In a nutshell: Artworks combining textiles and neuroscience explore the connection – and the potential disconnect – between the brain’s internal and external worlds.

A novel collaboration between a textile artist and a Brain Function CoE neuroscientist has led to artwork exploring how the brain’s predictive processes are linked to mental health.

Queensland artist Chrys Zantis has worked with neuroscientist Marta Garrido and her team since May 2019, first at the Queensland Brain Institute and now as an Artist in Residence at the University of Melbourne.

Garrido’s research investigates the brain’s ability to process sensory information and make predictions about future events. Creating a predictive model of the outside world – and updating it when necessary – helps the brain to process large amounts of information more efficiently. It also helps the brain to react quickly and flexibly to unexpected events.

In some conditions, such as anxiety and schizophrenia, the brain’s predictive processes are disrupted. Investigating how prediction works could therefore help researchers understand more about how or why some mental health disorders arise.

Zantis regularly visited the Garrido lab to observe the team as they worked. After watching the researchers conduct an experiment using the ‘oddball’ task – which tests what happens when the brain encounters something unexpected or out of the ordinary – the artist took inspiration from the electroencephalography (EEG) electrode cap. The researchers use EEG to measure brain activity during the experiment. The cap makes it easier to fix the EEG electrodes to a person’s scalp.

Using broken EEG caps provided by the lab, Zantis created an elaborate headdress combining anatomical features of the brain with elements of haute couture. In Beneath the Surface, photographs of a model wearing the headdress illustrate the sensory and social disruptions that people with mental health issues experience in everyday life.

A second series of textile and photographic works, Inside Out, pairs the headdress with other wearable art. Zantis incorporated gold fairy lights into a knitted bodice and embroidered skirt to represent what she describes as the “gold rush” of scientific discovery, and ideas “glimmering and glistening like grains of gold in a swirling gold pan.”

Artwork from both these series was presented at the 9th Annual Scientific Meeting of Biological Psychiatry Australia, held at the Melbourne Brain Centre in October 2019. It was also exhibited at the Australasian Neuroscience Society’s annual conference in Adelaide in December 2019.

Beneath the Surface and Inside Out are currently on show in the artist’s studio in Brisbane. Zantis is continuing to make work in response to the Garrido team’s research.

Next steps:
Chrys Zantis has received funding from the Queensland Regional Arts Development Fund to produce a film documentary on this collaboration. In addition, her headdress, and possibly images, will form part of a dance project organised by Marta Garrido in collaboration with the Victorian College of Arts.

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An image from Beneath the Surface. Photographer: Heidi Reed