Unlearning Optical Illusions is a project in several instalments where a series of patterns with geometrical optical illusions are at the centre.
The project started as a chapter in the book Unseeing (2013). The second instalment (2014) is a series of 7 photographs with accompanying texts and lines on the floor. The third (2015) is an installation with textiles for which my patterns are printed as wax print. A separate part of the project is made by the design collective HAiK w/, which has made use of the printed textiles to produce a clothes (2017). The fourth version of the work is a series of textile sculptures in the form of utility bags (2018).
Unlearning Optical Illusions brings together two different image cultures and their histories: Cognition studies on geometrical optical illusions, and a variant of wax batique known as Wax Print, African print or Dutch Wax Print. Based on these particular parts of perceptual psychology and textile history, the project seeks to link discourses on seeing and knowing with colonialism and globalisation. It has for long been clear that what we see is subjective. Moreover, research indicates that what we are visually exposed to plays an important role in visual perception. Similarly, this goes for our ways of understanding the world, and a central question in this project is the matter of learning and unlearning ways of seeing.
The notion “geometrical optical illusions” originate from the modern study of optical illusions in the early 19th century. Research on optical illusions offered quantifiable methods to the study of perception, and became a vital part of experimental psychology.
Various cross-cultural studies on optical illusions have indicated that susceptibility to illusions is variable between cultural groups, and has linked these findings to certain characteristics in the visual environment in the respective cultures. I.e., cross-cultural studies of susceptibility to the Müller-Lyer figure have concluded that informants from North American and European cultures, to a greater degree than from African and Southeast Asian, see the figure as an illusion. Among many competing theories is the “perspective theory”, which argues that the illusion appears because the observer uses angles to evaluate depth and distance. With support from this theory it has been proposed that the mentioned cultural variation in perception derived from the African and Southeast Asian informants having lived in environments involving few right angles and primarily round buildings (referred to as “circular cultures”), whereas the surroundings of the North Americans and Europeans were dominated by architecture with right angles and a culturally learned apprehension of perspective (referred to as “the carpentered world”). This attempt to explain cultural variation in perception is known as the “carpentered-world hypothesis”, or the hypothesis of the built world, after a study conducted by Segall et.al. in 1963.
In short, what these studies indicated was that visual perception is learnt. More recent research finds, by other methods, that exposure to visual stimuli does indeed does indeed shape the way we see, though a more apt term for the observed variations in perception could be “environmental” rather than “cultural”. Moreover, the cross-cultural studies and the competing theories attempting to explain the variations may easily lead to normative interpretations, such as invoking categories like “primitive” versus “modern” cultures, or “natural” ways of seeing in an “unbuilt” world as opposed to “developed” or “artificial” ways of seeing in a “built” world. As such, spectres of colonialism run through the history of (the interpretation of) science.
The history of industrial textile production and trade is marked by colonial affairs and globalisation. Industrialised in Holland in the 19th century, the wax print technique originates in Indonesian wax batique. Dutch manufacturers learnt the technique at the time when Holland colonised Indonesia, mechanised the process back in Holland to produce industrial wax prints – with copies of Indonesian designs – to be sold at the Indonesian market. However, the textiles did not catch on at the market they were intended for, but found another in West Africa. From there on, through adaptations to local markets, wax prints have become so ubiquitous that they have become a part of West African clothing aesthetics. Wax prints are colonial products and cultural hybrids, much used but also contested as the import of European cloths has had a negative impact on local textile traditions and production. Initially, the production of wax printed cloths took place in Europe, and later on West African manufacturers established production locally. Today, the history of wax prints has taken a new turn with competition from Chinese textiles – with copies of classic wax print designs – made for the West African market. With this competition, in addition to Western second hand clothing exported to African countries and flooding their markets, West African textile production is facing another decline.
Unlearning Optical Illusions was conceived of from my North-European perspective, where learning about the history of wax prints served to reveal some of my own received ideas about what is and looks “traditional” and “modern”. Unlearning is neurologically harder than learning, and to train yourself to actually perceive lines, shapes and angles differently might very well be impossible. Yet, the oblique proposition at the core of this work is to acknowledge that illusions and preconceptions are omnipresent for the eyes as well as for thought, and through such an awareness open up the possibilities for unlearning.
Produced with support from Arts Council Norway, City of Bergen, NBK/Vederlagsfondet and Ingerid, Synnøve og Elias Fegerstens stiftelse.