In Secret Wars, the current exhibition at Proteus Gowanus, artists reveal images of concealed conflict. These hidden battles take place not only in the shadows of the geopolitical map, but also in the dark and obscure corners of our bodies and minds. The silent neuronal firings and synaptic reactions we call fear are internal reactions to external threats. They are conditions of our isolation as biological individuals and our connection as social animals.
Humphrey brought singing neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux from NYU, along with members of his band The Amygdaloids, to a Proteus event during the opening week of Secret Wars. LeDoux views the amnesia of post-traumatic stress disorder less as Freudian repression in the unconscious mind than as a failure of the conscious brain, specifically the hippocampus, to form new memories in response to an overwhelming occurrence. According to his hypothesis, consciousness shuts down rather than permanently register severely damaging events. But the amygdala, an emotional generator, still forms unconscious memories of the trauma. Re-encountering associated stimuli months or years later can trigger intensely visceral yet unconscious reactions, even if the person doesn’t know why. “So you might not remember,” LeDoux explained calmly, “but you can still suffer.”
“This of course is all rat work,” he added none too reassuringly. People distinguish mild apprehension from abject terror, having different words with which to categorize intensities of feeling. LeDoux reasons that animals, lacking language, probably experience more undifferentiated states. But if the human brain is sufficiently like the rat brain, then our dizzying sensations of fear are correlated with the primal swirls and hidden spirals revealed in the installation.
Another of Nene Humphrey’s projects involves Victorian mourning braid patterns, which she has found are similar to the lab images. These intricate memento mori, woven on the body, served as an outward sign of grief and a bulwark against forgetting.
The theme of cryptic signals as artifacts detached from lost or forgotten meanings also runs through the work of several other artists featured in the exhibition, as I will write about in future installments of Proteoscope.
On January 25 the world’s media briefly converged on the corner of Union and Nevins to track the invasion of the Gowanus Canal by a wounded stray dolphin. In its death throes, the injured mammal known as the Gowanus Dolphin struggled in vain to swim to the freedom of the open ocean. Dolphins’ intelligence is more similar to humans’ than that of any other non-primate species. As the sadly doomed creature fought its way through the toxic waters of the canal to its death, I wonder what patterns of fear swirled and whorled through its cetacean brain?