Day 3, Stream 5


Converging and diverging realities


Jane Grant


John Matthias: University of Plymouth, UK

Oron Catts: SymbioticA, University of Western Australia, Australia

Sue Denham: University of Plymouth, UK

Greg Hainge: University of Queensland, Australia

Jane Grant: Plymouth University, UK



This panel will consider ‘noise as the glue between internal and external experience, a link between sensing and cognition, memory and perception’. Noise may be considered as a residue of memory, temporarily rupturing the present. For many, noise is the result of overstimulation manifested as ringing in a space that is some place and no place. Noise is the kick that enables physical systems to explore potential dynamical possibilities. Noise is the underlying endogenous stimulation of the brain, a platform for cognition but also a place of danger where cultural and political manipulation may happen. This panel will bring together artists and neuroscientists to interrogate the roles of noise, including multi-/bi-stability and stochastic resonance in biological dynamical systems. Recent research into these areas show that our perception of the world already converges multiple forms of what might be considered as reality, converging and diverging at every synaptic moment.

NeuroArts brings together artists, scientists and philosophers to share ideas and present and their work. The conference is an interdisciplinary exploration and interrogation of the field, an exchange of ideas between artists, writers, experimenters and theoreticians. Rather than examining artistic practice to illustrate and understand concepts in Brain research, NeuroArts emphasizes how research into perception and cognition are influencing artistic and cultural practice. These ideas are multi-scale; from the level of the cell to the small cellular network – up to the scale of interacting humans and human-environmental interaction. The panel is coordinated by Jane Grant and John Matthias, directors of the art and sound Research Group at Plymouth University, UK and convenors of three previous NeuroArts events.



Sue Denham: Making sense of sounds: patterns and noise

Tiny vibrations of the air molecules around us convey information about remote objects and their behaviour. What our ears receive is a mixture of the signals generated by whatever sound emitting sources happen to be present, which can of course change from one moment to the next. So, how do we make sense of the mixture and form mental images of the sound sources around us? I will argue that the auditory system constantly seeks out patterns in the incoming signals. These patterns range over many time scales, from the very rapid periodic vibrations perceived as pitch, to the sequences of sound events, perceived for example as a melody. Once a pattern has been detected, we can use it to decide which parts of the signal contributed to it and therefore belong together. Even more importantly, we can develop expectations of what should come next and when, and we can use mismatches between our expectations and what actually happens to refine our mental representations of things in the world. Since perceptual decisions are always made with incomplete information, the ability to construct alternative interpretations of the world and to flexibly switch between them is fundamental to natural perceptual systems. In this the role of intrinsic noise is crucial.


Greg Hainge: The Noise In-Between.

Taking my lead from this panel’s framing statement, I wish to address the question of noise as an in-between. Drawing on my recent work on the subject of the ontology of noise, I hope to figure noise as über-relational, as nothing other than the essence of the ontological relation that is itself constitutive of all ontology when ontology is conceived of as relational. However, the way in which noise functions as an in-between renders problematic, I want to suggest, the very possibility of being able to figure or conceptualise the world in terms or concepts as infolded as “inside” or “outside” or, as in communications theory, “emitter” and “receiver” or, of more interest in the present context, “artwork” and “spectator/consumer”. Whilst this has perhaps always been the case, I will suggest that in our media-saturated world it is now more the case than ever that the new cognitive mappings afforded by works of art call for, à la Deleuze, a reconfiguration of the site of consciousness (or neural events). However, rather than simply relocating consciousness in the objects or media to which we had imagined consciousness attends (“the brain is the screen”), I will argue that when filtered through the in-between of noise, it may be necessary rather to suggest that consciousness is deployed in a less-defined and wholly distributed space and that this might have important implications for how we think about modes of artistic consumption.


John Matthias: Noisy Networks: Plasticity and the Neurogranular Sampler

The role of noise in models of physical phenomena has been of great interest within the scientific community for a long time. Real biological and physical systems are all inherently noisy; they exhibit fluctuations. Until very recently, physicists would model this fluctuation in a computer by turning to a random number generator at some point in the process of solving the constituent equations. Physical variables would be defined, the equations would be solved to include an additional ‘fluctuating element’ defined by the average and variance of a noisy variable. This rather simplistic way of describing natural systems does not work for networks in biological systems which need to be noisy in order to operate; (Vogels et al 2005). Sparsely connected networks of spiking model neurons can generate what looks like noisy random activity without the need for any external source of randomness. This paper will consider this idea of inherently generated noisy behaviour in model and real brain circuits and also within the construction of the Neuro-artwork, ‘Plasticity’ (Jane Grant, John Matthias, Nick Ryan and Kin) and the musical instrument, the Neurogranular Sampler (Developed by art and sound research at Plymouth University with Kin Design) both of which use noise to drive performative artificial neuronal systems.

Vogels T P, Rajan K and Abbott L F, (2005)  Annual Review Neuroscience


Jane Grant: between one and zero 

Noise is the undercurrent of material, of information, mutable and implicit that draws things into existence. Noise inhabits the space between the signal and its opposite. Noise is the not yet of information, the incipient structure keeping buoyant the code. In binary terms it forms the link between what is heard and what is silent. The signal, stripped of its noise is fundamentally altered and when detached from its origin cannot hold all that brought it into being. And, whilst it appears important to free the signal from the morass, perhaps the factoring out of noise is an error, particularly in living systems.

Biologically there appears to be a non-linear causality[1] existing within single cells or neurons. Cell switching in relation to the environment happens throughout the structure of living things and many cells resonate with their environment as much as they do with each other.[2] Noise appears to be the glue that turns the boundary or limit of the cell into a threshold, no longer indivisible. This presentation will address two sonic artworks, Ghost (2011) and Plasticity (2012) that use models of spiking neurons to materialize endogenous and exogenous composition in relation to memory. And that noise, in drawing sound into being carries with it the root of all information implicit and explicit.

[1] Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the Virtual, Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[2] Raj, A. van Oudenaarden, A. (2008). ‘Nature, Nurture, or Chance: Stochastic gene expression and its consequences’ Cell – 17 October 2008 (Vol. 135, Issue 2, pp. 216-226)