Recent Drawings by Julie Harrison
Picture a living brain. Do you imagine a dome of pliable, putty-grey, wrinkled matter or a massive electrical circuit of shiny wires and efficient switches? Somewhere between medical science and science fiction we have created a shared inventory of such images. CT scans and MRIs provide authentically grainy, low-resolution, real-time imaging of brain activity while the depiction of hardwired systems supports current AI fantasies of mega-processors capable of everything from making original art to stealing state secrets. Whether organic or machinic, these images share a common trope—that the brain is a system of networked synapses whose activity mysteriously and miraculously gives rise to thought.
Thanks for reading JD: ABCs ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Julie Harrison’s recent Brain Series drawings are fully in the organic realm, swarming with animate features, more alive than we might imagine any static image could be. You don’t so much look at these drawings as watch them—the way you might observe the activity of a life form through a microscope—tracking their dynamic movement. Her rendered globules swim and dive through veiled flows among wavering filaments and dendrite tendrils. As she says herself: ‘“I explore the liminal space between science and fiction. These works consider invisible living organisms and create impossible universes that aestheticize our understanding of what is real. … it’s as if the biological phenomena of my brain has been transported through my body and hands onto paper; my drawings represent the wake of life as we move through the water of time."
Harrison’s drawings are compelling images for this moment in the cultural imagination of the brain and mind. In their combination of variety and specificity, they make an argument for what constitutes the physiological infrastructure of intelligence in living beings. In other words, the features of Harrison’s brain drawings suggest that organic models have a potential that mechanical approaches do not. Is this romanticism and nostalgia for the embodied condition or a solid argument grounded in evidence?
Images of artificial brains as massive electrical circuits have been with us for about a century, twice that long if we allow that Charles Babbage began the conceptual design of his Analytical and Difference Engines in the 1820s. Other engineer-designers have continued to create automated systems ever since. Herman Hollerith’s famous punch cards appeared in the 1880s and became a mainstay among devices for sorting and processing information as well as being iconic tokens of the computer age. Hollerith’s cards used formal protocols that built on the logical operators of mathematician George Boole’s 1854 publication, The Laws of Thought. And in 1936 George Orwell began a year-long series of lectures titled World Brain. In spite of his capacity for dark imaginings, his vision was closer to an online encyclopedia than to a science fiction intelligence with power to run the world. Orwell, better than anyone, had a prescient understanding of the ways networked media would infiltrate and transform knowledge and power. But his lectures argued for universal access to education, not dystopic futures. Still, with characteristic linguistic talent, Orwell had coined a meme. The implications of a world brain as a total system of interconnected knowledge—and the dark as well as bright sides of that vision—remain in circulation along with that of the Memex, the hyper-linked system of information conceived by his contemporary Vannevar Bush.
As computer technology gained momentum in the immediate post-World War II period, popular writers obsessed over computer-brain analogies. Pundits stressed the distinction between automated thought and genuine human “thinking,” constantly reassuring themselves and the public of the hard line between these two. A legion of essays about what robots would “never be able to do” appeared alongside the equal number predicting world takeover by computerized beings. This contest continues to plague specialists and speculators even as AI programs create works of art, defying the “computers will never be creative” dictum. The goalposts that keep the “human” ahead of the “computer” keep shifting in a struggle to maintain the illusion that a line exists that cannot be crossed.
The gig is pretty much up, in many ways, even as the struggle to maintain the distinction between humans and computers persists. Two possibilities for computation on the horizon will, if realized, play out the endgame: quantum computing and organic or wet
-ware computers. Researchers suggest breakthroughs in production of organic semiconductors may be imminent. The reason this matters is simple: organic materials have capacities that exceed those of silicon by orders of magnitude.
Here is where Harrison’s drawings come in, suggestive and provocative images of what can only be referred to as “neuronal morphologies.” Okay, the phrase does not quite roll off the tongue and frankly feels more like a shelf label on some natural science exhibit than a world-changing breakthrough. But these rich, dense, images suggest the possibility of an organic intelligence that is animate and dynamic. Are they images of the human brain? Or of the organic computers to come?
Harrison’s earliest paintings in the 1980s were focused on biomorphic shapes, and her subsequent projects, whether graphic or photographic, were based on images of the body. In the late 1970s, at the Experimental Television Center, she started using monitors in performance to capture people in motion. Gradually, she became interested in cell development as well as fragmentary images of bodies taken from video and manipulated into abstract forms. Since about 2017, Harrison has been developing a graphic and conceptual vocabulary of life forms at the micro-level. Throughout, her work has been quintessentially organic even as she reflects constantly on the relations between inner and outer space, the known and the unknown, and even the way that medical research disturbs our sense of who we are in relation to our embodied condition. Harrison brings all of this questioning to the production of elements in her recent work where they create patterns of infinite variation and repetitive similarity. Meandering and directed at the same time, these patterns are immediately recognizable as brain mesh. We know a nerve network when we see it.
To make this work, Harrison begins by capturing images of micro-organisms through an online search. The process dishes up a vast array of the critters in all shapes and structures. Some are life forms at the very edge of autonomous beings, single-
Cutting, pasting, collaging, and layering, Harrison builds depth in the pictorial field. Ink, graphite, and paper create a shifting space charged with dynamic energy. Neuronal patterns and synaptic pathways abound. The multi-dimensional skeins of tangled lines and forms are alive with absorptive energy. Mapped across the surface and layered into a deep space, the drawings suggest living networks. Their source material is appropriated from images of cellular entities and micro-organisms, but repurposed through collage and drawing into the distinct vocabulary of an animate field. These images are alive and pulsing with the energy of signal processing and neural transactions.
The variation in the rendering of lines, each specific and unique, the single trace of a hand, guarantees the organic integrity of the images. No replication is possible, even when copying occurs. The marks are always made anew. Here is where their argument inheres, boldly asserting the unique properties of organic systems over their machinic counterparts. In Harrison’s work, intelligence is animate and tangible.
Computational capacities continue to increase, and the recent round of artificially generated artworks and images stuns viewers with the challenge they pose to creativity as the last bastion of human exceptionalism. The limits of silicon-based systems are being challenged by the processing speeds, variable states, and multiple processing capacities of organic systems. A whole new vocabulary emerges in the discussion of DNA-based processors (still in the “showing promise” stage of development). For instance, phrases like algorithmic self-assembly conjure concepts of code doing fabulous dance steps to evolve into new structures, bootstrapping through the ability to replicate. These systems promise to move beyond the binary rigidity of on-off states, and support fuzzy logic and parallel processing at speeds beyond those of current systems. Wetware computing is on the horizon, and the capacity of organic systems to produce complexity outstrips that of hardware, but what its training sets will be or how it will be developed and used is yet to be determined. In addition, research in quantum computing, entangled and simultaneous in its complexity, might be advanced by organic systems as well. For the moment, the two strains of research flirt with each other in high-level research labs where the problems of eliminating a millisecond gap between signal transfer and information storage meet those of multi-dimensional problem solving with enormous numbers of variables. You know, that kind of research. The stuff our brains do without our knowing have always turned out to be very difficult to replicate.
This brings us back to Harrison’s drawings, which on repeated viewing might have a hint of something sinister about them, a dark threat in their shadows and ink-black sinews. Organic systems have their own potency and contain no guarantee against misappropriation. Human exceptionalism is a fragile illusion in the face of emerging systems, and Harrison makes no claim for the images she makes as being a hedge against the existential and actual threats to existence. As models of animate intelligence, the drawings can be read as glimpses into the corporeal mesh work—or as a preview of the ways artificial networks might emerge in organic systems.
This piece was prompted by an exhibit of Julie Harrison’s work, Body Language Inside Out, Crescent Tree Gallery, September 3-September 29, 2022. Though I could not get to Claremont to see it, I appreciate the gallery’s role in bringing her work to attention.
For more information on Julie Harrison, visit her website:
Thanks for reading JD: ABCs ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.