Ryan and Trevor Oakes at the Cue Foundation
On Oct. 22, I went to an event at the Cue foundation on 25th St. that featured Lawrence Weschler interviewing identical twins Ryan and Trevor Oakes. Weschler interviewed Ryan and Trevor about their investigations regarding visual perception and their artwork that has resulted from these investigations. The twins, still in their 20s, make some remarkable proposals regarding how we see. Some of these proposals are quite profound and some are also funny—for example, they claim we actually see our noses (and our eyebrows) all of the time... but our brains edit it out.
If you cover one eye, you’ll notice that you can see your nose poking into the lower corner of your visual “frame”. We’ve all seen this. What the twins deduced, and it seems obvious in retrospect, is that we see our noses all of the time. Our noses always intrude upon our field of vision. Unless you adjust your focus, your brain (the other visual sense organ) conveniently edits this intrusion out—I should say intrusions, as the nose pokes into the field of both eyes. Because we have binocular vision, there is overlap in what we see with our right and left eyes. What is obscured in one eye is partially seen by the other. The brain uses this overlapping information to edit out the information that isn’t usually of much use to us—for example, the view of the tip of our own noses. The twins propose that we always “see” our eyebrows as well—that there’s a ridge that intrudes into the top of our visual field, just as the nose lumps intrude, on the right and left sides.
The twins have collected reproduced works that include well-known artists over the centuries. The paintings all seems to have blurry nose shaped regions that intrude the lower left and right corners of the nose. They surmise that these painters have trained themselves to pay close attention to their visual perception.
The twins realized that our depth perception is limited to that which both eyes can see. Though we have a pretty wide field of vision, which includes our peripheral vision, it is only the region that both eyes can see simultaneously that allows us to see in true stereo 3D. They discovered, by moving an object (like a pencil) around and noticing where it falls out of view from one eye, they could determine exactly where the 3D field ends. The 3D field is vaguely shield shaped.
(Image Source) Ryan’s depth-of-field/effect-of-nose drawing.
The shield narrows because our noses prevent both of our eyes from seeing the indented left and right side simultaneously. Weschler suggested that this might account for the shape of shields because holding a shield in front of your enemy effectively blocks them from having 3D vision of you and your sword, making it harder for the enemy to gauge exactly where your sword is in space… especially if you strike from around the side of the shield that is outside of the range of their stereo vision.
During the event, the twins had us hold our fingers in front of our faces and squint. Weschler describes this exercise in a wonderful piece he wrote about Ryan and Trevor:
Or, all right. Try this: See that tree over there in the distance? Close one eye and with your extended thumb block it out of your field of vision. Straightforward,easy. Now, close that eye and open the other, and your thumb will seem to have shifted a few inches to the side; bring it back over and you can block out the tree again. Okay, now leaving your thumb extended like that, open both eyes and you will notice that you can see the entire expanse before you. Even though your thumb is manifestly blocking the scene, you can see the tree and everything to either side with perfect clarity. And in fact you’re not seeing your thumb. Or rather, your thumb appears as a transparent double ghost of itself. (And it’s by way of little experiments like these, rigorously plotted and pursued with redoubled single-mindedness, that the Twins have recently begun making some of the most original breakthroughs in the rendering of visual space, and in particular that of three-dimensional perspective, since... well, actually, since the Renaissance.)
Rather a big claim, but who knows?
Speaking of the Renaissance, the twins noticed that our field of vision is not flat—as it is portrayed in painting, photographs, maps, and almost everything else since the Renaissance—but spherical. They believe that what we see is a portion of the inside of an imaginary sphere—not through a flat grid or virtual window.
Ryan and Trevor created a sculpture made of curved, corrugated cardboard that demonstrates this phenomena. . If you stand in one specific spot when viewing the sculpture, the lines of sight from your eyes see right through the object (through the holes in the cardboard that describe this curved plane). If the object were flat, our sightline wouldn’t go through it.
Here is a side sculpture of the view:
and here, more or less, from the best viewing spot:
The twins were set on finding a way to represent the world as we actually see it. I will give you the short-version of the in-depth explanation Weschler provided. Basically, they made a machine that limited their vision and simultaneously restrained their head movement to keep their vision consistent. Then, they used curved drawing paper to capture, with the hand, what the eye was seeing. Here is one of them using the device in Chicago:
That’s not a hat; it is actually a rotatable plaster head-holder:
They explained that light from the sun travels down to earth in a unidirectional fashion. Then, the unidirectional light bounces off of everything and splays out in countless directions. If the light didn’t disperse in this way—if it bounced off more like pool balls hitting the edge of a pool table— then we’d only see things from specific angles.
It seems our eyesight is like this too, but in reverse. Imagine light from everything we see arriving at the lenses of our eyes—two focal points where all those light rays converge. We see portions of the interior of this boundless sphere.
The twins describe the myriad of splaying rays of light as “light foam.”
Here are some quoted phrases:
"light is velvety"
"there is no such thing as glossy—all light is matte" (they explained that even shiny parts of objects that appear glossy to us are actually matte—and if one could visually isolate those bright spots then this fact would be obvious)
After the Cue foundation, I went to back to a gallery I’d been to earlier in the day to see more of a film that the artist Eve Sussman created.
A couple of reviews compared it to The Clock—the amazing, and incredibly popular piece that Christian Marclay did. But, the process in Sussman’s piece is completely different. What's similar that the audio tracks overlap scenes in both pieces that were completely unrelated—which has the effect of rendering them perceptually contiguous. As a viewer, it soon becomes obvious that both pieces create a narrative out of something that even though you know in advance that there is not a narrative… it is still engaging and sucks you in anyway. I’ve heard this described as “the will to narrative.”
Here’s an excerpt from the gallery press release that explains it:
An expedition to the banks of the Caspian landed Rufus Corporation [Sussman’s production company] in a dystopian “future-opolis” that became the location for their experimental film noir. Pushing the envelope of cinematic form, the film is edited live in real time by a custom programmed computer they call the “serendipity machine”. whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir delivers a changing narrative—culled from 3,000 clips, 80 voice-overs and 150 pieces of music—that runs forever and never plays the same way twice. The unexpected juxtapositions create a sense of suspense alluding to a story that the viewer composes. Driven by key words, the work seamlessly comes together as a movie—that is not a movie.
You see scenes of a man in a hotel room in a city in Kazakhstan and sometimes, you seem him wandering the town. There are scenes around a massive soviet-era building in remont (Russian for renovation—during certain eras, everything was in “remont”):
You see other views of the town—its streets and surroundings. All of it is Soviet-dystopian-looking with funky machinery, archaic gadgets and plumbing. In one scene, the man (an actor) talks to a woman on the phone and asks her where she is. She says, “off shore,” and he asks where that is. She follows with, “I can’t give you that information, sir, I am offshore,” very much like a dark future that would have been imagined some years ago.
About one hour into the film I began to see shots I'd seen before and hear bits of dialogue I'd heard before, but re-combined over completely different images. There were new images, voiceovers, music and dialogue appearing as well, but now they were mixed with elements of what I’d seen before. And it still made "sense!"
This was the cool aspect—beside the attraction of imagining a dystopian story taking place in Baku or some weird Russian oil city we never see—we, the viewer, began to instinctively put together these puzzle pieces of a familiar narrative in our heads that was also emotionally compelling. It is sort of amazing that our minds have this ability to be drawn into something that we know that we’ve seen, but is recombinant and contains no actual narrative.
Our brain’s ability to patch together a coherent visual field and construct a seamless looking image that we know is imaginary (there are noses and trees and thumbs blocking parts of our eyesight) is similar to the propensity to construct a narrative—to imagine a chain of cause and effect out of almost random events. What we see and what we experience of the world is largely a lie, made up by us to satisfy some deeply evolved needs and tendencies. We might know it’s a lie but, still, we are helplessly drawn into these perceptual tricks.