Amy Caron, an artist based in Salt Lake City, UT, has choreographed contemporary dance, taught college classes on dance and film, and competed as an aerial ski jumper for the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team.
She has no science background. But when she found out that New York's Performance Space 122 (P.S. 122) was commissioning work from artists in partnership with someone outside the art world, she thought immediately of V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., a charismatic neuroscientist she'd once seen on TV.
Caron looked up his research on mirror neurons and was fascinated. Mirror neurons fire when a person (or animal) acts, and when the person observes the same action performed by another. “On a basic level, these neurons facilitate mimicking behavior,” she explains. “They cross the barrier between self and other. It's a great topic for art.”
She wrote up a proposal to work with Dr. Ramachandran and got the gig. Caron thrust herself into the world of neuroscience, reading medical journals, hanging out in Dr. Ramachandran's research lab and discussing his work with him, and even watching two brain surgeries. The result is Waves of Mu (pronounced myew), a large-scale installation/performance work. The installation, named after the EEG oscillations that reflect mirror neuron activity, is designed to trigger the mirror neurons of the audience.
The first part of Waves of Mu is a “wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling representation of neuroanatomy” in vibrant pink, turquoise, red, and orange, Caron says. The atmosphere is festive and stimulating, with champagne and chocolate served to viewers and reggae music blaring loudly. “I designed the experience as a party, with information that's communicated socially,” she says.
The second part of the work is a performance with theater, dance, and video. Caron plays the role of an eccentric scientist teaching her audience how neurons function—in part by evoking a variety of emotional responses. She soothes them with an image of a cat purring loudly, and then disarms them with footage of skiers getting injured.
“Even though nothing's really happening to you, you take on the feeling of what you see,” she says.
In addition to P.S. 122, Caron has put on her show at venues in Vermont and Alaska. Waves of Mu will run for students in the University of Utah's medical-education program this fall and at Sushi Art in San Diego in fall 2011.
To see more of more of Waves of Mu, go to wavesofmu.com. To see more of Caron's other work, go to amycaron.com.
Lisa A. Phillips