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Empirical Methodologies and the Value of Subjectivity in the Analysis of the Experience of Contemporary Experiential Art

In: Art & Perception
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Sadia Sadia RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia
Real World Studios, Mill Lane, Box, Wiltshire, UK

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Abstract

Current neuroscientific methods for the investigation of art experience are circumscribed by the researcher’s own cultural constructions of gender, art and beauty, and these present difficulties in the production of unassailable empirical data. Gathering biometric data of viewers or participants’ responses to artworks remains equally problematic as a consequence of the anticipation or arousal brought about by the act of preparing the subject for the collection of data. Much of the methodology that has been designed to study aesthetic psychological and affective states is based in classicism, a convention which contemporary experiential art defies. There is a group of contemporary experiential artworks, defined herein as ATRIA (Affective Transcendental Revelatory Immersive Artworks), which report a significantly higher rate for profound, life-changing, epiphanic, transcendent experiences, and the study of the experience of these artworks defies current methodologies. An understanding of these works and states requires a re-evaluation of the value of subjective reportage and the personal truths that are central to these experiences of art. Research artists understand that objective reality does not lie at the core of the experience of art, and that practice-based artist-led research (PBR) must as a consequence critically inform any neuroaesthetic or neuroscientific endeavour or study. The article is an opinion paper by a practising artist, academic and researcher.

1. Introduction

“The discipline of aesthetics is often simplistically associated with subjectivity and inconsistency, and this notion is paired with the assumption that there is an objective and constant reality at the core of experience. If there is a constant reality which underlies all experience, science has shown that we cannot know it.”

(McNiff, 2010, p. 15)

My interest as an artist engaged in practice-based research (PBR) and as a scholar is to inform, guide and refine both my scholarly and artistic practice by developing a deeper understanding of how and why people have profound, life-changing experiences within immersive works of art comprising moving images and sound. My research focus is on how these experiences are initiated, what the key drivers of the transcendent, epiphanic state might be, and how to set out to consciously induce such a state in my viewers or participants. These research questions have also been raised by Elwes (2015) and Pelowski and Akiba (2011) and my focus as a research artist and academic has been on providing answers to these questions. I write as an artist, first and foremost, and my aim in this opinion paper is not to fall directly into the field of neuroaesthetics or experimental aesthetics but rather to make the case for the value of subjectivity. Research artists have much to contribute to the scientific study of aesthetics and understand that objective reality does not lie at the core of the experience of art. I am therefore arguing that given the inherent problems within the scientific exploration of aesthetics, which I will come to later, there should at the very least be an equivalent weight accorded to certain types of subjective perception and evaluation as is awarded empirical findings within the scientific study of aesthetic perception.

Let me open by distinguishing between PBR and practice-led research (PLR). While closely related, these disciplines are not identical. PBR concerns itself with the object as the source of the contribution to knowledge, while PLR involves itself in the processes which lead to the creation of the artwork as the source of new knowledge.

“… creative work in itself is a form of research and generates detectable research outputs; secondly, to suggest that creative practice — the training and specialised knowledge that creative practitioners have and the processes they engage in when they are making art — can lead to specialised research insights which can then be generalised and written up as research. The first argument emphasises creative practice in itself, while the second highlights the insights, conceptualisation and theorisation which can arise when artists reflect on and document their own creative practice.”

(Smith and Dean, 2009, p. 5)

Here I am concerned with the outcome, i.e., the reaction to a finished artwork, and therefore privelege the PBR artist as more germane to these processes.

My research and creative work examines the construction of how and why people come to have transcendental experiences within immersive installation artworks featuring light and sound, and whether we can identify prototypical qualities in these artworks that would allow for the duplication of such experiences. For these purposes, I define a transcendent experience as a transformational life experience which may be epiphanic, and incorporate a sense of awe, including feelings of communion, often subsuming the viewer in a sense of universality (Keltner and Haidt, 2003; Maslow, 1970; McDonald, 2008). This creative endeavour has put me on something of a collision course with the limitations of certain methodological practices within empirical aesthetics. To date, my research projects have been qualitative and practice-based, in that they interrogate the subject through artistic practice, and creative artefacts form the basis of the study or contribution to the field of knowledge.

2. Methodologies in Empirical Aesthetics

Significant debate surrounding neuroaesthetics and empirical aesthetics lies with the problematic aspects of methodology. My argument is that we need to re-evaluate subjectivity, particularly the subjective evaluations of the artist, as an affective methodology within qualitative research strategies and paradigms. Knowledge that artists take for granted as intuitive may be based on years of artistic inquiry, and ‘explicit’ knowledge in science and relatively closed methods of inquiry limit the generation of new knowledge by blocking access to what we know ‘tacitly’. McNiff (2010) points out that “Within the arts, tacit or unspoken knowledge permeates virtually everything we do” (p. 132). Let us take, for example, a music recording studio control room. How is the decision-making process arrived at, and how are decisions made about what to record and what not to record? Invariably, allowing for a few exceptional cases, there is a consensus among those present about what qualifies as ‘quality’ and what does not. The work is required to be of a standard, there is a consensus about what that constitutes, and this job usually falls to the producer (Gander, 2015). Somewhere along the line we make aesthetic decisions about what constitutes quality (or commerciality) and in the private sector these qualitative observations are frequently backed up by significant sums of capital. It follows that some subjective aesthetic decision-makers carry greater weight than others (Lefford and Thompson, 2018), and it might be said that a congruence could be drawn between these and accorded the same weight and value as empirical findings.

Aesthetic quality and capital investment can make uncomfortable bedfellows. Capital investment does not denote aesthetic quality. But the argument here is that not all subjective aesthetic judgments are held to be equally valid, and as a society we value some aesthetic judgments over others. This is equally true of the fields of learning and education as it is in the area of creative or aesthetic commerce. How we determine which aesthetic judgment is valued, and on what terms, is not the subject of this discourse. One of the arguments here is that subjective evaluations based on the metacognitive capacities of some artists have a validity that extends beyond the field of studio practice, and that these observations could and should be judged to carry the same weight as empirical findings.

2.1. Towards a Re-Evaluation of Subjectivity

My focus as a research artist is on identifying the conditions that give rise to the epiphanic or transcendental experience within an encompassing environment, and the tropes that may be likely to amplify such an experience. These are subjective evaluations and there is an argument to be made that the reaction of the participant or viewer lies within the scope of the social sciences. Outputs based on PLR and PBR provide some of the few avenues for the legitimisation of an artist’s assimilated knowledge and the transference of that accumulated wisdom into the lexicon.

This discussion leans towards the embodiment theory of emotion as espoused by William James in that emotions arise from bodily feelings and can therefore be incited or triggered by influences on the body. James’ radical empiricism legitimated genuine experience, “that is to say, awareness in the immediate moment before the differentiation of subject and object” (Gordon, 2015, p. 314). For James, the body is the ‘storm centre’ in which “the world experienced comes at all times with our body as its centre, centre of vision, centre of action, centre of interest” (James, 1909, p. 91) and the centrality of the body and its relationship to experience is shared by Dewey (Shusterman, 2008, pp. 135–179). Appraisal theory, on the other hand, posits that emotions are based in intellect and on appraisal, and “depend on how we think about an event” (Prinz, 2015, p. 242). But appraisal theory would have us communicate an idea that exists beyond language through the use of language or the tropes surrounding language. If phenomenology is the study of the mind understanding the mind and body’s experiences, how then how do we define the body understanding the body’s experiences, which surely takes us beyond language? As Tröndle et al. (2014) notes “our interest was to develop a methodology for the investigation and visualization of moments of presence, that is, when viewers are affected by (art) objects. Such moments of the immediate sensitivity occur before being aware of them, prior to cognitive and linguistic processing” (p. 131). The transcendent experience, for example, may be triggered via mechanisms in the brain, but the response lies in areas both more visceral and subliminal than those governing language. This is where the experiential comes into play, the direct unspoken knowledge with which a viewer or participant understands their embodied experience on an intuitive level, and calls for a reassessment of the value of the subjective reportage of individual emotional truth in relation to more empirical methodologies.

As I have previously demonstrated, all aesthetic judgments do not have equal value. There exists a hierarchy of validity in decision-making in respect of aesthetic values. We might accept two different suggestions from two experts as being equivalent but different. Contrary to the values espoused by postmodernism, all is not relative. There is such a thing as good and bad art, and good and bad music, and this is not simply a matter of taste. These determinations arise from subjective judgments, but are considered to have universal validity.

2.2. The Trouble with Emotion

Emotion recognition software still requires the subject to be relatively stationary, with most emotion software recognition programs measuring the universal ‘big six’ emotions (or ‘big seven’) although these are being measured across an increasing number of key facial points. Much emotion recognition software is based in Paul Ekman’s theory that emotions are universal and produce distinct signals that manifest consistently across cultures (Ekman, 1993). This is problematic since, in order for the data from any emotion recognition software to be useful, the theory behind it needs to be sound and universally agreed. However, there continues to be ongoing debate between the major schools in emotion research. Crivelli and Fridlund (2018) argue the behavioural ecology view of facial displays (BECV) theory where “facial displays are not fixed, semantic read-outs of internal states such as emotions or intentions, but flexible tools for social influence. Facial displays are not about us, but about changing the behaviour of those around us” (p. 388).

Modern evolutionary theory is informing a debate previously centred on universality: “… emphasising that expressions are directed at a receiver, that the interests of sender and receiver can conflict, that there are many determinants of sending an expression in addition to emotion, that expressions influence the receiver in a variety of ways, and that the receiver’s response is more than simply decoding a message” (Russell et al., 2003, p. 329). This construction of affect makes emotion recognition software readings challenging to assess in the context of empirical aesthetics, since it is difficult to evaluate whether the subject is responding to the aesthetic stimuli, attempting to please the researcher by fulfilling what they believe to be the expectations of the research, or simply reacting to some internal stimuli of which an external observer may be unaware.

“That said, I agree that much of the work on affective computing, including my own, is overlooking a fundamental element of emotional experience. Much of what I presented is built on the idea of ‘emotion as information’. From this perspective, emotional displays communicate information about another parties mental state. Similarly, emotional feelings communicate information about the body state that can inform internal decisions. While this view is true (and there is a good bit of experimental evidence to support it), it seems to miss much of what people see is fundamental to emotion. Emotion is not just information, it is evocative. Anger evokes fear. There is something about feeling yourself transported by an evening song in an old Oxford chapel beyond saying I feel positive valence and low control.”

(Jonathan Gratch, pers. comm., 2018)

Gratch’s interpretation is in keeping with the behavioural ecology view of facial displays (BECV) (Crivelli and Fridlund, 2018), which decodes facial display readouts as tools for social influence. Ultimately we see a phenomenon not unlike quantum theory, in that by the very act of watching the observer affects the observed reality (Buks et al., 1998), or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in which the act of measurement or observation directly alters the phenomenon under investigation (Salkind, 2010), since in this case perception itself is the phenomenon under investigation. There are also research findings that indicate that basic facial expressions are not universal across cultures (Feldman Barrett, 2017), and these critiques are increasingly entering public consciousness as Ekman’s research forms the basis of AI systems governing such areas as recruitment and security (Devlin, 2020).

This leads us ‘through the looking glass’, into a world where all findings are based on the shifting sands of culturally-constructed definitions, the researcher’s own biases, the subject’s gender, upbringing, malleability, and desire to please the researcher, and takes us into that space where results may be altered simply by the very fact of observing them. When perception is the subject, and the observation of perception becomes the object, it is impossible to see how the expectations of both parties will not influence the outcome.

2.3. The Status of Subjectivity

As discussed herein, available hardware and software remain problematic in the generation of reproducible verifiable evidence and limited in the parameters of what can be investigated, and this is uncomfortable ground on which to structure a research study. As a consequence, my research deals with the qualitative and the subjective, and my argument is that certain types of qualitative, subjective findings should and must be given at least equal stature within the current parameters and constructions of neuroaesthetic research. Horst (2005) argues that:

“… psychophysics of vision does much to belie the current philosophical wisdom about the role played by subjective mental states in psychology …. On the one hand, its domain includes phenomenologically described mental states (percepts). On the other hand, its methodology requires subjective access to the first-person, experiential, phenomenological character of these percepts. And without such a phenomenologically-based psychophysics we lose many of the data that it is the business of theoretical psychology of perception to explain.” (p. 13–14)

Given the advances taking place in neuroscience, one might assume that it would be possible to identify the neural structures through which the aesthetic, transcendent or epiphanic experience might pass, and develop a scientific study that would prove or disprove the thesis through empiricism. The answer to this is that research into the brain and aesthetics remains in its infancy and neuroscience remains simply too blunt a tool.

2.4. Design Challenges

The very nature of art and artworks presents fundamental design challenges through their complexity, which defy categorisation as simple stimuli. Aesthetic response is predicated on the subjects’ relationship to time and place, their state of life and mind, and the cultural framework the viewer brings to a situational approach to the artwork. This is before we even begin to consider the sense of space or the feel of the air across the surface of the skin, alongside other factors. An artist would observe that the fallacy of some scientific method lies in the reductionist approach, imagining that an artwork can simply be injected into a research study as stimuli and parsed as data in a research output.

Further difficulties with the neuroscientific approach lie in our changing cultural construction of ideas surrounding beauty and the challenges that arise in adapting to tropes and social constructions of gender that are being redefined on an almost daily basis. It is possible, for example, to present a diverse group of subjects with a group of sources of stimuli (reproductions of objects or artworks, musical selections) from which they are asked to select those which they find ‘beautiful’ versus those which they find ‘ugly’. In the Inaugural Derek Denton Lecture in the Arts, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia, 2016, on the ‘The Neurobiology of Art’, Professor Semir Zeki contrasted Ingres’ ‘La Grande Odalisque’ (1814) with Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (1995) as examples of beauty and ugliness. In these assessments, the ‘pale, stale and male’ (and almost predominantly Occidental and straight) gaze is predominant, alongside the most traditional constructions of what constitutes beauty and what defines art.

“For one thing, to suggest that the human brain responds in a particular way to art risks creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it. Although it is a risk that most researchers are likely to recognise, experience suggests that scientists studying art find it hard to resist drawing up rules for critical judgments.”

(Ball, 2013, para. 6)
The very selection of the stimuli is subject to the researcher’s cultural construction of beauty and struggles with the shifting sands of the researcher’s upbringing, gender, and the mores of their times. Certainly the brain may respond to beauty, and even certain types of beauty, across cultural divides, but surely there must be some acknowledgment that the subject may simply be interpreting the construction of beauty placed on the work by the researcher, or trying to please the researcher. Conway and Rehding (2013) explain the experimental design challenges as follows:

“Four experimental-design challenges surface. First, the options are necessarily restricted, and might not include a truly beautiful choice — the study design tests preferences, not beauty. Second, different subjects are likely interpret the instructions in radically different ways. Third, the use of different stimulus sets in different subjects makes it difficult to control for differences in low-level stimulus features, which likely drive different patterns of neural activity. And fourth, the experiment requires that a given object retain a fixed preferred status, and one that is not modulated by context, which we know is unlikely.”

(Conway and Rehding, 2013, para. 10)

One questions what the results might have been had the researchers chosen an entire sample group of works which they interpreted as ‘ugly’ (Ishizu and Zeki, 2011), and asked the the subjects to select those that they responded to as ‘beautiful’ from within that field.

A reproduction of an artwork is not the artwork itself. Any trials based on reproductions of artworks are not measuring how the subject responds to that artwork. They are measuring how the subject responds to a reproduction of the artwork, and the importance of this distinction cannot be underscored too highly. This speaks to Magritte’s ‘Treachery of Images’ (1929) in that ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (‘this is not a pipe’) but rather an illustration of a pipe. In the case of neuroaesthetic MRI studies, a reproduction of an artwork is subject to all the vagaries of reproduction and scale, is taken out of context, and is not the artwork itself. In a comparative study of subjects’ reactions to original artworks against a selection of reproductions, the originals “were rated significantly more pleasant, interesting, and surprising in the original format than in reproduction by all observers …. These findings suggest that when it comes to experiencing the pleasure of art, the often heard adage ‘there is nothing like the original’ may in fact be true” (Locher, 2014, p. 77).

It stands to reason that the only deductions one might make from such studies cannot be deemed to be in relation to the aesthetics of a particular artwork, but solely in relation to a reproduction of a particular artwork, which are two different things entirely. Many studies in neuroaesthetics which present themselves as empirical are in fact circumscribed by the subjective definitions and interpretations of the researcher. This is where problematic science and the PBR of the artist meet, but the artist is generally in fact wholly conscious of the subjectivity inherent in their methodology.

The structure of the studies from their inception are affected by the preconceptions or unchallenged value systems of the researcher. Further, assigning the notion of ‘difficulty’ to contemporary art, a very traditional way of categorising art, overlooks an entire category of contemporary artworks, including many contemporary experiential works based on transcendent, ethereal and sublime qualities. While there is plenty of room for a whole host of disciplines surrounding the study of art, art is not solely a discursive intellectual problem-solving exercise. This is very much a scientist’s view of how artists function, the view from the ‘outside’, an imaginary leap into what a neuroscientist believes or imagines an artist to be. Owning a camera and taking photographs does not make you a photographer, any more than owning a box of paints and daubing a canvas makes you a painter. Part of the fallacy of the scientific method is that it presupposes an understanding of what art and artists are, which is a state of being and doing and not simply a way of thinking. While acknowledging the supremacy of the subjective, the notion that “the only truths you can be sure of are objective truths” (Zeki, 2016) brings us no closer to understanding the nature of subjectivity or how it relates to the emotional state of either the creator of the work of art or of the viewer or participant experiencing or engaged with the work. The tension between subjectivity and the value of neuropsychiatric findings in respect of aesthetics can be further defined as follows:

“Neuropsychiatry deals with brain science and is based on the correlation of mental states with the complex patterns of activity arising from diffuse nets of interconnected neurones. It is impossible to predict subjective experience by the study of objective firing patterns, and therefore impossible to explain the subjective aspects of mind or consciousness. Conscious stuff and brain are different. The idea of a mechanical universe which excludes consciousness is unsatisfactory from an experiential point of view.”

(Fenwick, 2001, p. 16)

2.5. Alternative Scientific Approaches

The comprehensive Swiss National Project eMotion study adopted a multidisciplinary approach, combining entrance and exit surveys with position tracking and biometric data gathered through data gloves (Tröndle et al., 2014). Tröndle et al. (2014) himself notes that “limitations of the presented methodology may lie in reactivity: Technical apparatuses are not just instruments for researchers ‘to do their research’; they may also have a considerable influence on what is observed (Cetina, 1999; Tröndle et al., 2011)” (p. 131). Gathering biometric data on viewers/participants in response to artworks, including eye-tracking, electroencephalogram (EEG), facial emotion recognition, electrocardiography (ECG) and galvanic skin response (GSR) remains problematic (Carbon, 2019). The very act of tethering or wiring a subject up creates an anticipation/arousal brought about by the act of preparing the subject for the collection of data. This impairs the baseline reading and as a consequence diminishes the value of the data gathered (and this extrapolates to wiring a subject up for Blutooth and wifi as well).

While significant studies exist, we continue to have limited information about how people move through gallery spaces. Even with motion detection, this data alone will not give us insight into the valence/arousal states of the participants and we must necessarily rely on subjective reporting by the subjects. It is not my intention to enter into a detailed discussion of mixed method qualitative research here and such analysis may be found elsewhere (Sandelowski and Barroso, 2006). Tröndle and Tschacher (2012), in their study on the effects of artworks and the behaviour of museum visitors, propose that the difficulties encountered in the study of the ‘embodied phenomenology of art reception’ be overcome through the multidisciplinary approach, and that “an adequate understanding of aesthetic effects on the beholder will necessarily have to combine artistic, empirical, statistical, and experimental methods, on which observations and their interpretations can be based” (p. 109). These ideas are supported by need to study artwork in situ, as only by these means “will we be able to reveal intuitive and spontaneous behaviour face-to-face to artworks — such interesting and psychologically insightful behaviour which we would otherwise suppress in an overly systematized and constrained lab context” (Carbon, 2017, p. 13), and this is significant when it comes to the investigation of experiential contemporary art.

An integrative approach, in this case for the study of an installation art exhibition, was also selected by Pelowski et al. (2018), who qualify installation art as presenting “a particularly perfect intersection of issues at the forefront of suggested new directions in empirical/psychological aesthetics” (p. 2). Integrating questionnaires with eye-tracking might be argued to be a less sensorially invasive technique in that the viewer is not wearing a continual reminder that they are being monitored or are participating in a study. I am very sympathetic to these researchers, who recognise increasing levels of complexity in the process and “are becoming concerned with the need to consider art reception as a complex interplay of the expectations of the viewer, the characteristics of the art object, and the conditions in which it is experienced” (Pelowski and Leder, 2018, p. 3) while concluding “that many viewers can and do have meaningful reactions to installation art, driven largely by their generally positive or negative emotion” (Pelowski and Leder, 2018, p. 20). It is worth noting that within all of these studies, none have been conducted with installation art comprising moving images and sound or soundscapes presented in darkened environments, which will present a fresh set of challenges for research and tracking, notwithstanding the more variable emotional responses of viewers/partcipants in darkened environments. There is also a significant expectation of privacy in a darkened environment, and this should produce a greater range of valence-arousal responses in viewers/participants. Contemporary experiential artworks will then provide a fresh set of challenges.

2.6. Individual Emotional Truth

Subjective reportage is central to the understanding and analysis of individual emotional truth. Peshkin (1994) sums up the nature of his experience as follows:

“In short, my subjectivity is the source for the singular contribution I can make based on whatever study I conduct. It shows me what I can put at the centre of things in a way that impels me to make something of it. The benefit is seeing, concentration, focus — the result of establishing centre and periphery, so that my research has a destination, not just a direction.” (p. 52)

These truths have validity in the face of scientific or ‘empirical’ truth, and personal truth lies at the core of the construction of our own realities. A postmodernist relativist might argue that every individual’s truth is equally valid, but this creates an uncomfortable world which marginalises objectivity in favour of individualism and disavows both accumulated knowledge and wisdom. A consensus of observed or shared experience can also form the basis for the collection of qualitative data. We can assign greater value to the opinions, observations and subjective responses of individuals on the basis of their experience, education, capacity for observation and analysis, and personal and professional histories. In this world, one individual’s subjective observations and responses do become more valid than another’s, and falls into the more pragmatic practical application of ideas by acting on them to actually test them in human experience, however qualitative and subjective these observations may be.

3. Subjectivity and Contemporary Experiential Art

How then does one design a study to draw empirical evidence from the emotional, subjective, experiential states that contemporary experiential installation works produce? They cannot be parsed through an individual lying on an MRI table or even standing in front of a painting. These are works of immersive sensory perception, drawing on atmospherics and on the dynamics of subtle forces. These works invade the senses in the most intimate way, as they play across the surface of the skin, are breathed into the body, becoming part not only of the viewer’s consciousness but of the participant’s organism. Much of the methodology that has been designed to study these aesthetic psychological and affective states is based in a classicism, the notion of art as something that hangs on a wall rather than something that is assimilated into the individual corpus. Contemporary art is considered a métier that is parsed through repeated viewings rather than taken in as a whole, producing an immediate affective shock and a temporary and sometimes permanent change in perception.

3.1. Defining Experiential Artworks

There are contemporary works which I am defining as a new category of transcendental affective works, works that are wholly democratic in that they have an unusually high ‘hit rate’ of inducing altered states of perception and heightened valence and arousal in the educated and uneducated participant alike (Sadia, 2019a). I make the distinction here between the educated and uneducated viewer as “aesthetic competence and aesthetic fluency” (Tschacher et al., 2015, p. 164) as well as expertise and art knowledge have been shown to be predictive factors in art appreciation and reception. This is not the case with the works I am categorizing below, whose impact appears to be universal regardless of training or education. While the nature of the reaction to these works is not altered by the level of expertise of the viewer, the ability to communicate such a reaction in a language that is methodologically valuable may be a factor.

These works I am specifying as ATRIA (Affective Transcendental Revelatory Immersive Artworks), works of immediacy that speak to the heart of the viewer, bypassing critical cognitive faculties to initiate a visceral emotive response that may also be cathartic or metamorphic. These works produce an impact on first viewing that can have an almost primal effect on the individual viewer/participant in that many are transported immediately on entering or engaging with the work without prior knowledge, education or foresight.

These emergent ATRIA centralise art as experience and may occupy dedicated spaces but it is often not possible to define the boundaries of the space, and the works frequently incorporate a sense of timelessness and limitless space. There is no requirement for cultural context, and Fitch and Westphal-Fitch (2013) note that such knowledge is not essential to the aesthetic experience, nor for ‘aesthetic mastery’ on the part of the viewer-participant (Pelowski and Akiba, 2011, p. 82). These ATRIA are democratic in their accessibility to the educated and uneducated alike. The researcher remains dependent on subjectivity and self-reporting when considering the prototypical qualities of this group of works.

Contemporary artworks that might be included in this category include works by James Turrell, Studio Olafur Eliasson, Anthony McCall, Yayoi Kusama, Sadia Sadia, Ryoji Ikeda, and Teamlab (see Figs 1 and 2 for examples). Works in this category need to be experienced firsthand as once again we return to the problem of describing that which is beyond language through the written word, which can only serve to approximate a description of the embodied experience. While a distinction has already been drawn in the literature between those who essentially work with surfaces and more superficial aesthetics, and those whose works dig deeper into the emotional and visceral realms (Jones, 2006), I propose a new movement, category, or field, works of communion or of transcendent potential that have a greater than average subjectively reported rate of producing peak experiences. Turrell’s work falls into this category, through strategies such as darkness in built or confined spaces and enveloping chromosaturated environments. He explains the experience of art as follows:

“The more you have extraordinary experience in flight, the more you recognise the difficulty in passing on the experience to others. Your experience becomes such that it is almost too difficult to talk about it. It seems useless to try to transmit the experience. It would be easier to send others on the flight itself. The idea of the Boddhisattva, one who comes back and entices others to the journey, is to some degree the task of the artist. It is a different role from that of one who is there when you get there.”

(Holborn and Turrell, 1993, p. 18)
Figure 1.
Figure 1.

(L) Turrell, J. (2017), Beside Myself (coloured light, architectural walkway); (R) Turrell, J (2017) Unseen Seen (Perceptual Cell series, light). MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania, Australia. © Copyright Sadia Sadia, all rights reserved.

Citation: Art & Perception 9, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/22134913-bja10009

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Eliasson, O. (2009), Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas (fluorescent lights, colour filter foil (red, green, blue), aluminium, steel, ballasts, haze machine). 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan. © Studio Olafur Eliasson GmbH. The use or sharing of such images, audio features, video sequences, and texts in other electronic or printed publications is permitted for all non-commercial purposes.

Citation: Art & Perception 9, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/22134913-bja10009

Artworks that might be considered precursors of this movement include the works of Anthony McCall, an early proponent of what might be considered an ‘East Coast’ variation on the California Light and Space movement. McCall’s work often incorporates elements of light, including the manipulation of light through the use of film projectors. The manifestation of that light and the aesthetic qualities of the work are frequently dependent on haze or dust in the air, as with his early New York works, which were exhibited in old warehouses where the particulate nature of the atmosphere formed a critical aesthetic component in the materiality of the work, essential to the viewer’s ability to read and engage with the work. This is decidedly true of his 1973 work, ‘Line Describing a Cone’, which he describes as follows:

“The proportions of this projection vary, but the scale is large. The base of the cone, an emerging circle of light projected onto the wall, is tall enough, at between eight and eleven feet, to fully incorporate several spectators, and the length of the beam may be anything from thirty to sixty feet. This threedimensional object, like sculpture, calls for a mobile, participating spectator, and, like film, it takes time. To fully see the emerging form it is necessary to move around and through it, to look at it from the inside and from the outside.”

(Kastner, 2004, p. 219)

McCall’s work produces a sense of the unquantifiable metaphysical, the “beams of light speak(ing) to religious iconography, the delivery of enlightenment, visits from the disembodied or the beyond, floating between this world and the next, appearing in streams of revelatory particles to illuminate cognition and then vanishing in a haze of heat and dust” (Sadia, 2019a, p. 96).

Works included in this category of ATRIA also include works by Studio Olafur Eliasson (see Fig. 2 for an example). Eliasson’s works are frequently characterised by their wholly immersive environments, works fully engaged with art as experience, enveloping, sensing, receiving the work through the surface of the body, the skin, eyes, or breathing it in through the use of saturated colour transmitted by non-traditional materials such fog or haze.

Additional works from Japan include Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Rooms’, a group of works which allow for a single viewer in isolation in a simulation of infinite space. The popularity of these works is such that people will queue for many hours in order to have the opportunity to spend forty-five seconds in the room (Neuendorf, 2018).

As Kusama says “By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe” (Campbell-Dollaghan and Hession, 2013, para. 7). The experience of spending time in the space has been likened to a time span which felt like ‘eternity’, ‘heaven’ and ‘ethereal’ (Grimes, 2013). But what is singularly remarkable is the amount of time that people are prepared to invest in exchange for a few seconds of ‘heaven’, and this draws me back to my assertion about the power inherent in ATRIA. These enveloping environments are capable of producing a state of lucid dreaming, not unlike Turrell’s encompassing light-based installations.

Teamlab’s immersive interactive works, which now have a permanent base in the MORI Museum in Tokyo, also feature a group of artworks that manifest the qualities of timelessness and infinite space to form “one borderless world” (Teamlab, n.d., para. 1). These represent the current trend in ‘ultratechnologist’ experiential artworks, and the study of these environments is dependent on informed subjective reportage since they continue to defy study through current neuroscientific methodologies. Works that include the manipulation of time and play with notions of timelessness and infinite space include ‘All Time and Space Fold into the Infinite Present (Cataract Gorge)’ (2014) by Sadia Sadia, a monumental moving image and audio soundscape installation where footage has been slowed and colour balanced to resemble deep space. Other works that might be said to belong to the category of ATRIA include Ryoji Ikeda’s ‘Spectra’ works, which reference Anthony McCall’s pioneering use of light, as well as Ikeda’s confrontational yet demoniacally hypnotic ‘Test Pattern’ (2008–) series, a sensory interactive assault of rhythm, light and sound.

3.2. The Inner Landscape

Subjectivity has long been considered the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, and the reductive materialist view is that at some point phenomenal consciousness will be proved to be nothing more than a function of the brain. This is a popular view among some neuroaestheticists but this discourse is problematic in that is fails to account for some of the phenomena described herein. My argument and practice follows the ‘naturalistic dualist’ and ‘dual-aspect’ theory that “resist the reduction of phenomenal consciousness to brain states …. Discovery of the neural causes and or correlates would not achieve this for the simple reason that causation, correlation and ontological identity are fundamentally different relationships” (Velmans, 2008, p. 144). While certain current trends adopt the materialist view that mind is nothing more than a particular arrangement of physical matter (Velmans, 2008, p. 144), Velmans asserts that the reverse philosophical position may also be true, that physical matter may be nothing more than an arrangement of mind. If that is in fact the case, then perhaps what the viewer or participant experiences as a transcendent state or profound transformational affect when encountering ATRIA is that which most closely resembles a manifested internal state, the most clearly adducible reflection of the inner landscape, the external ‘proof’ of an internal topography (Sadia, 2019b). This raises yet further methodological problems in the pursuit of empirical aesthetics.

4. Conclusion

Current methods of evaluating neuroaesthetic states are troubled by material, structural, gender, and culturally-based biases that present difficulties in the production of unassailable empirical data. Existing tools are based in theories of emotion that are not settled, and frequently in models of beauty and qualities of aesthetics rooted in classicism and traditional definitions of what constitutes art. Contemporary experiential art, and in particular experiential installation art, defined herein as ATRIA, is defying those conventions and producing artworks that lie outside the boundaries and capacity of psychological and neuroaesthetic measurement tools and models. These difficulties with empiricism and the technological problems with our software and our tools lead us full circle to return to argue the case for placing PBR at the heart of any neuroaesthetic or neuroscientific endeavour or study. Scientists cannot think like artists, they can only imagine how artists might think and this places them at a disadvantage in designing experimental aesthetic research. Research artists understand that objective reality does not lie at the core of the experience of art and research artists should and must form part of any scientific integrative research design process. These issues are unique to scientific research into aesthetics and aesthetic response. Therefore informed subjective reportage remains an effective means of structuring aesthetic research, and is of particular significance in relation to the study of contemporary experiential installation artworks.

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