When Art and Science Meet
The creak of old wood in an early 20th century auditorium; the precise notes of a scientist describing impossibly precise data; immersion in an imagined universe through a virtual reality experience; the unpredictable movements of dancers in a former Institute for Bacteriology. Art and science meet at this year’s Visual Science of Art (VSAC) conference in Leuven, a dreamy medieval town situated near Brussels.
Over four days, researchers from a multi-disciplinary practice presented projects, artworks and new findings in visual perception. Having recently channeled my energies into becoming a self-directed student in this subject, the conference acted as a perfect vehicle to test and develop my knowledge. As my native language originates within the arts, I must confess that it was sometimes challenging to translate the science behind perception. This was all part of the enjoyable process of taking the seat of the learner, observer and audience member, for once gathering data instead of disseminating it.
Newcomers to visual perception are always fascinated by the mystery behind optical illusions, searching for an explanation behind the visual deceptions we sometimes experience. What I’m growing to understand is that we do not see illusions, we perceive illusions. Humans can only see what is possible for their sensory systems, which only perceive within certain frequencies. When the visual system perceives something that doesn’t seem quite right, it’s because it is making an interpretation of its surroundings based on past experiences, instead of solely on what is there.
An example of this is the Flicker Fusion Rate, a concept in psychophysics which describes the impact of fast-moving flickering objects on a static observer. As reflected by artist and neuroscientist Rasa Gulbinaite, this phenomenon has been historically explored by many, ranging from the scientist W.Grey Walter, to William Burroughs and members of the Beatnik movement. Have you ever travelled on a train past repeated railings on a bridge, and experienced little dots or multicoloured blurs across your vision? When driving at night, do the flickering back lights of cars ever appear as multiple images? These are different branches of Flicker Fusion Rate.
Another relatable example is the Stroboscopic effect, which describes the appearance of ‘apparent motion’ or an ‘absence of motion’. A clear illustration of ‘apparent motion’ is the mechanics of a film, running as a continuously moving picture instead of a sequence of stills. The ‘absence of motion’ might be perceived when looking at a fast moving fan, that gives the impression of being still.
Goldsmith’s Carol MacGillivray shared her experimentations in the Stroboscopic effect through a series of artistic experiments. Originating from a background in animation, Macgillivray set up the project D-Scope to test animation methods without a screen. She arranged a series of 3D objects in a dark room that would light up through a projection mapping sequence, giving the impression of moving objects in dark space. MacGivillivray expressed how the magic of this perceptual experience does not lie in the form of the objects, but in the time and space they are made to occupy. A simple method yet incredibly revealing, as it sheds light on the importance of unseen spaces between images.
Moving away from the deceptive nature of vision, let’s talk about something that we can all understand...peeling an egg. The meticulous artist and thinker Liedewij Van Eijk, almost stole the scientist’s thunder in their rigorous attention to detail of a singular subject. In her project Peeling an Egg, 360 participants were recorded carrying out this ritualistic activity, with the artist’s intention of discovering ‘the best way of peeling an egg’. What inevitably won Van Eijk the 2019 VSAC ‘Jury Award’, were her skills as an investigator. In her analysis of the results, the egg peelers were compared using 245 variables, ranging from their speed, fingers used, to their force of tapping. After watching her presentation I was disappointed having eaten a boiled egg that day, I was sure I could have peeled it better and wanted another go!
A final and particularly touching presentation by art therapist Lisa Furman, shed light upon the relationship between Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) and creativity. In previous research, it has been suggested that patients adopt artistic skills after developing FTD, but Furman’s study showed us that unfortunately this is not the case. Furman and her team analysed the artwork development of an accomplished artist, from their early to late stages of FTD. At the beginning of the FTD course, her paintings were orchestrated with extreme skill, accuracy and balance. As her condition deteriorated, the paintings became significantly childlike, often abstracted beyond recognition. A tear-inducing finale to the presentation included the artist’s final painting depicting her husband who was her carer throughout the illness, physically joined by the heart to her own. A sad ending to my review, but I couldn’t miss its inclusion having been so moved by its story.
Picking features for this review was incredibly difficult, but a good exercise for processing an enormous amount of information. Over the next two months, I will continue to draw themes and anecdotes from VSAC, as there are many more avenues I’d like to explore. In two weeks I will feature my new favourite artist duo Broersen & Lukács, who encompass my favourite combined themes of art, science and digital culture. I will also be writing a review of VSAC with a focus on the scientific interpretation of art.