these are all the posts under perception...

[in]Focus

New York-based artist Jeff Elrod paints abstractions using basic computer software through a technique he calls “frictionless drawing.” But it was not his technology-infused artistic process that struck me when I saw his latest exhibition—Nobody Sees Like Us—at MOMA PS1. Rather, as I walked into the small, square room that displayed his work, I was overcome with the most disorienting case of vertigo I have ever experienced.

jeff elrod. echo painting [b/w]. 2012. uv ink on canvas. courtesy of the artist.

jeff elrod. echo painting [b/w]. 2012. uv ink on canvas. courtesy of the artist.

By the end of my first half hour at PS1, I had fallen into my normal museum going routine, exercising my visual sensibilities. Having some aesthetic sense of what to stop and look for in a piece, I honed in on visual cues meant to evoke some greater feeling or meaning. Circle a sculpture // observe its lines, contours, visual textures. Pause by a photo // take in its composition, subject, tone. So, when I walked into the room that housed Elrod’s four-piece exhibition, I was entirely prepared to flex those very same sensual muscles once more, only to find my eyes incapable.

As I stepped in, my entire visual field was engulfed by a series of four canvases, each adorning its own wall: Blue FigmentEcho Painting (b/w) [shown right], Echo Painting (green), and Brown Soft Machine. Light from the monochromatic images was streaming through my cornea making its way through my iris, which was appropriately expanding // contracting to control the amount of light that passed through my pupil. However, once that light hit the lens, my eyes suddenly malfunctioned. I felt immediately unsteady, my eyes flailing to find some refreshing focal point that would actually allow my brain to make sense of what it was seeing. I became hyper aware of the tiny ciliary muscles attached to my eye’s lens as they mechanically contracted and relaxed, adjusting the shape of my lens, trying to bring those obscured images into focus. Absorbed in a room that was designed to be out-of-focus, try as they might, my eyes could never reach even some semblance of focal resolution.

basic anatomy of the eye.

Much to my eyes’ chagrin, Elrod’s paintings are designed to vex our vision, intentionally arresting the eye at the focal stage. In doing so, he challenges the eye to perform its usual aesthetic duties—look at the image, focus on the image, process the image. Using digital software, he processes his own original drawings into these blurred images that “create visual fields that resist coherence.” Amorphous images that are, by design, incapable of resolution: “The space, shapes, and lines from the artist’s original drawings are lost and the indeterminate blur that he produces becomes the paintings’ dominant aesthetic form.” In one broad, blurred stroke, Elrod deftly drew my awareness to a very specific aspect of my visual processing machinery by forcing it into a sort of system overload. A heightened awareness for a sense we so often take for granted, especially as we necessarily rely on it to take in and understand visual art.

Nobody Sees Like Us derives its appeal not as a series of four images because you never really end up seeing anything in any traditional sense. Instead, inherent in the series’ artistry is the sensation of sensuous suspension. A constant feeling that i was on the cusp of something. That in just a few more moments, my eyes would pull through as they had done a million times before and reveal what was behind all that obscurity. 

To experience the most satisfying sense of optical dissatisfaction, visit Nobody Sees Like Us at MOMA PS1, showing on the second floor until April 1, 2013.

Jeff Elrod. Nobody Sees Like Us.

Jan 20 – Apr 1, 2013

2nd floor, MOMA PS1

The Sixth Sense

martha graham.

As a failed child ballerina//tap dancer//gymnast, I’ve always been more than a little amazed by [and a tad jealous of] those who possess both the coordination and the grace to dance their way to the stage. Quite frankly, the feats dancers perform are nothing short of miraculous to me. These are people who have mastered the art of sensing where each and every inch of their bodies are at any given moment in lyrical time. A musician relies on her aural sensibilities when composing a piece of music. A chef relies on the integration of smell and taste when crafting the most flavorful of dishes. A dancer, on the other hand, must rely on a little-acknowledged but ever-present sixth sense: proprioception.

Proprioception is “the inner sense by which the body is aware of itself” [Oliver Sacks]. The body sense. As we proprioceive, our brain is coordinating several raw inputs, such as the body’s position with respect to gravity [the inner ear fluid], the stretch of a particular muscle [stretch receptors], and the angle at which a given joint is open [joint receptors]. The brain integrates all these complex inputs to determine where our bodies are in three-dimensional space at any instant.

twyla tharp.

This body sense is what allows us to shut our eyes and still account for the orientation of all our limbs at once without a moment’s thought. It is literally why we feel embodied. However, perhaps because we feel entitled to our own embodiment, we often take proprioception for granted, even more so than our other senses. and yet, without it, we would have to consciously train our eyes on each and every movement to judge distances. to calculate trajectories. To pain-stakingly keep track of where we are and where we’re going. [For more, see the strange case of Ian Waterman.]

Most of us seldom use our powers of proprioception consciously because we only ever ask our bodies to do the routine: one foot in front of the other//now walk, fingers to the itch//now scratch, hand to the mouth//now eat. we perform these tasks with an innate sense of effortlessness because we’ve been doing them forever. We only proprioceive consciously while we are actively learning a new movement or fine-tuning a motion we already know, drawing our awareness to it.

pina bausch.

Virtuosos of proprioception, dancers necessarily have a heightened and very much conscious sense of body: “A dancer must listen to his body and pay homage to it. behind the movement lies this terrible, driving passion, this necessity” [Martha Graham]. Of course, by virtue of their intensive training, the dancer’s repertoire of motion is far more extensive than the average individual. Their muscle memory is jam-packed with moves that are almost incomprehensible to my own body. Nevertheless, the art in dance only comes with the dancer’s ability to unite the conscious mind with the body. Intentionally fine-tuning the most minute movements. Exhibiting exquisite command over even the tiniest of muscles.

Some of the greatest dancers claim that they were born to dance. Martha Graham once said: “People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose. I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life.” Perhaps for these elite few, the proprioceptual mind-body union comes through pure intuition—a natural sense of knowing where the body should be at any given moment, simultaneously envisioning and creating the lines of the body. Just as one person may have a higher visual acuity or super hearing capabilities, the natural-born dancer could have greater proprioceptual capacity. A heightened awareness of the body’s orientation and coordination in space infused with an aesthetic sensibility. An innate understanding of how to move with artful purpose.

The Good Plans of Wise Wizards

As a major tolkein fan [read: nerd], I wanted to write a post honoring the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Living with two filmmakers, I’ve been privy to a lot of criticism surrounding The Hobbit’s *48 frames per second* frame rate.

Frame rate refers to how many frames, or consecutive images, are shown in a given second, while shutter speed relates to the length of time each frame is exposed for. The higher the shutter speed, the shorter the exposure time, or the length of time the camera is open. since the 1920s, movies have been shot at 24 fps and at a shutter speed of 48 [1/48-second exposure time]. This convention is responsible for the motion blur and choppy cadence that has become a part of the cinematic language we have grown up with. Nonetheless, with the advent of new digital film-making technologies, directors like James Cameron and Peter Jackson have begun pushing for the use of high frame rates (HFR) to enhance the movie watching experience. Double your frame rate, double your fun.

Our brains actually only need a frame rate as low as 14 fps to piece the images together enough to perceive constant imagery. Of course, the more frames we have, the smoother the motion, which goes back to the impetus behind using higher frame rates in film. The Hobbit, however, which was shot at 48 fps with a shutter speed of 60 [1/60-second exposure time] has been criticized for this smoothness, which is curious considering hollywood is a place where more is typically… more. Critics have said it just looks too real—that this hyper-reality takes the viewer outside of the movie-watching experience.

The retinal cells of the human eye respond to light [the rods] and color [the cones], releasing chemical messages to the optic nerve. These messages are translated into nerve impulses that then travel up to the brain, where they are pieced together and interpreted as images. Because the world is theoretically in constant motion, our eyes are well-accustomed to handling an infinite frame rate, which is not to say that they record everything they encounter. Because our retinal cells cannot send out signals at an infinite rate, the retina only records a subset of those infinite frames. Though I could not find a consensus, our eyes see somewhere between 100 and 500 fps.* Even then, only a subset of that subset of frames actually gets interpreted by the brain. You can think of the whole process as a sort of information overload for the brain, which only needs a small chunk of that information to actually make sense of it.

Because our visual processing systems can only handle a sub-infinite frame rate, the world our eyes perceive has a natural degree of blurriness. With this in mind, not having seen The Hobbit yet, I would already agree that the frame rate is likely problematic, but not because it makes the movie look ‘too real’. 48 fps is still well below the 100-500 fps frame rate at which we see the real world. However, the crucial difference is that, for technical reasons, they shot the film at a higher shutter speed, reducing the exposure time for each frame. Because the camera is capturing an image for a shorter length of time, it records less blur, making for a much crisper picture [see here for a great example of these effects]. Consequently, The Hobbit-watcher’s eye is experiencing less frames per second at a much higher clarity than in real life, giving our brains more time to take in all the details that we ordinarily cannot see.

This clarity and astonishing detail make for a viewing experience that is nothing at all like our reality. The Hobbit is thus using a completely novel visual language than the one we are accustomed to both in reality and in film, making for a different kind of unreality. Of course, HFR technology is still in its infancy. As more pro-HFR filmmakers continue to experiment, a more palatable and less dizzying aesthetic that is better adapted to our visual processing systems can hopefully be reached.

Meanwhile, hope remains while fans are true…

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* When it comes to neuroscience // neurophysiology, we have a literal blind spot because we are using our brains to understand something about our brains. From my reading [and this is by no means my field of specialty] there seems to actually be very little consensus about what is going on with our visual perception, at least with how it relates to the content covered in this post.