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Monday, 16 October 2017

Thresholds: Ocular Bias and the Need for the senses

I really enjoyed reading this interview with Juhani Pallasmaa. He's an architect and writer who believes that architecture should engage more fully with the a full sensory spectrum.

Rachel Hurst: For people who don’t know your work, the central theme is that put forward in your book The Eyes of the Skin – that architecture should be a true collaboration of the five senses and, by engaging fully with the sensory world in that way, architecture can foster a deeply ethical and existential experience of life. You argue in that book, numerous essays and most recently in The Thinking Hand that we have increasingly become an ocular-centric society, disembodied from the authentic multi-sensorial perception of architecture, and are dominated by “a rainfall of images” to the detriment of our built world. How has this come about?

Read the whole article here.

The idea of this ocular bias is that if we overfocus on the purely visual in our appreciation of architecture we end up with a world covered by a superficial skin of construction, the kind of facadism that is recognisable in the skylines of most of the world's major cities.

You get the same kind of sentiments in photography, the idea that photography can go beyond the purely visual (and that's what Sound, Word, Landscape was all about). But it can go beyond the purely visual in so many ways.

Matt Collishaw's Thresholds is just one way in which photography goes beyond the ocular; by adding a virtual dimensionality to it, by using motion sensors and skeueomorphism (yep, me neither until two days ago) to reframe the first ever photography exhibition as a Virtual Reality exhibition.

I saw it in Birmingham at the site of the original exhibition, and it's now showing at Lacock Abbey, home of Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography until October 29th.

The basic deal is you enter an empty room with some 3-dimentsional white painted furniture (it doesn't have to be white but it looks better in installation pictures if it's white), you're given a pair of goggles that deal with head movement and visualisation and a backpack for body movement. And then you walk around the room and look at a VR version of the original exhibition.

So you're in this white cube but the above is what you 'see'. The original exhibition was a bit ropey, but it was a landmark and the same goes for Thresholds. It's a slightly shaky VR interpretation of a slightly shaky photography exhibition. So all in all, it's a bit shaky, but actually really good and really important. It's a gimmick but then so was the original! That matters. There's a beautiful symetry in that it mirrors the original 1839 photography exhibition in some ways.

It might not be the future in photography, but this is the future in all sorts of other ways - starting with war and porn and gaming and then keep on going from there. You get about 10 minutes with the goggles but it's definitely, definitely worth going out of your way for.

What's interesting is there is a sense of interactivity inasmuch as you move around and you can 'lift' objects virtually to near your hands. There's a fire as well (which is hot) and a mouse which runs around the floor, as well as Chartist demonstrations going on outside the window.

So it goes beyond the merely ocular in this sense. At the same time it erases the ocular by turning something with physical substance and material dimensions into something virtual, with all the failings that the virtual has. And that's interesting in itself because the ocular isn't simply the ocular, it comes with all kinds of conditions attached. There's a stripping back of the ocular then, a removal of those sensory elements that creep into the periphery and affect what we see.

And all that is considered in the programming that makes up the software/hardware through which we experience Thresholds. Which is extra interesting, because by stripping back the visual, and rebuilding it in virtual form, you really experience the absence of our usual visual experience, by not seeing you see what you take for granted.

Thresholds is on at Lacock Abbey until 29th October. Booking is essential. Don't miss it.

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