UH’s ‘Color Field’ experiment merges visual art and brain science

On a blustery Tuesday morning earlier this month, nine University of Houston students and their professor, Jose L. Contreras-Vidal, ventured into “Color Field,” a sprawling on-campus maze of large-scale sculptures of seven contemporary artists. The exhibit spans from Wilhelmina’s Grove in the Arts District to the areas surrounding the Ezekiel W. Cullen Building, Butler Plaza, and Lynn Eusan Park.

Everyone wore two unique accessories: a black movable brain-body imaging helmet and a face mask. The latter is for health and safety reasons in accordance with current COVID-19 guidelines; a student abandoned the excursion after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. The first helped the remaining nine participants record their brainwaves as they contemplated and interacted with “Color Field.” Handheld smart tablets illustrated and interpreted their brain activity in real time.

“It’s a new course. It’s interesting how the two fields, engineering and art, are combined,” said Akshay Ravindran, an electrical and computer engineering student currently enrolled in UH’s doctoral program. “My research is related to interpretable artificial intelligence, the idea behind it all.”

By studying how the human brain responds to and processes art, Ravindran and his peers hope to gain data that will decode the intention behind movement. The end goal is to develop technology that would allow people who have suffered a stroke or spinal cord injury to regain use of their limb – with brain power.

What: The project was organized in partnership with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas for the Houston University Public Art System and runs through May 2021. This is the inaugural exhibition and curated outdoor sculpture presented at UH and Public Art UHS’ sophmore project as part of the Temporary Public Art Program.

Or: University of Houston

Details: Free entry; uhsystem.edu/public-art/color-field/.

“I worked with their professor, Contreras-Vidal, on how our brains respond to art,” says Maria C. Gaztambide, director and chief curator of public art at the University of Houston System. “They use the technology to measure cognition and perception, then go back to the lab and analyze the results.”

Contreras-Vidal says his lab, which focuses on noninvasive brain-machine interface systems and neuroprostheses, has created an algorithm that uses brain signals as input to generate commands from robots, computers and virtual avatars.

“We want to restore movement in people with disabilities by focusing on detecting movement intention,” he said. “When we move, we communicate. This technology allows us to anticipate. If you are thinking of walking, a (prosthetic) skeleton will help you walk again.

It’s rare to see two different areas of the brain talking to each other like that, Contreras-Vidal added. “We hope that in the future we can customize the mode and form of art – music, dance and creative movement – to suit a person’s specific physical needs. We can use art to access these parts of the brain.

Against the cloudy and gray background of the weather, the saturated pastels and primary hues of “Color Field” appeared in high definition. Nearly two dozen outdoor artworks from the university’s permanent collection were also on display.

Overall, the experience was intended as a self-guided tour, but the NeroHumanities researchers and their instructor are away on official business, so UHS Public Art Curator Michael Guidry , was appointed to lead the way.

The artists featured in the temporary exhibition – Sarah Braman, Jeffie Brewer, Odili Donald Odita, Sam Falls, Spencer Finch and TYPOE – were inspired by the term “color field painting”, a form of abstraction that emerged in the 1950s and 1960 characterized by the intensive application of color on flat surfaces. Their works extended beyond the modernist one-dimensional canvas into real space. Amos Cochran’s auditory soundscape enhanced the sensory experience.

Brewer, originally from Nacogdoches, played with recognizable shapes influenced by pop culture and his own irreverent sense of humor. It has six sculptures on display in total, including the candy pink “Big Sexy” and the cerulean “Kitty”.

A number of students lingered under Finch’s “Back to Kansas,” a grid made up of 70 color blocks drawn for the artist’s repeated viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.” When viewed at sunset (for at least 30 minutes) the squares change from vibrant to grayscale, the play’s notes explain that the change is not an illusion, but an effect of the response from the eye to color and light over time.

“It was a fun experience to get out there and study the different artistic elements,” Ravindran said.

He’s worked on similar studies in the past, though these measured the brain activity of people walking through museums. Now he and his comrades are out in the elements, which, in Houston, means considering how weather and humidity affect mood and other emotion-related responses.

“We collected data and backed it up,” he says. “Now the next puzzle is to take a look and try to figure out if something happened.”