“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 and his The Parthenon Marbles Recoded: The Phantom as Other is currently on display at the Kunstverein Rosa-Luxemburg Platz, Berlin. Neidich has a multidisciplinary background in fine art, neuroscience, medicine and architecture, which serve as sources of inspiration for him. In 1996, he began lecturing at the School of Visual Art in what he then called Neuroaesthetics, and later that year he co-founded artbrain.org and the Journal of Neuroaesthetics. 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. Neidich has written over twenty books and catalogues. His most recent book The Glossary of Cognitive Activism received a glowing review in the Los Angeles Review of Books in November, 2020.
TGL: How was your childhood?
WN: I grew up between New York City and Armonk, New York. Our house was my parents’ dream house. It was situated in a bucolic setting adjacent to a lake called North Lake. My parents were first generation immigrants and moving to Armonk was a dream come true. My mother always said it was her hope that one day the house would be transfered to my brothers and I. One of the things that haunts me to this day and for which I still feel guilty about, is that when my father and mother passed and it was time to take possession of the house, the circumstances of our lives did not permit it. Three years later, when I was driving in the area with my partner Elena, I said to her, "I'd really like to show you the house where I grew up." I made the usual turn onto the street where our house had been situated. When I looked, I had a strange, disorienting feeling that something was wrong. Continuing to the dead end of the road, I discovered that the house had been completely demolished. The new owners had torn it down and erected the most horrible McMansion.
In 2002, before all this happened, I had been visiting my father who was living there the last days of his life. My mother had already passed. He was 86 years old and a feeble representation of himself. He had worked until he was 84 years old and in the course of two years, he went from a man with tremendous energy and vision to someone who was bedridden and in a wheelchair. I realized that his end was near and my connection to my childhood as well. This is when I had the idea to begin my photographic project titled Law of Loci. It’s a project linked to the work of Dziga Vertov, Michael Snow and Harun Faroki about the connection of the apparatuses of the camera and that of the physiology of the eye and brain. Much of this work will be presented in a forth-coming book edited by the noted German curator and writer Hubertus Von Amelunxen.
TGL: What did you do when you were a child?
WN: I was the youngest in the family and my two older brothers were rough and tumble with me. Some of my most memorable experiences were playing wiffle ball together. A wiffle ball is like baseball except it is made of plastic and has holes. With these holes, you can have a curveball that really curves. When you're from France, you may not know about baseball, but we played endlessly together. I became a very good hitter and played throughout high school. The garage door in front of which we played is a recurrent theme in many of my later works.
I was also an avid fisherman. One of the things that I loved to do, especially since it got my father's attention, was to go fishing in the mornings and catch him a fish that my mother would then prepare for his breakfast.
TGL: What led you to do photography?
WN: My mother used to take me to New York City. Her favorite store was the department store Bonwit Telle. There were these huge dressing rooms, which only women were able to use. At a certain age, she could no longer bring me inside, so she would drop me off at the Witkin Gallery, the most important photography gallery at the time located on 57th street. They had an amazing library of photographic books. I remember her saying, "I want you to look at the pictures in all these books on photography starting with A and proceeding to Z and learn all the pictures." I learned the history of photography by remembering the pictures in those books. They formed a Mnemosyne Atlas of my subconscious. I began taking pictures in high school after my parents gave me a 35 mm Konica.
The story around the circumstances of receiving my first camera are a testament to the amazing parents I was lucky to have had. I had been expelled from school for being a radical activist and mobilizing the entire school to leave class to take part in a demonstration to commemorate Kent State Massacre. My parents were distraught and negotiated my return to the school only if I went to a psychiatrist for therapy. The psychiatrist told them that I was bored and had too much time on my hands, so my parents bought me a camera. That's how it all started.
TGL: Why did you decide to study medicine?
WN: 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 very good school. I studied psychology, but then I got very 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 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.
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 very interested in photography. I had a couple of exhibitions in big 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 very 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 very 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. It was very tough.
TGL: When was your transition into being a full-time artist?
WN: The crisis that led to my final break came shortly after the release of my Aperture book, American History Reinvented and my exhibitions at the MIT List Center, Cambridge and the Photographic Resource Center, Boston. I was not able to go to my book launches and enjoy the fruits of my artistic labor, because my primary responsibility remained with my patients. It became apparent to me that I could not commit the necessary time to being both an artist and doctor. The stakes were too high on both ends. A decision had to be made. Then, I was invited for a residency at the Bethanien Kunstlerhaus in Berlin. I had refused many invitations because of my responsibilities as a doctor, but this time I gathered the courage to pack up and leave the entire life I had built behind me. Everyone thought I was crazy and perhaps I was. The economic and social stakes were high. I believed in myself as an artist, and I believed in my passion. That same passion has inspired me to continue for the past 25 years. 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 had a toilet but had to shower at the Printing House Gym. I also used it as a gallery and started this art foundation called Spot Art Foundation. I gave artists such as Joachim Koester and Carola Dertnig solo exhibitions. The space was focused on the idea that the gallery was an apparatus of social and relational works.
TGL: How did you create your network?
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 am not sure I would say it that way, because that seems to abstract human beings as materials to work with. I absolutely love people and love artists. I am aware of the difficulties of being in the art world and operating as an artist. It can create many stresses and anxieties. Teaching is one way I can express my desire to communicate with others. And it has positive repercussions. I would never have been able to write my Glossary of Cognitive Activism, had it not been for all the knowledge I acquired as a result of directing the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art.
TGL: How have you reflected your education and practice as a medical doctor and eye surgeon in your artistic work?
WN: In 1995, I decided to embrace my background and devote my practice to an interdisciplinary one. From 1985-1995, I focused on the photographic archive, fictive documentary, reenactment, photographic materialism and performance. In 1995, I adapted tropes of structural film theory and what was called the Nouvelle Vague, in which cinema was foregrounded to understand the notion of cinematic labor. My first book Blow-up: Photography, Cinema and the Brain focused on this and took it one step further. These works served as jumping off points for my series Hybrid Dialectics. In this work from 1997-2003, I superimposed diagnostic instruments used by ophthalmologists over photographic and cinematic cameras to create virtual motion studies that were the pure invention of those machinic assemblages. I was developing a vocabulary for my interest in the relationship between art and the brain, which I called neuroaesthetics. I will open an exhibition in Berlin in June called Activist Neuroaesthetics. It would have been impossible for me to have created this work without the education and experience I had as a doctor.
TGL: Can you define activist neuroaesthetics?
WN: We are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in which the information economy will be subsumed and eclipsed by a neural based one. In cognitive capitalism, in which the mind and brain are the new factories of the 21st century, this shift’s implications are even more dramatic. Activist Neuroaesthetics is a response to this imminent condition.
Charles T. Wolfe wrote an essay called “Three Neuroaesthetics.” He described the three forms of neuroaesthetics as positivist, idealist and radical. I was put off by the term radical, so I changed it to activist. To understand activist neuroaesthetics you have to understand how it is different from positivist neuroaesthetics. Positivist neuroaesthetics’ goal is to explain artworks, such as paintings, by changes in the brain’s neural processing itself rather than as something happening independently, or outside of the material brain's jurisdiction. Positivist Neuroaesthetics refutes the importance of emergence. It attempts to reduce the magic of art and its ghosting and contingency.
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 photographer’s laboratory, 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.
My project American History Reinvented 1985-1991 was in large part an exploration of this. Beyond its creation of an alternative photographic history of the United States in which the underrepresented took center stage, the work was a material history of photography. In the work entitled Aerial Reconnaissance Photographs: The Battle of Chickamauga, 1990-1991, I rented an airplane and flew over a civil war reenactment of the Battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee. I photographed the reenactment from above the battle field using three types of lenses attached to a 35 mm camera: 35mm, 50 mm and 125 mm. During the drive over we were shot at by reenactors using live bullets and barely made it back alive. I developed the film at a camera store in a shopping mall and printed the negatives onto 8x10 black and white paper. I took the paper prints to a souvenir photographer taking part in the reenactment and he photographed the prints with his tin-type camera.
TGL: How did medical school inform your photography?
WN: I saw myself as a photographer. I never saw myself as a doctor ever. I went to medical school to learn about the body. I went to medical school 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 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 and 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. This work was before Cindy Sherman too. There was a relationship to the theatricality of the poses and the sculpture. I was very interested. Even though I didn't know very 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 became infatuated by two things during my stay in Paris, large outdoor food markets and the butcher shops they contained and a shop near the medical school called Dr. Azou where they made paper mache anatomical organs for the medical students to learn from. You can understand how this connected to my interests already at hand. 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. I also became infatuated with sex dolls, which I had learned about from another American living there. At the time, sex dolls were not as sophisticated as they are today. They were basically a rubber sculpture which you could blow up with a special pump. I filled a female doll with organs I bought at the market along with the paper mache dolls to reenact the experience in the surgical suite. When Della’s parents came to Paris we had to hide the doll in the bathtub and when her mother was relieving herself she discovered it.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't know?
WN: Barack Obama. Right now, it's 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.