"Only after a set of relations and perceptions had become organized into a norm could something enter which was in unusual relation to this organized whole and be (for instance) upside down."
- Dr. George M. Stratton, Some Preliminary Experiments on Vision Without Inversion of the Retinal Image.
In 1896 Dr. George M. Stratton performed an experiment to see if human brain could compensate for an inversion of the visual field(1). To test this he constructed a special pair of glasses to invert his vision and he wore these glasses for a period of three days.
Stratton found that after an initial period of disorientation where "the memory images brought over from normal vision still continued to be the standard criterion of reality"(2) he gradually started adapting and by the end of the three days was perceiving this new form of vision as essentially normal.
Stratton concluded that "the difficulty of seeing things upright … seems to consist solely in the resistance offered by the long-established previous experience."(3) and if a person grew up with their visual field inverted, they would know nothing else and not even notice such an inversion.
In 2003 during a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach Florida, with the assistance on New York based artist Patty Harris, a van was converted into a mobile camera obscura in order to produce an altered perceptual experience.
The camera obscura is a very ancient imaging apparatus that predates the invention of photography and consists of a darkened enclosure with a pinhole on one side. The pinhole focuses light rays from outside the enclosure and projects them onto the internal walls producing a very dim and inverted image of the outside environment. For Taken, the rear portion of a van was completely blacked-out with the only light allowed to enter coming through a 1/4" pinhole on the rear window (see diagram below).
By making a camera obscura within a van it became possible to have a moving enclosure and thus a moving image of the external environment. The resultant pinhole image is inverted in both the horizontal and vertical axis and presents an image of the van's rear-view to a viewer/camera facing forward. The result is a rather disorienting perceptual experience where the viewer is able to recognize certain objects from the outside but due to the multiple inversions it is difficult to accurately determine their current location or predict their destination even if they are familiar with the local geography.
To record the very dim projected image, a video camera equipped with a night-vision mode was required. The green-tinted, essentially monochrome video image with a jerky flow (due to the slow frame rate) only added to the disorienting and disturbing feel. In such an environment with minimal, coherent visual information, sounds starts to dominate perception and hearing becomes a much more significant sense in the resolution of one's environment.
Through experiencing the environment in such an unnatural way, the viewer may become aware of previously unnoticed or unappreciated aspects of the outside environment, they may overcome conditioned ways of seeing and understanding - hopefully coming to a better appreciation of the flexible, mutable and evolving nature of human perception.
Dave Kemp, 2003
1. More specifically he was looking at the image formed on the retina of the eye (which is normally inverted by the eye's lens) to see what would happen when the brain was confronted with non-inverted visual input. The method he chose to test this was to optically invert the visual field, in essence creating a double inversion and hence a right-side-up image on the retina.
2. Dr. George M. Stratton, Some Preliminary Experiments on Vision Without Inversion of the Retinal Image, Read at the Third International Congress for Psychology, Munich, August, 1896.