Liminal: Neurons and Nebulas

By Alex Borgen

“You have an impressive amount of activity from both sides of your brain,” the neurofeedback scientist told me, “But it doesn’t seem to be conversing fluently from one side to the other. You must feel quite a bit of friction with your thoughts and desires. Your brain map shows both an intensely analytical and also highly intuitive emotional landscape. This protocol should get both halves of your brain to communicate.” I was in the second month of a 4-month full-time out-patient treatment program for severe anxiety and chronic panic attacks. More generally, I had an intense nervous system responses to stimuli.

The neurofeedback I received was a system used to get the brainwaves back in sync, control the “high-alert” brain waves and re-teach my nervous system to stay in more calming wave activity. About an hour a day, I watched a visualization of my brain activity across a screen as low droning sounds played through my headphones. These sounds and visualizations were at the frequency geared for deep relaxation and nervous system healing. The other 7 hours of the day were spent in meditation, yoga, group Dialectic Behavior talk therapy, and individual talk therapy. I specifically chose a program using somatics, biofeedback, and brain-wave science, to halt my nervous system from responding in such an acute manner because the talk therapy I had been doing for years, just wasn’t working. I chose a therapy that provided scientifically documented results in re-wiring the brain. It was total coincidence that the treatment center was only a 5 mile mountain bike ride on single track over the pass from my house.

The neurofeedback center was located just off one of the two major highways paralleling the canyon-lands of Southern California. While none of southern California can really be called rural, the trailer park I called home was perched in the sag of the Santa Monica mountain range. My community was made up of horse ranchers and Hollywood movie stars. The Santa Monicas felt wild cropping up between Highway 101 and Highway 1 along the coast. The doublewide was surrounded by Ponderosa pines, and I fell asleep each night smelling sage and agave blossoms. I listened to the frogs whistle and croak in the natural spring that divided my trailer from my neighbor’s. My conversations meandered fluidly between the old days of cattle ranching and complimenting the nail color du jour, depending on the person.

While living in California, somewhere amidst the ocean waves coming to shore, the book I was writing, the art residencies I wasn’t getting, the brain wave reconfiguration, the jagged sounds of a dualistic landscape, and the art workshops I couldn’t fill, I decided to begin taking science classes in order to pursue a different career—

medicine. 

***

My body feels electric, fluid, and expansive under a canopy of artificial sky. My new friend, a fellow mountain biker and artist, and I are laying on the floor, under one of my installation pieces. Imagine a 20 foot by 14 foot giant sheet of dark blue handmade paper that resembles a thick, creased swath of fabric. The installation is meant to be seen from above and below—climb under it like a blanket fort. Informed by living in the dense city of Chicago during graduate school, below the worn paper is a galaxy—the paper blanket is pinpricked with thousands of holes and ambient light shines through them, resembling a starry night in the mountains—an artificial analog sky. 

I feel an emotional and physical shift every time I venture into this work. It’s been a while since I’ve been immersed in it, and my friend points out that the inconsistencies of the paper remind him of the milky way or other nebulas that he has seen on NASA’s “Image of the Day” website. I want him to feel transformed. Instead, he talks about neon lights, armatures, and technical aspects of creating a new version of this work. He focuses on facts surrounding the process of the work and the science behind what the work might represent.

***

The corpus collosum is a thick band of nerve fibers spanning the divide between the two hemispheres of the brain within the interhemispheric fissure. The main function of this fiber bundle is to allow the right and left hemispheres to communicate and process sensory and visual information coming into the brains from opposite sides of the body. Each side of the brain performs some specific functions, and these regional specializations are not usually found in the other half of the brain. The right cerebral hemisphere analyzes spatial and visual information, relates the body to its environment, and analyzes emotions and facial expressions. The left side is usually the site for language, writing, mathematical calculation, speech, and other tasks associated with process and logic. Sometimes, words are found elsewhere. The hemispheric lateralization may account for certain brain dominance and account for traits and skills, and the commissural fibers within the corpus collosum allows the brain to coordinate and communicate across the divide.

A high percentage of left-handers are artists, possibly indicating a link with right brain dominance, left-handedness, and art. It is said that scientists are predominantly “left brained” while artists are “right brained.” While hemisphere dominance remains in conventional conversation, actual studies seem to be lacking specific evidence indicating such dominance, and the malleability of the brain to rewire itself (such as in people with damage to a specific location) demonstrates a much more sophisticated network within the brain.

***

My new friend and I don’t know each other very well, and yet we find ourselves under the star blanket after two conversations—

  1. We exchanged a series of text messages about art in the weeks after we met. He sent me pictures of his recent bike-painting project. “And what does that graphic shape represent to you?” I asked. “Well, that’s the problem, I just struggle explaining what I want to say about my work; I really like process and utility, hence loving ceramics.” We continued to text about art versus craft. Then, I shifted, writing, “every artist has something to say, and it’s about finding the right words to describe the concepts, and how to connect the dots between interesting topics and the work one makes.”
  1. Later, when we hanging out in person, he explained to me his interest in the growing field of collecting scientific data around personality traits. He explained that personality tests such as Myers-Briggs are not necessarily wrong, but they are oversimplified, as in people can have different personalities within the same personality type. These tests also don’t account for the malleability of how we see ourselves depending on external factors. Such as, if you recently get a new job with certain skills you assume that you are great at that skillset all the particular time, and it would skew the personal data you provide for that personality test. We see ourselves in the moment. Furthermore, how we see ourselves is different than others might see us. He talked extensively in his interest in the data to explain both how and why people are who we are, and how it can be useful to understand yourself and those around you. “Scientific data might be able to show how much personality is tied to nature versus nurture, maybe even generations back,” he said. I asked if he had an opinion of how the field of epigenetics plays a role in personality. I mentioned a study about several generations of mice, whose genetics changed due to stressful situations scientists put on the first generation, then asked if he wanted to see my art. 

***

 Maybe I am like water, more fluid than solid. I spread and shape into various schematics and ideations. How do they see me? “I work in abstraction, too,” I should have told him, “and I’m fascinated by the phenomenological human experience and becoming the terrain that sustains us.” Instead, I made him crawl under a giant sheet of paper, one that suspends disbelief and shifts boundaries into seemingly limitless horizons.

I was reminded of a night in Oregon, where, after my anatomy and physiology class, I biked up a single-track trail with my sleeping bag to spend the night in the mountains. I saw a wide sky that cascaded layers of stars in my view. I came here to feel vastness. I imagined my future shattered into a million webs of being. I can see myself so vividly living a million different versions of myself. 

Alex Borgen is an interdisciplinary artist who uses text, performance, and audio in conceptual projects. She is interested in the importance of transitional or liminal spaces—conceptual, physical, and temporal—and how we move through our landscapes and experience place from multiple points of view. She is the 2016 recipient of the Emerging Writer’s Award in Panorama: Journal of Intelligent Travel, the 2012 Chicago Newberry Library’s bibliophilic Caxton Club Scholarship, and the 2012 Nakane Aiko Award, among others. She has shown her work, published, and taught creative workshops nationally and inter- nationally, and she earned her MFA from Columbia College Chicago’s Interdisciplinary Arts Department.


The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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