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A Brainiac Amour

A Brain Blog from the inside of the Jill Bolte Taylor Brain Extravaganza!
By David Ebbinghouse

This story begins and ends with brain trauma. It started when Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist at Harvard, suffered a hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996. A stroke wiped out her previous sense of self and left her in a nirvana like state of consciousness as her awareness shifted itself into the right hemisphere of her brain. It left her unable to walk, talk, read, write, or to coherently recall any of her former life. Brain surgery removed the golf ball sized blood clot and

Fortunately, due in part to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and reroute connections between neurons), as well to Dr. Taylor’s almost superhuman determination and perseverance, eight years later she had made a remarkable recovery.
She wrote her book My Stroke of Insight, dedicating her new self to the task of promoting brain health a greater appreciation of the right hemisphere of the brain. This is the creative and intuitive side of the mind, the side that is often suppressed in our logical and reasoned world. For an artist such as me, this is familiar territory. I have been on a lifelong quest of my own to unite the two sides of my mind in synergistic collusion.

Art and Science

In case you have somehow missed it, let me briefly recount the success Dr. Taylor has achieved in her mission: Her book was a New York Times best seller; she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show several times; she was listed in Time magazine’s 100 most important people. Jodie Foster will portray her in a movie directed by Ron Howard.
Her TED talk has gone viral on the internet. If you listen to her online you will find that she is much more than a motivational speaker. She speaks from the heart, but she also speaks from the brain–and from regions of the brain that you are going to want to utilize for yourself if you have not already done so. She speaks to the potential that each of us possesses but that which is not often fully realized. She has become an artist as well as a scientist. She has also become wise and quite simply, a phenomenon.

So here is where I come into the picture. Jill started Jill Bolte Taylor BRAINS, Inc. and working with Joe LaMantia, sculpted a three-by-five foot anatomically correct “Mother Brain” from which she had 22 fiberglass replicas fashioned. Sponsors were found to fund the fabrication of the brains and the word was out for artists to make proposals based from theme words from the sponsors. I looked over the information and didn’t make a proposal. As a “research” artist I am not too interested in illustrating the ideas of others, preferring to make my own discoveries rather than producing “products.” To tell you the truth, I am not much interested in submitting proposals. It’s not that I can’t stand rejection; I’m used to that. It’s just the sheer amount of time wasted drawing up plans that are never going to go anywhere seems a shame. It’s better for me to just pursue my own interests and pay for it all out of my own pocket. The bureaucratic approach is just too inefficient. But then I got a call from Joe.

I’ve worked with Joe LaMantia before and I have a healthy respect for what he does. His collaborative work is more interesting to me than the actual things that get made (although that guitar on the side of the parking garage is awesome indeed)! The way he constructs communities to accomplish the art works is where I see the real meaning of his work. So when he calls me up to participate, I have to listen.

He told me they had a few unclaimed brains up for grabs. Did I have any interest? The expense allotment was $1,000 and the deadline for completion a little over two months away. Well, I wasn’t that interested. Then he said that he would just read some of the names and themes to me to see if anything caught my ear. “Dr. David Lawler’s Pain and Sleep Clinic. Pain….Sleep.”

“OK stop. I’ll call you back in a half hour.”

Hmmmm. Not my kind of project. Not open ended enough. Not enough funding to do anything very ambitious. Certainly not enough pay to work for two months on something. Too literal and too much about brains and not enough about art. But “Pain” and “Sleep.” Something primal and mysterious there, that’s for sure. Now my right brain is off and running and it’s too late–I’m in!

The two concepts could be united through a symbol system. The zig-zag could be the raw sensory input. If one saw it as a “Z,” that could represent “sleep” and that same motif could be a lightening bolt and that could pierce the brain to be “pain.” If the “Z’s” were hung around the brain in tiers, you’d get a somatic referent (“hanging limply”) and if they graduated from gray to black, that would be like drifting off to sleep…I called Joe back and he said Jill would call me to discuss my ideas. Great! I always prefer a dialogue.

Talking to Jill was easy. I heard something in her voice immediately that I could relate to and felt that I’d already known her for a long time. Karma, fate, or destiny was already giving me the go ahead even before Jill approved my ideas and that’s how I became a brainiac for Jill Bolte Taylor.

Neural Networks

I called my nephew, Connor Ebbinghouse, who was a freshman at IU studying art and theater set design. Connor had watched me do many art projects while he was growing up and had taken an interest. He had absorbed so much of my approach to working that I hardly had to explain anything to him. This would be a great chance for him to get some experience and for me to get a top notch assistant. So we went to work getting our brain built. We worked in a big warehouse along the back of Stone Belt Arc. Joe was familiar with the space and the shop equipment and functioned as a project foreman in addition to working on two brains.

There were many old friends from the Bloomington art community working there and it was an opportunity to be involved in their projects as well. Lots of interactions and problem solving as we all pitched in to get the work done. There were new faces as well and new friendships were formed. It was the brain metaphor: we formed a kind of neural network with each cell communicating with the others, transferring information and adding to it as it went around. Jill would come around from time to time checking up and offering encouragement and to collaborate on the Lotus Music brain with Merridee LaMantia. I worked alongside of painter Robin Ripley. I got to see her brain in all the stages of its development, painted on both sides with branching networks that were the arteries feeding the brain on one side, and on the other those same structures were a dense grove of trees in a forest. The amount of work that went into this brain was tremendous. I named it “The Most Beautiful Brain” and I think that it would stand up in any museum anywhere the world. It is truly an awesome work of art. I couldn’t resist telling Jill that I thought she really got a bargain on that brain! Many of the brains impressed me, all were interesting, and the diversity was exciting.

Then it was time to launch the 22 brains from the Bloomington High School South gym, but before that, I had the proud moment of seeing my brain front and center outside the Indiana University Auditorium for the performance of Young Frankenstein. I was flanked by “The Most Beautiful Brain” and Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Teaching Brain.” The crowd responded immediately to the iconic nature of the brain imagery—the lightening bolts were perfect!—and my outward radiating bolts really commanded the space and provided the proper scale for it to really grab attention. These same elements kept our brain from fitting through the doors at the brain launch at Bloomington High School South so our brain remained outside where it became the perfect beacon to draw the crowd to the proper entrance. I was surprised by how many people attended, but not by how enthusiastic they were.

Brain Damage

Now my brain is installed between the Auditorium and the Fine Arts Building just off Showalter Plaza. What a great location! But this location was to be a distinct disadvantage when graduation weekend rolled around. About 3:00 a.m. on that Saturday night there were 100 celebrating youths cavorting in and around the fountain. One of them, a 22-year-old male, was arrested because he was riding one of the bronze fish in the fountain, rocking back and forth until it broke off at the base. When IU Police Officers arrived, the crowd dispersed.

Apparently, there was collateral damage. I was totally unaware of what had happened until I started getting messages on my Facebook page on Monday. Connor sent me a message saying he had heard that two of the lightening bolts had been wrenched off. Then I found out that three of them had been broken off. Someone found one of them on campus and made arrangements for me to retrieve it. There were lots of sympathetic posts on my Facebook page (after all, they’re my friends). It wasn’t surprising to me that the brain was vandalized. Alcohol plus testosterone plus crowd (mob?) equals brain damage. But too bad it happened so soon after completion.

I wish more people could have had the opportunity to see it undamaged. It’s not an easy fix and there is no budget for repair and what’s to prevent it from getting damaged again? Sure enough, within the week another bolt was broken off. Now the “pain” reference has been made too literal. Our attachments run deep. Even though I had “let go” and half expected the vandalism, it was a little surprising to find that no matter how calmly one can accept the assault, there is still a little piece of one’s self that is destroyed along with the integrity of the art work. Brain damage is always sad.

On my Facebook page, I got a lot of questions to the effect of: “How could someone do such a thing? Don’t they know how much work it took to make? What makes it so appealing to destroy?” The obvious answer is The Power. If one feels powerless and not in control of one’s circumstances, then it becomes very enticing to feel, if even for an instant, a sense of power and control. There is a satisfaction in smashing. But what about conscience and shame? Wouldn’t that be enough to stop someone? Once the inhibitions are eliminated, whether from intoxication or narcissism, impulses are immediately expressed. Regret might arise later, but too late to deter the impulse. There’s no space at that moment to contemplate the negative effects that action might have to one’s self or to others. There’s no attempt to overcome the wish to do a negative action, because at that moment, there is no perception that the action is negative. It’s just exciting and irresistible. So it’s really not so hard to understand.

I don’t see art as objects and the creation of objects; I see art as process. Whatever happens is all part of the process. Whenever there is “Public Art” placed outside the privileged space of the museum or the gallery– in other words, where it doesn’t belong– the public is going to react. We hope they will react positively. But when they react negatively, we (artists) feel it sharply. We have held up the mirror to our community and what we see in that mirror may not be to our liking but it is a reflection of things as they really are. We have to accept that all things are impermanent and that change is inevitable. Things may fall apart, but energy is continuous. The intent behind the project is unchanged. At the bottom of the emails Jill sends me is the slogan: ”Take responsibility for the energy you bring to this space.” Yes. Take responsibility.

We all have some idea of what human nature is, and what we might want it to be. This Brain Extravaganza is meant to put us more in touch with our brains and with our human potential. Wouldn’t it be great if we were to become more familiar with what is going on inside our brains and in the process become friends with our own minds?

Greeting from Bloomington, IN!

While few people associate “big brains” with “politician,” this mayor is smart enough to be pleased and proud his city is home to Brain Extravaganza!

Brain Extravaganza! represents all the best of Bloomington – our eclectic nature, creativity, commitment to cause, and sense of fun. The City of Bloomington is a very happy supporter of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and her new nonprofit, Jill Bolte Taylor BRAINS, Inc. Choosing to participate was, pardon the obvious, a no-brainer.
Jill Bolte Taylor BRAINS, Inc., promotes brain awareness, appreciation, and education about the brain. Brain Extravaganza! celebrates the idea that the more we understand about the brain, the more we are inclined to take care of it. And that’s the Bloomington way — taking a serious subject and generating awareness about it in a whimsical way. And it’s all done with an eye toward improving the human condition. There are 10 other cities in the United States named “Bloomington.” I’m sure they all have something to offer – if you like that kind of thing… But our Bloomington offers unparalleled big city amenities with small town charm.

With the presence of Indiana University’s flagship campus, Bloomington is forever young. At any point in time, more than 50% of our population is younger than age 21. We are literally an ageless community. The culture, cuisine, and community character reflect our unique demographic mix.

Bloomington, Indiana, maintains its youth but values its past. Old buildings are transformed into corporate and government headquarters. Abandoned railways take on new life as community trails spurring private development along their path. Historic landmarks are leveraged as marketable commodities.
Our city’s economic development strategy centers on the notion that quality of life is synonymous with economic vitality. Public and private investment spark infrastructure improvements and amenities not commonly found in peer cities.

Brain Extravaganza! certainly aims to contribute to improved quality of life. And beyond that laudable purpose, the project also contributes to the local economy by serving as yet another arts attraction that serves as a magnet for visitors.

As Jill points out, more than 350 communities worldwide have placed fiberglass animals or objects on public display. It was the well-known Chicago cows that inspired Dr. Taylor to conceive, “how cool it would be to have gigantic, beautiful, and anatomically correct brains on display all around the world.”

And my favorite part of the project can be found in its Statement of Purpose, “Dr. Taylor thought it would be really healthy for many diverse interest sectors within our city to work together to manifest a project as cool as brains on our street corners. Healthy brains are healthy because they share a lot of connections between their neurons, and Dr. Taylor believes a healthy community mimics that structure.” Our high quality of life, creative spirit, and desire to maintain our uniqueness makes Bloomington the kind of place people want to visit, live, work and start a business.
Bloomington is an experience. Brain Extravaganza! is an experience within an experience!

Mark Kruzan, Mayor
City of Bloomington, Indiana