Ever since John Berger’s 1972 television series Ways of Seeing was broadcast by the BBC and then adapted into a book, the art world has responded to and riffed on this seminal work about Western visual culture. On both screen and page, the English art critic offered a analysis of how we interact with art and imagery, and explored their wider role in the machinations of society. ‘The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,’ Berger said. ‘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.’
A conference hosted by Royal Museums Greenwich last week took this notion as its point of departure, gathering academics, critics and artists from all over Europe and North America to offer their insights on the issue. Loosely connected to Dryden Goodwin’s concurrent exhibition ‘Unseen: The Lives of Looking’ at the onsite Queen’s House – a feature-length essay film about three professionals whose job it is to gaze and inspect: a planetary explorer, an ophthalmic surgeon and a human-rights lawyer – there could hardly have been a more apt setting.
Goodwin gave the keynote speech, discussing the relationship between photography and drawing – how in ways the latter is able to provide a more honest representation of a subject. Photography attempts to created a fixedness, he argued, whereas drawing is a fluid process that doesn’t purport to be complete or finished. He spoke about his project Breathe (2012), for which Goodwin sketched 1,300 renderings, repetitive but always slightly different, of his then five-year-old son. Cradle (2008), a series of black and white photographs of strangers, is in the same vein – the artist scratched the prints, in order to make a visible connection with them.
Perception through space-time was a discussion point for a number of presentations. Luci Eldridge of the Royal College of Art showed how representations of Mars have been altered to appear more similar to earth, and thereby more familiar. Scientists, for example, dim images of the planet’s bright red landscapes to more palatable colours, and engage with the terrain via 3D-imaging systems. The University of Delaware’s Emily Casey, meanwhile, took an intriguing look at 18th century cartography. She claimed that maps from that period, with their abnormal depictions of the Atlantic, helped to conceive of North America, thereby visualising and legitimising the British Empire.
The neuroscientist Quoc Vuong studies the biological processes of cognition and vision. He pointed out that our perception of the world, our phenomenology, is not at all comprehensive – we initially analyse objects through their orientation or curvature. This sort of knowledge is entwined with philosophical thought – Vuong noted that the brain’s ‘ventral stream’ gives us the capacity to make correct judgements about things we cannot see, e.g. what the back of a chair may look like.
The power relations involved in sight and perception are as relevant as ever too. Art critic and independent scholar Dr Rahma Khazam discussed the implications of the Panopticon, a prison designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which a guard could observe any prisoner at any time, without the latter knowing if they were being watched or not. But contemporary artists such as Jon Rafman are taking up the opportunity to reappropriate modern surveillance through images sourced from Google Street View that suggest how warped our awareness can be.
With 1.8 billion images uploaded to the internet every day – and that number is rapidly increasing – serious thought about our relationship with visual culture is clearly required. As the Ways of Seeing conference at Greenwich shows: artists can and should be at the forefront of experimentation, leading the way into an unpredictable digital future.