Review and Interview: The Extended Mind at Talbot Rice Gallery

From November to February, the Talbot Rice Gallery presents The Extended Mind.

A collaboration between the Talbot Rice Gallery and a research project called The History of Distributed Cognition, the exhibition, funded by AHRC, presents a complex scientific and psychological analysis of our cognitive abilities, offering what curator of the exhibition James Clegg described to me as “a contemporary chapter to this theme and exploring the thinking in artistic practice”.

The exhibition presents works by twelve established international artists, who use a variety of mediums to explore and represent the complexity of human cognition, investigating how “our cognition […] does not just take place within our brains.” According to James, none of the works were commissioned specifically for the exhibition so as to avoid the exhibition being an “illustration of the concept, but on the contrary a new vehicle of cognition”.

The corner of the first room is covered with black A4 pieces of paper, crowded with complex diagrams and post-it notes, all chaotically linked by white chalk lines and neurone-like structures. Your eyes can’t focus. You are lost. This is Following the Fold, 2019, an installation by Nikolaus Gansterer. Drawing on a long-term fascination with networks, maps, and diagrams, Gansterer explores the “movements and entangled relations between thinking, drawing and knowing”.

The viewer is faced with a trail of thought to follow, yet in its journey, the mind does not make any specific meaning but is instead forced to build a relationship with the process of meaning-making itself. As James tells me, “it represents a continuum of ideas and how one thought folds into another.” Accompanied by three video works, this installation shows the importance of visual materials and connections in our ability to comprehend our surroundings.

A series of notes, checks, tickets and various scraps of paper are pinned up on the white gallery wall of the second room, forming a perfect rectangle. You can hear the exclamations and giggles of the viewers, crowded around the composition. Indeed, coming closer and examining the bizarre content of each scrap of paper, you inevitably can’t resist a smile. This is I don’t want to hear anymore, 2016, a work by an American artist Joseph Grigely. Deaf since the age of ten, Grigely emphasises the importance of sight and language as a ‘mind tool’. Humorous notes take conversations out of context, forming a random collection of memories that gives the viewer a glimpse into the artist’s thoughts. The geometry of the composition is random, mirroring the variety of directions a conversation can take.

The most baffling and in part disturbing exhibit is the work of a Greek artist Angleo Plessas. The Karma Dome, placed in the centre of the classical hall and furnished with quilts and a gong, is made out of materials that block electromagnetic signals. The dome is a safe-space, a retreat from “the malignant aspects of technology in the service of capitalism,” protecting whoever climbs in. It allows us to see beyond the constant indoctrination in regard to the harmful effects of the internet and filter through only positive, constructive ideas.

The dome is accompanied by a meme-like, ’90s psychedelic animation of spinning, staring heads amongst mandalas. This is not only a guide on how to use the dome but also a tool which “establishes a placebo effect,” as James puts it, convincing the audience of the healing and protective properties of the dome. Through this work the viewer is reminded of how, as a species, humans have surrendered themselves to technology in our cognitive and communication processes.

Another important feature of this exhibition, James highlighted to me, is the immersive aspect of this project. Over the course of the exhibition a number of collaborations with schools and other local institutions such as the Shotts prison or the homelessness charity Crisis have been organised. This aims to expand understanding of cognition within local community, push thinking outside the box, and trigger conversation on the topic. At the start of his tours James asks the viewers to look at their shoes. Taking this simple object, he tries to make us think how its presence or absence will impact the perception of our surroundings, our feelings, our thinking.

The Extended Mind makes us notice details about ourselves and our surroundings, that are ignored, brushed under the carpet. It expands our understanding and “remakes our consciousness and cognition via materiality, objects and practices”.

Extended Mind is a fascinating and in part confusing exhibition that both clarifies and complicates one’s understanding of human cognition. Leaving the gallery, you are left feeling lost and anxious, but energised by a desire to grasp the complexity of the human brain.

Illustration: Emily Lowes

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