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Of Bored Mice and Men

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The new art is off the plinth and out of the frame, and science might know why it works so well, writes Hannah Hayes-Westall, strategy director at MullenLowe London

Of Bored Mice and Men
Boop Beep Boop. 

The sound of a grad student conducting the most boring concert ever for an audience of wired up mice to explore an idea that has some wild ramifications for how we think about art, and in passing, how we might think about advertising.

It turns out that teaching a mouse to expect a series of tones one after the other and then...surprise!…confounding the mouse by playing them a different tone, causes some fascinating stuff to happen in their little mousey brains at a neural level. 

Making memories at the level of neural networks turns out to happen in the same part of the brain as experiencing sensations, but to happen in a way that is a ninety degree rotation away from the existing memories (as they are represented by neural networks), so they aren’t overwritten by the new information. Still with me? Researchers think that it means these mice are LITERALLY holding two conflicting ideas at the same time - the memory that informs their expectation, and the new information arriving when a different tone is played. 

Like a jazz musician freestyling around a refrain, the creation and confounding of expectation causes our rodent friends to expend a little energy creating the ‘ooh that’s different’ thought. Are you getting advertising effectiveness tingles yet? Time (and more research) will tell whether this speaks to Antonio Damasio’s theory of somatic marker creation, but what we can be sure of is that as so often, the art world has felt its way to the space already, because art, no matter which way we think about it, is all about effectiveness.

There are different ways of thinking about art, which can be loosely grouped into either thinking about art as ‘functional’ - created to communicate, entertain, or cause change, or thinking about art as an expression of a fundamental human need, which we engage with in order to deliver a kind of balance (think art appreciation, ritual forms of art, etc). The human need kind of art has, in centuries past, been experienced as the act of appreciation - I look at this beautiful garden or listen to this symphony and am soothed / enlivened etc; or as the act of creation - I join in with this hymn or create this abstract expressionist canvas and am replete

The art that has been thought about as functional on the other hand, tends to produce a thing, in the past perhaps a sculpture of a famous or admirable character, a protest song, a painting, or even a commercial. A new generation of artists are moving far, far from this approach and their work tells us a lot about the way that they are bringing together the ideas of functional and experienced art in a way that simultaneously creates and confounds expectations in a way that’s a more complex, yet not dissimilar to the boring mouse concert experiment.

The artist Petra Cortright’s core practice is the creation and distribution of digital and physical images using consumer or corporate softwares, moving between marble, canvas, social media and most recently, NFTs. Notably, she explores the conventions of the digital spaces we now inhabit, creating a sense of rhythm over a series of executions, and then confounding it with wildly unanticipated moves, as with her work So Wet (2011) which existed as a series of images, building layers of increasingly manipulated imagery, or her recent monograph, E-Girl (2021), featuring outtakes of some of her earlier work, including the MoMa held work vvebcam (2007) where Cortright recorded herself on a webcam passively scrolling through different effects on the recording device, while a repetitive trance beat played in the background.  

One of the first wave of ‘post-internet’ artists, the Santa Barbara-based artist first became renowned for making self-portrait videos that use her computer’s webcam and default effects tools, which she would then upload to YouTube and caption with spam text. Her paintings on aluminium, linen, paper, or acrylic are created in Photoshop using painting software and appropriated images, icons, and marks; the digital files are endlessly modifiable, but at a “decisive moment” they are translated into two-dimensional objects. They become finite, yet their range of motifs and marks, and their disorienting perspectives and dimensions suggest dynamic change. 

In her most recent work, Room (2021), Cortright has developed a new way of working that uses the evolving medium of NFTs together with AI script to set up and confound expectations across multiple touchpoints. A heavily-layered digital landscape was first composed from a mixture of brushstrokes and found images, totalling to 50 unique layers. She then utilized a custom script that cycles through the 50 layers, randomly selecting and deselecting elements and rearranging them. The first drop of 100 works is the result of the script processing the file and producing outcomes with 15 final visible layers. The second drop of 100 works consists of 30 visible layers, and the final 100 with 45 visible layers. After the third drop period ends the top three collectors who acquire the most Room artworks will each be awarded the prize of a unique Room work that utilises the full 50 visible layers.

Set ‘em up and knock ‘em down to create space for memory generation. Old fashioned guerrilla advertising was expert at this, but as the landscape has changed, the creativity we bring to the new digital spaces where we live out our lives has sometimes been lost in a sea of CPM and CPA. Where art is leaping ahead is in its playful use of multiple executional approaches to communicate an idea in a way that plays with the structure of the new tools we use daily in a way that is in some ways, the very essence of old school creative effectiveness brought up to date. 


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MullenLowe Group UK, Wed, 05 May 2021 12:20:14 GMT