Published  13/02/2015

Janet Biggs: ‘This project traces my very specific memories of my family’

Janet Biggs: ‘This project traces my very specific memories of my family’

The video and installation artist talks about her latest exhibition, in which she worked with neuroscientists, geologists and musicians in a quest to discover what constitutes our sense of self and identity when our memory fails us


Echo of the Unknown, Williamsburg-based artist Janet Biggs’s exhibition of new work at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, Texas, is on view until 21 March 2015. In it, by means of video, sound and sculpture, Biggs (b1959) explores memory, concepts and constructs of selfhood, and Alzheimer’s disease, an increasingly topical subject as our lifespan increases and more and more members of the post-second world war generation are afflicted by it. Inspired by the research of neuroscientists and geologists, and in collaboration with musicians and composers, she asks: What constitutes our sense of self, our individual identity, when our memory fails us? What remains of consciousness? These are the complicated questions she grapples with in this concentrated, finely tuned and very moving exhibition presented by independent curator Janet Phelps.

Lilly Wei talked to Janet Biggs about her exhibition. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.

Lilly Wei: Would you tell me about the origins of this exhibition, which I believe you said were more autobiographical than usual?

Janet Biggs: While this project stems from my very personal memories of several of my family members’ struggles with Alzheimer’s disease, it has expanded into a more meandering journey, a meditation on the challenges of maintaining a sense of self in the face of extreme conditions, both physical and emotional.

LW: And how is this manifested in Breathing Without Air (2015), the first work encountered by viewers?

JB: Breathing Without Air presents multiple layers of thoughts and memories: the present, the past, and states in between. It dwells in that place between presence and absence, between creation, construction, and re-creation, between the known and the unknown. While researching this project, I spoke with Joseph LeDoux, an eminent neuroscientist from New York University. He is doing groundbreaking studies on memory, and his understanding of the enzyme processes involved in creating and recreating memories has enabled him to construct, alter, and even “erase” memories.

LW: Breathing Without Air opens with footage of an abandoned swimming pool intercut with that of an elderly mineral collector wandering through an immense trade show of gems and minerals. Would you talk about the significance of the juxtaposition?

JB: Yes, the collector is in search of something. As he becomes more and more confused and disoriented by the endless aisles of minerals, the pool is reactivated, brought back to life, and becomes the site of a kayak polo player’s frantic manoeuvres, much of it underwater. When the above and below worlds, or states of mind, become entangled, a sense of “dis-ease” is evoked, which parallels the “dis-ease” of the collector. It is a moment when some new, potentially life-altering information can be learned.

LW: And how does this play out in Can’t Find My Way Home (2015), much of which takes place in an underground cavern?

JB: My grandfather was an avid mineral collector. In this video, I try to comprehend the occasional moments of lucidity that occurred after his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Long past the time when he could recognise me, his children, or other family members and friends, he could recall detailed information about the samples in his collection, details such as where they came from, specific extraction information, and their scientific names. I wanted to figuratively and literally place myself inside the minerals as a way of immersing myself in my grandfather’s experience.

LW: Would you describe the location?

JB: I researched a number of caverns with extraordinary crystal formations, looking for something that would allow me to feel as if I had stepped inside a geode. I decided on the Merkers Crystal Cavern in Germany for a number of reasons. It was definitely immersive, absolutely gorgeous and otherworldly, but there were some specific details that made me sure it was the right location. The shape of the cavern is a negative of the shape of the hippocampus, the location of memory within the brain. Also, the crystal formations had an uncanny similarity to the shape of amyloid proteins and tau tangles in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps it is not so astonishing since nature tends to repeat forms, but it was a profound discovery for me.

LW: What was filming like in a cavern that is 800 metres down and extends for 26km?

JB: I thought the extreme heat and the need to filter particles in the air with a respirator might challenge me physically and cause disorientation reflecting some of the same sensations that my grandfather experienced as the disease progressed. In fact, it did that and more. I felt so disoriented and confused by the end of a day of filming that I had trouble finding my way out of the cavern.

LW: How do you connect the laboratory sequences with the crystal cavern? What is the clinician doing?

JB: I juxtaposed the intense physical experience inside the cavern that altered my perceptions of things around me with the sterile, quantifiable, scientific methodology of a biochemistry lab. Both, however, trace the emotional, physical and scientific aspects of my memory. For my project, I filmed PhD candidate Mahshid Sadat Hosseini-Zare, who is studying with University of Houston professor Jokubas Ziburkus. She takes the brain from a rat that was bred for a predisposition to seizures and places it under a high- powered microscope that can identify individual cells in the brain. Using audio sensors to permeate the exterior membrane of two individual cells, she records the sound of “normal” brain cells talking to each other. She then increases the heat and decreases magnesium to create a seizure and records the sound of cells communicating in a brain during seizure, which is similar to a brain with Alzheimer’s. I used the visual footage of this process in my video and the recorded sound as part of the soundtrack for my piece.

LW: And the mineral collector who appears in both films?

JB:He ties together the other two visual elements – me inside the crystal cavern and the neuroscientist recording sound in the lab. He symbolises a kind of presence, a sense of self at the extremes, a sense of loss after a diagnosis such as Alzheimer’s, a sense of physical conditions that is overwhelming.

LW: Is the four-channel installation a fixed presentation?

JB: Can’t Find My Way Home was conceived from the start as both a four-channel and a single-channel installation. I rarely work on pieces that exist in multiple formats, but occasionally some subject matter demands that I look at it in terms of its experiential and immersive impact and also its intimate, emotional effect, better conveyed as a single-channel video. Sometimes a minute detail, a small gesture, can be as powerful as being surrounded by 20 tons of gigantic crystals.

LW: You also seem to oppose the hard and the soft, such as the hard durability of the crystals against the softness of human grey matter, the organic and the inorganic – one lasts, the other is more vulnerable, susceptible to disintegration.

JB: I think it’s essential for seemingly opposite elements and actions to coexist in my work – hard and soft, organic and inorganic, stay or go. All these elements or actions have the potential to cancel each other out, or the potential to create a new state or possibility.

LW: And in The Persistence of Hope (2015), the third video in the show, why do you pair hummingbirds with studies of brain cells?

JB: It was important to me to recognise the inevitability of ultimate loss at the same time as I celebrated our endless capacity for hope. The Persistence of Hope presents contrasts, contradictions, and unexpected support systems, at times focusing on scientific data and at times on emotional states. Hummingbirds seemingly defy gravity, flying forwards, backwards, upside down, or just hanging, suspended in space, but their legs are too short to walk on the ground. Their metabolisms can go from a hyperactive state, with a heart rate of more than 1,200 beats per minute, to torpor where it drops to 50 beats per minute. They embody contradictions. And don’t get me started on brain cells.

LW: Would you talk a little about the locations and how you arrived at the image of research laboratories, hummingbirds in California and the woman in the Arctic snows who squeezes a piece of ice in her hand until it melts? What do you intend by the great contrast in place, the melting ice, and the vibrant little birds that fly away?

JB: The lab scenes were filmed in the pharmacology department of the University of Houston and at the laboratory of Moses Chao, professor of molecular neurobiology at New York University. Dr Jason Eriksen from Houston is hoping to discover a pharmacological solution to arrest or end Alzheimer’s disease and has met with repeated disappointments and struggles for support from drug manufacturers, which would much rather invest in something like erectile dysfunction, which is far more profitable.

The hummingbirds were filmed in southern California. My uncle had a garden full of hummingbird feeders. When he received his terminal diagnosis, he started collecting all the hummingbirds that died in the garden, carefully wrapping them in plastic, and placing them in his freezer – which was huge. I learned about this after his death. When my cousin opened the freezer, gusts of frost rose up. Then I saw these beautiful little birds, all carefully preserved. This moment was brought back to me the first time I entered the molecular neurobiology laboratory at NYU. Dr Chao opened his enormous freezer, and gusts of frost billowed out. When it cleared, vials and vials of cells were revealed, from the simplest single-celled creatures to the most complex brain cells.

The freezer suggested a frozen landscape and brought me back to the months I spent in the Arctic Circle Residency programme in a two-masted, 1910 schooner. We were a combination of artists and scientists. My roommate was Katja Aglert who was re-enacting George Brecht’s 1966 Fluxus score by picking up a piece of ice and holding it in her hand until it melted. She performed this act every time she went on shore and I filmed her doing it. When I was editing the footage I had taken in the science labs and of the hummingbirds, it occurred to me that Katja’s project mirrored my uncle’s efforts and, happily, Katja agreed to let me use some of her footage in my video. To melt ice in the Arctic, in your bare hand, was as futile and heroic and beautiful as the act of wrapping and preserving hummingbirds when your life was slipping away.

LW: The remaining two works consisted of two multifaceted, diamond-like crystals and a sound piece. How did they fit into the show?

JB: The two crystals, my first sculpture in years, are titled, I Can’t Remember, I Can’t Forget (2015). I brought back one of the crystals from Merkers; the other crystal was made in a laboratory. Presented side by side on matching pedestals, I would like viewers to think about what is real, what is constructed. Only one person, an artist who was also a mineral/gem dealer, was able to tell which was extracted from the earth and which was man-made.

LW: And The Unanswered Question (once touched, remains unknown) (2015), the sound piece?

JB: At times, I think of it as the linchpin of the exhibition. At other times, it functions as a moment of respite, and sometimes even as the connective tissue between the other works. It was inspired by Charles Ives’s composition of the same title. Written in 1908, it wasn’t performed until 1946, much later in Ives’s life. It is an incredible, early example of harmony and dissonance co-existing in one piece. It also has three different groups of instruments all playing in different tempos. Thinking about the confluence of his work and about synaptic connections in a hyperactive brain, I decided to create my own sound piece in response. I wrote a few lines of text and sent them to jazz composer Barney McAll, who wrote a beautiful score for multiple voices, performed by the University of Houston’s famed choir. It evokes thoughts of transcendence, minus the specifics of organised religion.

LW: Sound seems an important component in almost all the works?

JB: Yes, it is. While The Unanswered Question is exclusively a sound piece, there is, in addition to the recording of cells communicating inside the brain of a rat in seizure and other sounds, an instrumental composition for each of the video pieces, inspired by Glen Campbell. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease some years ago, he decided to continue performing until he was no longer able to. When he was playing a riff or singing into the mic, he was absolutely present, but he would step away from the microphone and be completely lost on stage. In one of his last performances, he sang Wichita Lineman. I asked a number of musicians/composers I knew if they were familiar with Wichita Lineman. They all were, but with varying degrees of recall. Without looking up the music, I asked each of them to play their memory of it. What they remembered became the soundtrack for the videos.

LW: Did you conceive of this as a series?

JB: Actually, this project is new for me, both in how it came together and how it interacts as an exhibition. I often mine my personal history as part of my process, but in a much more general way. This project traces my very specific memories of my family. Tracing memories became part of the conceptual underpinning as well as part of the physical exploration, which culminated in a very physical expedition.

LW: And the ways that memory is being transformed?

JB: I’m fascinated by the implanting, altering and erasure of memory, the kind of work LeDoux is doing. Current events and conditions become part of a memory, making memories a construct. Something that’s often felt intuitively, he has established scientifically. The idea of a construction of differing times and rates of speed became incorporated in the structure of the exhibition. The works are individual and stand on their own, but as a whole, the exhibition becomes experiential, perhaps, in the way that someone with memory loss experiences the world. You know you’ve seen something – an image, a sound, a person somewhere else, but can’t quite place it.

LW: And how do you see the relationship between art and science?

JB: I originally thought that the methodologies between art and science were so different. After a fair amount of time hanging out with scientists, I realised that we share fundamental goals. I love the idea of collaborations between artists and scientists, but am not sure if that truly exists, at least for me. I’m inspired by scientists such as Eriksen, Ziburkus, Chao and LeDoux, who are on the frontline of memory and Alzheimer’s research, by musicians and composers such as those I worked with on this project, who continue to push themselves to find the next question, and writers such as Lisa Genova, JG Ballard, and Sebastian Junger, and artists too many to name, who are brave enough to imagine unknown territories and then go there.

Janet Biggs: Echo of the Unknown is at the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston 17 January to 21 March 2015.

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