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Visual Culture

This weeks reading for Critical Debates has been a chapter from Nicholas Mirzoeff's How to See the World. I launched straight into reading the given chapter How We Think About Seeing without first checking on anything else around the subject, or even reading the book's introduction - time is limited and the introduction is as long as the prescribed chapter.


In the chapter the author races through theories or models of sight, bringing us up to date with current neurological thinking which identifies seeing as a complex function of many areas of the brain with parallel paths and feedback loops. This network of pathways incorporate the retina as part of the brain (its interface, to use a computing term) rather than something separate that simply relays an image to the brain. The image is something that is "computed" by the brain in the way that all digital images are effectively the result of computation..


He draws a clever visual parallel between the diagram of vision created by Daniel J. Fellerman and David C. Van Essen and Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie as showing the neural impulses in a dance of parallel to and fro. This unintentional parallel with neuroscience reminded me of the far more explicit interpretation of the neuroscience presented in Pierre Huyghe's Uumwelt at the Serpentine Gallery in 2018. Here, Huyghe used images manipulated by an AI based on MRI scans of a subject’s brain activity while being asked to imagine certain objects. The images produced have a quality of being almost something recognisable before melting into another form.


For me, this link to Huyghe is also there when Mirzoeff introduces a distinction between artists attempting to capture a "blinking" vision (one which "is aware of its effort to see, of the difference between it and what it is trying to see") and sharp edges and crisp precision of neo-classical painting which set the model of 'correct' focus in photography. This correctness was challenged by early photographers - sharp lines, or insight - and he concludes in this section that "it is noticeable that people today often put more trust in a less-than-perfect photograph or video that takes an effort to decipher than they do into a professionally finished work, because they suspect that the latter will have been manipulated"


He goes on to present the concept of body maps - how we have a perception of how our body is organised that allow us to always know where a certain part of our body is without looking - and how according to recent research, "there are two streams of brain activity: one for perception and one for action" (Nassi and Calloway 2009). He concludes this section, drawing on this research which also states that the brain is thought to have 80 locations linked by 12 parallel pathways involved in the process of vision, by confirming that much of what we perceive (speed, shape and colour) that we attribute to the traditional concept of vision, is not actually seen, but computed.


This was reinforced on the life drawing session I attended last night with Aldous Eversleigh. The model was late in arriving and Adlous was explaining how his approach to drawing and, I guess, his approach to teaching, had much more to do with recent neurological thinking than anatomical drawing of the past - unfortunately I was not taking notes so can't quite reproduce his reasoning. It all becomes doubly confused as we are not really drawing from life, we're doing these sessions over Zoom so we are already watching a computed image which we are trying to decipher into so sort of reality - itself a computation in our own brains.


In the final section of the chapter, The Mirror and the Community, Mirzoeff discusses the research of Vittorio Gallese, introducing the term, 'mirror neurons' which react to us seeing someone do something, in the same way they would if we were doing the same thing ourselves. It is these enable us to to visualize the word from the point of view of others enabling both empathy and imagination.


I found the whole chapter interesting and it piqued my scientific curiosity, but I was reading it with not context. It was only when I listened to a lecture given at Trinity College in 2010 (preceding this book) which explained visual culture in the context of that symposium, its relevance to my own practice became clearer and I read the introduction to the book. Last year I read James Bridle's, The New Dark Age and listened to his 2019 radio series New Ways of Seeing which, like Mirzoeff, 'updates' John Berger's Ways of Seeing to the digital age and this informed some of my work. I can see now that there is so much in the Mirzoeff's introduction alone that aligns with what I'm trying to consider in my work related to social media, big data, and social and environmental justice that I need to read more.


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