The camera obscura’s optical similarity to the human eye has meant that, from the sixteenth century onwards, scientists and philosophers alike have used the device as means of theorising the relationship between the human subject and their perceived world. A good summary of the technology’s special place within the Western intellectual imagination can be found in Jonathan Crary’s ‘Techniques of the Observer’ (1990), in which he outlines the problematic association between the two. Citing Deleuze, Crary ultimately concludes that these ideas must be thought of in terms of their sociohistorical context: “Machines are social before being technical.” The camera obscura’s status as producer of truth thus ends abruptly with the birth of photography. However, while current ocular and neurological study has shed further light on the inner workings of the eye and brain, the symbolic power of the camera obscura still persists.
Suki Chan’s latest video installation, ‘Lucida’, explores both these historical and contemporary models, interrogating the nature of human perception through the video’s visual content and method of display. Though installations are regularly described as being immersive, the label really does apply to ‘Lucida’. Inside Tintype’s darkened gallery space, Chan’s video is displayed through three differing projections.
Along the main wall are two projections of the same video, while in the centre of the space is a stool. Sitting there, the viewer will activate the eye motion technology installed in front of it. Looking, then, at the standard projection in front of them, the viewer’s own rapid eye movements will be tracked and displayed on the inverted projection next to it.
A third projection on the left perpendicular wall shows the video in a circular and blurred fashion; this represents the end result of our own, limited vision. I couldn’t help but think of Descartes, who advised his readers to use the eye of a fresh human’s corpse as their camera obscura lens: “…you will see there, not perhaps without pleasure and wonder, a picture representing in natural perspective all the objects outside.” This projection, almost a reversal of Descartes’ instructions, seems to yield quite the opposite reaction in the viewer – is this really all our eyes are capable of? Furthermore, it is only when a viewer is engaged with this technology that the full soundtrack to the video is played, featuring voiceovers from the scientists Chan collaborated with in her research for the work.
The video itself sees Chan weaving together footage in a highly skillful way, using depictions of visual apparatus and diagrams in a way that makes them seem poetic rather than clinical. A shot of a slit eye lamp examination could be from the opening of the 2013 science-fiction film ‘Under the Skin’. In another segment, it takes the viewer a while to realise they are looking at footage of a camera obscura. Towards the end of the video, we are taken through Senate House Library, stalking its endless rows of books (perhaps in homage to the intellectual history that Crary challenges) before descending in to the building’s bowels, a labyrinth of leaky corridors and serpentine wiring. It is the final shot that is the most confounding image in Chan’s installation, a firework-like display that is actually a timelapse image of axon nerve cells firing impulses between one another. Played against the work’s mystical soundtrack, it makes for a particularly enduring ending.
The effect of the installation’s constant feedback is both illuminating and disorientating, made all the more so by the dream-like aesthetic of the video. But this is Chan’s aim: to debunk the viewer’s preconceived notion of the validity of their own senses. She manages to do so convincingly.