visualizing how our brain imagines art

For this project, Aarón Montoya-Moraga and I were thinking about what makes something visually important and interesting. We decided to use the machine learning platorm Wekinator to try and pinpoint the division between what is art and what isn't. For the purposes of this piece we were rigid in our definition:art was anything that had been exhibited in a museum or gallery, and non-art was anything else. Obviously we recognize the nuances that exist in the gray areas between these two binaries, but we were interested in discussing their effects.


"Art" was chosen by looking at the Whitney 2017 Biennial, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, and the art auction site Paddle8. These are institutions that dictate the art market. Anything else was fair game for the "Not Art" category, but I stuck to images of contemporary digital memory and pop culture. Using Aarón as the subject, we sat down in front of these image sets. He focused on each image in each set and used Wekinator to record the brain activity during each set.

Looking at the work of KAYA on view at the 2017 Whitney Biennial

"The 4th" Henry Taylor 2012-2017

Twitter user @tasmiimlak

Lindsay Lohan wearing a bikini and house arrest anklet, 2012


The Muse is a bluetooth headband that gives feedback about brain signals, and was designed to be used for meditation. While it cannot be compared to a medical EEG machine, the developer kit allowed us to experiment with tracking what it classified as "concentration" and "mellowness". When you are zeroed in on a particular subject, you are able to see an increased level of concentration on the line graph. Mellowness is described by Muse as "when you are relaxing, letting go of judgement, letting go of trying to control things, letting go of attachment to outcome, not thinking about anything with a goal, or being without an active task. You are not engaged in strenuous mental processing but still alert to your senses. A ready, waiting state."


Aarón then wrote a Max patch which converted the data from the headset and sent it to Wekinator. It takes in that data, and whenever it matches the brain signals of "Not Art", the viewers screen turns black.


While watching and looking at different media, we recorded brain signals to see what the brain would process as "ART". First, we looked at the Fox News website:

and then watched a youtube channel called Music BNB Stylestarring a couple named Bev and Bob doing karaoke. While the intentions of the couple are not completely clear from their channel description, in this context it is NOT ART (hasn't been in a gallery/museum). However, both Aarón and I agree that it's performance art and so it was interesting to see the way his brain processed it.

This is the tip of a much larger project. In the future we'd like to work with a larger data set and see what happens with a wider spectrum of source material. The Muse headband itself is a starting point, and it would be great to work with a professional EEG machine. For now, this project was an interesting synthesis of the art historical traditions we discussed in class with ideas of mainstream pop and political culture.