ANU: The Wernicke’s Area

1 Oct-6 Nov 2022

IMMA, Irish Museum Of Modern Art
Dublin 8 D08 FW31


IMMA is proud to present ANU’s The Wernicke’s Area, the result of a year-long IMMA residency. A highly personal project for the company, the work responds to the medical condition of Debbie Boss, the wife of ANU’s co-artistic director and visual artist Owen Boss. The artwork fuses installation and sound design and will feature new music by Emily Howard performed live over the opening weekend on Saturday 08 and Sunday 09 October.

In 2014 Debbie was admitted to hospital for surgery to remove a previously undiagnosed meningioma brain tumour. Although the surgery was deemed successful, due to complications Debbie had to be induced into a coma for a fortnight and remained in hospital for a further three months. Since the surgery her everyday life has been affected by epilepsy.

The tumour grew in what is known as the Wernicke’s Area of the brain named after German neurologist Carl Wernicke who first described the area in 1874. This part of the brain is involved with written and spoken word comprehension. When Debbie suffers a seizure the symptoms manifest as audio hallucinations and aphasia, (a loss of comprehension of both heard and spoken words). A trained soprano, Debbie can no longer remember the lyrics to even the simplest of songs.  

Research for the project has seen key partnerships evolve across the science and arts community. A Rapid Residency received through the Dublin Science Museum in 2020 linked Boss with neurophysiologist Prof. Mark Cunningham of Trinity College, Dublin and their collaborative research has shaped the artwork. An evolving partnership with Emily Howard, Director of PRiSM, the Centre for Practice & Research in Science & Music at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, has led to the extensive use of PRiSM’s AI technology in the development of music for The Wernicke’s Area.

Boss was drawn to a keynote lecture given by pioneering neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington (included in his 1940 book Man on his Nature) who coined the phrase ‘The Enchanted Loom’ to metaphorically describe what happens in the brain. In his words the collection of 100 billion brain cells and 100-200 trillion connections between those cells that generate the brains electrical activity are considered as

‘an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of sub-patterns.’

Drawing inspiration from this lecture and IMMA’s The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now: Social Fabric, Boss has created custom-made fabric pieces produced on a digital Jacquard loom. These works feature a repeated pattern lexicon that Boss has developed over the course of the project.   

Prof. Cunningham has provided raw data recordings of the brain cells in seizure and these have been used as a research material across the wider project team and feature prominently within the exhibition. Bofan Ma’s immersive sound design and Howard’s composition, draws on a series of seizure diaries written by Debbie. Howard’s composition, performed live by mezzo-soprano Rosie Middleton and viola player Stephen Upshaw at IMMA over the opening weekend, is a response to George F. Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ which was Debbie’s favourite aria to perform.

This project is funded by the Arts Council of Ireland and IMMA and is supported by PRiSM.