The Birth of Our Visual Intelligence


Sophocles’ Oedipus — who did not 'see' or understand certain realities until blinded by them — reminds us that we do not 'see' with our eyes, rather, with our mind. Our ability to make sense of what we perceive and act upon it relies on the immense networks and connections that form our mind. To study different visual inputs and draw meaningful perceptions from them takes a certain amount of thought that can accelerate or decline depending on how we exercise them. Everything in our physical, personal, familial and cultural environments and their innate biases can shape our seeing ways. Yet one of the pitfalls in navigating these environments is the belief that memorizing familiar answers is what intelligence really represents, without ever addressing their limitations. Over time, countless great artists and thinkers have challenged how the marks of intelligence are not seeing issues as instantaneous and complete, but as works in progress.

Partially Frozen Stream    ( From the series, 'What's it like to see like Bat?')

Partially Frozen Stream (From the series, 'What's it like to see like Bat?')

This process of perception is a patient one, often refusing to unsee what one immediately sees. Author Amy E. Herman develops this theory in her treatise Visual Intelligence. She argues that to gain meaningful insights requires a certain unfolding from the convenience of preconceived ideals, or from simple first impressions. A visual intelligence asks to pause and discover details that may hold multiplicities of meaning. This is what makes the artist's witness so powerful — learning how to ask better questions from the inner fabric of our minds, while it's counterpart, the sciences, offer a predictive nature about the outer universe. Author and cultural critic James Baldwin reiterates the role of the artist as one who persistently asks and never relies solely on the immediacy of uncontested answers. Baldwin writes in his 1962 essay on the creative process;

"Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven... The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides."

Artworks may not always be infused with absolute arrows pointing towards answers, but they hold keys, puzzles and cues to the possibilities to how other times, places or beings may connect to them. Though we never see the world in the same ways, problems can only arise when we no longer acknowledge these incongruities, simply insisting that none exist or resorting to 'that's just the way I see it'. What artworks can do is hold us accountable to routine behaviours, while learning to ask better questions of them — be it social, political, economic or cultural. After all, it's about the power of perceptions to see the familiar in unfamiliar ways — a skill that's never been more vital.

— michael graf

Steps  ( From the series, 'What's it like to see like Bat?')

Steps (From the series, 'What's it like to see like Bat?')