Looking at Nothing
My artistic collaborator Jeff and I have a standing engagement to spend Saturday morningsvisiting architectural landmarks around Chicago. We meet each other at a weirder and lesser-known structure in our city's repertoire. Almost every day for a year, I biked past an unassuming, lighted pavilion made of concrete or stucco or something colored a very false shade of terracotta on the corner of Halsted and Roosevelt without knowing it was actually a sculpture by revered Light and Space artist James Turrell. The drippy water feature on its rim is a little too appropriate as bad public sculpture-seating likely for its neighbors, a college campus and a strip mall. But when seen from above on Google Maps, the trademark oculus with a beveled edge reveals its secret identity.
Unsurprisingly, it's not the best Turrell in the world, but it works. I don't mean it works in the way that art or architecture students say a piece “works” when they like it in critique and don't know why. I mean that it has a specific perceptual effect on our vision that Turrell's work is known to create, a sensation I will try if not to explain but to understand now.
Fortunately, we arrive during perfect Turrell weather. The sky is cloudless and bright blue. We look up at the blue ellipse for a bit, and the longer we stare the more we are able to ignore the unintended details: seven or eight little icicles pointing down from it and a ring of what is probably black mold around the opening. Our focus zeroes in on the blue shape, and the knowledge of what it is begins to fall away in favor of its abstract qualities. For its part, it helps that the walls of the structure come down far enough that other views of the sky are framed out by the surrounding buildings.
“There's this thing that's happening when I look at it over time, it feels like it's expanding out,” says Jeff, “like it’s changing its proportions to the ceiling as I get more immersed in this space.”
“Well, your eye isn't supposed to look at nothing,” I say. “So I guess your attention gets so focused into it to try to discern something out of it.”
“I feel like it's moving down, or I'm rising up to it.”
The blue oval seems to switch between a flat field of color on the ceiling and infinite space beyond it, as if my eyes are trying out either option. This is known as the ganzfeld effect. Coming from the German for total field, this perceptual paradox occurs when the eye cannot perceive enough details to distinguish between close from far, leaving the brain with no conclusion as to whether the field in perfectly flat or totally infinite. Snowblindess and dense fog provide prominent examples.
The brain relies on patterns and details to decode sensory perception, and the odd feeling of constant visual recalibration we feel recalls a story from music journalist Mike McGonigal in which he experiences something similar with sound. A rabid My Bloody Valentine fan, he remembers seeing the band play their early song You Made Me Realise in 1992. When playing it live, MBV notoriously stretches out a fifteen-second noise break in the recording to extreme lengths, up to forty minutes according to frontman Kevin Shields, simply bent over their guitars strumming wildly. McGonigal describes the first time hearing it: “I learn what it's like to stick my head inside of a jet engine. Surprise: it's fucking unbearable…It's can't-think-straight loud, a deliriously loud kind of loud. It seems to be tacky, showoffy, offensive and most of all, really painful.”
He witnessed the crowd writhing violently and unhappily then gradually turning euphoric. And as they did, he could hear the music changing: “Now, just as suddenly as it hit in the first place, something truly beautiful is happening. A playful array of overtones can be heard bouncing on top of the dirge…It seems that this cloud of harmonics is sweetly filling the room. These delightful ping-ponging notes, are perhaps the whole point of the exercise, what the band had been trying to get to all along.”
Fourteen years later, he finally got to ask Shields what they were doing to make these sounds, and the answer disappointed him: “There was no melody!” Shields explains that “it was such a huge noise with so much texture to it, it allowed people to imagine anything.” MBV still does this at shows; I've seen it, and it's intense. For what it's worth, I only got the choir-of-angels experience for a moment, maybe because I already enjoy overwhelming noise.
The neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer writes about how the brain interprets organized sensory experiences like music. Recognizing the patterns that constitute these phenomena is the job of the corticofugal network in the brain. To paraphrase, the more it searches for patterns, the sharper it becomes at detecting them. It also produces dopamine to induce the satisfaction that we all experience in patterns. Dopamine produces pleasure, but also erratic behavior. He attributes an infamous riot induced at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to this effect. It is no doubt this is the cause of the emotional roller coaster in the MBV audience and the eventual beauty discovered in the search for order where there was none.
I am not a neuroscientist, but I believe the same process is happening for Jeff and I as our eyes and brains try to make sense of the hallucinatorily plain cut-out of the sky. The quality of it is as beautiful as it is unusual, and in part fabricated by our sensory faculties. While our perception can't change the world around us, moments like these remind us that our senses are nonetheless productive, not simply passively receptive. This is more or less what Goethe meant when he wrote, “Were the eye not sunlike, how would we perceive light?” We aren't separate from the nature around us and what we perceive.
We leave the Turrell for our next destination, Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology, now an architecture studio and classroom. The middle of the one large room is partitioned by modular walls to create an empty critique and exhibition space. One wall has a piece of paper taped up with following crudely scrawled: “CRITIQUE CRITERIA 1) WHAT WORKS WELL 2) WHAT DOESN'T WORK 3) HOW IT CAN BE IMPROVED 4) NEW IDEAS.”
The mystery of the blue sky in our last destination is replaced by a drop ceiling unworthy of the space's prominence and the simple grandeur of is wide-openness. But like in the Turrell, visual details are all emptied out. The emptiness creates the potential for our own production, not that differently than how the empty section of sky leads our senses to produce unexpected effects. I'm reminded, however, as the sun rakes sharply into the full panel windows and illuminates Jeff dramatically – and I'm not shy to say beautifully – that we become aware of our observational-productive potential not only through the distanced contemplation of neuroscience or the experience of sensory aberrations, but also though simply being and acting amid the everyday conditions of life.
 Mike McGonigal, Loveless from the 33 1/3 series (London, New York: Continuuum Press, 2007), 3-5.
 Jonah Leher, Proust was a Neuroscientist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,2008), 140-142.