Psychologist, digital artist square off on the nature of experience

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

The next Bronowski Art & Science Forum will feature an illustrated conversation about the nature of experience between UCSD psychology professor Piotr Winkielman and digital video artist Jennifer Steinkamp, 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, in the auditorium at the Neurosciences Institute, 1640 John Jay Hopkins Drive.

Founder/director Ron Newby calls the Forum series “entertainment for the intellectually curious.” There’s no charge for the talks, presenters receive no honorariums, and audience interaction is welcomed at the end of each program.

While the original Forums took place at the Salk Institute, for the past several years, the venue has been the 352-seat auditorium at the Neurosciences Institute. Now, after 13 years and 120 programs, the Bronowski Forum may be coming to an end. With the Scripps Research Institute resumes control of the building, there will be a rental fee of $1,500 for the auditorium that so many organizations have been able to use free of charge.

To date, Newby has not managed to find funding for future Forums, which means the Sept. 6 program could be the last.

The Forum, began in 1999, and was named for Jacob Bronowski (1908–1974), a prominent mathematician, biologist, and humanist who was associate director of the Institute in its first decade.

Before the Institute was even built, Dr. Jonas Salk invited Bronowski to be part of it, knowing that a man with his breadth of interests would be a great help in creating the kind of place Salk envisioned — a grand agora where scientists and artists could meet, share ideas, and form new kinds of cross-disciplinary collaborations.

Best known for his BBC-TV documentary series “The Ascent of Man,” Bronowski was described by his wife, Rita, as “an extraordinarily whole person ... a thinking man ... [who] treated art and science as the same expression of the human imagination.” Rita Bronowski, who attended most of the Forum events until her death two years ago, was present at the 100th Forum in January, 2009, which was also a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacob Bronowski, and featured their daughter, Lisa Jardine, professor or Renaissance Studies at the University of London.

Newby, of Del Mar, had the opportunity to share many conversations with Bronowski and Salk during his 27 years as a researcher in genetics at the Institute.

“It was these two men who inspired me to continue the tradition of healing the separation between art and science that was set in motion when Jonas Salk invited Jacob Bronowski to the Salk Institute,” he said. “After observing what seemed to me a distancing from Bronowski’s sensibility, the Forum was my modest attempt to recreate the spirit that came about during the Salk-Bronowski era.”

In next week’s program, the sciences will be represented by Piotr Winkielman, an experimental psychologist who, like Bronowski, was born in Poland. He’s been part of UCSD’s faculty since 2003, and his research explores the “interplay between emotion, cognition and consciousness.”

Los Angeles-based artist Jennifer Steinkamp, whose digital projections transform architectural spaces, is best known here for “Madame Curie,” her large-scale installation recently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego downtown. A panoramic, seven-channel projection (inspired by her research into atomic energy and explosions and their effects on nature), the piece turned the walls of a 4,500-square-foot gallery into meadows of swaying flowers, drawn from a list of plants that the discoverer of radium and radioactivity loved.

Don’t miss the Winkielman-Steinkamp conversation. It may be a long time before you hear this kind of talk again.

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