At the UCSF Memory and Aging Center (MAC), we are very privileged to have the Hellman Visiting Artist program, a unique project created to foster dialogue between scientists, caregivers, patients, clinicians and the public regarding creativity and the brain. The program allows us to invite an accomplished artist (visual artist, musician, writer or other creative individual) to visit the MAC each year to learn about neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia. We encourage a creative exchange between the artist and the researchers, as well as interactions with patients and families who agree to participate. The Visiting Artist also shares their creativity with the larger community through a public performance.

Our first visiting artist was Deborah Aschheim, a visual artist known for her works using light and video to create impressions of the neurological structures that make us who we are. As her residency draws to end this month, we caught up with her to ask her about her experience.

Deborah, how would you describe your work to people?

Deborah Aschheim

Deborah Aschheim

I used to have a good “one-liner”… I told people I made nervous systems for buildings, which was true until 2006. Usually now I tell people that my work is about memory, trying to understand it from both a personal and emotional subjective perspective and from a more empirical and scientific point of view:  What is memory and what is forgetting? How does it function and why is it so important in maintaining the self and giving meaning to human experiences?

I make installations, drawings and sculptures, and I sometimes do more experimental activities, often in collaboration with musicians, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, but all the works are aimed at exploring these same questions in diverse forms.

What drew you into exploring memory, experience, perception and neuroscience?

For a long time I have been interested in the feelings of connection and disconnection between the interior experiences of perception, thought and memory and the physical world of bodies, buildings and machines. I have always been interested in the idea of an invisible layer of the world made of molecules, cells, light or sound waves, electrical or neural pathways, and networks or coding systems. In particular, I am concerned with the difficulty of reconciling a scientific understanding of these networks and structures, the idea of the body as a kind of complex machine, with a more complex humanity – the way I personally feel and think and exist in the world. All of these ideas lead back to trying to understand the brain and neuroscience.

In our family, we have a fairly pronounced history of dementia. On my mother’s side, I witnessed the slow erasure of some of my relatives, their gradual loss of language and their selves. Because of my family history, my questions about memory, the self and these ideas’ relationship to the brain and medical body and the diseases that can end all this thinking and remembering, took on a personal urgency.

I think neuroscience is unavoidably fascinating because it is a place in the human experience where science and humanity intersect so unavoidably. The complex metaphysical questions of who are we, what is the meaning of our life stories and social existence, are inseparably wedded to the structure and function of the brain. When I learn something new, I actually create new connections in my brain, and if my brain cells are killed by disease or trauma, that knowledge is lost. It’s a simple idea and at the same time, hard to really grasp its implications.

How did you get to know Dr. Bruce Miller and the UCSF Memory and Aging Center?

"Eye Tracking" (2010, plastic, LEDs) video sculpture for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center by Deborah Aschheim

"Eye Tracking" (2010, plastic, LEDs) video sculpture for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center by Deborah Aschheim

I was doing a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, an outstanding artist colony in Marin, and I came into San Francisco for a party. I met Rosalie Gearhart at the party – we have mutual friends, and they asked me, “What are you working on at the art colony?” I told them, “My new work is about memory,” and they told me, “You have to meet Rosalie; she works at the Memory and Aging Center!”

I started observing at Friday clinic, and I gave Dr. Miller one of my exhibition catalogs and showed him some of my work. After I had been coming to the MAC for a little while, I realized it is such a unique program because people from across different disciplines in science and medicine all come together to diagnose these complicated diseases. It was an integrated and translational model like I had never seen before. Also, maybe this is Dr. Miller’s influence or something that just draws people to the Bay Area, but all the doctors and scientists I met had a strong interest in the arts and music. The UCSF MAC seemed like the perfect program to have an artist in residence because of the open mindedness to all kinds of creative thinking here.

What was it like to be an artist in a medical and scientific setting?

In my initial proposal to Dr. Miller and Rosalie, I said I wanted to try to make a connection between the clinical program and the various and diverse research projects of the MAC, which are also physically dispersed across the city, from Parnassus to Mission Bay to the satellite locations. Sometimes there were challenges – for example, the building codes in a hospital are a lot more rigorous than those in a regular public building, so making art for the hospital required a lot of meetings. And, compared to other residencies I’ve done, people at UCSF are incredibly busy, so it has been really a gift when people have time to sit down with me and share aspects of their research.

Detail of "Eye Tracking" sculpture for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center Clinic by Deborah Aschheim, 2010; videos by Indre Viskontas and Deborah Aschheim

Detail of "Eye Tracking" sculpture for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center Clinic by Deborah Aschheim, 2010; videos by Indre Viskontas and Deborah Aschheim

In general, this experience has been like having an opportunity to go to an amazing medical school where I have access to the top researchers in their fields, personally explaining their leading edge research to me and introducing me to patients who help me to understand what the medical diagnosis means in the lives of a real person. I am learning from people who are so knowledgeable about their subject that they are able to communicate it in terms that I can comprehend even though my background is in the arts and humanities. The doctors and researchers have been incredibly generous with their time, and I have had the privilege of being treated like a colleague at UCSF. My vision for the residency was that having a visiting artist would help make new connections between different specialties, help communicate the research program to the patient and caregiver community, and encourage creative thinking in general.

What surprised you?

I am constantly surprised by the patients, they move and inspire me. I am continually impressed by people who are facing a diagnosis that is incredibly hard news to hear, and yet their first thought is often, “How can I get involved with the research program so I can help prevent other people from having to go through this?” and “How can I help others?” My friend Lisa Mezzacappa, who is a very talented musician that I’ve been collaborating with on my projects at UCSF and beyond, has gone with me to visit some patients in their homes, to try to get to know the patients as people outside of the hospital. We’ve been amazed at their resilience, their determination to get everything they can out of life even if their world is changing, and more than anything, we’ve been moved by the caregivers, and the way that the families of MAC patients support them and want to understand what they are going through.

What is next?

I am lucky to have received a fellowship from the California Community Foundation that allows me to focus on my work for a little while, and I am also artist-in-residence for Oasis Adult Education Center in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles this fall – this is a program funded through the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs division that will fund a series of memory based workshops for Los Angeles seniors – we’re working on artist’s books!

I’ve also been invited to be artist-in-residence at Orange County Great Park, and I want to develop a project for the community that has to do with collective memory of Nixon and the Vietnam era, seen through the lens of 2011.

Also, I have three exhibitions this fall:

Some City Angels
Works by Deborah Aschheim, Adam Berg, Wilder Buck, Kate Harding, Elana Mann, R. Nelson Parrish, Alex Slade and Chris Wilder
Curated by Marlena Doktorczyk-Donohue

September 10 – October 29, 2011

Edward Cella Art and Architecture
6018 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90036

Deborah Aschheim: feeling-of-knowing with Lisa Mezzacappa
Five-year survey of works by Los Angeles-area artist Deborah Aschheim

September 20 – December 3, 2011

University Art Gallery
San Diego State University
San Diego, California

Hiding Places: Memory in the Arts
Through December 2011

John Michael Kohler Arts Center
608 New York Avenue
Sheboygan, Wisconsin 53081


Anything else?

I need to give a shout out to some the tireless and talented researchers who have been collaborating with Lisa and me on our projects. Indre Viskontas is a fantastic MAC resource who divides her energy between neuroscience and the arts. She has been an active participant in many aspects of the residency, from setting up fMRI experiments exploring language and art in the brain, to providing actual research data that I used to make artworks. I also need to thank Jyoti Mishra Ramanathan who is a MAC postdoc and helped design, conduct and interpret some experiments we did recording EEG brain activity.

I hope I am not leaving people out – in addition to Rosalie Gearhart and Dr. Miller, I would like to express my gratitude to the Adam Gazzaley and Adam Boxer labs, Eric Sullivan and Matthew Growdon, Victor Laluz, Kia Nesmith at the Berkeley Psychophysiology Laboratory of the Institute of Personality & Social Research, University of California, Berkeley, Tremaine Thomas, Sarah Bangs and Caroline Latham for their help and participation with my projects. And above all, I want to thank the Hellman Family Foundation for their support of the visiting artist program at the Memory and Aging Center.

Jyoti Mishra Ramanathan looking at "EEG Network" by Deborah Aschheim, 2010, LEDs and plastic, Gazzaley Lab, UCSF Memory and Aging Center, Mission Bay

Jyoti Mishra Ramanathan looking at "EEG Network" by Deborah Aschheim, 2010, LEDs and plastic, Gazzaley Lab, UCSF Memory and Aging Center, Mission Bay