Vital practices: Self-experimentation as artistic and scientific form
Ana María Gómez López
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CMediating vision

During the realization of Inoculate I did not wear eyeglasses, which I have used every day from a young age to compensate for my near-sightedness. This absence in itself caused a significant disruption; throughout Inoculate I could only view my surroundings indistinctly, which allowed me to concentrate on the task of absorbing sunlight. However, my vision was also altered by the aforementioned perforated eye shield. My experience of partial sight deprivation was not uncomfortable, although the unevenness was certainly noticeable on the few occasions I removed the shield to inspect my eye for the appearance of a sprout. After Inoculate was completed, my eyesight returned to normal. This unintended consequence of the project became a focus of attention in its own right, resulting not only in my progressive adjustment to the sole use of one eye (and the slightly receding vision of the other), but also leading to the development of a keener sense of hearing which allowed me to perceive previously unnoticed sounds in my surroundings—a heightened sensorial shift that only grew more acute throughout this process.

Yet the eye shield used in Inoculate pales in comparison to more aggressive forms of ocular intervention. In his 1964 book The Formation and Transformation of the Perceptual World,28 Austrian scientist Ivo Kohler describes what is one of the longest recorded experiments in psychological research. Between November 1946 and March 1947, he wore a set of binocular prisms for a period of 124 days. During this time, Ivo Kohler and other subjects from the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the University of Innsbruck would carry out everyday activities donning these ocular devices that would upend their vision, so that the ground would be literally turned “upside down”. Known colloquially as “inversion goggles,” their uninterrupted usage was thoroughly researched, with data involving both subjective self-observation as well as study by third parties, who would also carry out “quantitative measurements of adaptation performance in everyday life.”29 Although the first few days of the experiment were difficult, Kohler and his subjects gradually grew accustomed to these eye pieces and were able to engage in increasingly complex activities, from taking a walk and manipulating domestic objects, to eventually going to see a film, riding a bike, or even skiing. Neither Kohler nor the other subjects presented any long-term impact to their visual capabilities. The goggles were designed by Theodor Erismann, Ivo Kohler’s mentor, who also executed earlier iterations of this experiment (for a humorous 1950 short film in German featuring Kohler wearing the inversion goggles while being guided by Erismann, see The Reversing Glasses and Upside Down Vision.30 The “Innsbruck experiments” were inspired by the research of George M. Stratton (1865–1957), a U.S. psychologist who was the first to study human vision through special glasses also constructed for inversion. Kohler and Erismann proved Stratton’s claim that “there is no exclusively visual problem of upright vision,” but rather “the harmonious interorganization of motor, tactual, and visual experience.”31

Swiss artist Alphons Schilling pursued an analogous investigation. Originally trained as a painter, between 1978 and 1986 Schilling created different Vision Machines (Sehnmaschinen), portable ocular apparatuses that altered visual perception through intensity of transposition: here, top becomes bottom, left becomes right, and background becomes foreground. Combining stereoscopic and binocular arrangements, these were “wearable prosthetic devices built of wooden rods, mirrors, lenses, rotating shutter blades, and other accessories.”32 These include Small Wheel (1978), Large Wheel (1981), Little Bird (1978), Darkroom (1984), Light Pump (1981), Gazelle (1985), and Exhumed Bird (1985/1986).33 Often, the Vision Machines would not be limited to the eyes alone, but comprised full-scale sculptural structures intended to be worn on the body, as if to make explicit the haptic and proprioceptive associations gleaned previously by Stratton, Erismann, and Kohler. Schilling took additional steps to facilitate ambulation, such as using lightweight wood and emphasizing elements in the architecture of the pieces to increase users’ awareness of their own mobility. For example, in Small Wheel, he included “a partial wheel that surrounds the head and maintains orientation and distance from adjacent objects,”34 helping the viewer navigate the reversal of left to right and front to back, as well as the incrementation of the space between the eyes. Other pieces, such as Gazelle, are intended to be viewed in a fixed position, providing structures for gripping and balancing the device in place.

Art historian Romana Karla Schuler draws connections between Schilling’s Vision Machines and the aforementioned examples of experimental psychology, as well as earlier creations by the physicists Ernst Mach and Hermann von Helmholtz.35 Although exact accounts on the lengths of time Schilling used each one of his given Vision Machines are unavailable, there is no doubt that he completed intensive self-experimentation in their development and subsequent deployment. In particular, he tested several on himself in rugged environments such as the Canyonlands National Park located in Utah, a state in the western United States. The Vision Machines were arguably meant exclusively for exterior use—a characteristic corroborated by their size and the fact that almost all photographic documentation related to their handling is set outdoors.

What is clear for Schilling, as well as for Kohler and Erismann, is the dedicated motivation to counter longstanding and unfounded beliefs about human eyesight. For the Austrian scientists, like Stratton before them, this was “the myth of upright vision,” what Schilling in turn interpreted as “the hegemony of seeing”36 or “the tyranny of Cyclopic vision.”37 Thanks to the Innsbruck experiments, gravity and hand-eye coordination were proven to be the organizational basis for human sight, rather than our vertical anatomical position. Several of Schilling’s Vision Machines riff on this idea, furthering its physiological implications, as well as expanding them into the question of representation. The Vision Machines are thus artistic instruments that modify the perception of space, not just in relation to a singular perspectival point of view, but as constituted in a person’s subjective observation of their physical movement as it unfolds. As opposed to Erismann’s goggles, Schilling’s Vision Machines challenge users to move within irregularly altered conditions—not the “stable” inversion of the Innsbruck experiments that, while disorienting, allowed for their subjects’ eventual adaptation to everyday activities. Nonetheless, as self-experimental artefacts, both Erismann’s goggles and Schilling’s Vision Machines challenge a basic and overlooked condition: that social convention and habitual patterns of behaviour reinforce assumptions of physiology, preconceived notions that obscure the outright interrogation of lived visual experience in relation to anatomic structures or natural surroundings.

  1. 28

    Ivo Kohler, The Formation and Transformation of the Perceptual World, trans. Harry Fiss, Psychological Issues 3, no. 4, Monograph 12 (New York: International Universities Press, 1964). 

  2. 29

    Pierre Sachse et al., “‘The World Is Upside Down’: The Innsbruck Goggle Experiments of Theodor Erismann (1883–1961) and Ivo Kohler (1915–1985),” Cortex 92 (2017): 227. 

  3. 30

    The original title in German of this film is Die Umkehrbrille und das aufrechte Sehen

  4. 31

    George M. Stratton, “Upright Vision and the Retinal Image,” Psychological Review 4, no.2 (1897): 182–187. 

  5. 32

    Christiane Paul, A Companion to Digital Art (Oxford and Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 78.  

  6. 33

    Most of Schilling’s Vision Machines and their corresponding drawings and documentation are owned by the MAK Museum in Vienna.  

  7. 34

    Madeleine Schwartzman, Seeing Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception (London, Black Dog Publishing, 2011), 53. 

  8. 35

    Romana Karla Schuler, Seeing Motion: A History of Visual Perception in Art and Science (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 208–224. 

  9. 36

    Andreas Spiegl, “Create an Image of Seeing,” in Alfons Schilling: Beyond Photography, ed. Fabian Knierim, Rebekka Reuter et al. (Vienna: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2017), 270–271. 

  10. 37

    Lenka Donlanova, “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: Alfons Schilling,” Umelec 4 (2007); as cited in Schwartzman, Seeing Yourself Sensing, 53. Schilling borrows the phrase “cyclopean perceptions” from U.S./Hungarian neuroscientist and experimental psychologist Belá Julesz’ work Foundations of Cyclopean Perception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).