Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33 S/S 2020

carsten höller


interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

portraits by PIERRE BJÖRK

is there such a thing as an artistic brain?
the former scientist explores new possibilities for the mind and unlocking its potential through art

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there such a thing as an artistic brain? Or is it just a cliché?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Well, it’s a bit like asking the question, “Is there such a thing as a murderer’s brain?” Many of the world’s museums — Montpellier has a beautiful one [the Museum and Conservatory of Anatomy] — have collections of murderers’ brains. I’m not aware that anyone has studied artists’ brains in the same way. I always found the way scientists approach the brain interesting because they think they’ll eventually be able to understand consciousness — it’s only a matter of time, and effort, and the number of machines at their disposal. But you cannot understand consciousness in scientific terms because there’s something that scientists call “the hard problem.” They say there are two kinds of people: people who’re awake, and those who are asleep. And there’s a difference, because sleeping people aren’t conscious. Although they might dream and have all kinds of experiences, they’re not conscious. Consciousness only comes when you wake up.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So someone who’s sleeping or dreaming isn’t conscious?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — No, obviously not, because you can ask them a question and they won’t answer. People who sleep are unconscious, even though they’re alive and experience things.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you imagine a dream where someone asks you, “Are you conscious?”
CARSTEN HÖLLER — I often dream that I’m dreaming. There must be some level of consciousness. But scientists can’t explain what consciousness is. Even if they study the sleeping brain. Even with the most sophisticated techniques at their disposal, they don’t know what it is. The only thing they know is that neurons are firing in a certain way, and they can say, “Oh, this brain is awake, and this brain is sleeping.” But they still don’t know what it means when your neurons are firing. How are firing neurons producing consciousness? Nobody knows. Which I think is fantastic, because it shows that there’s a limit to understanding consciousness, you can’t really get it. And then you think, “Why don’t you get it?” Because you shouldn’t get it. If you did get it, you’d go crazy. It’s like being born and being able to remember the experience — nobody can, because it’d be so traumatic that you’d be damaged for the rest of your life. And the same thing perhaps applies to consciousness. I don’t know. But I also find it mind-boggling that we don’t know.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So if we discover the mystery of this combination of neurons and cerebral activity, it’ll culminate in self-consciousness — because consciousness is being self-conscious?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — And then the lights go out and that’s it. [Laughs] But maybe you’re right. They go on and then consciousness is there. But it’s a miracle.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s also the foundation for any kind of spirituality or religion, right?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Only because we don’t understand it. If there was a perfect scientific explanation, there’d be no more need for spirituality and religion. And just look at all the famous scientists saying, “In 20 years we’ll know exactly what this is. We just need more money for our big machines.” But they’re not getting anywhere with this. They’re just doing little puzzles out of a big image that’s completely unclear because you don’t understand what you’re going to see. And also — I spoke about murderers before — Donald Rumsfeld [former US Secretary of Defense] is a murderer, along with his political colleagues: they started a war that was completely unjustified, and we still see the terrible consequences of it every day. But if you Google Rumsfeld, what comes up is “known unknowns.” When he was talking about whether there were hidden weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he famously said: “There are known knowns, there are known unknowns, and there are also unknown unknowns.” Some things you know, some you know that you don’t know, but some you don’t know that you don’t know. And that’s quite interesting because he really, by some undeserved stroke of genius, summarized hundreds of years of philosophy — and maybe science. When you think, “Yes, exactly, that’s what it is” — consciousness and the whole thing is just meant not to cover everything, but it has its range, like pain. Pain has an obvious reason for existing: you have a body that moves, and you have pain so that you can move away from whatever causes pain. And consciousness also has its functions. We tend to think that we can somehow use our consciousness. I prefer this term to “brain” because we don’t even know if consciousness is really in the brain. That’s an interesting question, actually: where is it? Some people with brain damage lose consciousness, or get a certain way of looking at things that’s different from people who don’t have this lesion on the brain, but that doesn’t mean that consciousness is necessarily a result of brain activity only.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And today we’re in this weird, obscure, social and historical regression. You mentioned Donald Rumsfeld, but it’s the same with Donald Trump — in these dark times, artists have a better understanding or a higher level of consciousness. Like in the Renaissance, it’s not that they’re superior, but they illuminate the situation.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — I don’t know about being more conscious, because there’s no quantification of consciousness. And an artist doesn’t necessarily have to apply consciousness — you have to apply it to the language of art, which means that you don’t have to apply it to mere practicalities.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So scientists look at the brain in terms of how it functions. Whereas most people don’t question the brain, they just use it. Do artists have a different brain because they question their consciousness? They don’t take it for granted. They have a certain humility or arrogance — whatever it is — but they have a relationship with this idea of what it is to be conscious. This is what the artist is questioning, wouldn’t you agree?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — A religious mind means that you have some kind of a grid that you superimpose on everything you experience. An artistic mind means also that you reduce your level of overall consciousness. Because, to get away from the utilitarian side of it, you want to be in an in-between state. I said this before about sleeping and being awake, but this in-between moment, this short moment — as an artist you might train yourself to stay in this moment for as long as possible. That’s why I take a siesta every day because I have it again, this moment. Maybe I should have a few siestas. Leonardo da Vinci, I think, was awake for three hours, then he’d sleep 15 minutes, and be awake for three hours again, and that’s how he did it all the time. So there are different models. The role of the artist is really to do the experiments with this, which other people can’t do because they have to add up numbers, and stuff like that. We do it for them. And I don’t think I’m really an artist, I’m an explorer: instead of going to the North Pole, I want to see what happens if this, this, and this are done, or not done, or if I bring myself into this state of mind.

OLIVIER ZAHM — For example, you like to relax your brain with your salt bath and sensory deprivation tank. 
CARSTEN HÖLLER — The isolation tank? Yeah, I’m going in it tonight because it’s so nice.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a way for you to disconnect your brain?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — It’s the perfect machine for being half awake and half asleep. I actually always fall kind of asleep in there — but it’s a different thing, it’s not comparable to normal sleeping. I don’t have a clock, but when I get out of the tank and look at the clock, every time I’ve been in there 45 minutes. It’s always the same time. You lose all sense of time in there, because there’s no reference anymore. Because it’s a sensory deprivation tank, which means that all the information from the outside — not just visual but also auditory, olfactory, tactile — is cut off. So almost automatically you fall into something that’s similar to sleep, or meditation. Meditation is another technique. I think it has to do with keeping a part of your brain busy with something and letting the other part of the brain — if it’s really in the brain, because this I’m not sure of — just follow the flow of things. I never really got to the point where
I thought, “Wow, that was such a strong experience that I completely forgot who I am.” There’s nothing like this in my life. Even the strongest drugs I ever took, the best sex I ever had, I’m still there! It’s a catastrophe. I want to get away. But I can’t.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can’t get away from yourself. So the consciousness of the self, of the ego, is still there.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yeah, which is a tragedy, so it means you’re stuck. It’s like a car in the mud — the wheels are turning, but you’re not getting anywhere. [Laughs] Did you hear about this exhibition I did in Florence last year with Stefano Mancuso? “The Florence Experiment.” It was about the intelligence of plants.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No. Tell me.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — It developed because they asked me to create a slide in the Palazzo Strozzi, a Renaissance palace in Florence.
I went there and said, “Oh, it’d be nice to make two slides for the two sons of the Strozzi family in the Middle Ages.” And then they wanted to do an exhibition, but it turned out that the building is too old and wouldn’t be able to support bigger works. So I thought, “I want to do something involving the tourists, I want to use them as guinea pigs or subjects for an experiment.” The experiment was: the people go down the slides, and they have a little plant attached here [points to chest]. We made a special belt to attach under the breast, and it had a little pocket where you placed the pot containing a small bean plant, and then you went down the slide with the plant. Then we installed a big state-of-the-art scientific laboratory in the cellar of Palazzo Strozzi, and people gave their plants to the lab, and these plants were compared to other plants that went down the slides without human beings, and also to plants that just grew there. We wanted to see if there was a difference. We were looking at whether plants somehow respond to the presence of a human being in a relatively extreme emotional state, going down the slide. And we found that the plants reacted very strongly. The rate of photosynthesis was significantly reduced. At the same time, they produced two smells — chemicals, really — molecules that they released into the air, and which we think they use to communicate with each other. So Plant A wants to tell something to Plant B. We have very good evidence that they wanted to say something to each other. We just don’t know what. But it made me think of our own incapability of understanding consciousness, and maybe the reasons why we shouldn’t. But also that, coming back to Rumsfeld, that the unknown unknowns — our way of thinking isn’t enough to understand a plant, it’s a different thing. So maybe there’s an intelligence going on there that’s so foreign to us that we have absolutely no way of ever getting close to how that might feel. We always think, “Ooh, consciousness, human intelligence,” but all these organisms maybe have their own thing. The plant doesn’t feel pain — because it wouldn’t make any sense as it cannot move. But it makes sense for the plants to be intelligent, and I think they are. So there’s more and more coming up saying they do things like we do, but in their way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean that we feel pain as a way of preventing accidents?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Well, if we touch a hot plate, we immediately draw back because we can do that. A plant doesn’t, because it can’t. “Animal” comes from “animated,” meaning it moves. A plant isn’t an animal because it sits somewhere with its roots, you know.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So it doesn’t need the sensitivity of pain.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — No. And my friend with whom I made this exhibition, Stefano Mancuso, his lab is called the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology. So with neurobiology, you think, “That means plants have a brain?” But they don’t, because there’s no place in them for a centralized organ like we have. But maybe they do, because their brain’s completely decentralized. And I think this obsession we have about the brain is exaggerated, because you have neurons in the whole body, and maybe there are other things going on that are completely outside the brain and between our brains — yours and mine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We have neurons in the stomach, right?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — A lot — as many as in the brain. The density of neurons on the inner sides of the colon and some other parts of the intestinal tract are similar to the density of the brain. That’s amazing! And what do we know? Neurons, okay, they are somehow connected to consciousness, but maybe consciousness has nothing to do with neurons. Maybe it’s a completely different thing. Since we’re not meant to understand it, it could be something very alien. Like even a parasite or something. And the plants show us that our intelligence is just one of many.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a problem, or is it a parasite or a disease, that we can’t get rid of our consciousness? As an ego, as a person.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — I don’t know. I really like this book by Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation [2018]. It’s a bit like an absurd novel — basically, she takes a lot of pills and she sleeps a whole year. [Laughs] And she only wakes up to go to the nearest place where there’s food. It’s a very nice book because it makes a reference to your constant need to understand and explore, and maybe that’s the wrong way. Maybe it’s better to just cut it off, and live without it. Because then we’d possibly understand much more, by exclusion — by coming in through the back door.

OLIVIER ZAHM — With a lot of your work — the slides, the tank, this flying machine at the Hayward Gallery, you put the public in a situation where they can experience a different physical state. Is this a way of liberating the brain, or liberating people from the predetermined idea of what they think art should be? Do you try to create a brain experience? Or do you try to liberate them from a predefinition of art?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yeah, in a way. I mean, every artist does that, but…

OLIVIER ZAHM — It can be both?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes. I think the biggest luxury of our time is what I call “spiritual luxury” — that you can actually be in the world without making too many decisions. I think you had to take a lot of decisions before, in order to function. But now we have somehow tamed everything, including other people, to such an extent that the real luxury, for me, is in saying, “You know, I don’t have a vision or something, but I want to try something out and see what happens.” And then I don’t even need to say, “This is the way to do it.” It’s just to expose yourself and to become something that’s governed more by forces from the outside than the inside. So it’s a real luxury, in that sense, because you’re getting rare goods: something that other people don’t really have access to. And also this non-decision-making — I don’t know if this is the right place for it [laughs], but I’m really against the couple as a model for a relationship. And I’m also against free love. So I think there are different ways of being indecisive and combinatory, where you can take bits from here and there, and put them together again, and this works for a lot of things. That’s artistic freedom — that you can expose yourself to these forces that you don’t have any control over and see what happens.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because your own identity is a mosaic of possibilities. It’s neither this nor that?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Actually, that’s how we already are. You’re just doing what you already are. But we had to somehow constrain ourselves with religion, politics, ethics, group behavior, in order to function, because otherwise you get wiped out or killed. So, actually, we live in a fantastic time — even though it’s a dark time, it’s also a time to make these kinds of things with yourself that we have never been able to do before. So if we would just step out of this tame behavior — where we’re constantly interacting in ways that are just meant to shut us down — and try out something together, I think this could be super interesting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe we’re at the very beginning of the possibilities that the brain can offer — like really liberating the brain. You gave this example of love — of not being in a couple, not being totally single, maybe having different relationships, but not falling into the cliché of just using people, but really developing intimate moments with different people. This is an alternative. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new possibility for the brain — because, as humans, we have so much potential that we don’t use. This is why you, as an explorer or artist — even if you don’t want to be defined as an artist — are the expert of this exploration.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — It’s an inactive exploration. You just sit somewhere and wait and see what happens. And we have possibilities to connect to our brains in ways that we haven’t had before. It’s an amazing time in the sense that we have this possibility.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t need to go to the moon, you don’t need new territories. The new territory is the brain, in the sense of the potential to use our brains in a different way.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yeah, and I’d like to have your brain and you can get my brain, just for one day. I want to know how that feels. I could keep my body and everything. I just get your brain. We just want to see what happens. We’re too lame and tame. And we’re worried. These people have a lot of power at the moment, but they make us worried because worried people are lame and tame. But actually, we’re not — I don’t feel lame and tame. I think, “Fuck you. I know that you govern my life with your politics, but I can still create something within my means.” Especially if
I put my head together with your head, and some other heads, we’ll get a very big head capable of a lot of

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very Duchamp. You propose panoramas or landscapes, you’re able to create an exhibition, you give people certain visual experiences, but at the end of the day, you’re just exploring new possibilities for the brain.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — When I was starting to become an artist, I thought that that’s what this is about. And it’s only later that I realized that most artists don’t think about that very often. [Laughs] But I thought, that’s so interesting. Because there’s something I don’t really understand. People are doing these art objects because they have this desire to extend the frontiers of thinking. And once you’re in it, and you’re an artist yourself, you think, “There are some other forces that govern artistic production, certainly.” But I still think it’s a viable reason to do it, because you don’t want to make art objects — art objects are part of the lame and tame fraction nowadays, because they’re useless, powerless things, that’re governed by forces that have nothing to do with what art could potentially be. So what we want are forms of behavior, forms of experience, and forms of connecting people — not just an artist individually “creating” something, making an object or a performance: this is a ridiculous approach in the times we live in.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The French philosopher Georges Bataille called that “l’expérience intérieure.”
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yeah, “interior experience,” exactly. But maybe not on a self-level.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And then the installations or the art objects are produits dérivés [derivative products].
CARSTEN HÖLLER — The art object was representative of an artist’s thoughts, until it just became representative of nothing really anymore — it’s just there. And it’s killing itself because there’s a flood: you need water to drink, but too much drowns you. That’s what art is at the moment, a flood. It’s banal, stupid, tame, and lame — to use these words again. You want to break out, but the forces are strong. But the possibilities we have today are fantastic. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe your optimism comes from science? Because we’re at the very beginning of science.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Ah, this we don’t agree upon. I think science is dead. It’s like an old animal that’s lying on the ground and taking its last breaths. I think science is very tired, and it has no possibilities. Art’s also tired but has possibilities — that’s the big difference. So we can go on. And I think we have to make enclaves, pockets. We want to have permission to do these things, so we’re not getting into some legal trouble or something — but we need to experiment. And there’s a lot to be done. It’s urgent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’ve experienced a lot yourself, experimenting with different kinds of drugs. Like Henri Michaux used to do.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yeah, well… have you ever met an artist who’s never taken any drugs?

OLIVIER ZAHM — But a lot do it for the pleasure or the fun of it. You do it as an experiment for your own work, right?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes. I think it’s a good way to understand how far this could possibly go. I had this experience with ketamine in the 1990s where something like a liquid was coming out of my body and covering the apartment. I was lying on the floor, and it was seeping away from me and became a very, very thin film, like a painting without end because it went over every object, it went out of my apartment, through the city, through forests, through fields, and it went around the whole Earth and touched again on the other end.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — I thought, “Wow.” I mean, that’s amazing. [Laughs] So I haven’t taken so many drugs, but I’ve had some very strong experiences. I’m really not a big user, but I have a friend who’s an expert, so we do things like, you know, take the molecule of mescaline, add a hydroxy group to it, it renders it inactive, then you add another chemical ending to the hydroxy group on the molecule, it produces activity again — it becomes psychoactive — but it’s different from mescaline, it’s a new thing. Each drug has different effects, so you can see how far you can go with that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not afraid to try them?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Oh, I’m very careful. I do it only with the right people.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But there’s always a risk.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yeah. I didn’t take LSD until four years ago, because, when I was young, I met a guy who’d killed his dog with an ax when on LSD because he thought it was a monster. I don’t want that to happen. [Laughs] There can definitely be bad trips. But drugs are just a shortcut for you to understand how far this could possibly stretch out. If you’re beginning to see that there’s really no end to it, it becomes universal. And what do you do with that? You can’t grasp it, but you can somehow see it as it is out there. And this is maybe something we’ll never be able to come close to, in terms of understanding. So the only approach that seems viable for me is to say, “Okay, to hell with understanding,
I don’t really need to understand that, but I want to try it out, I want to expose myself, I want to see.” But it doesn’t have to be drugs, it can be anything. But mainly social behavior, that’s the experience that I want to look at.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So it doesn’t just have to be drugs. It can be anything that stretches — as you said — your consciousness, like looking at a landscape, looking at a painting, having sex, any kind of situation where your brain can reset, or reorganize.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yeah, but what do we really do with all the means we have at our disposal? I don’t think we do very much with it. We reward ourselves. We get nice things — food, wine, clothes. Mainly we go party and travel. That’s our gratification system. And that’s such a tiny part of the possible spectrum that you could do, in forms of behavior. But I find it surprising how strong the need seems to be to do like other people do. Most of the things we do, we do because other people do them, too. And that’s not something we’re very conscious of. But that’s how society works, because otherwise it would just be a bunch of weirdos.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So what’s the next step?
CARSTEN HÖLLER — What can you do with time and no necessity to control something? You don’t need to control the temperature, even though it’s cold outside. You have all these possibilities, so what do you do? Why don’t you try to live in the world, but try to eliminate every letter from the world you see. So mainly you have to stay inside, you take away everything that’s printed, every single letter, no Balenciaga on the top of your hat.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Nothing! You know, no books — everything has to go. And see what happens, just for a while. And then you can do other things. It’s very nice to take things away. Ottessa Moshfegh has this character who just sleeps. So you take the state of being awake away. You take things away, and you see what comes out of it, because we don’t know. Because to do more… what do you want to do? Travel to the moon? I don’t think that’s such a great thing. Passivity is a very interesting state of mind, and for me, subtraction is a very elegant method.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because mostly these instruments — phones, not even talking about television and Netflix — are the opposite, they create a saturation of the brain, putting in new information all the time and filling up, filling up, filling up, so that the brain just absorbs, and reconfigures itself.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — No, because it’s an extension of many things. Like, for instance, your memory. So it’s fantastic, in that sense. But I don’t know if the brain really takes in more than before. Perhaps the rate of intake is a given? It could very well be. It doesn’t matter if you live without electricity somewhere in the forest. You still take in a certain amount of information per day, and it can never be increased or decreased — this could very well be the case, I don’t know.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But maybe our brains are being attacked by too much information today. You say subtraction.
CARSTEN HÖLLER — I say subtraction, but I also find the experiments that have been done very interesting. I’m writing a book at the moment that’s about games that can be played without any materials [Carsten Höller’s Book of Games]. One is very simple. You have three people: one sits there, and the others speak into the sitter’s ears, one into the right, and the other into the left ear — either in different languages, or different stories in the same language. So, if you’re in the middle, what do you make of this? It’s not so easy. They did this as a kind of training for bomber pilots. But it turned out that even bomber pilots, who’re trained to focus very intensely — they have to focus very precisely on the target and all the difficulties that they encounter — couldn’t handle this situation, this simple thing. So what happens if this goes on for a while? We already do it with stereo music, but if you’re receiving contradicting forms of information at the same time, from two different channels, for some organs that are very close to the brain, I think it could yield some outcome. [Laughs] It’s so simple!

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] Yes!
CARSTEN HÖLLER — You don’t need anything for this — not even electricity. Just three human beings.




[Table of contents]

The Brain Issue #33 S/S 2020

Table of contents

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