Radiona workshop, Zagreb

I’m doing a workshop related to my research, perceptual illusions and altering perception through experiments, Clay hand illusion and other activities based on sound and light and taste, at Radiona Zagreb, 21-22/04/2018 check out the web Re-mapping the senses workshop page and resources here…



Mechanically Augmented Reality

When I first learned about the Rubber hand illusion [RHI] I immediately began to think about ways in which the process could be automated to create an artwork, in which the experimenter’s presence was removed. This could be done using sensors and a microcontroller to articulate solenoids to tap fingers for example. That thought train was on a back burner until discovered the work of fellow MMU PGR Lin Charlston. As part of her PhD research [See her profile here ‘The Multimodal book as organism, artefact and assemblage: non-human agency in processes of growing and making’] She invented a beautifully simple, entirely mechanical device just to do exactly this.

Drawing of Lin Charlstons device ‘Meshy’

Your hand is placed inside a box, while the other hand turns a crank. On top of the box, another rubber hand is placed. This is where Lin’s experiment takes on its own twist; on top of the rubber hand is a piece of moss. Fixating on this, and turning the crank, a copper disk rotates.  A delicate metal bead curtain brushes over the moss, and over the fingers of the false hand. Simultaneously the hidden real hand receives the same treatment. If the illusion works for you, ownership begins to drift from your real hand to the fake hand. Specifically, the moss begins to feel like it is part of your own hand. [if you are not familiar with the Rubber Hand Illusion check this post]


Although Lin has not settled on a name for the device yet, I couldn’t help trying to think of what one might call such a device and came up with the term ‘Propriosope’ [or Propioscope as I noted] a device for shifting bodily ownership from a body to another body or object [see my post on Unfeaseable objects here…] One could imagine autonomous devices made based on any number of experiments related to the RHI [See my post on Illusions of Invisible, alien hands, 3 arms, and shrinking bodies ]

Experiments with cranks


This has made me reflect on the use of the crank as a convenient mechanism of ‘interaction’. For example; In the RHI synchronous tapping and stroking is essential to generate the illusion. A direct and tangible relationship between what is seen and felt.

Its difficult for the experimenter to replicate this manually, thus a system that can deliver this automatically could useful. It could also be useful in terms of ‘Augmented Virtuality’ interacting with real-world objects in virtual space.
The crank ensures the participant has their hands arm and body in a certain position. And they probably know how to operate the crank intuitively. img_1811                    

The above sketch shows an idea for an experiment: A version of Lin Charlstons device scaled up to resemble a version of body swap illusion [ Henrik Ehrsson and Olaf Blanke]. In which a VR headset was linked to a live camera feed whereby the participant can view their own body, but from a few meters behind themselves. The experimenter taps their back with a stick. In this crank operated version:

  • A person turns a crank.
  • In front of them is a box with an eyepiece into which they look.
  • As they turn the crank, an articulated human model inside the box also turns a crank in synchronisation.
  • The crank turns a ball on a post gently taps both model and participant on the back.

We could try the same arrangement as a physical model, a virtual model viewed in VR. Or linked video, in which the playback is synced exactly with the movement of the crank. How powerful would the effect be? What other Stimuli could be incorporated instead of a tapping ball.

I have experienced something similar in action through an artwork by painter Iain Nicholls and creative technologist Tom Szirtes. ‘Veil’ is a virtual reality work that references early filmmaking, fairgrounds, and the paintings of Velazquez, David Fredrick and Holbein.  The site-specific installation includes a cardboard model house sitting on a plinth and a virtual reality headset which the visitor is invited to wear.

But there is a handle to turn as well, therefore, I would say this verges on Augmented virtuality. I found it to be a powerful effect. I will be writing about this installation and others for the next post…


Illusions of Invisible, alien hands, 3 arms, and shrinking bodies…

I have previously posted about the original ‘rubber hand illusion‘ in which participants are convinced a fake rubber hand is their own. A classic low tech experiment that can help us “understand how sight, touch and “proprioception” the sense of body position, combine to create a convincing feeling of body ownership, one of the foundations of self-consciousness  (Nature 1998, vol 391, p 756 )” Further to this research recent studies have gone on to experimentally induct of out of body experiences or create body swap illusions. [ Henrik Ehrsson and Olaf Blanke ] Between these two experiments, several interesting versions of hand-related experiments also exist which demonstrate the plasticity of our body perception…

The Alien-Hand Experiment (Nielsen 1963;1978]  

The Alien Hand Experiment first created in the 1960s predates the Rubber hand experiment, seems more ‘trick’ than an experiment, but the element of deception is necessary, participants are asked to draw a straight line while viewing their gloved hand in a mirror. Unbeknown to them, they are viewing the experimenter’s hand mimicking their own actions. This could also relate to the Alien hand syndrome [ ] a rare condition in which a person believes their hand is controlled by someone else.

[Guterstam, Gentile & Ehrsson. 2013. The Invisible Hand Illusion: Multisensory Integration Leads to the Embodiment of a Discrete Volume of Empty Space. J Cogn Neurosci ]
The Invisible Hand Illusion is a version of the Rubber hand illusion which uses no hand at all as the fake hand, sometimes a handless stump, and as a control, a wooden plank. they found that participants could embody a ‘Discrete Volume of Empty Space’ a concept which personally I find too exciting not to try at the next available opportunity.

[Guterstam, Petkova & Ehrsson. 2011. The Illusion of Owning a Third Arm. PLoS ONE]
This experiment uses a rubber hand placed next to the real hand of the participant. They found participants were able to feel as if they had two hands, as long as they were both the same hand [left or right]

Stelarc ‘Third Hand’

There is obvious resonance here with the work of Stelarc  whos project ‘Third Hand’ as he explains “A mechanical human-like hand that is attached to my right arm as an additional hand. It is made to the dimensions of my real right hand.”

[van der Hoort, B., Guterstam, A., & Ehrsson, H. (2011). Being Barbie: The Size of One’s Own Body Determines the Perceived Size of the World 10.1371/journal.pone.0020195 ]
The project “Being Barbie: The Size of One’s Own Body Determines the Perceived Size of the World” Builds on the set up created for the body swap illusion and plays with body scale with fascinating results.

There are more but will have to wait for another post.

James Turrel – Light Reignfall

James Turrell’s Light Reignfall @LACMA – Andrew van Baal

James Turrell’s Light Reignfall Light Reignfall is a work from his series of perceptual cells, inside the participant is exposed to a uniform homogenous field of modulated light. A combination of sensory overstimulation, yet deprived of recognisable forms or space, hallucinatory effects are experienced.

“Assisted by an attendant, an individual viewer enters a spherical chamber on a sliding bed. A program of saturated light (operated by a technician) surrounds the viewer for twelve minutes, allowing the visitor to experience the intense, multi-dimensional power of light and the complex seeing instrument of the human eye.”

“James Turrell (b. 1943, Los Angeles), a key artist in the Southern California Light and Space movement of the 1960s and 70s. The exhibition includes early geometric light projections, prints and drawings, installations exploring sensory deprivation and seemingly unmodulated fields of coloured light, and recent two-dimensional work with holograms. One section is devoted to the Turrell masterwork in process, Roden Crater, a site-specific intervention into the landscape just outside Flagstaff, Arizona, presented through models, plans, photographs, and films.”

Is it art if no one can see it?

As an art student, I became interested in the transformative power of the gallery and the simple mechanism of the plinth, literally elevating an object placed upon it to the status of art. I wanted to explore how these mechanisms affect the way people look at things and behave in the gallery. Artists are in a unique position, being able to play with assumptions and expectations, a certain state of perception, one assumes on entering the gallery space, a readiness to look closely and absorb. Potentially reading meaning into things they would otherwise consider banal.

Antony Hall – Plinth with unseeable object 1998

‘Plinth [with unseeable object]’ 1998 is probably my oldest if not the first, conceptual work I made at art school, but the ideas around it still resonate deeply with my practice. ‘Plinth [with unseeable object]’  was a  paradoxical device that was able to display an object, whilst also being able to automatically conceal it if anyone entered the room or approached the plinth. 

I found this idea amusing, but the more I thought about it, and the more people said it would be too difficult to do, the more appealing the idea became. At the time I was studying sculpture and making kinetic work with mechanical and motorised elements. Enjoying this new found access to electrical and mechanical parts and metal working tools, this became my first real engineering problem. It was also my first plinth, made on a budget from cheap chipboard. It took days of sanding and repainting to get it perfectly smooth. [To this day I still spend hours making the most perfect plinths possible, the idea being, that ultimately the plinth becomes invisible, highlighting the work on-top, while in reality, the plinth is as important to the work, as the object placed upon it]

I devised a mechanism with a motor, a series of sensors, relays, and timing mechanisms, to open a hatch, through which an object could emerge. A movement sensor ensured that when anyone entered the space the object would rapidly retract, only to emerge later when no one was in the space. Perhaps on entering the space, one might catch a glimpse of movement, something retracting, or hear mechanical click and whine as the mechanism concealed itself.

I took dark pleasure in watching from a distance, people standing next to the plinth motionlessly waiting for something to happen, to see if it was possible to trick the movement sensors. The mechanism ensured that you would not see the object unless you waited motionless for 15 minutes, and no one else entered the room. The hidden object; a shiny abstract aluminium form chosen purely to gleam and capture attention from a distance.

Obviously many people walked past the work, perhaps perceiving only in a peripheral sense, the absence of a thing, or a space unoccupied.  I took away an important lesson from this work; what began as a simple investigation into the dynamics of the gallery environment and a technical challenge, led to a realisation of the subtle power of what is not shown. And how the viewer can unwittingly interact with a system and become part of the work, becoming an active participant.

What seemed like a rebellious act for me at the time, is a recurrent theme in art history; the archetypical void of nothingness, the absence of material objects; a powerful undercurrent in conceptual art, making the viewer reflect on their own role in the experience and perception of the work of art.

In making this work I developed an interest in working with the environment of the art gallery, using this more like a laboratory of experience. Currently, in my research, I want to investigate this area and explore this notion of ‘perceptual art’, artists working with pure experience, and illusion; work that is activated through human behaviour and interaction. A discussion I hope to elaborate on through this blog.

Below I have listed some key works, early predecessors which built foundations for a movement towards more intangible, immaterial and sensory artworks:

See also posts on Somaesthetics
See post on ‘Unseen by the artist’ [Lost work] 1999

Key historical works on the theme of nothingness:

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Air de Paris’ [1919] ‘Ampoule of Parisian ether’, Robert
Rauschenberg’s White Paintings
John Cage’s silent music piece 4′33″ [1952]
Yves Klein’s aura-infused gallery space [1958].

Chris Burden concealed himself within a gallery space on several occasions for durational performances. The simple suggestion of a creative presence, substituting for the work of art itself.

Andy Warhol’s ‘Invisible sculpture’ [an empty plinth]  joke on the commercial art world perhaps?

Other artists/works:

Marina Abramovich, James Turrel’s light works, Tom Friedman’s ‘1000 Hours of Staring’

Notes and references:
The eloquence of absence: omission, extraction and invisibility in contemporary art

“Null Object: Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing” in which an object was created from his brainwaves whilst trying to think about nothing.

Life is an illusion. I am held together in the nothingness by art

Notes on olfactory art

Olfactory art or Scent art has been growing over recent years, And I would agree with the premise, that ‘it has been long disregarded as one of the lower senses’ [] I remember turning up for the opening of my own exhibition and discovering that along with the beverages, a selection of delicious snacks had been presented on tables placed inside the gallery space. The smell of the food filled the gallery and I felt at the time that this took away from the work. The smells that would have accompanied the work would have been, hot electronics and detergent. perhaps a hind of coffee from another experiment. Here are a few links to useful sites/research on the subject:

Image from  “the Baltan Laboratories,  a collaborative platform for future thinking that places art and design research at the core of its activities, in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, invited me to give a “smell” workshop in the context of their program Hack the Body.
It was an intense 4h afternoon were we review together the physiological aspects of smell, as how it related to memory, olfactory art examples, and the best, we conducted a distillation out of the 3-days-slept-in t-shorts of the participants.”

“The sense of smell has long been disregarded as one of the lower senses. More recently, however, the cultural and social relevance of the sense of smell is increasingly recognized”

“Baltan is both a network and a methodology: It sees the lab as a way of working and as a place where ideas are put into practice through projects in which freedom of thought, openness towards the unknown, experiment and playfulness are key.
Baltan stimulates a cross-disciplinary approach conducted in an open-minded atmosphere based on trust, empathy and mutual inspiration.”