Written in response to the Ground exhibition.
Trust Issues (On Calibration)
by Christopher Burman
In the spirit of Italo Calivno’s cosmicomical method, let’s start with sea-rious question. Why is it that ﬁsh and other sea creatures, deep in the abyssal darkness of the ocean, ﬂoating with miles of water above and below, still swim belly to the ground?
To paraphrase a Reddit thread addressing the topic, it may be because they have eyes. In evolutionary terms there’s no point looking without an equally developed sense of your own location. For our observations to make sense, maintaining a stable perspective is essential and our behaviours are of course often inseparable from the necessity of orientation. As reddit user ‘Sastrugi’ comments in regard to our original line of thought – “that’s sort of like asking ‘Why don’t we just walk backwards everywhere?‘”
Our relationship to the ground is in a literal sense, the basis of our perpetual understanding of reality. So fundamental is the connection between sensory engagement and orientation that we can forget that the relationship is potentially fragile and subject to interference. It’s no coincidence perhaps that to ﬁnd peace within the noise of the world is to be ‘centered’, to ﬁnd a point of ﬁxed origin, to be anchored. As Hito Steyerl writes in her essay on the politics of losing sight of the horizon,‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective’:
Our traditional sense of orientation—and, with it, modern concepts of time and space—are based on a stable line: the horizon line. Its stability hinges on the stability of an observer, who is thought to be located on a ground of sorts, a shoreline, a boat—a ground that can be imagined as stable, even if in fact it is not.
Mirror’s Edge (2008), a free-running inspired ﬁrst-person video-game entirely dispensed with ﬁxed on-screen graphics in favour of accurate, corporeal depictions of the main character Faith. As she leapt, rolled and slid around the skyline of the ﬁctional city Glass, the game’s simulation of her momentum would swing her arms, legs and torso into the visual ﬁeld of the player. It was a subtle and seemingly innocuous innovation but on it’s release there so many reports of players experiencing motion sickness as a result of the extended visceral experience of movement, the developers eventually added a small reticle dot in the centre of the screen to counter act the eﬀect.
Our internal mechanism for physically sensing movement, the vestibular system of the inner ear is also pretty easy to fool. Potentially because our evolutionary history didn’t account for rapid and unnatural changes in speed, we can run into sensory mismatches, for instance the shock of stepping oﬀ an escalator to discover that the ﬂoor isn’t actually moving too. On a ﬂight with an extended change of direction, our senses slowly compensate, which can lead pilots into a deadly ‘graveyard spiral’
– when a plane begins to spin out of control despite the plane ‘feeling’ like it’s travelling on a level course. All pilots are taught – always trust your instruments.
As our perceptual experience is increasingly mitigated, exaggerated and intensiﬁed by the mechanical and the digital, we encounter these uneasy glitches ever more frequently, in turn solidifying our dependancy on tools that might help us calibrate ourselves, both physically and intellectually.We might ask to what extent is a relationship with art an act of calibration?
Suspend Your Disbelief
Although generally speaking an upside down ﬁsh is most likely suﬀering a disease of the swim bladder – or it’s died – there is one family of ﬁsh, the Mochokidae, otherwise known as the upside- down catﬁshes who can live comfortably in reverse. Their nearest human relation, might have been Saint Joseph of Cupertino who was, if we chose to believe historical accounts, a remarkable a human. An infamously ignorant and clumsy man, he was nonetheless prone, during bouts of religious ecstasy, to ﬂoating uncontrollably from the ﬂoor. Although this phenomenon was the subject of much wonder, during life at the monastery this ‘gift’ was seen as more as an inconvenience, often interrupting the solemn monastic meal times and rendering him helplessly trapped against the ceiling. Naturally of course, he is the patron saint of air travellers and astronauts. Yuri Gagarin, the ﬁrst cosmonaut and human to experience outer space proper, described his own experience of weightlessness as:
“…somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps.You feel as if you are suspended.”
Almost simultaneous with Gagarin’s encounter, back on earth in a lab at MIT, Ivan Sutherland was experimenting with a weightlessness of a diﬀerent kind. Repurposing the screen of an oscilloscope, a device itself more normally used for the calibration of signalling equipment into one of the earliest computer monitors, he displayed the output of his massively inﬂuential piece of early software Sketchpad, rendering from basic linear forms, the ﬁrst digital 3D geometry.
While the prior inventions of perspective and animation could produce the static illusion of the object in space, Sutherland’s cubes, wedges and blocks could be summoned, controlled and rotated by the viewer.The visual experience of his digital objects were divorced from any sense of context, and raising the question, which was really spinning – the objects or the position of observer?
The development of Sketchpad took inspiration from Vannevar Bush’s almost frighteningly prescient 1945 essay “As We May Think”, in which he imagined a computer system, similar to the internet, that would help manage our collective memory and foster knowledge sharing that he called ‘Memex’.
Against the backdrop of the end of the second world war, the speculative design of ‘memex devices’ he proposed was an attempt to formalise concerns about the limits of human collective memory at a time when the technological advancement of society was inextricably linked to forces of great destruction.The essay, originally published a month before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was republished again a month after, puts forward the question- could a mechanisation of memory provide a more complete way of learning from our mistakes? He writes:
Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.
Although Bush is discussing memory in mechanical terms, within the speciﬁc context of scientiﬁc data and mathematical logic, he puts forward a moral case for a massively extended public memory, against which our individual models of knowledge might be calibrated. In turn he envisaged a set of network technologies eerily similar to those we ﬁnd ourselves navigating seventy years later.
Since that time however our scientiﬁc understanding of the brain has radically developed and a mechanistic model of memory is no longer so scientiﬁcally fashionable, as several competing newer theories of consciousness battle it out.This is partly because neuroscientists, with the aid of increasingly accurate fMRI scanning resolution have been able to demonstrate just how complex and fragile various neurological processes are, including memory and our sensory experience.That our experiences are deeply shaped by unconsciousness forces is nothing new, but the scientiﬁc investigation of the function of our unconscious brain probably is. Up until the mid-nineties conversations about consciousness was seen as career suicide for any ‘serious’ scientist. However many senior practitioners including Francis Crick, co-discover of DNA, began to challenge this orthodoxy and ask why such investigations were seemingly oﬀ the table.
Part of the hesitation within the neuroscience community was that common practice generally avoided trusting the written or verbal accounts of people participating in a studies on the basis of that they couldn’t be fully objective and might even actively lie. Scientists began to realise that it’s hard to investigate the unconscious without asking the conscious brain for it’s perspective and so to make progress into this new frontier they had to stray into unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable territory of subjectivity.
The results of this switch in attitude have been dramatic and far reaching – a myriad of scientiﬁc studies demonstrating that your unconscious mind is capable of great intellectual feats in mathematics, logic and information ﬁltering – all without bringing any of these processes to your attention.The brain appears to be deeply wedded to the maintenance of a stable perception of reality, so much so that one of the speculated ‘functions’ of our consciousness is as a method of focusing more brain processing power to observations which don’t match up to our internal model of the world.
The by-product of these discoveries is that unconscious mind can be very easily manipulated, often in extremely simple ways. Subliminal advertising for instance, really can work, the ﬂashing of consciously invisible adjectives can greatly shape our opinions. Our negative or positive feelings towards strangers can be demonstrably inﬂuenced by something as simple as the temperature of a cup of water they hand to us. Some of the habits and ﬂaws of our minds might seem self-evident to anyone with a brain, but the scientiﬁc codiﬁcation of various mental mechanisms, replicable under experimental conditions, represents the alarming proposition that we are not as in touch with the world as we would like to believe – the creative and political implications of recognising our potential detachment are highly signiﬁcant.
Lying In The Scanner
In one such experiment, Dr. Arvid Guterstam and his team at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden investigated the phenomena of out-of-body experience and now claim to be able to simulate it, on- demand and under controlled conditions in the lab. Participants lie in an MRI scanner and are shown footage of the body of a stranger being prodded and viewed from above, with the machine they lie inside visible in the background as a spatial reference.When the sensations depicted in the ﬁlm are co-ordinated with similar actions on the body of the participant, the brain, will after a short time, reorientate it’s center of perception to match the perspective in the footage. As Dr. Guterstam describes:
“It takes a couple of touches, and suddenly you actually feel like you’re located in another part of the room. Your body feels completely normal — you don’t feel as it’s ﬂoating around,”
The formal outcome of this study was to locate the so-called ‘GPS cells’, a region somewhere in the hippocampus that represents the physical locus of our experience, the origin point of our brains internal sense of co-ordination. However the study also acts as a demonstration of just how eager our unconscious minds are to maintain a consistent view of reality and that we will happily teleport our sense of self across a room if that is the best ﬁt for sensory information given to us.
This scientiﬁcally rational exploration of the imprecision of the human senses might feel a little brutal and unwelcome, especially within an art context where a subjective relationship to the sublime and transcendental can be par for the course. However, like the softening of the scientiﬁc stance towards subjectivity that enabled these discoveries to be made, perhaps there is a value mirroring this shift within art practice and reassessing the importance of personal subjectivity in the face of functional truths about our brains. Could art practice and it’s products actually operate as tools for calibrating ourselves in a world were our sensory, emotional and perceptual experiences are accepted as ﬂimsy and adaptive?
This has particular signiﬁcant for our relationships to art, it’s documentation and the complexity of it’s social structures as they dissolve into the oceanic tides of visual information we ﬁnd ourselves ﬂoating in. If we understand that our perceptions can be sculpted by forces outside our control and are subject to deep manipulation, or more simply – that we cannot fully trust our own brains – do we have to relearn how to orientate ourselves? If we do, perhaps the sharing of strategies for handling our unreliable minds might take on the same signiﬁcance that the creation of a shared collective memory did for Vannevar Bush in 1945.
If our experience of reality can be literally relocated, dismantled and patched-up, do we expect art to reinforce, subvert or extend the physical certainty that we observe? How do we position ourselves, are we grounded, gently ﬂoating or simply lying in the scanner?
reddit.com – ELI5:Why don’t ﬁsh swim upside down?
Hito Steyerl, E-Flux
In Free Fall: AThought Experiment on Vertical Perspective (2011)
Vannevar Bush,The Atlantic As We May Think (1945)
Thalma Lobel, New York Magazine
If You Want Someone to Treat You Generously, Oﬀer Them a Warm Drink (2014)
Tanya Lewis, Live Science
Out-of-Body Experience Is Traced in the Brain (2015) http://www.livescience.com/50683-out-of-body-illusion.html