‘Brainwave’ fuses art, science, philosophy


N.Y.’s most contemplative museum considers the mind’s ‘limitless capabilities’


One of the more innovative — and certainly the most esoteric — public program series in the city has got to be “Brainwave.”

Now in its third year, “Brainwave” (presented by the Rubin Museum of Art) pairs prominent scientists with equally important artists and educators to discuss issues of the human mind and how it perceives the world.

The project is the brainchild, if you will, of Tim McHenry — the Rubin’s director of programming since the launch of the museum in 2003. “[The series] comes out of the programmatic content of the museum,” explains McHenry (the Rubin specializes in art from the Himalayan region). “We have a lot of Buddhist art. Buddhism is a practice that enables you to reach enlightenment through absolute focus…control of you own mind. When you train your mind, it changes your brain. You can’t do it unless you know what that is. For the rest of us, it’s helpful to know how that works, which is the premise of the series. And so, for the price of admission everyone ends up enlightened!” he jokes.

McHenry cites the work of researchers like French author/biologist Mattheiu Ricard and neuroscientist Richard Davidson with pioneering the study of meditation’s effects on the brain. However, he appropriately credits himself for the idea of pairing such experts with people from other fields.

“Brainwave” launched in 2006, though, according to McHenry, not without some reservations. “Some people had doubts,” he recalls. “They wondered, ‘what’s it got to do with us?’ — meaning the [Rubin] museum. But if you can’t take risks, you shouldn’t be in the business. We were a young institution with nothing to lose; and this museum itself is an experiment. Every institution needs to constantly reinvent itself on some level to stay ahead of the game. This series makes people think, which is what we’re here for.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt the success of your program if its ideas are being expressed by nationally known writers, artists and entertainers such as Paul Simon, Moby, Lewis Black, Tom Wolfe, Julie Taymor, and R.L. Stine. McHenry, who programmed the “New Yorker” Festival during its first four years, clearly knows the box office value of star power. Still, he insists, it’s the opportunity for these people to hash out ideas with important scientific thinkers that attracts these participants.

“The chance to collaborate with people from different disciplines doesn’t happen very often [for them], says McHenry. “That’s what motivates them. Experimentation is second nature to these people.”

This year, the stars will be talking about…stars. In conjunction with the Rubin’s exhibition “Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe” (on view through May 10), the museum is supplementing its normal menu of discussions with neuroscientists and artists with visits by physicists and astronomers, to, as McHenry puts it, “wrap our minds around notions of infinity.”

The exhibition itself gathers together works of Himalayan art representing its three principal religions (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism) and their various cosmological myths. Alongside these is an exhibition of Western theory on the subject, stretching from Aristotle and Ptolemy to a fascinating new film by the American Museum of Natural History that illustrates the earth’s place in the universe as derived from the latest telescopic mapping.

The current “Brainwave” season launched February with a dialogue between choreographer Mark Morris and neuroscientist Bevil R. Conway. There have been programs every weekend since then. I was lucky enough to catch two of the more exciting pairings. Interestingly, in both cases the scientists proved just as lively and amusing as the artists, and the artists just as intellectually inquisitive (if not as good at math) as the scientists.

The first — “What Time Is It?” — matched screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman (“Synecdoche, New York”, “Being John Malkovich”) with physicist Brian Greene, host of PBS’s “The Elegant Universe” and author of the children’s book “Icarus at the Edge of Time”.

Kaufman has spoken at the Rubin before (on the subject of Jung’s “Red Book”) — but in this discussion, Green proved the more dominant presenter; not just in the depth and breadth of his ideas, but in the compelling, entertaining manner in which he presented them. Not only is Greene fast on the draw (“Could you repeat the question?” was his quick witted reply to one audience member’s interminable query), but he has a knack for helping us digest astoundingly complex notions like string theory, Quantum mechanics and the idea of a “Multiverse.”

The principal concept one took away from the talk was the idea that there may be no actual flow or movement to time; that instead, it may be structured much more like a grid of simultaneous, equally valid “nows”. It was thoughts such as these that inspired the question “Do you guys smoke a lot of pot?” from an audience member — who turned out to be “New Yorker” writer Susan Orlean, upon whose book (“The Orchid Thief”) Kaufman’s film “Adaptation” was based.

Equally heady was a colloquy called “How Did the Universe Get Its Spots?” — between Barnard College astrophysicist and author Janna Levin, and performance artist Laurie Anderson (the first — “and the last,” she quips — artist-in-residence at NASA). As might be expected, Anderson proved spacey in more ways than one, although with humor and charm to spare. She brought along a dog-eared copy of Levin’s most recent book “How the Universe Got Its Spots” — in which the author expresses a new theory (shared by some) that the universe, contrary to widespread belief, may actually be finite; and constructed in a sort of loop. The idea, Levin admits, is one that can be expressed mathematically (but likely could never be empirically proven).

The houses for both programs were packed; not only with ordinary, inquisitive New Yorkers, but also the likes of Lou Reed and his entourage — which took up most of an entire row (Reed himself is a former presenter in the “Brainwave” series).

Presiding over both of these mind-expanding conversations was McHenry himself — a charismatic, witty host who could easily take his entertaining and polished act to television or radio. Interestingly, he proves to have to do very little interceding to keep his discussions flowing. The speakers do just fine on their own. However, McHenry’s introductions and closing encapsulations are as thought-provoking as the ideas of his guests.

“Our brains are all we’ve got,” McHenry gushes. “Its capabilities are limitless, so how can there be any limit to the engagement with that? And so we forge ahead.”