual agnosia, where the ability to recognise visually presented objects is impaired – not as a result of sight but as a result of impaired cognition, affirming that the perceptual and recognition processes are separate.

We only have access to the world as we perceive it, however we are confronted with the difficulty that our perception is at times vulnerable to being misled, and may altogether be limited. For me, this raises two ideas, one – if there is a limit to our perceptive ability then it is humbling to consider the possibility that there is more than the physical world of material as we experience it. Conversely to the view of materialism, acknowledging that our perception is limited makes it difficult to rule out the possibility that there is existence outside of our field of perception. Secondly, as our perception is so easily misled and distorted, perhaps it is also important that we don’t take for granted the idea that the material world is as measurable as we often assume it is.

Visual indeterminacy – when an object or scene is full of visual information but defies visual determination.

With reference to Rob Pepperells work, we have been looking at visual indeterminacy – exploring how the brain attempts to make sense of visual stimuli, searching for meaning and objects in what it sees, even when none are actually present.


This part of the lecture was quite relevant to an area that I’m exploring in my own practice, not explicitly visual indeterminacy,  but the searching for a narrative – exploring how a set of unrelated and indeterminately made marks can be interpreted and developed into an image/narrative.