PUBLIC PRIVATE PERCEPTIONS

 

PUBLIC PRIVATE PERCEPTION 02

2002, video live installation (1 live feed projection, one video projection) in solo show at neon campobase, Bologna, based on a previous version took place at Toynbee Studios, London.

THE PIECE

I explore the environment through touch, while being blindfolded, focusing on the possible new connections between touch and absence of vision, and associate a tactile sensation to colours, thus mapping the place. On show is one projection of a prerecorded action taken place in London, opposite to one projection of a live action taking place in a separate room.

CONTEXT

The overall context investigated in the work is the relationship body-environment: how this influences my perception of myself in delivering a piece. I believe that the awareness of the bodily experience (here through touch) of the environment enables me to reposition my self within a particular place. The apprehension is subject to the changing conditions of the context; from the juxtaposition of present and past action the space/time in between seems to arise as a possible answer.

 

The surfaces present certain characteristics that I try to visualise with my eyes blindfolded, and by saying colours I draw a map, neurological as well as one that indicates urban places.

The audience simultaneously in two projections perceives the two dimensions a relationship between two representations of myself in different dimensions of time and space takes place.

PUBLICATIONS

Cologni, E., ed. Public Private Perception 02, texts by Malcolm Le Grice, Marina Wallace, Elio Grazioli

EXTRACT

IMAGES OF KNOWING

by Marina Wallace

“I came to the fields and spacious palaces of memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. There are stored up,….either by enlarging or diminishing,…those things which the sense hath come to. ”

St Augustine, Confessions (357-400AD)

In response to the body of work and related research that comprises Elena Cologni’s video/live installation, “Public Private Perceptions” (2001-2002) – (originally performed at the Toynbee Theatre in London on 21st of October 2001, and presented by the artist at the PARIP symposium at the University of Bristol, 10-11 November 2001 as a paper entitled ‘Private action becoming public. A practical investigation on the performer’s reactions to the environment’) – I shall reflect on memory, and consider its complex relationship with the five senses, particularly vis-à-vis images and vision. The subject is vast, and much has been written on it. Here, I only propose to offer some reflections, thinking about one of the crucial advances of the last century: the use of photography in art and in life.

Our memory of the visual world is fed by a wealth of images that populate our visual field. Some of these images are projections of “live” and “real” things, of the three-dimensional “moving” objects that occupy our world; some are two-dimensional renderings of “life”, they are transcriptions of the “real world” produced in various graphic forms and by different media, such as painting, film, and photography. Our emotional and psychological responses to two-dimensional images are quite different from those we have when looking at three-dimensional images. Equally, we react differently in front of moving or still images. Post-modern writing on the history and theory of photography and film, which had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, epitomised by Roland Barthes and Laura Mulvey, deconstructed the two related forms of art in relation to our perceptions, using, as a point of reference, psycho-analytical theories, from Sigmund Freud to Jacques Lacan. Here, I should like to proceed from premises that are more connected with the neuro-sciences, with our every day experiences, and with the artist’s point of view, than with the much cited post-constructivist writings on art theory.

CLEAR AND WELL LIGHTED PLACES

The common vocabulary now used to describe the operations of our minds is closely related to the terminology used for film and video, and, of course, computers. We “focus” on things, life events and their objects are “viewed”- sometimes in a “distorted” way – and they are “recorded” in our minds, “stored” up in our memory, and we “access” them by “scanning” our “mental filing system”. These terms give us the impression of being fully in control of what may seem an ordered and systematic process. However, as the neuro-scientist Antonio Damasio observed, “only a fraction of what goes on mentally is really clean enough and well lit enough to be noticed, and yet it is there, not far at all, and perhaps available if only you try.”[1] This “trying” is what forms so much of our wakefulness, and it is aided by an array of visual devices.

The “trying” was different in ancient times, in a world without printing, film, television or computers, when “artificial memory” techniques were used to aid the art of rhetoric (at least since Cicero’s time), and were linked to ideals of ethics and prudence. Memory was deemed to be a natural gift, that could be assisted by the especially constructed “art of memory”, a system based on a few rules, but requiring a great deal of exercise. [2] Within the particular context of a classical world, a world without an advertising industry based on a world-wide mass production of manipulated images, words themselves were considered to be highly important social and political tools, and had to be memorised. The “art of memory” was devised for this specific purpose. Martianus Capella, a pagan orator writing around 450 AD about the benefits of this newly formed art, stated that its great advantage was that it enabled words and things to be grasped quickly and firmly. Martianus distinguished between “memory for things, and memory for words”. However important, words were not always to be memorised, as this was felt to be a demanding skill for the human mind “Unless there is plenty of time for meditation, it will be sufficient to hold the ‘things’ themselves in memory, particularly if the memory is not naturally good.”[3]

 

ILLUSTRATION: Day with the genius of light, Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1815, marble, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen

It is interesting to note that metaphors used in the 21st century to describe consciousness, are not dissimilar to those used in ancient days to describe memory. Damasio talks of “clear and well lit images”[4]. Useful rules for artificial memory, in classical times, included the visualisation of “well lighted places” (locis illustribus), filled with “images of things” (species rerum) and “striking agents” (imagines agentes), such as a memorable (human) figure in an unusual pose. Cicero speaks of images as “active” and “sharply defined”, setting them within what we can visualise in our modern minds as a sort of photographic studio:

“One must employ a large number of places which must be well lighted, clearly set out in order, at moderate intervals apart, and images which are active, sharply defined, unusual, and which have the power of speedily encountering and penetrating the mind.” Cicero, De Inventione…..

Damasio, writing about the extension of “core consciousness”, to which he refers as “extended consciousness”, describes two “tricks” which aid its emergence and storage:

“The first trick requires the gradual build up of memories of many instances of a special class of objects: the ‘objects’ of the organism’s biography, of our own life experience, as they unfolded in our past, illuminated by core consciousness. Once autobiographical memories are formed, they can be called up whenever any object is being processed. Each of those autobiographical memories is then treated by the brain as an object, each becoming an inducer of core consciousness, along with the particular non-self object that is being processed. ….The second trick consists of holding active, simultaneously and for a substantial amount of time, the images whose collection defines the autobiographical self and the image which defines the object. The reiterated components of the autobiographical self and the images whose collection defines the autobiographical self and the object are bathed in the feeling that arises in core consciousness.”

MIND AND LIGHT TRICKS    

Thinking of objects and images that may aid the recall of our autobiographical self, it seems that photographs can be best suited at performing the second “trick” that Damasio describes: they hold active, simultaneously, and for a substantial amount of time the images whose collection may define the autobiographical self. However photographs are not images inside our brains. On the contrary, they are two-dimensional graphic devices, external to our minds, which portray reality in a convincing and illusionary manner, giving us only the impression of viewing our past, or the past of our friends and relatives.

ILLUSTRATION: black & white photograph of two children by an old well

However, photographs re-enter our consciousness in a process of psychological displacement, common also to painting, film, and now computer-generated images. Family photographs shape our own views of events, past and present. In the process of replacing the memories of our childhood or past events, they also take the place of the “well lighted” places with orderly objects, which the ancients recommended we should create in our own minds in order to remember. Furthermore, press and other publicly used photographs shape our expectations of every day social and political events. Images and, in particular, photographic images, have a power that has been well-explored and widely recognised.

The emergence of photography as an “art” caused much debate in academic circles in the 19th century. From its beginnings, photography shaped the standards and expectations of artists. Those training in art in Europe and the USA in the 1860s were aware of the fact that established painters made use of photography. Nevertheless, debates about the possible relationship between photography and painting raged on. Deeply rooted prejudices were set against the appeal of photography’s aesthetic qualities, and its applications in art. Questions were raised about the relationship between artistic talent or genius, and academic skill in observation, above all recollection (the memory and mental record of the seen), composition, and drawing. Thus, whilst the increasingly common use of photography by painters in the 19th century was widely recognised, it was rarely condoned unreservedly.

The greatest trick of all in the game of visual remembering, “drawing with light”, was received with scepticism and, for a long time, it caused much controversy, as it does, paradoxically, even now through David Hockney’s famous attempts to relate the use of optical devices by artists to their creative skills and artistic production.

The relatively straight forward implications of resorting to using two-dimensional photographic or projected images for the purpose of aiding our visual memory, has been buried under mountains of theoretical and technical explanations. It would be worth taking one step back to reflect upon what the ancients were formulating and envisaging. The “well lighted places”, with ordered objects and significant figures in unusual poses, could be paralleled to many of the images which we can now print and view outside of our minds. Without falling into the trap of creating equivalent amounts of theory in a different direction, I should simply like to point out that, looking at a three-dimensional, “real”, moving section of reality (the real world), is a very different business, psychologically, from looking at a still, two-dimensional printed image. Artists who paint, draw, or make art from a projected image or from a photograph, distance themselves intentionally from the “real” world, from its many stimuli, thus reducing and selecting the stimuli for the purpose of a more focussed representation of the visual experience as it is remembered and recorded by the senses. Vision, only one of the senses, is correlated by the other four senses, and smell, touch, hearing, and taste contribute to the images we create in our minds more than we immediately realise or concede. (Homer’s exquisite poetic sensitivity was focussed not least by his proverbial lack of sight.)

The “tricks” of extended consciousness, analysed by neuro scientists, and those which the ancients devised to aid and extend memory, ensure that the complex and fundamental functions performed by our minds are retained and used again.

Elena Cologni’s “tricks” of her artistic activity include performing her relatively simple actions blind-folded, repeating her performances in different environments, switching perceptions, and alternating between private and public spaces, conceptually swapping places with the audience. Her work reflects a preoccupation with mental processes linked to cognition, vision and touch. She is interested in the contribution of all the senses to vision. Her action and project of a video installation in two parts,‘…going to the bedroom from the dining room’ (April 2001) and ‘…going to the rear garden from the side entrance’ (May 2001), represents her way of “apprehending a part of the domestic space”. She controls her perceptions and stimuli by controlling the environment in which these take place. “The background is almost silent, the visual space tightly shot. I wanted to record the tactile sensation of these places with the aim both of remembering and encountering them for the first time.”

She often performs in front of a mirror, and treats the lens literally as a reflective surface (applying her morning make-up in front of the camera lens, simultaneously recording her own image electronically and mentally). Her special interest in synaesthesia – the particular condition according to which some individuals have a multi-sensory experience as a reaction to different stimuli – derives from her autobiographical memories of her childhood (to which she refers in her work in the form of a diary). Synaesthesia, which is found to be common in babies, gives way to more specialised and exclusive sensory perceptions as the cervical cortex develops. In some individual adults, sensory perceptions continue to “blend”, and they go through life attributing smells to shapes, colours to sounds, or shapes to words. Since the art of memory relies on skills of association, often across the senses, it shares much in common with synesthetic experiences – as, for instance, when we associate a particular smell or taste with a particular sight or sound.

Cologni’s autobiographical self is defined both in relation to perceptions of a synaesthetic kind, and to the physical space that surrounds her. Her “mental maps” – her actions and video/live performances – contribute to reveal how very complex and articulated mind processes are. The surfaces the artist touches blindfolded in her attempt to recall different sensations appear to be  irregular, porous, and rough. “Blind-folded, I try and visualise these surfaces.  Calling out names of colours, I create a drawing which both is a neurological map, and a map which points to a physical space.”

During one of her live performances, she showed a video of herself at home. To her private image, projected in public, she added the projection of a coloured screen as a marker of perception. “Exploring the environment through the sense of touch with my hands and keeping my eyes covered, I register the information of the space which was, until then, known to me only through sight. I associate a colour to a tactile sensation, in two different situations: at home, without an audience, and in the theatre, in front of an audience.”

In a way, Cologni’s autobiographical video image is treated, by the artist, on a par with her actual presence in the performance space. Each recording, and each performance, adds to the store of images of herself and of her experience of self. Elena Cologni’s diary, which is directly related to her performance work, includes present memories of her past childhood, recent interpretations of what may have been her actual past memories. A wardrobe in the artists’ childhood bedroom is remembered as if it had been viewed through a wide-angle lens. The image becomes “stored” amidst other “archival” images of her past. However the sum of the artist’s performances and video recordings, as well as of the extracts from her personal diary, do not add up to a final and ultimate knowledge of self. As in the case of the human brain, the information is not stored for later retrieval, but what is remembered is continually changed by new learning, and new connections. The visual archive is complemented by new visual and sensory experiences. Thus memory is actively and continuously at work.

FORGET ME NOT

Themistocles is supposed to have refused to learn the art of memory by saying that he preferred “the science of forgetting” to that of remembering. His contemporaries warned him against the risk of not exercising the newly conceived “art of memory”. Once invented, this art could not be forgotten.

In a similar way, once someone has seen a photograph, and realised how it is made, they cannot forget photography. So compelling has the photograph become in our minds as a trace of a past time that our view of memory itself has been transformed. We instinctively sense that the fixing of the image is akin to an act of memory. In fact, the acts are basically dissimilar. They share a certain level of selectivity, but the photograph nowhere comes close to the extraordinary plasticity of memory as the object becomes transformed in form and meaning, both as it is laid down and as it is later recalled.

Through two-dimensional images, which are placed outside the artist’s minds, and through actions and words, performed and spoken by the artist and by her interlocutors, Elena Cologni is in a continuous process of construction and re-construction of memorable events, judiciously joining life and art, movement and stillness: “My work is the result of my instinctive interest in understanding the importance, the symbolism, and the limits of the sense of sight.”

Memory and forgetfulness, seeing and not-seeing alternate in a seamless process which moves from life to art, and back again. In this process, remember to keep the camera rolling…and do not forget to turn on the lights…

 

[1] Antonio Damasio, The feeling of what happens, Body, emotions, and the making of consciousness., London, 2000, p. …?

[2] Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, London, 1996

[3] ibid. p. 64

[4] Antonio Damasio, The feeling of what happens, Body, emotions, and the making of consciousness., London, 2000, p.129

 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
neon campobase, Bologna
London Underground