I visited Tintype gallery in Islington for the first time last Wednesday and chatted with its director, Teresa Grimes. I had just left Tate Britain feeling vaguely disheartened by the predominantly anaemic installation artworks of the Turner Prize nominees. I was pleased that Teresa did not feel that moving image art was in decline given that this is the first year in a long time that an MI artist has not been among the nominees. We also agreed how fruitful the cooperation of artists and scientists could be. This is brilliantly exemplified in Suki Chan’s three channel interactive film installation, Lucida on show at Tintype until October 22.
Neuroscientists have concluded that we see with our brain not our eyes. So, for example, our brain acts as an image stabiliser smoothing out the tiny staccato movements (saccades) that the eyeball must make as the retinal receptors will stop firing if they do not experience a change of input. Chan has worked with engineers and software programmers to open up this unconscious process. Seated in front of tracking sensors each saccade is converted into a click. We get the startling audible verification of the research finding that they average three a second. Our iris and surrounding capillaries are also projected onto the screen in front of us taking audience involvement in art to a new level of intimacy. Those gross blood vessels made me feel like I was inside one of Philip Guston’s lurid late period “Heads”.
Inspired by her thoughts on the psychology of perception, Chan’s installation consists of a pair of screens, one projecting her film upside down. This provides a constant reminder that the image projected onto the retina is similarly inverted and that the brain must process this input so that we can navigate the “real world”. I was reminded of the psychology experiment where participants wear goggles that invert the visual field. Initially disorientated they soon find that the brain corrects this misinformation so that they see the world the right way up. When the main screen shows a room in which the inverted image of the exterior world is projected via a camera obscura, the paired screen likewise corrects the orientation.
The gallery helpfully provides visitors with an introductory video where the artist gives some background on the work’s genesis and includes the testimony of Colin Blakemore, the renowned neuroscientist. He was modest enough to praise her for raising issues of perception that he had not previously considered. So what is it that art can offer that science cannot? Essentially, art can demonstrate that on one level scientific explanation is an elaborate metaphor. The second half of her film consists of an extended tracking shot through the London University Senate House library, the underground bookstack and the murky subterranean service tunnels. This is an apposite image for the convoluted journey our visual input must make before it is processed into a form that registers on our consciousness. On the journey we hear experts commenting on the importance of retrieved memory and projected meaning in structuring our perceived world. It culminates in a wild, fizzing representation of neurochemical activity in brain synapses that fills the screen perhaps alluding to the gestalt nature of visual processing that has so far eluded reductionist scientific explanations.
As an ex-psychology teacher who is a bit sceptical of the more hubristic claims of the neurosciences about the nature of consciousness, I am encouraged to see an artist like Chan shed some poetic light on this most fundamental of issues while consulting with a wide range of scientific opinion and even providing a demonstration of a physiological phenomenon as part of her work. It would be great to see more work in this challenging vein. The varieties of memory impairment in dementia might be a fertile field.