Salon: What We Percieve

SEE YOURSELF SENSING: REDEFINING HUMAN PERCEPTION by Madeline SchwartzmanMadeline Schwartzman, adjunct professor of architecture, begins her introductory studio class in architecture with questions like: What if people only had one eye? What if our eyes were not horizontal? What if we blinked light instead of darkness? Architecture “is all about seeing and touching and sensing,” she says with such thoughtful calm, no doubt to provoke abandonment of stale ideas about structure and edifice. “And at some point I thought, ‘How can I teach these students design when they really don’t understand how they see and sense?’ So I decided to go fundamental,” she explains.

Every semester, the students in her section of “Architectural Representation: Perception” use plain materials to construct beautifully elaborate wearable machines that rearrange at least one of the senses. The sleeve with intricate scaffolding by Chester Dols (CC ’12) translates touch into hearing. Doreen Lam ’10 creates a headdress with huge, individually articulable chipboard eyelashes that accentuate the effect of hair and lash movement on vision. The projects highlight sense so much, Schwartzman explains, “that they give you a whole new pulse on it.”

See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception delineates hundreds of such trippy experiences. In place of student projects, the lavishly photographed, beautifully designed tome presents work “at the forefront of investigation”—in architecture, fine art, design, cybernetics, and neuroscience. And yet the aim remains the same: to transform viewer into participant. As with the 2001 Museum of Modern Art installation by environmental artist Olafur Eliasson from which the book takes its name, you do not just look at these pieces, you activate them. They, in turn, rearrange your senses (or some of them, anyway). The objects in See Yourself Sensing are quite literally mind-blowing.

“I’m not the straightest architect in the world,” Schwartzman notes with characteristic understatement. In the past two decades, her architectural work has mainly taken the form of experimental films, in which space is as much a character as the characters. “There are benefits and detractions to being a mixed-career person,” she continues. “The detractions are that you’re never making all the connections in one field. The benefits are when you see across fields. Somebody is doing this in art, somebody in film, and somebody in interactive design. I felt poised to see those connections for the book.”

Machine artist Erik Hobijn’s self-immolation device allows you to safely experience “something that usually leads to your death,” Schwartzman says with enthusiasm. There are many contraptions in See Yourself Sensing that you wouldn’t want to try on at home. On the other hand, physiological architecture team Lucy and Bart is working on biological clothing that will attune itself to your exact temperature needs by growing on you like lichen. You may look like the Swamp Thing, but you’ll never wear such comfortable clothes. For a more sober—and imperative—reassignment of bodily powers, there is neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita’s BrainPort, by which the blind “see” with their tongues.

The social arena is the concern of artist-activist Krzysztof Wodiczko whose Dis-Armor aims to draw out socially awkward youth. A shy kid dons an enormous spaceman helmet that projects his face onto cameras harnessed to his back. Voilà—he can now communicate with the world. Of course, there is the minor detail of the übergeeky getup. The contrast between a machine’s cumbersome, plainly archaic appearance and its slick twenty-first century purpose is a source of comedy throughout the book. Graphic designer Soomi Park’s high-tech protest art, LED Eyelashes, manages to be both glamorous and goofy. It offers a flashy alternative to the number one plastic surgery procedure in Asia—blepharoplasty, or eyelid supplementation.

Other contributors are less interested in improving society than in representing it. With Coffee Seeks Its Own Level, artist and architect Allan Wexler highlights the social ecology of the coffee klatch. He has umblical-corded together four cups so that not only conversation but the coffee itself circulates around the table.

“All the projects ask, ‘Who are we?’” Schwartzman writes in one of the book’s several penetrating essays. “One thing is for sure: we are in flux.” Occasionally she wonders whether a project “makes us less human or more.” But it matters less to See Yourself Sensing that a device be utopian or dystopian, grow out of the body or leave it in the dust, than that it spur novel thinking about our bodies and selves.

Four years ago as she was beginning research for the book, Schwartzman sat down with Mark Wigley, dean of Columbia’s graduate school of architecture, to come up with a list of practitioners of this pioneering work. “Mark is great at brainstorming,” she says, “but we could only think of 10 people—fewer than 10.” A couple of years later, those numbers had grown exponentially. “Every day there were more. But nobody had done this book”—collating diffuse pockets of research across disciplines and the globe. “My big thing was, I have to get this work out.”

Why the sudden deluge of material? “Everything is neuroscience now,” Schwartzman explains. “Neuroscience and interactivity.” Although the most ubiquitous forms this obsession takes are smart technologies and medical research, art that involves science, the body, “and the quality of being alive,” Schwartzman adds in a low murmur, has also exploded. “I was on the cusp of a wave,” she says. And it has not stopped rolling in.