Activity Story: "Garden of the Lights" Exhibition and Opening Events

This event and two others—Vision as Contemplation and the Cross-Modal Perception Workshop—emerged from a popular MIT class, Vision in Art and Neuroscience. The course is co-taught by three MIT instructors: Seth Riskin, the manager of the MIT Museum Studio and a light artist; Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience; and Sarah Schwettmann, a research Scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and MIT’s IBM Watson AI Lab. During the course, students are exposed to the complete absence of light, and to manipulated experiences of light; these moments are the bedrock for lessons about how the brain perceives and constructs the worldand also serve as inspiration when the students are asked to make works of art that rely on light for effect. Now in its seventh year, Vision in Art and Neuroscience makes neurosciences accessible to all MIT students.

One of MIT’s most unique classes is taught in an equally unique space, tucked away under the institution’s central dome—at the midway point of the 823-foot Infinite Corridor, where a number of major buildings on campus come together. What comes together in the unusual course, Vision in Art and Neuroscience (VAN), are a wide-ranging group of students—from those creatively inclined to those pursuing degrees in math and physics—drawn to what is known as “a kind of a classic class on campus,” according to one undergraduate. “Everyone wants to take it.” No wonder, since the course functions as a drug-free mind-blowing trip: It introduces students to core vision concepts, neural and computational, by exposing them to light deprivation and light artworks, and by encouraging them to experiment with light and darkness in their own creations. In the process, they’re asked to think about how they perceive the world; to consider how their perceptions might be different from other people’s; and to experiment with ways that they might communicate their unique perspectives to others. On the evening of February 23, the public had an opportunity to sample the class for themselves, when one of the co-teachers took them through a condensed version. 

The Garden of the Lights was led by light artist Seth Riskin. As he and his co-teachers—neuroscientist Pawan Sinha and cognitive research scientist Sarah Schwettmann—explain in their course description, “From limited and noisy data incoming through the senses, our brains construct the rich world we perceive. … art allow[s] us to ‘perceive perception.’” Riskin told MIT News a little more about the class: 

The course brings together two fields that complement each other beautifully: visual art and vision neuroscience. Recent developments in both fields present the opportunity for an in-depth exchange between vision science and the conscious visual perception practiced in art. We can theorize about vision, run experiments and use fMRI, but vision from the inside—that is, awareness of perceptual processes, which is manifest through artistic creations—offers distinct insights.”

After a few students presented their light-based artworks, complete with explanations about the neuroscientific ideas that helped to explain some of the visual effects they had, Riskin led attendees through a series of experiences that presented low-level visual information on an otherwise blank canvas. These simplified “visions” provided the group an opportunity to think about how we perceive—and construct or project—space. 

Riskin began this portion of the night by taking the group deeper into the gallery, to an inner cove, where he immersed them in total darkness—a disorienting moment—before using a lit white screen, completely covered in black paper, to introduce a single pinprick of light into the room. As he noted, a single minuscule dot of light, absent of any other reference points but itself, is dimensionless; under perfect conditions, such a pinprick creates an illusion: “It could be very close, or very far away; a speck of dust or a distant star,” says co-teacher Sarah Schwettman. Then Riskin added a second point of light, and that new bit of visual data created dimension; it suggested a line. On the same blackened screen, Riskin introduced more light—a large gaping space of it—in which he placed two Pacman-shaped “corners.” He invited the group to see how the eye (or, more accurately, the visual system) created or “saw,” projected or imagine, an edge, of the kind that might be created by the top of a piece of paper, that wasn’t there. Similarly, when Riskin introduced two more corners, for a total of four, to make a square shape, the visual system perceived a white card, which seemed to separate the white corners, or be framed by them—even though the “presence” of the white card was an illusion. As Schwettman explains, “These simple demonstrations show the visual system to itself, revealing to the viewer how the brain builds the visual world by assembling information into meaningful structure.” 

At the next station, however, Riskin showed how the brain can also erase structure, under certain visual conditions. To help set up the experience, Riskin explained that we see spatial features like the corners of a room because under normal visual conditions, neighboring planes are illuminated differently; and it is the difference in illumination that allows us to perceive them. But a setting where everything is subject to, or reflecting, an equal amount of light, will flatten out objects—even appearing to swallow them whole. So it seemed when Riskin began to lower white objects, attached to strings into a very large dish, with high edges, painted so that its insides were all equally luminant, thereby creating something known to neuroscientists as a “ganzfeld”—which Schwettman describes as “a Petri dish for this kind of visual transubstantiation.”

A number of the participants oohed and ahhed as the various white objects became invisible to the naked eye. One or two murmured that it seemed like magic. But in fact, as Schwettman puts it, what happened was merely that the group had gotten a chance to “see everyday vision revealed.” Much of vision and perception is a process of “inferring what exists in the world based on the displacement of light, and experiencing those inferred causes as concrete objects,” she continues. Perception, she points out, is “really quite soft.” 

The video in this published Q&A with Seth Riskin provides a sense of both the course and what the public experienced during The Garden of the Lights. 

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