Visual Science of Art Conference 2019

Written by Jacob Cheeseman

As someone who considers himself a scientist first, and an artist second, I came to the Visual Science of Art Conference (VSAC) 2019 with keen interest. The meeting aims to enhance our scientific understanding of how visual artists depict the world, and to further communication between fields that, while traditionally divided within academia, share a passion for seeing.
This year we were gathered in Leuven, Belgium, a city that could well have the perfect balance of culture and functionality. And the opening reception was held at the Stadhuis, an absolutely gorgeous example of 15th-century gothic architecture. Our group was welcomed in this grand hall by no less than the mayor of Leuven, Mohamed Ridouani, whose presence signified how this alliance of art and science has strengthened both communities.

Stadhuis van Leuven

The content of the meeting spanned a range of diverse topics, including the visual perception of material properties, empirical aesthetics, and historical studies of rendering techniques. There was also no shortage of visual art—the work of Maaike Schoorel being a notable example. Working from reference photographs of real scenes, she paints a kind of phantasmic representation of the original image, accentuating only the critical lines and shading that suggest the underlying forms. The effect is to break any photographic constraints on interpretation, and to allow each viewer to project their own imagery onto the canvas.

Maaike Schoorel, Oranje Boterbloemen (Orange Buttercups), oil on canvas, 2011

The work I presented at the conference also deals with visual ambiguity, specifically the kind that depends on how we estimate distances in photographs. In everyday circumstances, our ability to identify surface material properties is effortless and automatic, but occasionally this ability can be challenged, especially when the visual pattern impedes a reliable estimation of distance. This can be seen in aerial photographs of planted fields, which can appear strikingly similar to woven fabric or textile. The pattern of light does not specify which interpretation is correct, and so our interpretations reveal what distances we have learned to associate with such images.

Jacob R. Cheeseman, Hunting for Ambiguity, photograph, 2018

In Jan Koenderink’s latest book, The Way of The Eye, he frames visual perception as a process of continually questioning our interpretations of images. Our first impression of what we are looking at is usually quite convincing, but if we relax our focus, other impressions enter into view. Surrealist painters like Dali seem to possess a supernatural talent for imagining multiple interpretations simultaneously, but how to compose photographs with this property strikes me as a slightly different, and perhaps more difficult task. When I asked Dr. Koenderink how one could compose such images, he suggested that it was a matter of attentional training.

To this end, I once spent a sunny afternoon in Giessen wandering around with my camera, hunting for ambiguous scenes. Although my perception of each scene was stable, by meditating on the question, “What else could this be?”, I began to see hints of possibility. By the end of that day I had hundreds of images, but not a clue whether any of them had captured what I had seen, or whether others would agree with my interpretations. One of my basic goals at VSAC was therefore to discuss this way of seeing with visual artists who play with ambiguity.

My line of questioning went something like this: “How does one compose images with multiple interpretations? While creating visual art, are you trying to reduce disparity between a mental image and a perceived image? Does one interpretation serve as the foundation for subsequent layers?” The answers I received to these questions were also rather ambiguous, which could mean that these are not the right questions, or that I am not ready for the answers. Maybe by the time this discussion resumes at next year’s meeting, I will be.