Alan Kirker

Illusion

March 28th, 2020 by

From afar a coastline might look as though it is smooth and inviting, whereas a closer-up, higher resolution view might reveal a rocky, forbidding shore. Similarly, standing directly beside a large circle painted on the asphalt might make it appear elliptical or oblong-shaped, as compared to looking at it from directly overhead. Even with adequate context, appearances can still sometimes be misleading. What we perceive as the truth is often just an emergent phenomenon and perhaps only a partial picture of the whole. Notions of scale, context, as well as the abilities and limits of our own perceptual systems, all play a role in interpreting how things look, sound, smell, and feel.

In stereophotogrammetry, photographs of a particular region, purposefully taken seconds apart from an aircraft flying high above, might initially appear identical. A closer look reveals minute changes, such as shadows shifted due to the slight difference in perspective. Nowadays this type of imaging data can be fed into complex algorithms, and in some instances combined with range-finding laser data (LiDAR) to generate accurate three-dimensional views of the landscape.

In days gone by, viewing such a stereoscopic pair of photographs, or stereogram, required a contraption called a stereoscope. You may recall the more recent plastic View-Master with its shutter-like lever that came with round disks of tiny, paired images, or 3D glasses based on the same principle, that are still in use today. These technologies present just the left perspective image to the left eye, and the right perspective image to the right eye, from a set distance. When the nearly twin images are viewed in this manner, the resulting three dimensional illusion does not appear on the glass of the device, or as on the page or screen of an artist’s drawn visual perspective, but rather materializes with realistic clarity directly in the viewer’s mind. Viewing an air-photo stereo pair would have hills and mountains rise up from the erstwhile flat land, while the valleys and lowlands receded. A rich gestalt sense of an area could be derived from such a  three-dimensional portrayal, not otherwise apprehensible from an individual air or satellite photo. Convincing appearances thus need not necessarily exist in just the physical world, and are sometimes purely figments of the perceptual system, or even of the imagination.

More broadly, beyond our hacking of binocular vision, nature has conferred on us the intrinsic ability to illude; to imagine what is and isn’t there. The world around us is perpetually being crafted as we perceive, as though we’re each an artist interacting with it, conjuring illusions and interpretations of what’s in front of us, and what lies beyond the range of our perceptions. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks remarked that, “each act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”.

Deep Design

March 10th, 2020 by

From the perspective of an artist or designer, deep design can have several, similarly-aligned meanings. Successful pieces of art, to use one of many subjective metrics to define success in this context, are popular, and often so because the audience sees in them some common, underlying aesthetic or informational aspect which is pleasing. Perhaps this is a result of mathematical symmetry or asymmetry, or that the piece in question somehow resonates in a particular way with their emotions, or their perception of reality.

An artwork may even go so far as to solve or reify some belief because viewing, reading, hearing, or participating in it evokes a particular memory or feeling. In Tim Parks’ book, Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness, he describes Manzotti’s spread mind theory of consciousness, wherein images, and other sense gate throughput, don’t get stored in the brain, but instead create an impression upon initial exposure, which thereafter gets called up and compared with the subject’s live sensory experience, as a key trying to fit a lock. There are no vast libraries of images, sounds, or smells filed away up there, nor are there images or other sense data being found in any meaningful neurological sense in the grey matter, apart from correlated flashes of neural activity. Does such a view support the case of an artwork whose idiosyncratic qualities elicit a particular response, often among many people, and perhaps in a manner similar to Jung’s patients identifying common archetypes in their recounted dreams? Does deep design in this sense become a question of intention on the part of the artist, or does it have to do with perception, on the part of the viewer?

Artists and designers often approach a creative undertaking as a problem that demands a solution or some form of reconciliation. On one level, a designer might identify such a problem as finding an appropriate “look and feel”, however socio-culturally defined, which will help achieve the aim of attracting attention, clarifying information, educating someone, or marketing a product or service. Design in such cases might not only seek to achieve such an aesthetic benchmark, but also to convey messages beyond the overt. For example, Google is noted for their various interfaces’ clean, uncluttered design, and judicious use of white space to help steer and focus users’ attention. The hierarchies, menus, buttons, the geometry of the layout and other virtual affordances, all combine in a gestalt manner to enable information coherence. Not only does design support the key function of helping such data assimilation, it performs an additional, deeper function; embedding in the user’s mind the sense of an efficient, precise, perhaps even trustworthy organization. This is translated into, for example, the obtained service or commodity being perceived as pertinent and up-to-date. The simple, colourful treatment of Google’s wordmark brand performs a similar deep purpose; namely, conveying a sensation of broadly appealing approachability. One may even be moved to feel that this is an organization they want to interact with, despite it being merely an algorithm. Deep layers of meaning can therefore be embedded or projected in a variety of ways using design.

Physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek similarly states that the structure of reality is far richer than its surface appearances, and that this underlying order itself may be regarded as exemplary of deep design. He points to the analogy of using visual perspective in art, where it’s applied to create an illusion of space. A flat, two-dimensional portrayal springs to life in illusory three-dimensions with careful attention to drawn perspective. Using mathematics, such an approach can be applied even more deeply, as in the case of projective geometry, where specific math is applied to create the appearance of a measured reality. One example are the various mathematical formulae used to create geographic maps. As an artist or draftsperson uses perspective to reduce a scene’s three-dimensional appearance to two-dimensions, a cartographer would employ a map projection, created using geodetic datums, to reduce the three-dimensional nature of the earth’s surface down to an appearance in two-dimensions, and enable the precise transposition of different measures from a curved, irregular surface onto the projected two-dimensional plane. Math imparts a deep, meaningful design to the projection, and the resulting map.

Taking these ideas a step further, if the reality that we inhabit, or perhaps more appropriately, if the appearance of a reality that we experience is in fact a projected, unfolded space-time construction, what does the original source look like, or where does it exist? One of David Bohm’s thought experiments used to help illustrate his theory of the invisible, implicate order that underlies reality, involves inserting one hollow, clear plexiglass cylinder inside a similar, wider one. The space between them, wide enough to allow rotation, is filled with a viscous, translucent substance such as glycerine. A drop of black ink is inserted into this medium and the outer cylinder is then rotated against the inner one in a given direction so that the ink droplet stretches to become a thin line coiling around the inner cylinder with each successive turn. In theory, the cylinder could continue to be turned until the line winds up disappearing from sight, creating the illusion of having completely vanished, and becoming enfolded within the otherwise clear viscous medium between the nested cylinders. Due to this viscous nature, though, a careful rewinding of the outer cylinder back in the opposite direction causes the line to recompose and reconstitute as its original particle-like droplet. In such a manner, can some tangible aspect of our perceived reality be reverse distilled, its projection run backwards, and its higher-order essence revealed, or modeled in some way? 

Is the ultimate essence simply numbers and math? If artistic beauty, for example, can be boiled down to such a fundamental level, does it not still speak to the need for there to be some underlying impetus driving the whole affair? Does the framework of Panpsychism, where some form of consciousness, and thus intention, inhabits everything in the universe, offer a reasonable explanation? Does physicist Frank Wilczek’s phrase “nature’s deep design” evoke the notion of an artist, designer, or some other pre-ordained intentionality that’s currently beyond our grasp? Importantly, if we are part of a projection that has been created in a manner metaphorically similar to that of an artwork or a map, is this resulting construct which we have come to know as reality therefore completely illusory, in some grander context?

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