Notes toward a Lecture on the Invisible and Art

March 30, 2010  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes

We are all born blind, but artists are obsessed with seeing the invisible, unseen, and ignored.

Our physical eyesight can be cybernetically enhanced by telescopes, microscopes, or cameras, to make the impossibly distant, small  or brief things in the universe available to us. This is the popular, default, banal meaning of invisibility.

Our brains are evolutionarily developed to edit out most extraneous information that enters our eyes, information that it believes is not crucial to our survival. This is why, when you visit the Galapagos Islands, the naturalists explain that the frigate birds will ignore you because you are neither a threat nor prey. It’s not to be mistaken for friendliness, it’s that in essence they don’t see you. But if you tried to pet one it’d put a hole through your hand with its powerful six-inch beak.

“Attention is much more than simply taking note of incoming stimuli. It involves a number of distinct processes, from filtering out perceptions, to balancing multiple perceptions, to attaching emotional significance to them.

Imagine yourself at a cocktail party. You can attend to many features of this environment simultaneously: sip a drink while listening to a friend talk and watching a colleague dance with a new partner. Or you can process the many stimuli through a filter that lets the numerous insignificant bits of the environment pass through, leaving you with the big, meaty pieces; you might focus in on your friend’s face and words as he tells a captivating anecdote, while seeming not to hear the dozens of other voices or see the other visual images in the room. You also combine perceptions—say, sight and sound—to identify the abstract notion that a fight might be brewing across the room. The intensity with which you attend to such stimuli is determined by your own level of interest, alertness and anxiety….Scientists have identified four distinct components within the attention system, which together create the brain’s overall ability to monitor the environment: arousal, motor orientation, novelty detection and reward, and executive organization.” (from A User’s Guide to the Brain, John J. Ratey, MD (2002)

We choose to see some things or not to see them due to habit, cultural conditioning, or politeness.

There are things we once could see that we can no longer see: the dead, demolished architecture, lost or assimilated cultures and peoples.

There is the theoretical notion that art’s purpose is to reveal the invisible nature of social control, to pull constraints out of the shadows into the light of day.

Art starts with nothing to which is added an intense curiosity about a speculated possibility to bring something into visibility.  Some of the best manifestations of this are assertions of the overlooked and unseen.

“The missing object and empty room have become Conceptual art’s degree zero, gesturing towards the conventions that ‘frame’ raw material as art and making room for the forms of openness, contradiction, paradox and irresolution that are contemporary art’s essential condition. Curated by Ralph Rugoff, ‘A Brief History of Invisible Art’ surveyed a range of practices that use the rhetorical figure of invisibility to question the way we look at art. It collected together architectures of air (Yves Klein, Project for a Sheltered City 1959), paintings made with invisible ink, water and thought (Bruno Jakob’s Happy Nothing/Still Collecting, 1990–98), a cursed area (Tom Friedman’s Untitled (A Curse), 1992), a draft of pressurized air (Michael Asher’s Vertical Column of Accelerated Air, 1966–7), an air-conditioned room (Art & Language’s Frameworks: Air-Conditioning, 1966–7), legal documentation for a ‘stolen’ art work (Maurizio Cattelan’s Denuncia, 1991) and waves of energy (Robert Barry’s Electromagnetic Energy Field, 1968)….” (Julian Myers, Frieze, 2006)

“The City and the City,” a novel by China Miéville, takes place in the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. These two cities actually occupy the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens, they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully “unsee” (that is, ignore, or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city—even if they are an inch away. This separation is emphasized by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and in the manners denizens of the cities generally carry themselves. Residents of these cities are taught from childhood to recognize things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them, Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is viewed as a horrible crime by the citizens of the two cities—one which might be worse than murder.

The two cities are joined by crosshatched, alter and total areas. Crosshatched areas might be roads where residents of both cities walk alongside one another—areas that exist in both cities, but usually go under different names in each one. Alter areas might be buildings where one shop is in Beszel, while the next, although immediately adjacent to it, is in Ul Qoma. Finally, there are total areas that exist in either one city of the other, places the citizens of the other city cannot go, or see into. There is also Copula Hall, the only building which exists in both cities under the same name. Rather than being cross-hatched, it essentially functions as a border. It is the only way in which one can legally and officially pass between the cities. Lacking any physicial significance, passage through this border often leads travelers to, geographically, the exact place they started from—only in a different city.” (from wickipedia)

Born in 1910, Harry Bernstein grew up in a slum district of Manchester England, called Stockport, on a street that had Jewish homes on one side and Gentile homes on the other. Except when the Jews hired the Gentiles to do work on the Sabbath, when the Jews could not work, there was virtually no contact between the two sides of the street, which were therefore invisible to each other in almost every way. One day Bernstein, as a small child, finds himself on the gentile side of the street, and passes the open door of a friendly couple named the Forshaws. They have a victrola—an utter novelty at the time—and are playing it as the child passes the door, and, entranced, pauses to listen. He writes, that like residents of Ul Qoma looking through a breach, “The two Forshaws were watching me, though they were pretending not to, with slight smiles.”

In a later episode, he tells this story. “It snowed once that winter. The flakes began to fall from a yellowish sky one afternoon…It was a Sunday afternoon and everybody was at home, and the Christian men and boys were still wearing their best black Sunday suits that they went to church in. Most of them didn’t bother to change. Stanley Jackson and Johnny Melrose and Willie Humberstone and the other Christian lads opposite us began to make a tobaggan slide on their side. Zalman Roseman and Philly Cohen, my brothers Joe and Saul, and all the other Jewish kids on our side began to make one for us too. Pretty soon we had a Jewish slide and a Christian slide, and all the men and women came out on the doorsteps to watch, or if it was too cold for them they watched from the windows.”

“Israel and Palestine are two countries that occupy the same territory, with over 10 million people who do not see or acknowledge each other’s existence.”

–from Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness

4 Comments

  1. Vance Maverick Says:

    So…of what art can this NOT be said? Not of Western religious painting (it renders “the evidence of things unseen” in visual form); nor of history painting (which manifests things of which there are only verbal records). Perhaps only very graphical, text-like art, not just nonrepresentational but non-evocative — Islamic calligraphy or Jasper Johns.

  2. Vance Maverick Says:

    (Got in negation trouble there. Just to be clear, I’m saying that Western history and religious painting CAN be accounted for in these terms.)

  3. David Buuck Says:

    Hey Renny-
    You might be interested in this recent SF exhibition which takes on some of these questions:
    http://www.archive.org/details/ExercisesInSeeing-AudioGuideWrittenAndPerformedByDavidBuuck

  4. Renny Pritikin Says:

    thanks David, I actually spoke with Matt Post about that night. Glad to have the chance to hear your contribution.

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