Words and Photos by Chloe Marie Thornton
Rambunctious and giddy from the lunch-time fizzy drinks, I walk into a mauve coloured ‘room’ – a cube within a cube. Spattered across the plain walls are various slits all around at head height, and immediately, calm and quiet ensue. This is weird. Intrigued, I tip-toe softly, in case the floor falls in or a ninja falls from the ceiling; it’s that type of scenario. What can it be?Warily, I peer into the slit. Two big eyeballs stare back – not those of a ninja, but human eyes nonetheless. This is Eye & I, a creative installation convened by Professor Helen Storey that blends elements of neuroscience with performance-led art in order to interrogate the ‘territory of human existence through the look of another person’s eyes’.Though the installation, part of this year’s Manchester Science Festival, may sound somewhat disconcerting and evoke a fear of the ‘walls having eyes’; something Perkins Gilmanesque, or other such spooky goings-on, Storey is actually concerned with the philosophical questions about the human need to connect, and how the experience of emotional interchange in this way can speak of fundamental human behaviour. In the Eye & I video, Storey asks, ‘How do you know that you’re alive?’ You are reading, yes, so surely there must be some flicker of existence proven in this activity? And if we take a Cartesian view on the matter the answer is cogito ergo sum, of course. But what about the age old philosophical quote of
George Berkeley, ‘to be is to be perceived’?
It is the gaze of the other that Storey feels ‘anchors’ her to knowing that she exists. Alone, can we ever be certain that we are really here? Or are we forever embroiled in a discussion to decide whether or not we are dreaming? It seems the recognition of someone else confirms our existence. After all, I can merely experience myself individually, whereas, allof you ‘others’ can view me, judge me, saunter over and ruffle my hair. And though such questions have troubled philosophers (and ordinary people) for years, Storey’s interest in what the viewers’ responses suggest about human nature highlights the dual interests of the installation in both scientific disciplines and the humanities.
The experience of looking into the eyes, expressing emotions such as happiness, sadness and anger, generates comments that repeat the sentiment that the eyes are the gateway to the soul. It is human nature, Storey believes, to yearn for connection, and the eye is the organ that allows for a social experience even without language. Emotions, co-convener Joanna Chuang tells us, convey information to ourselves and others on how we are experiencing our surroundings or situation – both in terms of biological impulses and psychological reactions. So why do people find the installation especially unsettling if the emotions being exhibited are sadness or anger?
The invitation to stare is atypical in our ‘polite’ society, one participant suggests. The permission to stand and really stare at a hidden happy/sad/angry person is unsettling because one is almost forced to empathise with the emotion the eyes are showing. By now, it’s certain there’s no threat of a hidden ninja, but one feels fearful when looking at fearful eyes all the same. Storey is right when she calls this whole Eye & I thing per se ‘ineffable’. Because you want to say something potent about the universal understanding of the ‘human spirit’, but you’re not sure. You want to say that the exchange is something meaningful but you can’t quite articulate it.
After having stared into my eyes to confirm his existence, my friend questions whether there is some distinction between the gaze of the animal and the gaze of the human. The point of Eye & I is to explore the emotional exchange between two human animals. What if this was happening between two animals of a different species? Thomas Nagel’s What Is It Like To Be A Bat? comes to mind but, back on the look-out for pesky ninjas as we spill out onto the street, I’m not sure I’m qualified to give an informed answer…
Eye & I will be held again at the Museum of Science and Industry on the 1st and 2nd November.
Chloe graduated from MMU with a degree in English and is now studying an MA in Contemporary Literature and Film there. You can read her blog here and follow her on Twitter @chloemthornton.