MAP

Seeing Things

Contemplating the connections between belief, art and illusion, parapsychologist Peter Lamont offers a perspective on magic, psychic phenomena and the paranormal. New York artist Cai Guo-Qiang also seeks to reach the other side  

Cai Guo-Qiang, Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Edinburgh (preparatory drawing), 2005

Cai Guo-Qiang, Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Edinburgh (preparatory drawing), 2005

Everything we see, we frame. Everything we experience, we frame. Or, to be more accurate, everything we are aware of seeing or experiencing, we frame. At any given time in our life, there is an infinite amount of information to take in, and in order to make sense of it, we define and organise our experience. We frame things. We choose to focus on one particular aspect of the scene, to see it in a certain way and as we do so, we ignore everything else. This is how we make sense of our world, by choosing to ignore most of what we see, in order to understand a particular part of it.
 

As you read this, you are only aware of the words you are reading at this particular moment. Right now, you are aware of this word, and now you are aware of this one. You are currently unaware of the words you have read already (except via your memory) and of the words that you will shortly read (even though they are right in front of you). Our ability to focus on particular aspects of our current experience allows us to cope with the endless data that constantly bombards our senses. But it also ensures that we miss the vast majority of what is going on around us. As I write, I am sitting in a basement flat in which I have lived for almost a decade. There is a staircase that I climb every time I go out. I descend the same staircase every time I come home. (This, as Chic Murray would say, saves me having two staircases.) But I do not know how many steps there are on my only staircase. Though I have had thousands of experiences of climbing up and down these stairs, I have never noticed that there are 15 of them (I had to go and count them).
 

We not only miss most of what we see, we also disagree about what we notice. We disagree with each other about what is going on, and sometimes we disagree with ourselves. We reconsider and reinterpret. We re-frame.
 

A frame can be best understood as the answer to the question: what is going on here?  Imagine walking down the street and seeing two boys rolling on the ground, hitting each other. We might ask ourselves 'what is going on here?' and our answer might be 'they are fighting'. We have just framed that event (what we are experiencing at that moment) as 'two boys fighting'. But then we might look again, and see that they are not really fighting, they are only playing at fighting. Perhaps there is something in their actions, a pulled punch or a relaxed grin, that tells us that they are only playing. And so we re-frame that event as 'two boys playing'. We may even notice another passer-by looking at the boys, and from his or her expression we might conclude that s/he thinks the fight is real. At that point, our frame might be 'the passer-by is getting it wrong'. And at that point, we are no longer 'watching two boys playing', nor are we 'walking down the street'. We are taking in particular aspects of the scene, and defining and organising what we experience. We are framing that experience, one way or another, and ignoring the world beyond that frame.
 

Framing, then, is a subjective matter. People can see the same event yet experience quite different things. It is also a fluid process, in which each of us moves from one frame to another, often zooming in and out between a larger frame and a smaller one within it. When we ask ourselves what is going on, we can choose from a range of quite compatible answers.
 

What is going on right now?
 

You are breathing. You are sitting. You are reading. You are reading MAP. You are reading this article. You are reading this sentence. And now you are reading this one. All of these are true, but each way of framing the current experience reflects a different focus and, therefore, a different experience.
 

So what informs how we frame an event? As may be obvious by now, our frames can be directed. We can be told what to look at, and how to interpret it. Whether we comply or not is quite a different matter, of course, but there are ways in which we can be directed with more success. If we deem the source authoritative, we will be more inclined to agree, as we will if it is in our interest to agree. After all, we tend to believe what we are told, and what we want to believe. But we also tend to think that we think for ourselves, and that we base our beliefs upon evidence. And evidence, apart from what we are told by others, amounts to our own experience. This sense of uniqueness, and of unique experience, gives us a feeling that we are in control of how we see the world. After all, we are individuals.
 

Yet in many ways, we are not so different, and it is our similarities that make us so predictable. Statements such as those in the last paragraph (known as Barnum statements, after the famous showman PT Barnum) have long been used by psychics in order to convince strangers that they know things about them. Though they describe almost everyone, they sound specific and personal to each of us. And, if presented as a personality reading for a Scorpio, for example, most Scorpios would identify themselves. In doing so, they would frame the astrological reading as accurate, and that is the first step on the path to framing astrology as real.
 

How people frame seemingly paranormal events is a particular interest of mine. To frame an event as paranormal is not simply to choose between equally plausible frames—such as a glass being either half-full or half-empty. However plausible we regard the paranormal in general, a paranormal event is, by definition, one without a 'normal' explanation. To frame a given event as paranormal is, therefore, to reject available normal explanations. This has always been the case, even before the word 'paranormal' existed. When Daniel Dunglas Home, the most famous of Victorian spirit mediums, caused an accordion to play without touching it, the scientist William Crookes rejected trickery, hallucination and even the spirits as explanations for what had happened. Instead, he framed the event as the result of a new natural force, and named that force 'psychic'. Thus, Home became the world's first psychic, and a new frame was made available to anyone who experienced an event for which they had no other explanation. Later, the word 'paranormal' appeared, but it meant the same thing: a force for which we currently have no theory, but which may explain certain events that we cannot explain in any other way.
 

Framing an event as psychic or paranormal is, in a sense, a last resort. Only when all other avenues have been explored, when every possible normal explanation has been considered and rejected, should we frame an event as paranormal. In practice, of course, the slightest whiff of mystery is enough for many of us to employ the psychic frame. We need only be thinking of someone when they telephone, or witness somebody bending cutlery, to wonder whether this mysterious force might be involved. Nevertheless, no matter how attractive such a frame might be, we first have to reject the normal explanations of coincidence, trickery and so on (even if we might do so too easily). Thus, regardless of whether we choose to frame it as psychic or not, we will not have reached our conclusion without being aware of the process itself. And to be made aware of our framing process is to be reminded of how we see the world. In that sense, at least, the effect of the psychic is not so different from that of the artist who challenges not only how we see things (a toilet, perhaps, or a domestic appliance), but also the very process of how we see things (according to the context in which we see them). The artist re-frames the object, and the observer re-frames not only the object but also the frame itself.
 

The frames that we use to define and organise our experience are limited, contingent and eminently revisable. Based upon partial data and subjective interpretation, they are neither the world nor even the world that we notice. They therefore may benefit from being challenged on a regular basis. Perhaps the two boys were really fighting, and it was we who got it wrong. Perhaps the punch was not pulled, but simply fell short, and the relaxed grin was the anticipation of victory. Perhaps astrology is real. Perhaps I do not really have a staircase. Perhaps, as Magritte might say, you are not reading this sentence.
 
Dr Peter Lamont works at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, University of Edinburgh. He is currently an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Fellow in the Creative and Performing Art
[1] Erving Goffman, Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience New York, 1974


CAI GUO-QIANG

'In my work, there has always been a focus on the "unseen" world, an interest which stems from the traditions and beliefs of my hometown, Quanzhou in China, where day-to-day activities related to traditional practices such as where to dig a well and in which direction a door opens are often overseen by fengshui specialisits. This conscious awareness of the other world and the active engaggement of these forces are the springboard for many ideas, and the Edinburgh exhibition is an extension of this theme: the investigation into the non-physical, spiritual realm led to the exploration of a fluid or time-based installation. I think art is like a time tunnel that has the ability to cross space and time, and we can connect the past and furture through it.'
 

Gunpowder on handmade paper replicates 12 portraits of prominent Scots of the past known for their dark influences. The interpretive portraits—dating from the 12th to 19th centuries are, among others, of 'wizard' Major Thomas Weir, occultists Bald Agnes, Aleister Crowley and Issobell Gowdie, the Brahan Seer and George 'Bluidy' McKenzie, Hugh Miller, a renowned scientist with supernatural visions and Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Life Beneath the Shadow, at the Fruitmarket Gallery, also plants a grove of plantain trees, which, in the artist's hometown, have spawned many ghost stories and are alleged to be potently linked with underworld spirits. The large leaves of the trees are inscribed with ghost stories written in animal blood. On the wall of an adjacent gallery, video projectors show surveillance footage of the plantain trees at night when the gallery is closed to the public; the black and white pixilated footagge is intended to suggest the possibility of glimpsing the paranormal. In the upstairs gallery with the portaits, a cluster of funeraray paper joss dolls will be suspended from the ceiling in cloud-like formations to evoke acupunctural exorcism and voodoo.

Cai Guo-Qiang is an aritst and also the curator of China's first national presnetation at the Venice Biennale this year

Life Beneath the Shadow, Fruitmarket Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 30 July-25 September

The Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Edinburgh, Edinburgh Castle, 29 July at 7pm