“I never went to medical school to become a doctor. I went to medical school to be a more proficient artist.”
Warren Neidich is a conceptual artist based in Berlin and Los Angeles. He currently works with video and neon to create conceptual text-based art that explores the intersection of art, science, and social justice. His neon sculpture “Pizzagate Neon” was displayed at the 2019 Venice Biennial. Prior to dedicating himself to his art full-time, Neidich went to medical school and became an ontologist. His background in medicine and neuroscience are direct sources of inspiration for his art and in 1996, he founded artbrain.org and the Journal of Neuroaesthetics. He is a recipient of the Vilem Flusser Theory Award, Transmediale, AHRB/ACE Arts and Science Research Fellowship, Bristol and a Fulbright Scholarship. He is also the founder and director of the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art, a theory intensive postgraduate course in Los Angeles, New York City and Berlin.
TGL: How was your childhood?
WN: I grew up between New York City and Armonk, New York, a little town north of the city. I grew up in a natural, bucolic setting with a lake in the back of our house called North Lake. I did a huge project on that in 2003/2004. My mother always said that it would be given to us when they passed away. One of the things that I feel guilty about is that when my father and mother passed, the situation was such that we decided to sell this house. About three years later, I was driving to Bedford with Elena. I said to her, "I'd really like to show you my house where I grew up," I made the usual right turn and followed North Lane Road, which usually leads to North Lake Road. There's this steep hill that you climb up and when you come down that hill, you can see across the lake to where my house was. When I looked, I had a strange feeling. I looked down to where the house had been, and it was completely gone. The people had torn down this gorgeous modernist house and erected the most horrible McMansion you could imagine.
In 2002, before all this happened, I visited my father a lot. He worked until he was 84 years old. All of a sudden, in one year, he went from a man with tremendous energy and vision to someone who was bedridden and in a wheelchair. I realized that the whole story with the house was over. I had to preserve my memories in some way, so I did this project called Law of Loci, which is one of my most important projects. I'm publishing bits and pieces in a new book with photography that Hubert Von Alexson is publishing and editing for me.
TGL: What did you do when you were a child?
WN: I was the youngest in the family and my mother's favorite. My brothers were much older, and were rough with me. Some of the great memories I have of my family life are playing wiffle ball. It is like baseball except you use a plastic ball with holes. The holes on the top of it allow you to learn how to throw it so you can get tremendous effects. You can have a curveball that really curves. When you're from France, you don't know anything about baseball, but we played endlessly together. I became a good baseball player because of it and played throughout high school.
I was also an avid fisherman. I would wake up in the morning and smell the lake. One of the things that I did to get my father's attention was to go fishing in the mornings and catch fish that he would eat.
TGL: What led you to do photography?
WN: My mother used to take me to New York City. We lived in Bedford, but we also had a little apartment on 55th Street on the East Side. She had to take me when she went shopping at her favorite department store Bonwit Telle. They had huge dressing rooms which only women could go to, so she would leave me at the Witkin Gallery, the most important photography gallery on 57th Street. They had the most amazing library of photographic books. She said, "I want you to look at these books and learn all the pictures." I have no idea why she did this, but I learned the history of photography by going through this library of books. Consequently, I started taking pictures.
I was expelled from school for being a radical activist and mobilizing the entire school to leave class to take part in a demonstration to commemorate the Kent State Massacre. My parents were so unhappy that I got expelled that I had to go to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist told me that I was bored, that I had too much time on my hands. My parents bought me a camera so that I would have a hobby.
TGL: Why did you decide to study medicine?
WN: In high school, I was president of my human relations club and started a school to teach children how to read in Mount Vernon, which was a Black area of Westchester. I was class president, I was captain of my sports teams. I did all these things, but I was also tremendously rebellious. I was the movie critic of my high school newspaper, and I wrote about a film called More by Barbet Schroeder, a famous German experimental cinematographer from the 1970s. It was about 20-year-olds experimenting with drugs in Morocco. It was all about doing more and more heroin, and in the end they commit suicide or die. I wrote in my school newspaper that all the students should go see this movie, so I was expelled.
I ended up not getting into any of the schools I wanted to go to because the guidance counselors wrote against me. The one school that did take me was Washington University in St. Louis, which turns out to be a good school. I studied psychology, but then I got interested in art. I ended up double majoring in art and psychology. Then I read about Andre Breton and many of the surrealists, who were my favorite artists at that time. Many of them were involved in medicine, Breton was a medic on the battlefield. It makes sense if you think about surrealism, because it is about embodiment into the body and dreaming. I thought neuroscience would be the best way to explore the brain and new possibilities for art. The whole idea of being an artist is to explore new terrains and to follow your own interests. When you follow your own interests, it leads you into unusual places. I never went to medical school to become a doctor. I went to medical school to be a more proficient artist, to explore artistic possibilities that other artists could never imagine. I ended up studying neuroscience at Caltech with Roger Sperry, the Nobel Prize winner in neurobiology. I did that for one year and then transferred.
TGL: Did you practice medicine?
WN: I was just on the way to getting a PhD in Neuroscience, but then I transferred from Caltech to New York Medical School and got a medical degree. It was a special program that you can do in three years. During this time, I was interested in photography. I had a couple of exhibitions in Soho galleries when I was in medical school. I got caught up in getting good at medicine though. I ended up going to do my residency in eye surgery. I became an eye surgeon.
TGL: Did you perform eye surgeries?
WN: I have done 1,000 cataract surgeries in my life. It's a simple operation. I was a good surgeon. I also did laser. After my residency, I went to Johns Hopkins for a medical internship and then to Tulane Medical Center to get my eye surgery residency. I did my residency and then went to Paris for a year. I was the Rothschild Fellow in eye surgery at this hospital called Trousseau and studied with Dr. Aron-Rosa who did the first laser surgeries of the cornea. I went to do that with her, but it was too complicated. I didn't speak French well enough for them. Consequently, I ended up just doing my photography. I came back to America and was at New York Eye and Ear hospital. I was a clinical instructor in the department of glaucoma surgery.
TGL: Did you like being a doctor?
WN: I enjoyed being a doctor. It was a difficult decision for me to leave it. I was involved with eye surgery at New York Eye and Ear while I was exhibiting my American History Reinvented book that came out. I realized that it was opening in Pittsburgh, and I could not go. I would wake up every morning at 5am and operate starting at 7am in the operating room. I would get home around 6pm, and then I would work as an artist from 6pm and on the weekends.
TGL: Why did you decide to stop being an eye surgeon?
WN: I had amazing opportunities that I always had to say no to, because I was a pretty well-known photographer when I was an eye surgeon. My work was published everywhere. I wasn't able to enjoy any of the exhibitions that I was in, because I was constantly working. I got to the point where I started thinking that I had to make a choice because I owed it to my patients. There comes a point where if you're working in the art field, and you're really taking it seriously, something has to give. I started to slack off a little bit. It wasn't affecting my ability to do cataract surgery, because it had nothing to do with that. I was incredibly educated as an eye surgeon. But I had to make a choice.
TGL: When did you stop practicing medicine?
WN: In 1993, I was invited to go to Berlin for an artist residency. I had visited Berlin before and loved it. I stopped medicine and went to Berlin. It took me a year to find someone to take care of my patients.
TGL: How was your transition into being a full-time artist?
WN: I believed in myself as an artist, and I believed in my passion. The passion that I had for being an artist led me to where I am today. I never looked back even though my economic situation was dire. In 1993, I was living in a storage space on 70 Vandam Street. I took over a storage space and used it as a gallery and started this art foundation. Elizabeth Payne and all those people I knew were my assistants when I was an eye surgeon.
TGL: What was your experience working as an artist while also being an eye surgeon?
WN: I had a studio that was showing everywhere. We showed at: PS1, MIT List Center of Art, Photographic Resource Center, Contemporary Art Center in Pittsburgh, LACMA, Houston Center Photography. That was when my book Aperture came out in 1989, and I was still an eye surgeon. I didn't get out into the public eye as much as I should have. People thought I was a dilettante. Who was this guy? He’s an eye surgeon? It was complicated. I am now a professor of art at the Sorbonne, but I've also been a professor of medicine and clinical instructor. It's quite a journey. The performance of your life is the work of art.
In my case for sure. Especially with the kind of work I'm doing now, for instance: Cognitive Capitalism. As a doctor, you just can't do this kind of thing. Although because I have this intense education, my work tends to be esoteric. It's not mainstream. I call the field activist neuroaesthetics. There are three kinds of neuroaesthetics: positivist neuroaesthetics, idealist neuroaesthetics, and activist neuroaesthetics.
TGL: What are the three kinds of neuroaesthetics?
WN: All of the schools that are being funded with big money are doing what's called positivist neuroaesthetics, in which they are allowing science to normalize artists' productions, when it comes to the brain and the senses. They are using techniques that are in science and applying them to artistic practices or artistic results with what I think are terrible results. I'm working with the idea of positivist reductionist neuroaesthetics. I'm totally against what scientists who call themselves neuroaeticians are doing. There are departments everywhere and lots of money being spent. They don't have any idea about art really.
The idealist neuroaesthetics comes out of Gilles Deleuze ideas in which cinema can create new networks in the fields of art, but also in the brain. There is a relationship between the cultural schemata, the cultural regime, cultural habitus, and how the brain is changed. These new technologies and new capacities are internalized and become part of us. Bernard Stiegler and Gilles Deleuze ideas are part of an idealist position.
Culture has an effect on changing the brain, and those changes to the brain give us new ways of thinking and new ways of considering the world that we live in. If we look at them and understand them for what they are, they can be emancipatory. If we control and we understand the power of art, we understand that it's a political entity, because the idea of creating the possibility of new kinds of thinking is itself a political act. I'm an activist, I'm practicing activist neuroaesthetics, and I believe in it. I'm currently writing this book, my last book was called the Glossary of Cognitive Activism.
TGL: How did you create your network of ideas and people?
WN: I always had exhibition spaces which acted as a laboratory to work out experimental ideas. I love to collaborate, so these galleries usually involved other people. My collaborative exhibition space Exhibition 211 was a six-month long event space initiated by myself, Elena Bajo, Eric Angles, Jakob Schillinger and Nathalie Angles. It was established in a squatted store front at 211 Elizabeth street and over 103 artists participated like Donna Huanca, Sean Raspet, Liz Magic Laser, David Levine, Georgia Sagri, Alexandre Singh and others.
Being an artist can be isolating, so my art spaces are a cure for that. The Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art, which I initiated in 2015, was also a way to break down the isolation of being an artist as well as creating a network of like-minded intellectuals.
TGL: Do you see people as your medium?
WN: I love to teach, and I love students. It's a way for me to continue learning. I would never have been able to write my Glossary of Cognitive Activism, had I not done the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art.
We have the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art, which is a program in Berlin and New York, but we also have smaller Saas-Fee Summer Institutes, which are called SFSIA. Those SFSIAs are two to four days long and totally free. We're doing one on activists neuroaesthetics in Saas-Fee in the fall. We're thinking about doing it in Oaxaca, Mexico, with Jennifer Teets. Then there's an artist from India in Goa, and we're going to do a small event in Goa with him.
TGL: Did you study photography?
WN: I didn't get a degree in photography, because it wasn't a possibility, but I took all the courses offered at Washington University. One of my most memorable experiences was the first time I was in the photography lab and saw my photograph come out of the chemicals when it was in the developer. You're in this dark room with yellow light and when the photograph comes out of the chemicals, it's like magic. I don't think people doing photography today have that experience, because many of them don't go into the dark room. Everything is digital today.
The Steinberg Museum had a special photography exhibition with a jury prize, all the professors from the school juried the prize. Most people had one photograph in the show, I had 17 photographs in that show. One of my most memorable experiences was the first time I was in the photography lab and seeing my photograph come out of the chemicals when it was in the developer. You're in this dark room with yellow light and when the photograph comes out of the chemicals, it's like magic. I don't think people doing photography today have that experience, because many of them don't go into the dark room. Everything is digital today.
TGL: Why is film photography important?
WN: Analog is a dying or anachronistic technology, which has been subsumed and superseded by digital photography. That link to the photo chemicals is a materiality, a material idea of photography. In the laboratory of the photographer, there is a history that goes through different processes, whether you're talking about collodion prints or tintypes, daguerreotypes, albumin prints, or all these different kinds of technology. That experience in the dark room links you to an ontology of the becoming of photography.
TGL: How did medical school inform your photography?
WN: I saw myself as a photographer. I never saw myself as a doctor. I went to medical school to learn about the body. I went to medical school never to be a doctor but to have another frame of reference, another education that I could import into photography. I wasn't an artist at this time, I was a photographer. I didn't really know about art. I learned about art from the famous documentary filmmaker who won an academy award for her film Gertrude Stein. She won two Emmy awards for her film on Georgia O'Keeffe. She taught me when I was young. She took me to films. My cousin, Debbie Riser, is a famous architect. She explained to me and taught me about architecture. I was totally infatuated with photography.
TGL: How did Paris influence you?
WN: Every time you take a photograph as a photographer, you mimic other photographers that you love. I'd mimic Edward Weston and Man Ray. Then you develop your own identity. When you are looking with your eyes as a photographer, your eyes are cameras. Before you take a picture, you're super imposing it on all your memories of all the pictures, of all the photographers in the history of photography that you have known and that you have loved. When I was in Paris and walking through the streets, I actually met Mrs. Man Ray. She wanted to sell me Man Ray photographs, and I stupidly said I wasn't a collector. I could have bought them for nothing at that time in the early 1980s. In Paris, I discovered Hans Bellmer and the whole history of dolls. Dolls didn’t start with Bellmer. I think Cahun was working with dolls. There were many French photographers who were working with them. This work was before Cindy Sherman too. There was a relationship to the theatricality of the poses and the sculpture. I was interested. Even though I didn't know much about sculpture, I had intuitive feelings about the sculptures I was photographing.
TGL: You have returned to Paris over the years, what draws you back?
WN: I've been an artist for a long time, but I was never part of the gallery scene. I'm a leftist, and I always was suspicious of the gallery market. But as an artist in America, you have to identify with the market system. In Europe, you don't have to. I moved to Europe, because my community was there other people like myself, who were against this capitalistic art system. I always believed that cultural value was more important than market value.
TGL: What kind of camera did you have?
WN: I used a 4X5 Toyo View camera. I had a Deardoff. I was using large format 4X5 cameras and using big negatives. That whole series came out of this combination of having just graduated medical school, doing an internship, and thinking about the history of photography.
TGL: What was this project exactly?
WN: I was interested in two things that happened in my experience in Paris. One was the amazing large outdoor or covered markets and was having a relationship with animal organs at the butchers. Butcher shops are displayed in a wonderful way, you really have a sense of visceral anatomy that we don't have in the United States. The second element were sex dolls that you found in many places in Paris. In America, we didn't really have sex shops until recently, but in France, there were areas where you could go and find these things. I was fascinated by them and I started buying the sex dolls. I never used the dolls, but I was fascinated by them. I was with my wife, and we were both interested in them physically as objects. She was a cook. I made this series called “Is she real?” At this time during my medical school, I was doing surgical internships. You can see the fetishism for the workings of the body that a surgeon has. A fetishism for cutting, opening up the body, exploring the body, healing, repairing, and caring. These are all key elements. I made a series in which I opened up the sex doll, and I filled the cavity of the body with organs that I had found in the market and photographed it.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't know?
WN: Barack Obama. Right now it is politicians that I would really like to have dinner with.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
WN: Life is a gift of experimentation. Don’t be afraid of changing course. Unique backgrounds produce unique kinds of practices.