Cleary Connolly's meta-perceptual helmets ingeniously invite us to set aside our preconceptions and to experience things in ways quite different from the norm. More than a century ago, the Estonian biologist and theorist Jacob von Uexküll came up with the idea of the Umwelt. The German word translates as something like "environment", but he had much more in mind. The terms "self-world" and even "self-centred world", have been used, and give a clearer picture of what he meant.
His common-sense proposition was that different animals, though they might share the same living space, inhabit different perceptual worlds. It's not just that they see things differently: their entire take on their environment is defined by their physiology, their sensual and cognitive natures, and the imperatives that drive them. The self-world of a tiny insect differs vastly from that of a large mammal. Semiologist Thomas Sebeok later extended Von Uexküll's ideas to cover the human experience in a more detailed – and more controversial – way.
Cleary Connolly – the artistic partnership of Anne Cleary and Dennis Connolly – didn't start with Umwelt. They began with a practical example of how one might simulate stepping out of a familiar Umwelt and into a strange one.
They looked to early-20th-century experiments by psychologist George M Stratton. Rather bravely, he wore glasses that turned the world upside-down and swapped left and right. He didn’t do it by halves, sleeping blindfolded so he couldn’t revert to a habitual mode of vision.
The astonishing thing was that, within a few days, his brain learned how to process the novel feed of visual information, and after seven days the upside-down world felt pretty normal, albeit with one or two odd features. His inversion glasses involved using a helmet contraption with a shed-built, DIY look to it.
The meta-perceptual helmets had their first brief outing at the Natural History Museum during Science Week. The museum is a period piece, a celebrated repository of organisms, beloved by visitors and many generations of school students. In its orderly taxonomic groupings we see the preserved, taxidermic remains of once- living things.
Rich as the experience is, there is no sense of getting inside the minds of any of the animals. We are on the outside looking in, and they form part of a human narrative. All of which made the museum the ideal setting in which to take a perceptual leap into other Umwelts.
Animal eyes When it comes to vision we tend to assume that we see things as they are, and that other animals possess various enhancements or lack parts of our standard visual abilities.
In their book Animal Eyes, biologist Michael F Land and zoologist Dan-Eric Nilsson map out how, across the living world, eyes have evolved in a bewildering variety of ways to cope with the specific needs imposed by an organism's environment and the existential challenges it faces. While there is convergence where common factors apply, there is also extreme divergence. Modes of vision are like shortcuts into an organism's Umwelt.
Taking their cue from Stratton, Cleary Connolly decided to devise a series of optically transformative helmets. Eschewing the DIY appearance of his device, however, they set about producing something more aesthetically resolved, something sleek, polished and sculpturally beautiful.
But the devices also had to work, and thus began an 18-month engagement with research institutes in Paris and Montreal, and a design process that included finding the skills and materials that could deliver something novel and untried. In fact, the artists note, several years passed before everything came together.
The results – six individual optical helmets – are impressive. Don one or other of the pieces and you could find yourself enjoying the enhanced stereoscopic view experienced by a hammerhead shark, or seeing your surroundings through a horse’s eyes, which offer an immeasurable extension to the level of peripheral vision we are used to but with a challenging blind spot in the centre. There’s also the elevated view enjoyed by giraffes, or humans if we were much, much taller, and the disconcerting forwards and backwards vision of the chameleon.
While the complicated optics and the smooth forms of the polished aluminium may seem to foreground the technology, as objects the helmets are sculpturally elegant, and they were produced not by machines but hand crafted by master coachbuilder Neil McKenzie.
Cleary Connolly also try some more speculative possibilities, teasing the edges of both evolution and technology so that the viewer could be an animal-machine hybrid. The Cheshire Cat helmet derives from an optical demonstration by Sally Duensing and Bob Miller, and equips the wearer with simultaneous forward and extreme peripheral vision. It is challenging, to put it mildly, and it's not clear that the brain could adapt, as it does to inversion. But then, a chameleon can look backwards and forwards at the same time without falling over.
As the artists observe, they’ve always pressed the spectator into an active role in their work, even making “observer participation” a cornerstone of what they do, and it makes sense that in this case it doesn’t really happen without the observer. They’ve consistently embraced technology, not for technology’s sake, but as a way of engaging the viewer, and always very inventively.
They’ve been based in Paris since 1990, and their meta-perceptual helmets will be at the heart of their residency project the Perception Club, which has just begun at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, and runs until February 21st. The project incorporates musical and literary performances, scientific events and art performances, plus of course the meta-perceptual helmets.