Seeing ourselves, morphing & perception
mirrors, lights & bathroom tiles
My bathroom is dark, I purposely selected dark tiles to keep it that way for 2 reasons, the first was practical — The tile selection choices by the builder (without paying a lot more money) were in blue or green were limited to ugly tiles with kitschy designs embedded in them, the only solid was cream — so I asked for them to mix the cream up with some of the solid floor tiles — dark brown coffee coloured tiles — because I love coffee and hated the kitschy tiles.
The underlying cause and second reason to keep the bathroom on the dark side was that — “I feel pretty” in the night-time and vanity prevails here. The shadow side is not the unknown or scary side. It is the hidden flaws, the not easy to see features. What does that have to do with art? or anything for that matter? you might ask. It is simply about how we see.
Every year my physical body changes. I’m okay with that, still, the way that my mind’s eye sees my physical body is not really what my physical body look’s like in reality — even though I really do feel more attractive in the night-time and it really doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.
The physical body that I’m housed in, my own perception might be close to, but probably not the way that other people see me (which we can never truly understand since we’re not in their bodies looking out with their eyes.) Photographs are hard scientific evidence to prove that.
The way we see everything is shaped by our experience, memory and emotion.
Have you ever looked at a photo of yourself taken by another person and thought — why didn’t anyone tell me I was — insert thought/answer here? or Do I really look like that?
It’s the proverbial piece of broccoli stuck in your teeth that no one tells you about and then suddenly you see it — it can be shocking.
We know that we are not just a bag of flesh, bones and all the other physiological goop, we are shaped by our experiences with our thoughts and perceptions influencing how we see everything. Some days we might even think that what we see is a close representation of how we look, it happens probably more times than not.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” ― Lao Tzu
What we see from day to day can vary because what we see is influenced by what we feel. For some people, the vision is exaggerated on a daily basis (i.e. anorexia nervosa) and their suffering creates physical symptoms that can ultimately become life threatening. But this isn’t about medicine, science or labels, it’s about our (probably common) human experience. Obviously, I’m not in your skin but I’d venture to say that all of us at one time or another have experienced a disproportionate view of ourselves, except mostly no one talks about these things.
As a result, we pass judgement on ourselves and can experience our reflection in a myriad of ways — pretty, fat, ugly, flabby, too tall, too short, baby face, wrinkled — fill in the blanks here.
I don’t like seeing myself on television. I don’t like it. — Yogi Berra
A few years ago when I was thinking about how our feelings about our reflection can change and decided to photograph some of my portraits of imaginary people from that time. There were a few small pastel drawing exercises on small paper that were photographed at different angles and the results showed some variances.
Artists have been exploring ‘identity’ as a theme ad infinitum. Since there are so many expressions of identity the theme will in all likelihood remain relevant as it’s all a part of the human experience (unless we extinguish our own species from our planet but that’s another story) and art is all about that experience.
Some people have even compiled daily or weekly photos to create time lapse videos like Karl Baden did where he condenses almost 25 years into 2 minutes using 2000 plus still photos or like Becky Jane Brown over a 6.5 year period. Karl Baden’s video is not really that dramatic since he was an adult when he started his project, Becky Jane Brown’s is more dramatic simply because she recorded her images during a developmental period of her life.
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” ― Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon
Recently a friend and colleague was visiting and I showed her some selfies that I took just about a week before she arrived. She looked at them, looked at me and said ‘that doesn’t look like you at all.’ But it was me. Even a series of photos taken in a short time period can show some significant variations and this happens with mirrors too, or from mirror to mirror.
It’s in our nature to search for patterns, to try and sort out what is going on around us. We’re continually bombarded with sensory experiences — much less so when we are faced with the mirror in our home.
By the way, I don’t particularly like looking in the mirror too frequently because my mind’s version of me is younger, thinner and attractive than what our 3d reality presents. Plus, like any person who cares about their hygiene, mirrors serve a purpose — I can be sure there isn’t a food particle stuck in my teeth or a crusty something or another in the corner of my eye when I need to leave my apartment.
Still, I am confronted by the mirror again in the lift (with fluorescent lights aka bad lighting.) It’s a rare occasion when my mind actually registers a positive image of myself, luckily my dogs usually are my companions in the lift and my focus in the reflection is towards them.
Knowing and Seeing, Perception and Misperception
“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” ― John Berger, Ways of Seeing
In the 20th century, some terms were created to classify our tendency to find patterns. It is a function of how we make sense of the world, even though sometimes our interpretation of the patterns are incorrect. At night you wake up to see a spider, looking closer you realise it is simply a speck of dirt. Yet your base instinct kicked in and your mind created something else.
Seeing recognisable objects or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns is called pareidolia. It’s a form of apophenia or patternicity, which is a more general term for the human tendency to seek patterns in random information.
Other experts say pareidolia is a consequence of the brain’s information processing systems. The brain is constantly sifting through random lines, shapes, surfaces and colours, says Joel Voss, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. It makes sense of these images by assigning meaning to them — usually by matching them to something stored in long-term knowledge. But sometimes things that are slightly “ambiguous” get matched up with things we can name more easily — resulting in pareidolia, he says. 
Even Carl Jung’s synchronicity is considered a form of apophenia.
Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905–1961). Conrad focused on the finding of abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people. However, it is now generally perceived simply as part of our human experience and nature.
“We are fooled by optical illusions — apophenia of the visual cortex — but we don’t take such cognitive errors personally. Magic shows are often enjoyable precisely because we know that we are being tricked. If we embraced our vulnerability to cognitive errors, we would not be so easily caught off guard.” — Bruce Polsen, Ph.D.
Above you will see on the left a drawing of a woman, on the right the same drawing processed through a deep dream filter. This is simply a variation on the original drawing even though it does create a different feeling — it isn’t about morphing or perception. That is the starting point. The set of images below are snapshots of the drawing on the left at different angles. These show how even a flat 2 d drawing can look differently (although the colour was modified simply for uniformity.)
This is the basis of this particular project’s inspiration and foundation. Asking us to remember that how we see is influenced by light, shadow, angle and shaped by our own understanding, feelings and human experience. Unfortunately for some, there are some extreme cases where dysmorphia becomes a condition and can interfere with people’s lives. That is the exception, not the rule.
We are not always right or wrong. We, at least not at this time, are not able to jump into another body and view ourselves or anyone else through someone else’s eyes or experience, then pop back into our own body remembering that experience. Although personally, I think it would be an incredible experience even for only a moment. But we can remember that everything is not as it seems, subject to interpretation and there is mystery along with the capacity to at the very least attempt to see through someone else’s eyes even if it is through a visual or interactive artwork, a narrative, a fantastical tale or even a piece of music.
My experiments with Morphing & Perception, may not even result in a whole body of work but it is something that I think about. On the actionable side of the project, it’s not just the filters, corrections and enhancements to the images — cropping images is a key component to the process, that was never a problem for me to cut off an edge or section of a painting or drawing even in framing. I’ve also started to play around with some online 3d generators.
Over the last few years, I’ve generated thousands of digital images from my traditional art and only a small percentage come to life. The images take several forms and can go through many processes in GIMP * or Inkscape * or even the deep dream algorithm. They are all tools and there are often several variations on a theme and not all of them will resonate with me or pass the test.
Recently came across a 3d online generator, animation tool. Just starting to explore that now. First a couple of images and an unedited screen record — self-portrait:
Following are some of the first images. Below ‘The Guy’ a quick pastel drawing 42x30cm run through deep dream and then manipulated in the 3d software. Currently exploring the generated images and how to use them and create other new media works — going to record the screens as I move through the 3d image and will post on youtube. Later to be edited into something to be determined.
“Normally” (whatever normal means these days) my artistic practice is founded on painting and drawing. Though I embrace technology, painting and drawing have always been and most likely will always be the starting point of a new media artwork. I think having been alive during this transitory period is a gift.
Notes about graphics software:
- I don’t support or promote Adobe graphics software and recommend taking the time to learn how to use GIMP and INKSCAPE they are both open source software packages. Adobe’s software, on the other hand, is quite costly and their business model which requires indebtedness to them for life, if you want to use their software.
- By the way, I do purchase monthly a subscription to a company that compiled the free code from google and made deep dream available — dreamscopeapp.com. You can still use it for free but if you want higher quality images you pay a small monthly fee. There are other alternatives available for free as well and make available high-quality images — deep dream generator.
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About The Author
Amy Adams is a fine artist (MFA Painting — University of Art & Design Cluj-Napoca [Academia de Arte Vizuale Ion Andreescu]) living and working out of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. She is passionate about the visual arts and music.