Humane Ingenuity 40: In Sight

I’m back from a summer hiatus — perhaps not into the carefree fall I (and you) had hoped for. But with students streaming once again into my library, the beginning of this academic year still has that rejuvenating anticipation of new experiences and encounters — a prompt for all of us to shake out of our complacency, to open ourselves once again to new ways of seeing.


Seeing as an underexplored, strange experience animates the art of James Turrell. Our family made one of our pilgrimages to Mass MoCA to see the new Turrell exhibit “Into the Light,” which I recommend if you can make the journey to the far northwestern corner of Massachusetts. The exhibit restages some of his classic approaches to abstract lightwork, including a room where a floating pink cube is actually, somehow, an inset into a curved wall, and darkened spaces with just enough reflected light to confuse and, ultimately, enthrall.

Turrell’s art can be read on many levels, and I am too amateur an art critic to give it that that proper multilevel reading, but my shorthand for what he is trying to do — beyond art and architecture’s traditional interest in color, form, space, and the interactions thereof, and the presentation of some deeply engaging, often transcendent experiences, like his now ubiquitous Skyspaces — is the disaggregation of seeing itself.

Two years ago on an episode of the What’s New podcast, I interviewed Ennio Mingolla, the head of the Computational Vision Laboratory at Northeastern University, and Ennio briskly shook up my ill-conceived, almost comically oversimplified notions about seeing. Human sight is not even close to a representation of the world around us, with the eye like the megapixel sensor at the heart of a digital camera. Instead, it is an aggregation of many distinct skills we have accumulated over the course of evolution, such as the ability to separate objects from backgrounds, the sense of when an object is coming toward us or moving away, and the talent of discerning colors at the periphery or in the center of our field of vision. Together, through a mysterious process in the brain, these elements are nearly instantly synthesized into something comprehensible, appearing as ho-hum as a hotel lobby painting.

Turrell rips that visual complacency apart, presenting to the eye profoundly abnormal situations that confront us with the wonder of vision itself. In his most powerful work in the Mass MoCA exhibit, shown above, you are placed into a cavernous room with no defined edges and an ever-shifting “screen” of color. In this environment, your brain cannot perform its tricks: it is unclear how far away the walls and screen are, or even if they firmly exist, and your peripheral vision and focal vision seemingly reverse their roles.

Because your regular assembly of sight has been scattered — the magic of the synthesis dispelled — you “see” new things. Subtle transitions between the screen tones make the room feel like it’s in a hazy cloud; the color you see on the backs of your eyelids when you blink changes repeatedly and begins a conversation with your open-eyed view; and when a strobe light startlingly comes on, for the first time you see…well, I don’t want to ruin the whole thing for you. Go see it. (And if you do, get reservations weeks in advance; they only let a dozen people in at a time, which makes it even more special.)

The larger lesson of Turrell’s art is that our apparently obvious views are complicated composites that should be challenged and deconstructed. Do not be lulled by the faux Rothko and mellow Musak in the hotel lobby. As this season of the Humane Ingenuity newsletter begins, I invite you to put yourself in the headspace of a first-year college student, curious and skeptical, averting your eyes from our monochromatic media landscape as you seek a more subtle and colorful world.

[For some of my previous writing on Mass MoCA exhibits, see “The Artistic and the Digital” (2007); “Sol LeWitt and the Soul of Creative and Intellectual Work” (2008); “For What It’s Worth: A Review of the Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’” (2016)]

A visualization of the logos of 5,837 metal bands, grouped by theme, similarity, font, and “13 Dimensions of Doom”:

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Extra headbanging points awarded for the creative use of:

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An editor’s note about my media production: Over the summer, and as I have to remind myself to do every few years, I once again consolidated what I write (and broadcast and post) on my online home for the last twenty years, I am still planning to use Buttondown to send this newsletter to those who like to receive it by email; I like supporting small developer shops, and Justin does a great job with the mechanics of newslettering. But I’m moving finished issues back over to my own domain, so they can commingle and be archived with my other work rather than living elsewhere.

For those new to Humane Ingenuity, that means that you can now access back issues on my own domain, and that’s also where you can subscribe (as always, for free) to the newsletter.