True Focus was written for The Nestbook, a publication marking the 4 year anniversary of Nest (https://shop.nestruimte.nl/en/shop/het-nestboekthe-nestbook/)
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’
With every visual experience, a great number of areas are activated in your brain. When you see something for the first time, new connections are made between the cells in your brain. Your brain makes the new experience comprehensible by connecting it with existing cell connections. In this way, new clusters of cell connections evolve, with new concepts. If you never again have a similar experience, the new connections will quickly be dissolved, but if you have the same experience a second time, the connections are reinforced and further expanded. This literally means that you see more when you repeat the same experience, because perception does not take place in the eye, but in the brain. The third time, you discover even more (because the connections in your brain are expanded even further), and eventually, more and more connections are created between the various clusters, with the result that your visual experience becomes richer and richer.
For our brains, it does not much matter if we categorize a given experience as ‘real’ or not. Whether we dream about a tree, study a painting of a tree, read a scientific book about trees or stand smack in front of a tree in a forest, for our brains, they are all simply different aspects of the same concept of ‘tree’, the same cluster. The connections will continue to reproduce and add new aspects to the perceivable tree (the ‘real’ tree). All previous experiences that had to do with the idea of the tree will influence the next ‘tree experience’. The structure of the bark, the colour of the trunk, the knowledge of and the effects of photosynthesis and the meanings of trees in stories and mythologies – anything to do with the idea of the tree will nourish the experience.
Thanks to this, the perceivable world becomes a richer place, not in a metaphorical or purely philosophical sense, but literally. If you have never experienced a tree in any other way except ‘green’, that is exactly what you see when you come across one: a green structure with no further definition. If your brain is not compelled by need or desire to give this undefined structure some attention, to further investigate it, it remains undefined. If you never have another ‘tree experience’, the connections between cells will dissolve, with the result that the tree completely disappears from your world.
Attention is the basis of observation. The more frequently and the more intensely you apply your attention to, focus on something, the more quickly and the more extensively the connections are made, and the more intense the experience. Curiosity is neurological. It is our brain that wants to understand something, make new connections. Without curiosity as a neurological urge to expand existing brain structures, the world stagnates and shrinks. We therefore have to stimulate and nourish that curiosity, in order to keep our world alive.
Looking, seeing, observing, experiencing, thinking and reflecting cannot be seen as separate from the workings of our brains. Endless processes of feedback between the observer and the observed create a neurological loop, which we call reality. The job of art is to continue to renew and expand this reality by continually intensifying our focus and attention. Art is the manifestation of neurological curiosity, and of our attempts to make that curiosity conscious, give it form and share it. It is an age-old exploration for what lies just beyond the reach of our sight or our consciousness. You feel that there is something, some potential, but you can not yet put it into words or give it shape. It can be frightening, or indeed, inexplicably beautiful. It is like a puzzle, a poem or a riddle that, once resolved, opens the door to a richer reality. You do have to focus attention on it, and for this reason, one of the principal elements of a work of art is that it can seduce or entice its viewers.
There are works of art that you could study and engage with for a lifetime, always discovering something new in them. There are works of art that you have had enough of after a while, but that nonetheless led you to yet new works of art, and have therefore succeeded in holding your attention. There are works of art that were unable to attract you in any way at all (and five years later, after many other art experiences, they suddenly become terrifically interesting). A work of art must have multiple layers, which give it depth and substance – there have to be enough potential points of expansion for all the new connections in the brain, to stimulate curiosity. The indefinable quality, the je ne sais quoi of a work of art is not some hollow phrase or random description, but the incentive that compels you to look again. It is those connections in your brain again, wanting to further expand themselves.
An exhibition has to entice its viewers to look at certain works of art, but also to look for connections between diverse artworks. The curiosity of the viewer has to be stimulated by the way the exhibition is put together. This often fails, because an exhibition allows no space for the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. Then it becomes too academic, or boring.
Nest succeeds in taking the artist and the curiosity of the artist as its starting point. The artist is given not only physical space, but also mental space. In putting together an exhibition, the curiosity of the artist is paramount. It can be playful, audacious or contrary. At Nest, the unexpected is built into the various exhibition models, and this produces innovative and refreshing exhibitions that are accessible to everyone. Nest allows itself to be surprised and seduced by the art that it presents and the artists with whom it works. An exhibition must be a challenge, but it must always offer accessibility. Only then is our curiosity aroused, so that we continue to investigate further. Then the connections in our brains continue to grow and expand, and so too does our reality.