Self-portraits, Consciousness, and the Brain

An artist, a neuroscientist, and an art historian share reflections of the self and self-portraiture in the last public event of “Think Art – Act Science” at SFAI.

Event Details


San Francisco Art Institute
800 Chestnut St., San Francisco, California 94133 United States


November 11, 2011 from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm America/Los Angeles (UTC-08:00)



The feeling of being in, and owning, your own body is a fundamental human experience and tightly linked to our subjective, first person perspective of the world. But where does it originate and how does it come to be? How do painters and self-portrait artists incorporate the self into their work—and why?

swissnex San Francisco and the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) examine these topics to conclude the two-month run of the Think Art – Act Science exhibition, on display at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries through November 12.

Olaf Blanke is a neurologist with the Brain Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and the Department of Neurology at the University of Geneva. He describes recent advances in decoding the phenomena of body consciousness and out-of-body experiences, and how these may relate to painted self-portraits. Blanke’s research started with detailed analysis of the “hallucinated self-portraits” in patients with migraine or epilepsy who report seeing another self standing before them. This led to a series of studies in which his research immersed subjects, via virtual reality, into the body of an avatar, or virtual human, while monitoring psychological responses and brain activity.

Nicole Ottiger, a Swiss-British artist, spent nine months in residency at the Brain Mind Institute as part of the Swiss artists-in-labs program. She explores how scientific findings can be of relevance in making self-portraits, especially for painting one’s own body. She presents drawing experiences and artworks created while she was immersed in virtual reality.

Ottiger and Blanke are joined by writer, art historian, and curator Terri Cohn, an SFAI faculty whose key themes of interest include identity, memory, self-image, and fragmentation. Among other recent projects, Cohn curated “Unexpected Reflections: the Portrait Reconsidered” at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery. Moderating the discussion is Meredith Tromble, Associate Professor at SFAI’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies and an artist and writer with a specialization in art, science, and technology.


6:00 pm  presentations start
8:00 pm  doors close


Olaf Blanke

Olaf Blanke is Director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and a consultant neurologist in the Department of Neurology at the University Hospital of Geneva. He pioneered the neuroscientific study of human self-consciousness and subjectivity by using a broad range of methods such as the neuropsychology and electrophysiology of self-consciousness in neurological disease as well as brain imaging in healthy subjects. His main interest at present is the development of a data-driven neuroscientific theory of self-consciousness and subjectivity. Another main line of research concerns balance and body perception, and their application to engineering-based technologies such as virtual reality, robotics, and neuro-rehabilitation.


Terri Cohn

Terri Cohn is a writer, curator, and art historian, and was a contributing editor to Artweek magazine for 20 years. Fascinated by the zeitgeist for decades, she is currently intrigued by contemporary interpretations of traditional genres, the conceptual life of objects, and a return to storytelling. Cohn is the author of hundreds of essays, interviews, reviews, and catalog essays largely focused on artists who are involved with contemporary art and media concerns, including conceptual art, gender issues, the intersections between static and time-based media, and evolving public art practices. She has contributed to several books including A Sculpture Reader: Contemporary Sculpture Since 1980 (ISC Press 2006); Letters from Linda Montano (Routledge, 2005); Women Artists of the American West (ed. Susan Ressler, McFarland & Co. 2003); and RE/Placing Public Art, (2007). Her curatorial work over the past 25 years has included numerous site-specific public and gallery installations and several performance art series.


Nicole Ottiger

Nicole Ottiger was born in London in 1969. She is an artist, teacher, and art psychotherapist. She graduated in 1998 with a BA in Fine Arts from Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts and in 2004 with a Master of Arts in Art Psychotherapy from London University Goldsmiths. In 2010, she spent nine months in a residency in the Brain Mind Institute at EPFL. For her work, the artist employed the ‘Video Ergo Sum’ neuro-scientific experiment and setup of Bigna Lenggenhager et al 2007 (Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience, EPFL). The experiment demonstrated that conflicting visual-somatosensory input in virtual reality could disrupt the spatial unity between the self and the body. Ottiger’s “Portait of An Artist: The Mind’s Eye” installation featured in the “Think Art – Act Science” exhibition is a self-portraiture of the virtual body modus.


Meredith Tromble

Meredith Tromble McDonald is an artist and writer whose areas of interest include creative process and cultural histories of creativity, protocols for interdisciplinary research, collaboration, and group dynamics.
She was an artist commentator for KQED-FM in San Francisco. In addition to 15 years of broadcasting, she has authored hundreds of interviews, essays and commentaries for print and digital publications including Artweek, Aspect, and Leonardo, and edited a book on the new media artist Lynn Hershman published by the University of California Press. From 2000 to 2010, she participated in the artist collective Stretcher, which publishes the Web magazine and organizes performative art events. Her many public talks have included presentations at the Tate Britain, London and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In 2004 she joined the faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) as Associate Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies specializing in the intersection of art, science, and technology.


Photo: Myleen Hollero