Scratching the edge of consciousness

How is it walking in a waking dream? How to picture a thought? How does stream-of-consciousness look like? Imagine the gothic elements from Wuthering Heights or the grimmest of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales coming to life – how would that look like? Head over to the Wellcome Collection and find out (there’s an uber-cool exhibition titled ‘States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness’ – on until October 2016, so you have plenty of time to revisit and revisit it again). Or, at least, get some bits and pieces of inspiration as to which direction to start digging for answer as the subject matter per se does not guarantee one right answer but it does set your mind into a spinning-wheel of ideas which might as well lead towards some great ideas.

Biology, philosophy, art and folklore come together to show the similarities and differences of each discipline’s understanding of a range of mental phenomena, from nightmarish hallucinations to the way memories define the self. What is the nature of consciousness and what can happen when our typical conscious experience is interrupted, damaged or undermined?  Somnambulism, synaesthesia and several other disorders of memory and consciousness come in handy to explore this.

On a crumpled sheet of tin foil lies an odd assortment of plasticine. One (suspiciously!!) looks like the footprint of a chicken, another like a deformed pot. There’s also a large, red lump that bears nothing else than a passing resemblance to a gammon joint. I tried to find a label on the display case for some more information – in vain. There is no label. It could be, in fact, part of a determined effort by a great scientist to explore one of the most curious facets of being: consciousness.  With the author’s consciousness gone, there are no words left and the viewer is left to their own consciousness to grab onto. This, in part, allegedly fills visitors with a sense of wonder.

Nightmare and the gothic go hand in hand – and here’s how. Hearing some of the contemporary accounts of hypnogogia collected by the artist Carla Mackinnon, and soundtracked in the gallery on a whispering loop, is like listening to the opening chapter of Wuthering Heights. Footage from a sleep lab reveals disturbing CCTV of the nocturnal thrashings of a man who suffered from REM behaviour disorder, which caused him to physically act out his dreams every night. Like a character from the Brothers Grimm, his solution for eight years had been to tie himself to his bedposts before sleep, to avoid attacking his wife.

The final section ‘Being/Not Being’ is actually in a sense quite disturbing. It’s a film consisting of three chapters each told from a different perspective to explore the care, personal stories and ethics of acting for patients who have disorders of consciousness.  As you watch, you can’t help but notice and observe how your own emotions change (the first chapter is quite voyeuristic and even exploitative in a way, the second is quite sad, but the final one makes you question your own reactions to the first two!) and the only way to control them would be to leave the room. Not advisable. As this tumultous spinning-wheel immeasurably adds to the whole experience of the exhibition as the whole.

There’s also a series of photographs with a unifying theme: shopping malls. Sounds quite ordinary? Not if all adults have been erased by Photoshop.

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