Marcus Coates, ‘Extinct Animals’, 2018, Plaster of Paris, cast from the artist’s hands. Installation view, ‘The Extended Mind’, 2019. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh

The Art of the Extended Mind

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy Mark Sprevak shares his experience collaborating on the Extended Mind exhibition

Where does your mind stop and the rest of the world begin? Andy Clark and Dave Chalmers suggest, in their classic article ‘The Extended Mind’, that the boundary does not lie at your skin or skull.

According to them, minds are blobby, amorphous things that opportunistically adhere to all manner of physical homes. Of course, the web of neurons inside your head is a good home for a mind, but that isn’t the only place where it can live. Indeed, one of the most successful, adaptive features of the human mind is its ability to find new places to live and to extend its tendrils into.

Technology is a key enabler of mind extension. Fancy examples of ‘mind expanding’ tech include smartphones (to which we offload our memories), and modern AI systems (to which we offload our decision making). More mundane examples include leaving a note for your future self on the fridge door, or keeping a running tally by counting on your fingers.

On this picture, minds are not brains. Minds are swirling, whirling masses of thoughts, ideas, processes, and decision trees, that are partly stored with the neurons inside your head, and partly by all the support network of tech that surround us. If you find this idea unsettling, you are not alone – it’s a Copernican revolution concerning our mind’s place in the world.

Together with wonderful colleagues at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, we have been exploring what this idea means for art, artists, and folk (like myself) who enjoy visiting art galleries.

Philosophy and art

In 2019, the Talbot Rice Gallery hosted the Extended Mind exhibition. This exhibition built on our previous research project (History of Distributed Cognition), which aimed to show how scholarship in the humanities might benefit from, and might in turn inform, ideas about how our minds extend. The Extended Mind exhibition aimed to explore this idea further in specific context of contemporary art. The exhibition was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The Extended Mind exhibition opened to the public on 2 November 2019. The artwork aimed to challenge participants’ beliefs about, and sense of, where their mind ends and the world begins. Bringing together 12 international artists, it included videos of robots that learn through embodied interactions; sculptures that reveal our cognitive relationship with objects; critical engagements with technocratic forms of anonymous and distributed labour; vicarious trips to the Amazon jungle; and artificial intelligence and spiritualist responses to the internet age. It invited visitors on journeys to other real and imagined places, demonstrating how art plays a vital role in scaffolding new forms of understanding.

By the time it closed on 1 February 2020, nearly 4,000 visitors had been, in equal measures, intrigued, puzzled, challenged, and inspired by the exhibition’s ‘curation of a journey into thinking’ (as one visitor put it).

An interdisciplinary meeting of minds

To mark the end of the exhibition, we organised a giant symposium inside the University’s beautiful Playfair Library (which connects to the Talbot Rice Gallery by a secret door).

The event brought back nearly 300 visitors to the exhibition, including Andy Clark (originator of the extended mind idea), two of the exhibition’s principal artists (Marcus Coates and Myriam Lefkowitz), the exhibition’s curators (Miranda Anderson, Tessa Giblin and James Clegg), and a marvellous interdisciplinary mix of psychologists, philosophers, historians, art critics, and scholars of all kinds from across the university and city.

Our discussion was structured by talks. Miranda Anderson, who has been the driving force behind both the exhibition and our previous research project, introduced the idea of the extended mind. Giovanna Colombetti considered lessons a philosopher might learn from each of the artworks of the exhibition. Mike Wheeler built connections between musical performance and acts of extended creativity in the visual arts. Myriam Lefkowitz reflected on her artwork ‘Walk, Hands, Eyes’, and how it rewires the boundaries between its participants as they wander silently through the city. Marcus Coates told the story of ‘The Trip’, his remarkable artwork in which he visited the jungle to vicariously fulfil the ambition of a resident in St. John’s Hospice. Jesse Prinz took us on a tour of the contemporary art world, examined how we engage with art, what enjoying it means, and how it’s far from a cerebral process.

At midnight both exhibition and symposium ended, but the conversations they started continue, with new connections being made and minds that continue to grow.

About Mark Sprevak

Mark Sprevak is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and he is affiliated with the EIDYN research centre.

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