Unlearning Lessons: A conversation between Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh and Toril Johannessen

A version of this conversation was published in the catalogue for the exhibition Unlearning – Interpretations at Gallery Rod Bianco, Oslo, 2016.

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Unlearning the Müller-Lyer Illusion, Toril johannessen, image courtesy artist

KWASI: Your long term project Unlearning Optical Illusions seems to have evolved from a theoretical interest in optical illusions into artistic experiments with perception, space, objectness and form. How did it begin?

TORIL: Indeed, the project evolved from a theoretical interest – and evolved into artistic experiment and practical reality. The project, which comprises three installments so far, started with a chapter in my book Unseeing for which I wrote and illustrated three essays on visual perception, metaphors, optical illusions and (neuro)imaging. In the chapter titled Unlearning Optical Illusions I speculate on the possibilities of learning and unlearning certain ways of seeing – that is, seeing as in visual perception as well as metaphorically, as in how we understand the world.

More specifically, I discuss the case of cultural variations in perception of geometrical optical illusions, based on a well-known study (Segall et. al) on the Müller-Lyer illusion that indicated that people from different cultures perceive such illusions differently. Of the various theories that attempted to explain the causes of these variations, one known as “the carpentered world hypothesis” suggested that the variations are due to what our built environments look like – basically, that architecture and the shapes we see around us at an early age forms visual cognition on the level of how we perceive lines and angles later in life. The study was done in the 60’s before the concept of neuroplasticity existed, but I would think that these later developments in neuroscience enables more in depth understanding of what happens on a neural level. (I have later gotten to know the work of Bruce Wexler, professor of psychiatry, who researches and writes brilliantly on the topic of cultural learning process and neuroplasticity). By the time of “the carpentered world hypothesis” it was of course already well known and accepted that visual perception is subjective, but I was interested in how this hypothesis linked perception, environment and learning processes so directly – and whether this could be unlearnt or relearnt.

I was chewing on this for a while and made a couple of smaller works that referred to the aforementioned cross-cultural studies on the Müller-Lyer illusion, but as an artistic experiment or “work” it didn’t start to make sense to me until I paired the topic with another interest, that of the history of wax printed cloths, of the type known as Dutch Wax Print, Hollandaise, or just Wax Print. I would like to tell more about my initial interest in that later, but first I would like to ask you what your relation to such cloths is?

KWASI: Wax prints have been a ubiquitous part of my experience growing up in Ghana. Its aesthetic dynamics are a thrilling part of how they function in the society – for example, as used in child naming and marriage ceremonies, church life, national commemorations (Independence Day), etc. It also participates in a complex global system from manufacturing to distribution to consumption from Southeast Asia to Western Europe to West Africa. I find it interesting how your project has generated from the retinal and/or cerebral to the multisensorial — engaging more than the eye or the mind from the extrapolation of an idea in the textual format, to photographic prints with floor markings and instructions, to installations of printed textiles in literal space, and in its current iteration with the design collective HAiK designing the fabric into clothes.

You have stated in the brochure ‘Unlearning Optical Illusions I-III’ that  “Unlearning does not mean to not know, but to learn to know something else, and is usually considered a harder undertaking than learning.” I noticed that in your descriptions of illusory patterns such as ‘Hering & Wundt’ and ‘Hermann’ in the brochure, you first describe the geometric illusions, then state a way in which the viewer can counter the illusion. It is as if you are interested in the demystification of what may be perceived as ‘sacred’ in the work. This is also consistent with your process of production, which is industrial and mechanical, lending itself to duplication which could also be considered as shedding the “cult value” of the work. Is this what you mean by “Unlearning Optical Illusions”? If so, what does this demystification process mean for you as the creator of such patterns and illusions?

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Unlearning the Hermann grid Illusion, Toril johannessen, image courtesy artist

TORIL: The function of wax prints, and the way they are used, given names, associated with proverbs and are carriers of meaning, is something I was interested in from the outset when I started learning about their history.

My first encounter with wax prints was marked by a misreading of a photograph featured in a glossy design and travel magazine, in a travel report from Ghana (this was many years ago, in 2001, I was 21). The photograph depicted a person dressed in clothes that I, without giving it much thought, read as a traditional African outfit. And by traditional, I probably figured something very very old. I read the article and looked at the picture many times before I saw what the pattern actually was: Nokia cell phones. I recall being puzzled, because what possibly could a Finnish technological device from last year have to do with West-African clothing traditions?

Around the same time I learnt that my own traditional Norwegian costume, the “bunad”, is a modern construct, something I wasn’t aware of or gave any thought when I received it at 15 as all women in my family do. In both of these incidents, my surprise of course only revealed my ignorance as to what “modern”, “traditional”, “African” and “Norwegian” is and looks like. They taught me a couple of lessons about culture and history, and about the impact that pre-formed ideas, assumptions and attention have on visual cognition. Anyway, many years later I visited Benin and was reminded of the cell phone cloth, and learnt more about wax prints, its history and functions.

One of the motivations for making industrially produced wax prints in large quantity was that I wanted to enable a type of distribution and encounter with the work outside of the art space, like what is happening with HAiK now. In that sense, yes it is a way of shedding a “cult value” of the work as original/singular object whose meaning and value solely relies on having status as an art object.

However, regarding demystification of the art object through duplication – I don’t think that mechanical or industrial processes necessarily shed “cult value” of an artwork, or that hand made, unique objects necessarily are more mystical or sacred than mechanically reproduced ones. As a former photographer, thinking from the perspective of Walter Benjamin, mechanical reproducibility frees the artwork from the claim of craft and tradition (art history) as privileged positions from which art is charged with aura, or the mystical. Mechanical reproducibility marks a shift in the value system of art production: from uniqueness to distribution, and the way it enables an aesthetic object to intervene in a plethora of lives and situations and take on a diversity of meanings. In any case, the mechanical production in the case of Unlearning Optical Illusions means enabling the object to be distributed in multiple ways, which again means exploring the possibilities the object has as a sender and receiver of meanings, and its possibility of creating new meanings as well through use. I’m thinking of art as something that is created in collaboration between the artist and the viewer; in a sense both are makers of the work.

KWASI: It is fascinating how terms like “modernity” and “tradition” are used as though they are mutually exclusive concepts: the former in reference to Europeans and the latter to Africans. Modernity would essentially mean a certain kind of mobility and inter-connectedness achieved between people and cultures through exchange. It is true that Western modernity did not happen in isolation. It happened through encounters with different cultures from around the globe and can be traced back to post-Medieval Europe (with the Transatlantic Slave Trade economy also active around this time) through to the late eighteenth century when the Industrial Revolution ushered it into a new phase. European modernity is related to the rise of nation states, which is linked to the Treaty of Westphalia signed between warring European states in 1648. The influence of African art on European art was evident in early modernist avant-garde movements like Cubism. At this point, Europe had immensely benefited from their colonial outposts in yonder territories in Africa, for example, as it pillaged its cultural, natural, human resources, etc.

So, to my mind, modernity today, as it was then, is the condition for everybody, whether one prefers it or not. This modernity, so-called, is animated by global geopolitics, economics, techno-scientific innovations, advancements and failures as well as cultural and artistic factors; the woman in a remote village in Ghana is ruled by the nation’s constitution, this constitution in turn protects economic policies dictated by the World Bank and IMF in Washington D.C, and so on and so forth in the matrix. These are some of the complex narratives that I think underlie the production of your wax print works that are opened up for discussion.

On exhibition techniques, I am curious to know if any of the illusory theories you have studied influence your display strategies in exhibitions or installations and in which ways?

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Unlearning Optical Illusions III, 2015, Toril johannessen, image courtesy artist

TORIL: The rise of the nation state, as you mention, created the need for constructing national identities, and so it created the need for a collective idea of a common history and tradition, which is how the Norwegian national dress I mentioned – the bunad – came about. The various regional variations of the bunad were constructed about 150 years ago, and look the same today, which is to say that they are not changed and are locked to the idea of an authentic, traditional dress – which originally was a construct with influences from different places. In that perspective, “tradition” in “modernity” holds a paradoxical position; a “modern society” distances itself from “traditional”, as mutually exclusive concepts as you point out, and simultaneously seeks to be legitimized by tradition. I agree that modernity is the condition for everyone. But it may look different from place to place. And maybe that’s why the idea of the dichotomy modern/traditional is still around – if modernity is to be seen as a straight narrative, it is thought to have to fit into a certain image of what a modern society is.
Another not so straight narrative is that of modern science. When you asked about “demystification” of artworks, I couldn’t help thinking about another kind of demystification, which can be exemplified by the case of Johann Zöllner, a 19th century polymath. He is today most known for the Zöllner illusion, one of the illusions I have included in my textile patterns. He thought that illusions are a window to a 4th spatial dimension. For him, illusions demonstrated a provable difference between what most people can sense and the physical world we have in front of us, and he sought to bring empirical evidence for this through collaboration with a clairvoyant medium.

Back to your question about what I mean with unlearning optical illusions, and about display strategies. The former first: For me, in the context of the project “Unlearning Optical Illusions”, unlearning means to try take on another perspective, try to seek another horizon of understanding, than the habitual ways that shape the way one is usually guided by. In the process of learning other perspectives, one may have to forget, or unlearn, what one already knows. As mentioned, this started purely as speculation, as theory, in the book Unseeing. I have later tried to apply it to situations where I get lost in communication or feel that I don’t trust my own interpretation of a situation or a fact. The illusion that I find that perhaps illustrates this best is one known as the Necker cube (not in the series of patterns I made). It is a so-called ambiguous illusion, a wire frame cube that flips back and forth between equally possible perspectives when you look at it – but it is not possible to see both perspectives at once. In Unseeing I designed a double Necker cube where I attempted to make a version where you can actually see two perspectives at once, one inside the other. It works for a split second, I think, but I’m not sure if it is because it actually works, or just because I want it to work; because I want to defy the way my own eyes and mind operates.

Regarding display strategies, I have played with pedagogical formats that seek to inform but also confuse in a mode that shift between certainty and uncertainty, perhaps a sort of instability in the viewing situation that can be compared to what happens when one is looking at optical illusions. In some works I explore such modes through language; visually by rendering parts of a work invisible by the use of different frequencies of light, or by activating the phenomena known as the blind spot in the eye. Everybody has a blind spot, a small part of the visual field that is obscured because of lack of photoreceptors where the optic nerve goes through the optic disk, but we usually don’t notice because the brain interpolates information from surrounding details and from the other eye. In the installation with photographs and texts that constitutes Unlearning Optical Illusions (II) I placed a sheet of text next to each photograph, but also added an instruction to the installation that asked the viewer to look at the pair of text/photograph in a specific way so that the text would be rendered invisible. When viewed at a certain distance with one eye the sheet of text becomes invisible as that part of the visual fields falls on the blind spot. By doing so, I wanted to make the viewer aware of how the body is active in visual perception, and also it was a way to activate the relation between the image and text.

In the patterns I made for Unlearning Optical Illusions, I embedded classical geometrical illusions, but did so in a way where the illusions are not seen as very strong, so you will have to look closely for the illusions. I wanted them to remain a bit ambiguous, playing on the idea that there are differences in susceptibility to illusions.

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Unlearning Optical Illusions II, 2014, Toril johannessen, photograph, text, lines on the floor, image courtesy artist

KWASI: How did you come to work with GTP, the textile printing company in Ghana? What does this collaboration mean for this project and why is that scale of industrial production necessary to the production of this body of work?

TORIL: The idea to have the patterns produced as wax prints was initially that I wanted them to become the type of objects that the previous versions were merely referring to, so the project has a sort of backwards process: firstly presented as photographic representations as if they were already existing, found objects, and only later becoming that type of objects these representations referred to. So it went from representation to tangible objects. And while the emphasis in the former parts is on theories on optical illusions, the latter is on wax prints, their history and usage. Secondly, as well as making a sculptural installation with the textiles, I wanted them to be distributed as something else than purely as art objects; to bring them out of the art context and make them usable as objects. By doing so, I thought, the patterns could get disconnected from the theories they evolved from, and rather take on a life of their own where the meanings and possible interpretations are wider.

A friend of a friend referred me to GTP when I started researching wax print manufacturers in West Africa. I found that the industry had been on a decline the past years, with several companies closing down around 2012, a decline that is mostly explained by competition from cheap Chinese products (copies), and also import of second hand clothing and production instabilities. After communicating with GTP for a while about the possibilities of producing the prints with them, I went to visit. This was important for me not only in order to simply have the patterns produced and to understand the production process better, but also in order to get to know the context where wax prints are made and used.

For being an industrially made product, the quantity I made is small. Besides production for their own design line, GTP regularly takes on commissions from institutions and private persons, and took on producing my patterns as such. For them it was a regular commission, for me it meant an introduction to the cultural context, to Ghana, and as a side effect getting to know the Ghanaian art scene.

Knowing that you are currently on a residency in Philadelphia, I am curious about how you experience working in a new context?

KWASI: Working in a new environment such as I currently am in North Philadelphia has been intensely engaging. It has been a cascade of first time experiences for me — first time in the United States, first time in this part of the country, meeting new people and so on. The good thing is that I have eight months within which to familiarize myself in this new environment and also to create something meaningful with local collaborators during the period of the residency. To mitigate the potentially alienating effect of my newness (to the culture) and foreignness, I thought to experiment with relational procedures like open mic events, art talks and film screenings to simultaneously introduce myself to members of the community, create an avenue for interaction and exchange so we can then move on to build relationships to begin to develop some kind of project.

It is the first time I have had the opportunity to work in this way on such scale. Back in Ghana, I belong to a community of writers, poets, dancers and artists who meet once a month to invent new ways of expressing ideas in-the-moment through collaboration. This is where the inspiration for the current model I am adopting comes from.

TORIL: First time experiences are intense. A friend of mine in Ghana remarked, as we were looking at the landscape driving from Accra to Kumasi, that he wished he could see the landscape with fresh eyes, as if he had never seen it before. I think I responded I wished I could see it with his familiarity, and not influenced by my own. A comparative method or mindset, simply looking for differences and similarities, only brings you thus far, but still I think that a quite common ingredient of the first time experience is looking for familiarity, as in what one knows from before. Like comparing the hues and intensity of greenness to the different types of landscapes I know from home, and then, later, the greenness becomes distinctly its own. Details previously ignored become apparent and fine grained, but some are also rendered irrelevant. I like trying to make note of the changes taking place as my perception of something – a landscape, a person, an idea – is gradually or intermittently altered.

My first first-hand experience with young Ghanaian art was the exhibition you curated at Nubuke foundation in 2015 and the panel discussion before the exhibition opening. One of the issues discussed was how you could create a solid foundation for yourself to work from, as individual artists and as a community, which gives me an idea of the collaborative model you mention.

KWASI: Yes, that exhibition — Voyage of [Re]Discovery (2015) — was my first curatorial project. There were nine artists who participated from four countries — Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and the United States. It was on the occasion of Ghana’s 58th Independence Day celebration and the directors of Nubuke Foundation had asked me if I would be interested in developing an exhibition to mark the event, to which I agreed. The artists I worked with were, in one way or the other, dealing with questions related to the politics of representation, nationalism, African identity, and the conception of ‘independence’ in the context of global geopolitics and economics in today’s world — which are the subjects the exhibition raised. As much as it was about strengthening local individual and communal ties, it was also about fostering cross-cultural dialogues to broaden the scope of the conversations especially on such topics.

Most of my projects are formulated in the process of research and writing and because I belong to a local community of diverse practitioners there is always the possibility of richly developing the idea beyond my initial conception through collaboration with colleagues or other professionals who may either be interested in the initial idea and would like to create something for it or have a work which already speaks to the idea in a relevant way and so we get to work together. Sometimes it is the other way around.

TORIL: That is one of the wonderful things with collaborations – that there is a possibility for an idea to develop beyond the initial conception, and beyond the individual’s skills and knowledge. It is also a very delicate and demanding process, I find, because there is a risk that the core idea gets lost if it is not articulated clearly, so it sharpens the need for articulating intentions at an early stage.

I have done different types of collaborations, and can’t say I have one type of methodology. In the case of my collaboration with HAiK, it started with me asking them if they would be interested in making use of some of the fabrics I had made. It has been crucial that they have taken on the project as their own; that they have ownership to it and are free to develop it guided by what they find most relevant. It is a matter of trust.

KWASI: Trust is a necessary element in this context. The issue you raise about the delicateness of collaborations is very true as well; and the group dynamics multiply as more members are included in the collaboration. Once some level of trust has been asserted amongst the collaborators, the group further needs to develop some kind of integrity which not only preserves its internal relations but also guides its dealings with external entities. However, this is not to suggest that this community (of collaborators) would be immune to conflict. In fact, I agree with Claire Bishop when she paraphrases Laclau’s and Mouffe’s concept of antagonism (in critique of Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of Relational Art as creating “fundamentally harmonious” communities – however temporary) by saying that “a democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased”1. I am attempting, with my current community-based project, to create this kind of ‘democratic community’ through the aforementioned relational procedures.

I think of an antecedent question to the moment of collaboration: “Who is willing to collaborate with me?”. This may seem to be a simple question but is one that can have profound implications for the artist who is interested in the politics of relations if taken for granted. The questioner wonders if indeed there is any one (or group of people) out there who is (or are) interested to be part of what he or she is offering. By not simply seeking respondent(s) who are ‘interested’ but “willing”, the questioner seeks that kind of engagement which compels the potential respondent beyond passivity. The questioner seeks not a generalized respondent but a specific one: one who consciously asserts a position in relation to the questioner and who would participate as an active agent. I prefer this reflexive approach to collaboration. I also use this to illustrate that I – like the institution hosting this residency – initially took it for granted that members of this community or who have worked with the institution on past projects, or who live in close proximity to it, would automatically be willing to work with me. This has not been the case. I have come to the realization that the collaborative process is one that must always be negotiated as it legitimizes itself by working through the tensions.

 

Notes:

  1. See Claire Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 65. © 2004 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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