Art that makes a practical contribution to solving significant global challenges?
It might seem like a big claim, but experimental arts professor Jill Bennett is leading an international research project to help alleviate the growing burden of debilitating memory loss.
As our population ages, dementia rates are expected to triple, affecting some 900,000 Australians and their families by 2050, and the hundreds of thousands of people helping to care for them. And global trends are comparable.
Bennett, who is Associate Dean (Research) at UNSW Art & Design, is working with international cognitive and neuropsychologists on a project to investigate whether visual cues can help retrieve memories that have become inaccessible due to dementia and other forms of clinical amnesia.
At the same time, Professor Bennett is leading the development and testing of tools to help reinforce memory and its functionality.
These include a sophisticated 3D browser – used in conjunction with an automatic camera – that models a landscape and enables personal photos to be located inside this virtual environment. It is testing the hypothesis that immersing people in virtual spatial settings improves memory retrieval.
“Dementia is an intractable problem. We don’t have a cure so the need to equip people with a way of consolidating memories and enhancing memory retrieval is really pressing – yet very little is known about how to achieve this,” she says.
To this end, the new UNSW Galleries at the redeveloped Art and Design Faculty in Paddington are being used partly as an exhibition space and partly as a laboratory for Professor Bennett’s Amnesia Lab project.
Art comes to the fore in many ways; in its more familiar role as a means of visually expressing and describing the very human, personal experience of memory loss, and also in a new role as an integral part of an international scientific research project.
“It might seem like a radical idea – but art has the capacity to use a whole range of aesthetic techniques to investigate the way images can be used and so can contribute to the larger scientific enterprise.”
The hybrid Amnesia Lab project is a template for Bennett’s broader approach of fostering collaborative partnerships between art researchers and other disciplines to investigate and help solve contemporary problems.
“Art at its best can open up new ways of framing very difficult questions and this is very valuable to scientists – by using UNSW Galleries not just for traditional exhibitions but to enable creative research we can move artists beyond the gallery and scientist beyond their labs.
“It is only really when you have disciplines working together that you can generate really breakthrough solutions.”
Bennett has long been a high profile champion of both the critical role of art in society and the practical application of art, having previously founded the Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics at UNSW.
She is the author of the seminal study of memory and trauma in contemporary art post 9/11, Empathetic Vision (Stanford University Press 2005) and Practical Aesthetics (IB Tauris, 2012), which focuses on the application of creative thinking and practice to world events.
She is also a past member of the Australian Research Council’s College of Experts and recipient of the VC’s award for Excellence in Postgraduate Supervision.