A night of art, science, and synesthesia

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Last Friday night I had the pleasure of attending The Creative Consciousness, an art and science extravaganza showcasing the creative talents of UC Berkeley students from the Art & Science DeCal in collaboration with the Synesthesia Association at Berkeley. For those of you who are unfamiliar with one of Berkeley’s coolest undergraduate programs, “DeCals” are student-run courses at UC Berkeley and the entire event was in fact organized by UC Berkeley undergraduates.

The opening night of The Creative Consciousness was an art gallery, science fair, and party, all rolled into one fun-filled night wrapped in a fantastic space with excellent beats spun by Bay Area performer DJ Schwa (a perfect date-night for my artist husband and I). The event organizers sum up best what their show was about:

 “We hope to foster a sense of community and interdisciplinary appreciation through exploring science through art and art through science, witnessing all the ways it applies from everything to medicine, cartography, technology and beyond”

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Sonia Spindt (right) brushes the right hand of her subject, high school student Samira Tabatabaiepur (left), who watches her “left hand” on the other side of the curtain. Spindt is an MCB major with a concentration in neuroscience.

Tucked into the quiet streets of the warehouse district near Jack London Square (on a dark and rainy night, I might add) is the nondescript warehouse that hosted the event. Radiance Community Center was built to foster community and creativity, and seemed the perfect venue. Running in out of the rain, the first thing I see is a table displaying a box, a tablecloth—and a hand. A participant sits opposite a student facilitator, placing one hand on the table and the other one hidden under the cloth; a fake hand sits where one would expect his or her real hand to be. The facilitator brushes the participant’s “hand,” evoking the sense that one’s hand is actually being stroked.

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Photo by Jahlela Hasle, taken on campus. Students from the Art and Science DeCal climbed onto one of Bruce Beasley “Rondo” sculptures and waved glow sticks during the 10-second exposure.

Moving to the back, we enter a room of vibration and sound, the synesthesia core of the event. Synesthesia is the neurological condition in which one sensory pathway is evoked by another, for example, the ability to “see” sounds as specific colors. Ever competitive, my husband and I test our skills at linking color to smell by closing our eyes as the facilitator holds a smell under our noses while repeating the name of a color. We are then given the smells at random, and asked to repeat the color. I mix up garlic and pungent cheese, forgetting their respective colors (black and white) but easily remember green (interesting), orange (pleasant, likely a candle), and purple (I’m pretty sure this one was Vix vapor rub). This display is more than just scientific dissemination—it’s active research! The facilitator has been recording the results of each participant, and shows us the up-to-date data from her laptop.

The first piece of artwork I am drawn to is a pretty light structure entitled “Killer whales: Not everything is black and white” by Integrative Biology major Briana Giorgione. Brain MRIs showcase the differences between human brains and the brains of the often misrepresented killer whale. String lights illuminate the paralimbic region of the brains, highlighting the increased size and complexity of the Orca’s region that processes complex emotion as compared to our own. Giorgione said the light is symbolic of her desire to “shed light on a topic that is not very well known.”

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DeCal and Event organizer Angela Wienberg stands by her painting. She is double majoring in Art Practice and Psychology. “Killer Whales: Not everything is black and white” stands to her left.

It’s hard not to be taken into the next piece, a commanding painting of a woman whose thrust-out naked breasts fail to cover the axe that bores into her heart, pouring down blood. Don’t worry, the axe and blood are merely symbolic to describe the “self-mutilating characteristics involved in the downward-spiral thought process of depression,” artist Angela Weinberg writes, adding that the painting “questions our current society’s tendencies to sexualize, critique and degrade the female body.” Weinberg is a double major in psychology and art at UC Berkeley.

I spot the Art & Science DeCal facilitators by their colorful boas. Kimiya Hojjat (Cognitive Science major, Entrepreneurship and Technology certificate student), Angela Weinberg (double major in Psychology and Art Practice), and Natalie Mal (double major in Cognitive Science and Art Practice) introduce me to their inspirer and mentor, MD, PhD Simona Zompi. I then spend a considerable length of time talking to cognitive science major Jahlela Hasle about science and her art display, a collection of photos that plays with man-made light.  As a graduate student researcher who works closely with undergraduates in my lab, I am constantly amazed by the caliber of our dedicated undergraduate researchers, but this was my first experience with a fully undergraduate organized event that displayed the more artistic—and fun—side of science. I am again amazed by their talents and ability.

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Undergraduate Jahlela Hasle holds a human brain. She runs the Berkeley Review of Cognitive Science Articles (BROCA) DeCal.

Before I leave, I hold a human brain. Genuine, real, and soaked in the stench of the fixative paraformaldahyde, it is displayed only with a box of gloves. It needs no explanation, no symbolic artistic addition— it stands on its own. I marvel at the thought that I, too, could potentially rent a human brain from UC Berkeley’s biological science library.

There were more amazing pieces of artwork than I could possibly give justice to in one short blog. I make sure to stop by the DJ booth before taking off to compliment DJ Schwa on his talent and excellent choice of music. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for him, as well as future events at Radiance. If you missed this spectacular event of art and science, not to worry—this was only the first (and very successful) semester of the Art and Science DeCal. To find out more about the Art & Science DeCal, or to be notified of next semester’s event, email the organizers at cal.art.science@gmail.com.

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