Friday, August 12, 2005

What so?

SB writes…
Does it really matter whether it's the eye that is 'faulty' by not being sufficiently accurate to be able to distinguish individual fleeting images at 1/24th second and to register them instead as continuous movement, or whether it's the brain that is (consciously or not) more than happy to accept illusion? These are psycho-physiological technicalities, no?

Whether the illusion of picture motion happens in the eye (passively) or in the brain (actively) is more than a psycho-physiological technicality for it opens up the potential of an understanding of all vision as being inherently illusion based. Whether on or off screen it is all an active construction on the part of the viewer.

This potentially calls into question a number of issues around representation, as we are then dealing with the difference between a number of states of illusion rather than between an unmediated visual "reality" and a re-presented one. For example if all perception is illusory then terms such as non-representational take on a new meaning or non-meaning.

So far from being some scientific nicety, vision as illusion offers scope not only for an understanding of how cinema works but for a reinterpretation of it.


SB said...

I suppose my anxieties with this is its potential to lead to a (Cartesian, possibly?) position where visual perception is thought of as being an entirely individual matter and that the cultural, social, consensual dimension becomes subsumed by some sort of relativism of perception. It would tend to support the Brakhage solipsistic notion of 'closed-eye vision', or the world as some kind of collective hallucination. I don't think it necessarily does lead there, as so much of how we perceive is influenced, mediated if you like, by other external factors. While seeing is a subjective business, clearly there is plenty of consensus among individuals in terms of understanding how the world looks. Plenty of consensus about which images are representational and which are not.

What you are suggesting is a kind of paradigm shift, but what difference will this make to most empirical commonly agreed evidence about what we see.

Binaries are too absolute: representation versus abstraction. There is abstraction in representation and pattern recognition in non-representational images and all shades in between. Of course we can all see ducks and maps of africa in the clouds. I just don't 'see' it and I don't think this it a particularly radical departure for the understanding of how cinema operates, and if it is what difference is it likely to have on the way one makes or views cinematic works? And if one does accept it, the idea of vision as illusion is surely more fundamental to an understanding of how vision itself works. In this context cinema is but a small part of our visual perception.

Anonymous said...

Knock Knock
Who's there?
The Invisible Man
Sorry I can't see you right now

ps said...

Vision as illusion could be used to support a certain type of subjectivism but it is not here proposed to the end of denying the cultural and social in favour of subjective individualism. Radical or routine the aim in considering all of this is to try and work towards a critical framework within which both still and moving image work can be considered ( see A Cut Above). The danger in sourcing objections from this or that writer or practitioner (many of whose views are in themselves contradictory) is that one ends up with the current status quo or critical impasse.

SB said...

In my quest for understanding this I found and read the Andersons revisitation of their original paper at

This, from the concluding paragraph is interesting:

If we viewers process the motion in a motion picture the same way we process motion in the real world, then we must ask how we process motion in the real world. The short answer to this question is that we process movement in active meaning-seeking ways. We rapidly sample the world about us, noting the things that change and the things that do not change. We turn our heads for a better view; we move left or right to gain additional information provided by a different angle. We move closer or farther away. We actively seek more information about things that interest us. We seek greater clarity of both our vision and our understanding. And our perceptual system continuously notes whether everything in our field of vision is moving or whether only certain things are moving, the former indicating that we are moving, and the latter that something else is moving. These are elements to ponder in a new theory of the motion picture.

This reminded me of the brief sensation of movement one gets when sitting in a static railway carriage and the train on the next track pulls out. Obviously one thinks one is moving oneself because the view of the other train dominates the field of vision, ditto viewing a film shot on a roller coaster.

Also the description of perceptual processing of motion reminded me of the way digital video codecs such as mpeg2 use keyframes and Variable Bit Rates to compress some frames and not others. The development of compression in digital video may well be based on the 'myth' of persistence of vision? The assumption is that it's perfectly OK to compress a number of frames if there are occasional and regular full-res keyframes, that persistence of vision will do the work of filling in the gaps. But of course it doesn't, and fast movement in mpeg2 video so often appears to be just a blur. This would appear to chime with what the Andersons have found. When there is movement we are processing it in "active meaning-seeking ways" and what we are seeing in the digital video is what is actually there, a visual sludge that doesn't mean anything. Presumably if we were passive viewers we would barely notice the blur. What the Andersons suggest is that we pretty much see every frame and movement is created by our processing of that. This perhaps explain why flicker films or single frame pixellation where subsequent frames containing wildly differing images can leave us feeling (sometimes agreeably) discombobulated. I would still suggest that there is distinction to be made between representational moving images and non-rep/abstract ones. The challenge is then that if we cannot easily create 'meaningful' movement some other effects occur.

the aim in considering all of this is to try and work towards a critical framework within which both still and moving image work can be considered
Yes I appreciate that and this is a fascinating enquiry in terms of the psychology of perception, I'm simply not sure that it has much relevance in or bearing on contemporary practice. I can understand why the Andersons might be pissed off by the fact that they've been ignored by the persistence of vision 'creationists', but I would suggest that most artists using film and video don't have these questions uppermost in their minds and neither is the work very much 'about' this. That's again not to say that it can't be a particularly fertile enquiry, but what's it to do with, say, Douglas Gordon's work? (that's not a rhetorical question either, I'm genuinely curious to see where you can take it, so it's an assignment for your next entry!)

Interesting that the Andersons article is on the Center for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image website. Last time I spoke to Nicky Hamlyn he was talking about cognitive theory in relation to film. Must be something in the air!