‘In visual perception a colour is almost never seen as it really is - as it physically is. This fact makes colour the most relative medium in art.’ _ Josef Albers
The paintings of Josef Albers formalise the interaction of colours based on an optical effect known as ‘simultaneous contrast’. It is an effect that occurs between two adjacent colours as they start to interact with one another, changing our perception of the colours accordingly. The colours, in terms of physics and colorimetry are not altered; it’s the human perception of them which changes.
‘Simultaneous contrast is not just a curious optical phenomenon - it is the very heart of painting.’ _ Josef Albers
Throughout the history of art, explicit or implicit knowledge of colour appearance phenomena has been used by artists to create the desired appearances and effects. For instance, Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) frequently used the technique of light / dark contrast to amplify the contrast between bright reddish colours of objects in the foreground and dark neutral colours in the background. Wolfgang Goethe had been developing a theory of colours based on the perception of complementary colours and discussed phenomena such as coloured shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration. His research forecasted the phenomenology of perception introduced by the Gestalt theory, which in turn influenced the elementary language of the Bauhaus artists. Albers’ visual research follows the Bauhaus methodology, exploring the grammar of visual language. But the reduction of a painting to the single content of colour, its concrete use, forms a radical new approach. This ‘art of colour’ actively involves the act of seeing to the point it becomes the central preoccupation of the artwork. Through Albers’ so-called ‘visual perception’ he deemed ‘embodiment’ the ultimate expression of concrete art.
‘By using the term embodied we mean to highlight two points: first that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context.’ _ Eleanor Rosch
Here the spectator, also described in reference to communication theory as receiver, is considered as an active part of the artwork. Meaning is enacted through the dialogue between artwork and spectator. This visual perception will become a central issue in kinetic and op-art, introducing Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception to the artistic discourse.
‘The energetic task which art must accomplish is to transmute the emptiness into space that is into something which our minds can grasp as an organised unity’_ El Lissitzky
El Lissitky is motivated by similar artistic concerns but experiments with the perception of space, specifically dynamic perception, the fourth dimension being a common theme in a time marked by cinematic vision and the theory of relativity. For the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1923, Lissitzky translated his two-dimensional ‘Proun’ compositions into a room-size environment engulfing visitors, giving them the feeling they would ‘screw themselves into space’. This ‘navigating of space’ results from a cognitive process defined as shape recognition: our brain connects these fragments in space, following neither perspective nor gravitational logic. The work of EL Lissitzky extends the visual perception introduced by Albers’ to physical perception. Both bring our senses, perception and cognition, into artistic considerations. The PROUN (project for affirmation of the new) were prototypes for visionary inhabitable abstractions, expressing a new art consistent with the machine era, offering a symbol of the new social order. Technological awareness has led to a fundamental rethinking of artistic practice and aesthetics.
‘A technology is not an independent or alien object, it complements integrally our sensory and cognitive system; as a medium, it conditions not only communication modes but also the way we perceive and conceive our environment. When these ratios change men change.’_ Marshall McLuhan
Technology continuously extends our 'senses' and transforms our general understanding and conception of art, its forms, methods and purposes. This transformation of our perceptive and cognitive apparatuses can be described in terms of the relationship between sense (esthésis) and sense (sémiosis). This equation renders visible an artistic attitude investigating phenomena of perception in relation to our every sense or induced by the technologies we use.
This assimilation of meaning / perception is exemplified by the artistic integration ‘10e-15’, realised for the Femto research centre in Besancon, France. Fifteen lenses, each having a distinct focal point, create successive magnifications in respect to the logarithmic scale of the metric system. Each lens, comprised of the superposition of 54 glass strips, investigates the aesthetic of perception, creating further optical phenomena such as chromatic aberration, pixilation and stratification of the perceived image, and inverts objects located beyond the lenses’ focal point. As a result, the viewer is forced to reconstruct the 'image' (the understanding) of the surroundings, appealing to both perceptive, as well as cognitive sensory information. While relating sense to sense our relationship to ‘scale’ is addressed and through the modulation of light optical phenomena are processed. By this means, the integration puts into artistic perspective the infinitesimal smallness of femto technologies. Consequently, the artwork addresses the transformed relationship / meaning induced by technology - between the invisible / visible and material / immaterial – and stands as a form of visual research using light in a concrete manner and with an embodied vision.