Thinking Out Loud
Bruce E. Phillips
May 02 2023
In my curatorial statement for Who can think, what can think, I explain that the exhibition attempts to challenge ‘definitions of “intelligence” in relation to human and non-human cognition by embracing understandings of biodiversity and neurodiversity.’ This focus developed from a number of influences which may not qualify as ‘texts’ but are no less important, such as conversations with artists, visiting exhibitions, YouTube and podcast binges, unpacking insecurities, and trusting those deep understandings that are hard to articulate. That said, conventional texts—that being words on a page—were also important, but in a different way. For me, reading gives clarity and form to the soup of influence that an exhibition might originally spring from. Here are three of those texts.
Judy Singer, NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea (Lexington: Judy Singer, 2017)
While the core ‘text’ for Who can think, what can think was my own experience of neurodiversity, it wasn't until I was introduced to the work of sociologist Judy Singer that I had the tools to unpack this lived knowledge. Singer is widely cited as coining the term in the late 1990s and developing the subject through a number of texts which, for her, similarly grew from a personal experience of autism. Through these texts she introduces the concept that cognitive variation is a natural and healthy part of our species. On the surface it is a simple idea but has complex depths and life-giving power.
Singer's intention was that the term neurodiversity would ‘represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and augment the insights of the social model of disability’ and in particular to help value minds that exist somewhere on a continuum between what society might consider a ‘disability’ and those with ‘high’ cognitive function. Overwhelmingly, it is the recognition of difference that is celebrated within Singer’s concept. Her definition is meant to be inclusive of but not limited to conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette's syndrome and many others.
Singer’s description of neurodiversity also calls for a unified resistance, intersecting with those experiencing parallel forms of discrimination, against harmful pathologisation and social exclusion. In fact, Singer describes neurodiversity as being against restrictive universal categories of mind, and that the concept:
take[s] postmodern fragmentation one step further. Just as the postmodern era sees every once too solid belief melt into air, even our most taken-for granted assumptions: that we all more or less see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and sort information, in more or less the same way, (unless visibly disabled) are being dissolved.
It is also this description that convinced me it was a fathomless subject worthy of exploration within curatorial and artistic practice.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
Singer was further influenced by the discourse of biodiversity and valuing animal minds. This interest similarly led me to read Other Minds by philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith. In this book Godfrey-Smith seeks to expand ‘the relation between mind and matter’ and to question ‘how do sentience, intelligence, and consciousness fit into the physical world?’. Many of the abilities and evolutionary mysteries of octopuses and other animals are discussed, but for my purposes, my interest lay in the learning of how human and animal intelligences have differences that should be freed from comparisons and allusions of species superiority. As Godfrey-Smith explains:
“Smart” is a contentious term [...] When we try to compare one animal’s brainpower with another’s, we also run into the fact that there is no single scale on which intelligence can be sensibly measured.
N. Katherine Hayles, How we Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodes in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)
In following this tangent of thought, I learned that critiquing normative conceptions of intelligence also intersects with discussions concerning computer technology and artificial intelligence. One of the key texts for me on this subject was How we Became Posthuman by feminist literary critic N. Katherine Hayles. In considering intelligence, Hayles addresses Alan Turing’s “Imitation Game”, subsequently known as the “Turing test”, in which computers might pass as humans by demonstrating that they have the appearance of thinking like a human. On this, she reminds us that ‘[o]ften forgotten is the first example Turing offered of distinguishing between a man and a woman.’
From this position, Hayles goes on to theorise that, in fact, what the Turing test simulates is a questioning not of distinguishing computer vs human intelligence, or binaries of male vs female, but rather of the underlying assumptions of the test—that questioning ‘“what can think” inevitably also changes, in a reverse feedback loop, the terms of “who can think.”’ This reference is obviously the exhibition's namesake, and in making it I wanted to bring Hayles feminist analysis into conversation with neurodiversity. Further readings and media that influenced this exhibition can be found on Te Tuhi’s website here.
- Judy Singer, NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea (Lexington: Judy Singer, 2017), 96-97; 221.
- Singer, 100.
- Singer, 293, 610, 1174.
- Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, 1st edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), 9–10.
- Godfrey-Smith, 50.
- N. Katherine Hayles How we Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodes in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), xi–xiv.
- Hayles, xii.
- Hayles, xiv.
About the Author
Bruce E. Phillips (Pākehā/NZ European) is an Edinburgh-based arts practitioner from Aotearoa often working as a project manager, writer and curator. His practice is dedicated to working alongside others to address unrealised potential, overlooked histories or to confront social inequalities. Phillips has curated many exhibitions featuring over 200 artists such as Tania Bruguera, Ruth Ewan, Amanda Heng, Tehching Hsieh, Maddie Leach, William Pope.L, Peter Robinson, Santiago Sierra, Shannon Te Ao, Ruth Watson and The Otolith Group. As a writer he has contributed reviews and articles for art magazines and journals including ArtAsiaPacific, ArtLink Australia, Art News New Zealand and Contemporary HUM. In 2022, he completed a PhD through Massey University focusing on curatorial practice in Aotearoa.
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