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Art and Cognitive Activism  

Hybrid Symposium:
Join us on site at UCLA CNSI or Online on

Friday, September 23, 2022, 9:30am to 6:30pm

UCLA California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI)  

Building 114 – Presentation Space, 5th Floor  

570 Westwood Plaza 

Los Angeles, California 

Symposium is Free for the Public

This symposium endeavors to describe the role of art and artists in cognitive capitalism in which  the brain and mind are the new factories of the twenty-first century. We are no longer only  proletariats working on assembly lines to create objects but cognitariats (mental laborers)  working on screens to produce Big Data which is sold to governmental and corporate entities.  This has led authors such as Byung-Chul Han (for example, in his book Psycho-politics:  Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, 2000) to understand that in our moment  biopower (Foucault’s power over life as a form of the granular management of life) has  transitioned to psychopower, or psychopolitics, in which the mental laborers or cognitariats  gladly give up their freedoms without direct coercion—to labor incessantly and overtime to  interact with digitality. Han calls this “smart power.” 

Yet, we are now on the doorstep of another transition almost as important as that which  transformed the agricultural/manufacturing economies into knowledge/information economies.  In this coming neural-based economy the material brain and its neuroplasticity become the focus  of capitalist commodification—both directly and indirectly; directly through technologies like  brain-computer interfaces, nootropics and cortical implants, and indirectly with Big Data,  neuroeconomics and neural consumerism. In this neural economy, psychopower has further  transitioned to neural power where the material brain is put to work. In psychopower and  neuropower, the body’s importance is reduced and subsumed by the brain and mind. The brain,  as understood here, is not restricted to the bony carapace of the skull (as cognitivists would have  us believe) but is a situated complex that extends into the socio-political-cultural-ecological  milieu with which it coevolves. Changes in the external milieu are mirrored in the architectural  composition of the brain through a process that Bernard Stiegler referred to as exosomatic  organogenesis, a process in which technical rather than genetic evolution is at the core of the  liberation and perfection of organ systems, especially the brain. In this model, the brain is a  diverse, variable, rhizomatic, intensive, becoming entity in constant transformation.  Consciousness is no longer understood as something restricted to, and most elegantly formed in,  humankind, but rather is traced into the deep history of inorganic matter and shared with plants  and animals in non-hierarchical alignments.  

From this starting point, “Art and Cognitive Activism” features artists, architects, art historians,  and philosophers using their own practices, materials, histories, and apparatuses to unveil the 

mysteries of this becoming brain model. In fact, the power of art is its special alliance with the  sensory, perceptual, and cognitive as a source of emancipation, magic, and diversity in  contradistinction to cognitive neuroscientific models of aesthetics in which the brain becomes a  map or model of data points subject to forms of institutionalization, normalization, and  demystification. Here, cognitive activism becomes evident as a reaction and form of dissensus  against these conservatisms. Key to this conference is Catherine Malabou’s entreaty that the  brain is our work and we have the capacity to make our own brains if we have the fortitude to do  so. As Victoria Pitts-Taylor writes in her book The Brain’s Body (2016); “Although it is not  framed as such in scientific accounts, the plastic, social brain also reveals neurobiology to be  political—that is, capable of change and transformation, and open to social structures and their  contestation.” 

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Scientists in studios. Artists in labs.