Dublin City Arts Office
The LAB, Foley Street, Dublin 1

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Past Exhibition


Alan-James Burns

November 06 - July 20 2013

He explores the manner of thought through the audio / visual medium of interview. Examining the mental perspectives of our own cognitive mind and that of one individual, He creates a sensory journey that navigates understandings and interpretations of neurological processes. He questions what is it like to perceive as another. 


He is a Noema[1] of the Noesis[2]

The exhibition is accompanied by Performance Conditioning, a text written by the 2013 Dublin City Council Visual Artists Ireland Art Writing Award winner Joanne Laws., and two events, detailed overleaf.

[1] Noema - object of a thought

[2] Noesis - the mental process used in thinking



Performance Conditioning

Joanne Laws


Alan James Burns’ artistic practice encompasses a range of performance, film, audio and installation processes. Thematically his work has been broadly informed by the principals of behavioural psychology – a branch of early 20th century psychology which was displaced by the ‘cognitive turn’ of the 1950’s. Previous work has drawn on the relationship between behaviour and environment, considering the mechanisms of habit, predictability, conditioning, free-association, repetition and ritual. More recent work has examined developments in the wider field of human science, providing an interesting, anachronistic frame of reference in which to situate artistic explorations of the artefacts, systems of knowledge, inter-relationships, and social constructs associated with human experience.

In Burns’ current body of work, ‘He’ (2013), the human subject is more fully examined. Interviews, experiments and personality tests involving a male participant are documented and presented as a dual-channel video installation. The participant is further depicted in another video work, disclosing ‘inner-monologues’ while engaging in storytelling, alluding to the emergence of the ‘narrative turn’ in clinical psychology  – a Freudian influence which emphasised dialogue between patient and psychoanalyst as integral to the therapeutic process, revealing as it does, the depths of human psyche. 

In synthesising the complexity of Burns’ work, I assembled a cross-section of textual fragments (or acts) which aim to supplement and extend the artist’s range of inquiries, while inviting the reader to question, not only the substance of the work, but also the processes of  interpreting and being informed.


I. Query: Did Pavlov's Research Ring a Bell?

At the 1991 meeting of the Pavlovian Society of North America in Baltimore, a poster with an enlarged photograph of Pavlov's desk stood next to the registration area. Prominent on the desk was a large bell with the presumable function of summoning a servant. I asked some participants at the meeting what they knew about Pavlov's experiments with bells, and none recalled any specific citation that documented Pavlov's actual use of a bell in an experiment... Pavlov's auditory stimuli included metronomes, tones, hooters and buzzers. Perhaps the buzzers consisted of a bell and a vibrating clapper, but in the absence... of relevant evidence, must we conclude that Pavlov's bell is a myth? If so, where did it originate?

Charles Catania, Query: Did Pavlov's Research Ring a Bell? Psycolloquy Newsletter, June, 1994.

II. Difference and Repetition

In every respect, repetition is a transgression. It puts law into question; it denounces its nominal or general character in favour of a more profound and more artistic reality.  

Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Trans. Paul Patton, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)

Pretense and Representation

Pretending ought to strike the cognitive psychologist as a very odd sort of ability. The perceiving, thinking organism ought, as far as possible, to get things right. Yet pretense flies in the face of this fundamental principle. In pretense we deliberately distort reality. How odd then that this ability is not the sober culmination of intellectual development but instead makes its appearance playfully and precociously at the very beginning of child-hood.

Alan M. Leslie Pretense and Representation: The Origins of “Theory of Mind”, Psychological Review, Vol.94 (4), 1987, p 414.

III. Personality

Hundreds of studies have been conducted with projective tests, most often with the Rorschach inkblot test[ii].  Responses to the inkblots have been used to predict everything from intelligence to sexual orientation.  Unfortunately, psychologists disagree on how to interpret this research...Some psychologists challenge whether the inkblot procedure should be described as a test at all. They argue that the Rorschach is more accurately characterized as a highly structured interview.

Jerry M. Burger, Personality (U.S.A: Cengage Learning, 2010) p.62


External auditory pacing, such as metronome sound, and speaking in unison with others, has a fluency-enhancing effect in stuttering speakers. 12 stuttering speakers and 12 non-stuttering controls were scanned while performing metronome-timed speech, choral speech, and normal speech. Compared to non-stuttering controls, stuttering speakers showed a significantly greater increase in activation in the superior temporal gyrus under both metronome-timed and choral speech conditions relative to a normal speech condition.

Toyomura, Akira; Fujii, Tetsunoshin; Kuriki, Shinya, Effect of external auditory pacing on the neural activity of stuttering speakers, NeuroImage Vol. 57 Issue 4, Aug 2011, p1510.


Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behaviour...The behaviourist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behaviour of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviourist's total scheme of investigation.

John B. Watson, Psychology as the Behaviourist Views it (1913) in Psychological Review, Issue 20, p.159


IV. Brave New World - 1932

Their wanderings through the crimson twilight had brought them to the neighbourhood of Metre 170 on Rack 9. From this point onwards Rack 9 was enclosed and the bottle performed the remainder of their journey in a kind of tunnel, interrupted here and there by openings two or three metres wide.

“Heat conditioning,” said Mr. Foster.

Hot tunnels alternated with cool tunnels. Coolness was wedded to discomfort in the form of hard X-rays. By the time they were decanted the embryos had a horror of cold. They were predestined to emigrate to the tropics, to be miner and acetate silk spinners and steel workers. Later on their minds would be made to endorse the judgment of their bodies. “We condition them to thrive on heat,” concluded Mr. Foster. “Our colleagues upstairs will teach them to love it.” “And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue - liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1946, first published 1932) p.13


V. Social Cognitive theory of mass communication

Because of the influential role the mass media play in society, understanding the psychosocial mechanisms through which symbolic communication influences human thought, affect and action is of considerable import.... People are self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating, not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by environmental events or inner forces. In these agentic transactions, people are producers as well as products of social systems. Personal agency and social structure operate as co-determinants in an integrated causal structure rather than as a disembodied duality.

Albert Bandura, Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communications in J. Bryant, & D. Zillman. (Eds.). Media effects: Advances in Theory and Research (Hillsdale: Laurence Erlbaum  2001) p.2



In this context, one thinks of the self as a story or set of stories. Even the initial recital of symptoms and goals in therapy is open to change as interpretations and insights develop. In the process, the analysand’s self- story-as-patient changes. That set of self stories is anyway best regarded as being in process, though some analysts tend to tell it as all process, all a creature of context, while others tell it, as Freud[iii] did and as I do, as process with a hard, structured core that continuously generates similar contexts both for constructing meaning and for devising innumerable ways of blindly repeating old, infantile problems in this specialized clinical context...One might say that a new and progressively more complex language game is being played and that new worlds of experience, past, present, and future, are being co-constructed. Psychic change now implies greater unity, stability, and verisimilitude in the patient’s narratives of the self. The meaning of being a patient has changed radically.

Roy Schafer, Listening in Psychoanalysis, NARRATIVE, Vol. 13(3), October 2005, p.277.


The Narrativist Turn

“Are stories in disciplines such as cognitive science, pedagogy, policy analysis, sociology, experimental psychology, therapy, visual arts, music and the natural sciences as suitable representations and/or explanatory vehicles as literature, film, history, philosophy, ethnography, theology, and psychoanalysis? Indeed, can the various discursive formations labelled narratives in these diverse fields be seen as the same sorts of things? And, finally, what relationships exist between theorizations and productions of narratives in these different intellectual and disciplinary environments?”

Martin Freiswirth, Merely Telling Stories? Narrative and Knowledge in the Human Sciences, Poetics Today Issue 21, p 293 - 318.


Beyond the Spoken Word

The inter-subjective nature of narrative interviews, regardless of their being therapy or research orientated, facilitates the part such processes play in the construction of our own reality...When using narrative inquiry, it is a combination of the spoken word and the interpersonal encounter, whereby participant and researcher are constantly influencing each other, which will lead to the co-production of data. It is therefore important that the researcher acknowledges the inter-subjective dynamics that are present during the processes of data production that occur when using narrative inquiry and its subsequent analysis.

T. Warne, S. McAndrew, Re-searching for Therapy: The ethics of using what we are skilled. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, Issue 17, 2010, p.505



The situations in which human beings develop anticipations and contexts are necessarily social. Discursive development also depends on the distinctively human capacity to reflect, that is, to engage in discourse with oneself or with other figures in our internal worlds—those partial or complete, conscious or unconscious images of others with whom, upon introspection at critical moments, we remain in verbal and non-verbal communication. These figures look after us and keep after us; we rely on their help and comfort, and we fear their destructiveness, often submitting to their restrictions and demands for self-punishments, as by failing or having avoidable accidents...To carry this argument further, I propose that it is useful to characterize listening as constructing more or less developed narratives or stories. These stories will conform to the expectations and contexts that we, as listeners, have learned to provide or, using what is already available, have invented for present purposes. Meaning is actualized through narration, through stories about the self, others, relationships, the state of one’s local world in the past, present and predicted future, the wide world, imaginary worlds, and so on. These narrative actions do not follow the action of listening, they are listening.

Story implicitly recognizes that it is always possible to develop and communicate meaning in more than one way. This narrative turn does not observe the convention that requires stories to include a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end.  The problem faced by the speaker or writer is rhetorical: how to tell the story.

Roy Schafer, Listening in Psychoanalysis, NARRATIVE, Vol. 13(3), October 2005, p.272


Classical Conditioning is the development of a subject’s response to a particular stimulus, usually carried out in a clinical experiment, for the purposes of monitoring physiological responses.


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