Week 7: Blinded by Perception

During the Renaissance, those who were well-educated were simultaneously involved in the arts as well as the sciences. Harmony between rationalization and creativity was celebrated. But with the Industrial Revolution came a divide between art and science, separating them as two cultures. In a famous 1959 essay, British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow argues that it is this divide which most prevents us from solving the problems that plague the world.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, “scientists increasingly worked with theories that specified entities that could not be seen or directly sensed, for example, atomic structure and genetics” (Wilson 297). At the same time, remote sensing technology was expanding, particularly for surveillance purposes. So began the invasion of worlds we could not see, of the microscopic as well as the macroscopic yet remote. We looked within ourselves while expanding what we could see beyond ourselves, essentially becoming omnipercipient.

And yet, we remained shockingly blind, because of our perception.

Stills from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War"
Photo over Auschwitz concentration camp, taken en route to Farben chemical plant

The film we watched after lecture, Images of the World and the Inscription of History by Harun Farocki, examines how our perception influences our interpretation of history. It focuses on the aerial reconnaissance photos accidentally taken of Auschwitz during World War II, revealing the location of the concentration camp but also revealing nothing, because the military was not looking for the camp. They had other priorities.

Stills from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War"
Closeup of Auschwitz concentration camp in photo

In our attempts to search for something particular, we often overlook the most important things right before our eyes. Consider this well-known smuggling legend:

There was a man who had worked at a factory for twenty years. Every night when he left the plant, he would push a wheelbarrow full of straw to the guard at the gate. The guard would look through the straw, and find nothing and pass the man through.

On the day of his retirement the man came to the guard as usual but without the wheelbarrow. Having become friends over the years, the guard asked him, “Charlie, I’ve seen you walk out of here every night for twenty years. I know you’ve been stealing something. Now that you’re retired, tell me what it is. It’s driving me crazy.”

Charlie simply smiled and replied, “Okay, wheelbarrows!”

Snopes.com

Moral of the story: what you are searching for may often be hiding in plain sight. Numerous camouflaging techniques were employed by both sides during the war, yet one of the most critical sites of destruction was laid out without disguise, and completely overlooked.

Now more than ever, people are attempting to bridge the gap between art and science. Simon Penny, a robotics artist, “illustrates a major trend in technology/science-based art in which artists work to become knowledgeable about an area of technology or science and then engage in cultural critique, revealing narratives and concepts that might be invisible to regular practitioners of the field” (Wilson 307-308). In this class, the idea that art serves to make visible the invisible is often repeated.  Art historian Rachel Haidu suggests that “part of the reason why no one ‘saw’ Auschwitz in the 1944 photographs…was a failure of the imagination”.

Could a lesson in Cubist-style geometry have improved the Americans’ ability to ‘see’ in 1944?

Had the images contained the gestural expressionism that is conventionally considered suited to depictions of atrocity, would they have been more useful?

Does the severe geometry of those photos in fact relate to the project of mass extermination—or even to related productivist ideals of efficiency and the superhuman?

—Haidu 201

If scientists and the military had been collaborating with artists in the twentieth century, would further tragedy have been prevented? Speculation serves limited purpose. If we wish to make amends for the tragedies caused by our ignorance, we must continue closing the gap between art and science not only for sci-artists but for the general public. With the omnipercipience afforded by remote sensing, we can no longer claim ignorance as an excuse for overlooking the tragedies happening around us.

Kathy Huynh

Further Reading: Our desire to expand our perception in reality is now being mirrored in the virtual world. Check out this article about The Anxieties of Big Data: “The bigger the data gets, the more small things can be overlooked.”

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