Art and science collide with Fondazione Prada’s ‘Human Brains’ project

By Ashley Wallace

Photo: Bas Princen
Photo: Bas Princen
Helmed by inimitable fashion maven Miuccia Prada, the Fondazione Prada has long been a leading institution of the arts and modern culture. Now, it is placing a spotlight on something more cerebral.

Since its establishment in the mid-1990s by husband-and-wife team Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, Fondazione Prada has been a leading institution staging contemporary art exhibitions and cultural events that speak to the times. Now, Fondazione Prada is investigating the origin of artistic creativity by embarking on an in-depth project dedicated to the brain.

In what promises to be a thorough contemplation of the collision between art and science, Human Brains is a multi-disciplinary project that commenced in November and will conclude in November 2022. Its programme features exhibitions, debates and educational events, all conducted in collaboration with a scientific board comprising experts in various fields related to the event’s research focus. Heading up this committee is president Giancarlo Comi, a respected neurologist and founder of the Institute of Experimental Neurology at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milan.

“The path to understanding the mechanisms that allow our brains to produce thought and feel emotions, and to create admirable works, has roots far back in time, but [this area] has also seen some incredible acceleration in the past 50 years, thanks to science,” he says. “With Human Brains, we want to start from these roots and [use them to] project into the future.”

So what caused Fondazione Prada to delve into neuroscience? Miuccia Prada, co-chief executive of Prada and Fondazione Prada’s president, says she has been contemplating embarking on this project for years. “During the 25-year-long activity of Fondazione Prada, I’ve always wished to work on relevant cultural ideas,” she says. “This project devoted to neuroscience is maybe our most important so far: for a visual art institution such as the Fondazione Prada, dealing with science is a true challenge, as it will have to give voice and shape to the ideas of the researchers.”


Chiara Costa, head of programs at Fondazione Prada, notes that the institution has dabbled beyond contemporary art previously, most notably in the fields of cinema, philosophy, architecture, music and performing arts. But she acknowledges this is “undoubtedly” the foundation’s most ambitious project to date. Its relevance to the work of Fondazione Prada comes from considering the relationship between science and the humanities. It will also bridge the gap between experts in scientific fields and those interested in the real-world implications of research. “The Human Brains project will involve both a large international research community from different neuroscience fields and a non- specialist public including young people and students deeply curious about these issues,” explains Costa.

Scientific committee president Comi says Human Brains was in development for almost two years after Prada first flagged her idea. Since the beginning, the intention was to present the project in three phases, in a way that would examine the history and ongoing journey of brain research. “Only in recent times, in the past 50 years, have we been able to study this organ in a more accurate way, and have we managed to understand all the molecular and receptor characteristics inherent to the different brain functions,” he says. “Little by little, this knowledge has led us to understand the physiological bases of thought, emotions, affectivity, our ability to move, to perceive and to interpret the signals that reach us.”

The research of the Human Brains initiative spans various fields, including neurobiology, philosophy, psychology, neurochemistry, linguistics and artificial intelligence. Major themes being explored include the brain’s anatomical function, the brain ageing process and neurodegenerative diseases.


The first component of Human Brains took place in November in the form of an online conference titled ‘Culture and Consciousness’. The event comprised five daily discussions on different topics interconnected and linked to consciousness. Each two-hour session included a debate between two experts, which was moderated by a member of the Human Brains scientific committee. Topics included the neurobiological bases of consciousness, functional and structural neuroimaging, the languages of human consciousness, and evolution of culture. It culminated in a final discussion reviewing the previous discussions and continuing to debate the “open question” of consciousness. Massimo Cacciari, a philosopher and member of the Human Brains scientific board, explains that the definition of consciousness in biological terms is simple and widely accepted – a set of nerve processes that allow an individual to perceive the internal and external world. Beyond this, what constitutes consciousness is up for debate and “remains one of the central questions of man”. Cacciari says that “such a complex issue can only be addressed from different points of view,” hence, differing perspectives were debated during the conference. The second phase of Human Brains, an international conference and exhibition project, is scheduled for northern hemisphere autumn 2021 at the Fondazione Prada exhibition spaces in Milan. The event will bring together 13 of the world’s most prestigious neuroscience research institutions to compare their findings and developments.

The third phase will coincide with the 2022 Venice Biennale, where Fondazione Prada’s Venetian gallery will host an immersive exhibition entirely dedicated to studies of the brain and to considering the past, present and future of brain research. The show will be curated by renowned director/curator Udo Kittelmann in collaboration with the Human Brains scientific board.

Human Brains is described as a constantly evolving open project. Through innovative collaboration methods among scientists and scholars, and the bringing together of scientific and cultural approaches, the project will highlight and study the complexity of the brain and how individuality arises.

It will also look at milestones in research, with a key theme being the relationship between the mind and the brain. Sensation, emotion, memory, consciousness, creativity and abstract thinking are as important to analyse as the technological developments related to the brain.

As neuroscientist Mavi Sánchez- Vives noted in her ‘Culture and Consciousness’ talk, Human Brains is a timely initiative. “People are genuinely interested in understanding about the brain,” she says.


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