Birds and Umbrellas : The Way of Reading What is Unseen
The Significance of “To See”
The human senses – “sight,” “sound,” “touch,” and smell” – are the pathway of perception that connects and establishes relationships between the human body and the external world. Among the senses, the act of seeing, as the saying “hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once,” is regarded as the ability to most directly verify the authenticity of the series of incidents that happen in the surroundings. In particular,the traditional belief on the visual system that “seeing is believing,” in regard to the recent days which have become “the society of the spectacle,” as claimed by Guy Debord, became the category to occupy the most avant-garde yet central part in structuralizing human experience, together with the development of visual media and the explosive growth of film culture. In other words, “to see” in contemporary society claims to advocate objective and neutral value.
However, “to see” is not as plain and simple as the saying “seeing is believing.” When scrutinizing the act “to see,” visual experience is processed through the eyes, which is part of the body, and goes beyond a simple pathway of perception linking myself as a fragmented body with the external world. This is due to the fact that visual experience is a process of a sort of interpretation of viewing the stimulations entered through the eyes as “something” based on the knowledge that we have. Most cognitive scientists distinguish the levels of perception as the perception of low level and that of slightly higher level, that is, perception on the part of consciousness. If the former is a camera-like mechanical perception, then the latter can be viewed as perception, of which the saying “seeing is believing” could be valid, dependent on the comprehensive knowledge system flowing underneath the social community. True perception refers to the latter, and perception based on knowing provides clues that allow to read what is not seen to us through various signs. We are able to read that it has rained through the cloudy sky and wet ground, and we sense a forest fire when smoke rises from distant mountains. In this way, perception with a basis in knowing allows to see what is unseen.
Reading the Signs of Chun Eun
In this perspective, the work of Chun Eun can be said to be the work of discovering the “signs” hidden in the world. Her work, which, in particular, attempts the “reading of signs directly linked to senses,” ironically departs from the situation marked by the absence of senses or the pursuit of maximized sense. The first work, in accordance with the absence of senses, is the photographical work with the actors and actresses of the International Visual Theatre (IVT) in Paris. IVT is a theatre group comprised of actors and actresses with hearing disabilities, and because most of the actors and actresses are unable to hear sounds, the hearing disabilities are often accompanied by speech and language impediments. Though living in a world of their own excluded of sound, the actors and actresses always leave the window to the world open. Their window is the entire body excluding the ears and mouth. In particular, the diverse gestures accompanying sign language are an excellent narrator that substitutes for the mouth. While carrying out the Je Regarde project recording the “performance of sign language,” featuring the signs of the actors and actresses with hearing impairments, the artist was able to get a glimpse of the world of language that these people share. While filming their body language expressing the heart through the gesture of pulsation, clouds and smoke through the subtle movement of fingers, and even abstract words such as spring, summer, autumn, and winter without any strain, the artist experienced sounds that were heard like ringing in his ears. Chun, who sought to capture the “sign language portrait” of the actors and actresses, had a mysterious experience of imagining sound and language from the gestures of the hands maintaining silence.
Upon returning to Korea, Chun carried out the project, The Photography is the Retina of Scholars. This project, which was completed in collaboration with nine amateur astronomers, filmed the self-invented telescope to observe the celestial bodies and juxtaposed diverse astronomical images that were revealed through the telescope. During this process, the artist encountered the pure passion of the amateur astronomers; the desire of these astronomers to see planets or stars that may be tens of thousands or even hundreds of millions years away allowed the astronomers to not only endure long hours of exposure filming but also take on the laborious task of overlapping hundreds of frames in order to eliminate the noise. The telescope looks into deep space, and the planets, galaxy, and star clusters that the telescope had been in search reach the retina of the scholar through the lens. In front of the eyeball-like telescope, retina-like lens, and the desire of the scholar seeking to see what is unseen in the behind, Chun stipulates that “the history of photography is the history of desire to see what is unseen” and, as a photographer, supports the pure visual desires of the astronomers.
The similarity shared by the actors with hearing impairments and the astronomers is that they both have an expanded visual desire and a unique medium reflecting their visual world derived from this desire – that is, sign language for the hearing-impaired actors and the telescope for the astronomers. Moreover, Chun stands before two questions. “What is the significance of to see for people only living by the sense of vision?” and “in what ways do the blind see the world?” To find the answers to these questions, Chun works with youth with hearing impairments and those with visual impairments.
Blackbox Recorder, a project in collaboration with seven teens with hearing impairments, presents three black boxes to these adolescents. A box containing something that can be grasped when reached within and a photograph that comes out when unfolding the black paper, each of these is allows imagination to run free with the senses of touch and vision as the medium. And the pinhole camera, the last black box, allows getting a glimpse into the world that these adolescents see. On the other hand, through A Certain Photograph, a project carried out in collaboration with seven novelists and twins with sight disability, the artist attempts a sincere observation on the visualization process experienced by people who are visually impaired. The seven novelists write a text introducing the person in the photograph for the twins. At this point, the twins encounter that person, and this encounter is not through the eyes but by utilizing sound and language as medium and therefore coming to know the person in the photograph within their minds. Through this project, the artist points out that what the twins encounter is a meeting with a real existing person but a meeting with the “image of a certain person.” Moreover, Chun reveals the fact that images occur not through vision but through the “process of visualization.” In the end, by looking into what the adolescents with congenital hearing or sight disability took out from the black boxes, Chun acquired clues to the confronted questions. For a person living in a world absent of sound, to see is visualized language such as sign language or lip reading, and for a person who is blind, to see is imagination that takes place in the mind, or the “process of visualization,” in the words of Chun. By conducting workshops of therapeutic level together with children lacking one or more senses, Chun discovered that the loss of senses such as vision and hearing does not remain as absence but evolves into a different sense offsetting the absence.
Object Observation Drama of Foley Artists
The Birds and Umbrellas series of Chun Eun, showcased in the 2015 The Breath of Fresh — Time Collector exhibition of the Gyeonngi Museum of Art, reflects a more intimate perspective than the issues of senses and perception that the artist has dealt with. The work of Chun Eun is revealed upon passing through the sound tunnel augmenting the sounds of footsteps. The exhibition hall of Chun Eun is comprised of photographs capturing the images of objects all around and the objects installed in the center. The Birds and Umbrellas series, as much as the discrepancy between the two works, is comprised of objects that are difficult to find their correlation with another and photographs capturing such objects. However, what are these objects?
When Chun had been concentrating on the essence of the visualization process for a long time, she came across the work of foley artist by chance. These people, referred to as foley artists, create real-like sounds by utilizing various props or personally reenacting certain actions. In particular, when producing a film, the subtle ambient noise excluding the voice of the actor or music is difficult to record and therefore needs to be produced separately. The objects that Chun has spread out are the tools of foley artists, and these objects recreate sounds that exist yet are difficult to capture such as the sound of a person walking, door opening and closing, and people brushing against each other. While visiting a number of different studios producing sound effects and filming the foley tools scattered across the studies, Chun encountered the sounds that these objects embody and discovered that the sounds that the objects make are irrelevant to their original usage. The sounds that are more vivid when listened to with one’s eyes closed include the sounds of winds created by scrubbing carpets against each other and the sounds of stepping on snow created by rubbing rubber gloves filled with flour against each other, allowing the listener to stand on a snowfield. When a sheet of paper flutters, then a tiny bird soon begins to flap its wings, and when a long umbrella is unfurled and furled continuously, then a bird with large wings begins to walk with big strides and then soon fly. The sounds that the objects make present a new perspective in viewing the particular object. While observing such work, Chun arrives at the thought that perhaps this is the way that the people with visual impairments that she had met up to the present communicate with the world. In other words, the method of imagining images and the way of viewing images through imaginations is possible without being dependent to the visual impressions through the retina. Therefore, the original usage and form of the object are not important to foley artists.
Because foley artists acquire sound through objects, they view objects from a different perspective from us, who live with vision as a important sensual window. For example, foley artists, who have to perceive the spectrum of sound solely relying on the sense of hearing, categorize even the same sound under various settings – just like the sound of a baby toddling around and the sound of a person of heavy build tramping are completely different. The sense of these foley artists, who distinguish the differences between such sounds, are similar to that of Eskimos in regard to snow, which they describe with approximately seventeen different terms and therefore able to distinguish the many different levels of snow. The ability to discern the precise sounds of objects is an important insight for foley artists in producing sounds. Mark Changizi, an American neuroscientist, pointed out that high-level sounds complexly gathering social meaning and consensus are a language, but when decomposing that language they arrive at the sound of nature, which is the basic principle of sound as in the alphabet in terms of characters. Moreover, he claimed that sound of nature exists within chaos yet takes on a kind of order. This order features three basic sounds – beating, rubbing, and ringing – that is, the “primary phoneme of nature” in the language of Changizi. Perhaps foley artists are able to create similar sounds from objects that are different from each other due to such principle lying underneath. Foley artists probably developed their senses so that they can instinctively perceive such kind of principle.
The work of foley artist presents quite a clear answer to the topics that Chun had brought up for a long time – “What is the significance of to see for people who solely live by the sense of vision?” and “In what ways do the blind view the world?” For foley artists, vision is useless as a means of catching attention, and hearing is what visualizes the hidden sight. The visually impaired being able to imagine images despite the absence of vision is probably along the same context as this. On the other hand, the hearing impaired who only sense vision probably listen to the sounds of the world in the same way. Chun has conducted studies on “visualization” for a long period of time. Visualization telegraphs the message that diverse senses to know, in the end, the same thing exist within us and that when these senses are expanded, then, in the end, we can see what is the same yet slightly different.
The Way of Knowing the Same Thing Yet Viewing It Differently
When reading a novel, we do not face the characters directly, yet we know the figures in the novel. The characters will definitely be depicted in different ways when people are asked to draw them out because each individual has different feelings and thoughts; however, the fact that we know the same person does not change. Perception based on knowing – here, how much will the visual impression contribute to our knowing? We are very often exposed to situations where vision is not secured. We are facing the same situation as the visually impaired, but it is just that we perceive such situations as dangerous. We are unable to look at the back of our head, penetrate into the crowd, or look into darkness, yet we are able to hear the sound from the back of our head, penetrating into the crowd, and looking into the darkness.
All objects embody individual signs, and the world, comprised of the aggregation of objects, is full of diverse signs that the objects emit. Some people suggest reading such signs within “actual relationships encompassing temporal and spatial relations.” Reading signs such as footprints on the ground and flag fluttering in the wind is fulfilled under social consensus known as the human sensory and knowledge system. Moreover, the perception of a certain form through the eyes is not a passive process where the form senses as it is but an active process where regular psychological process intervenes and mediates. Such active psychological process not only opens our eyes but leads to the evolution to different senses. Therefore, to see is not only possible through vision but is comprised of a multisensory method where vision is combined with other senses within the human knowledge world. To read the world through signs is not a direct capture of the subject but a complex process in which experiences and memories are formed in a multisensory way. After all, humans can acquire the images or messages that the world presents even with one or two signs with just a bit of contemplation. The reading of signs that Chun Eun came to explore, coincidentally or inevitably, is achieved irrelevantly features meetings with people, which were due to congenital impairment, acquired pure passion, or irrelevantly.
However, the similarity here is that their sign reading is establishing a united camp through the codification of sense. After all, people collect the codes of the world with all their senses.
Chun Eun focuses on the issue of the perception of senses encompassing the visual system. Birds and Umbrellas series features the process of imagification achieved by foley artists reproducing particular sounds from the radio or movies and their communion with objects. Sound tunnels that amplify the sounds of footsteps, foley tools for obtaining sound effect, and the gestures of foley artists each allow the imagification of hearing and the audification through vision. Chun claims the following: “After all, perhaps the gap between what is seen and unseen is not above the retina but rather beginning from the mind.” In this era pervaded with the empowerment of vision through the eyes, optical method, the work of Chun Eun is characterized by the imagification through other sensory elements such as hearing or touching, going beyond the sense of vision, bringing up the topic of what is the true cognitive process. I invite all of you to join the journey of thought of Chun Eun of finding the “missing link” of senses and completing the puzzle.