In Aura

Migraine aura illustrations as online folk art

Infinity Mirrored Room (2013)

Yayoi Kusama — the artist who made what has to be the most selfied-in installation, Infinity — creates dreamy environments with dots, mirrors, and colored lights. Her inspiration is the world as she sees it, having experienced visual and auditory hallucinations since the age of 10. “The world I see seems to be separated by a layer of net in pointing dots, and therefore I started to draw these nets of dots,” she explained in an interview.

I was reminded of her work after coming across support communities and blog entries about migraine headaches. About a third of all patients who suffer from the disorder have an “aura,” a perceptual disturbance. This Reddit thread inspired a number of illustrations posted to Imgur. “Seeing My World,” is a blog from a migraine sufferer documenting “flickering” and “snow” in illustrations. Nikki Albert, another blogger writing about migraines, has a helpful post explaining the types of distortions (starbursts, “echos of motion,” heatwave effects, etc). Brian Fies recently wrote a blog entry about “visual fireworks” that accompanied his last headache. “It’s difficult to draw because it’s one of those peripheral vision things that squirms away if you look directly at it,” he explained, posting an animated gif of the “magenta, cyan and white vibrating crystals” to illustrate.

The website for the Migraine Aura Foundation has compiled Livejournal community and Usenet posts, with rich descriptions of visions no one else will ever see. One person writes of a “kaleidoscope-like distortion of colors … colors that aren’t really there, and they move and morph into different shapes, kind of like a moving fractal… Sometimes the images take on specific things that come to mind, like monsters or horses.” Another migraine sufferer describes a “crazy quilt of stained glass luminescent orange-and-black quilt blocks of varied sizes, fluctuating and dissolving, them re-forming instantly in new configurations such as Handy Andy, Letha’s Electric Fan, Shoo-Fly, Double Wedding Ring, Bear’s Claw, and so forth.”

Kusama, like Salvador Dali and others, is even named on the Migraine Aura Foundation’s website as an artist inspired by migraines. It is quite common to draw or sketch these visions. Now in message boards and online forums, people employ digital tools to illustrate their auras. These fractals, quilts, stained glass-like patterns, and checkerboards are Photoshopped in to the everyday environments where they are seen like backyards, markets, and the Google homepage. In gifs and videos, details like depth of field shifts and static noise are more accurately represented.

A friend who experiences aura told me that looking at Magic Eye pictures is triggering — even op-art patterns on fabrics might make her feel ill. Needless to say, **trigger warning** for the following images.

Wikipedia: Scintillating_scotoma_interpretation.gif
Wikipedia: Scintillating_scotoma.gif

I am reminded of artist Rick Silva’s series of animated gifs, Antlers Wifi, geometric shapes and static that exaggerate the texture of the environment. But while these images capture a curious beauty, to the person who made the image, it also represents the onset of pain.

Kusama’s lived in a mental hospital since 1977. Her work is out in the world, present in a public space, in a way that she cannot be herself. Pain and illness are isolating, not just for the physical sensations, but because language is woefully ill-equipped to describe the experience. Trying to talk about a headache — not a migraine — I experienced recently, I had to employ bad metaphors and mimsy words like “discomfort,” frustrated that “someone painted a metallic, slightly acid substance over my brain” is still not quite the thing I was feeling.

It is remarkable to see people use the web — YouTube, Imgur — to share and commiserate over what is such a private and unique experience.