Image from “Meditation alters perceptual rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist monks”. 2005. by Carter, O. L. et al..

“We see things not as they are, but as we are.”

FIGHT is a Virtual Reality artwork in which the viewer’s two eyes are presented with radically different images, resulting in a phenomenon known as binocular rivalry. Presented with rival signals, the conscious mind does not ‘see’ – or perceive – both images blended as one might expect, but instead ‘sees’ an unstable, irregular, animated patchwork of the two images, with unpredictable swipes and transitions. The nature of these irregularities and instabilities depend on the viewer’s physiology. Everybody will ‘see’ something unique, even though they are presented with the same images. The act of looking around and exploring the rival stimulus allows the viewer to probe which sections of each signal becomes dominant and which is suppressed, further underlining the notion that seeing – and in broader terms sensing and perception in general – is an active process, driven by movement, expectations and intent.

The picture we see in our conscious minds is not a direct representation of the outside world, or of what our senses deliver, but is of a simulated world, reconstructed based on our expectations and prior beliefs. Even though everybody is presented with the exact same images in this work, your conscious visual experience will be different to mine. I cannot see what you see, you cannot see what I see. And what we both see, is different to what is actually presented. We are all unable to see the entirety of the ‘reality’ before us.

The work is part of a broader line of inquiry about self affirming cognitive biases, our inability to see the world from others’ point of view, and the resulting social polarisation.

You can read more about the motivations behind this work here.

There’s a few themes that I wanted to reflect in this work: i) what we perceive to be real, what we see, is a reconstruction in our minds, a simplified model of the world, limited by our biology and physiology, ii) perception, including vision, is an active process, it requires action and integration; iii) the actions that we take, affects the reality and the meaning that we construct in our mind; iv) perhaps most importantly, even when presented with the same information, the same images, everybody will experience — will see — something unique and personal, which nobody else can see or maybe even understand.

I’m interested in these ideas both at a low-level, regarding our senses and perception. But also conceptually at a higher level regarding how we make meaning and what we consider to be truth; our biases and prejudices; how we’re unable to see ‘the whole truth’, or both sides of a story at the same time; how we interact with each other as a result of this, and its impact on society and politics.

FIGHT explores these themes using Virtual Reality (though the experience is as opposite as one can get to VR), Binocular Rivalry and various interaction models inspired by these ideas.

I have no idea what anybody ‘sees’ when they experience this work, even though everyone is presented with the same visuals. Of course one might point out that this is actually the case with everything. When you look at any image, or read any piece of text, or even as you read these very words, I have no idea what they mean to you — but that’s at a semantic level. Here I wanted to try and create something where the conscious visual experience itself is different for everyone.

Everybody literally sees something unique.

(excerpt from recent interview about the piece)
The way our brain constructs a conscious visual percept is very complicated, and not necessarily a one-to-one representation of what is out there. i.e. what we see in our minds, is a reconstruction. And this reconstruction is based on who we are. Even though everybody is presented with the exact same images, what you see in this experience is different to what I see. I cannot see what you see, and you cannot see what I see. Furthermore, what we both see, is different to what is actually presented. We are both unable to see the ‘entirety’ of the ‘ground truth’, so to speak. And that’s what ties in to my higher level motivations.

Something that’s been troubling me for the past few years is our inabiliy to empathise with those that we don’t agree with. There’s a lot of talk about VR being the ultimate empathy machine. It’s true that being immersed in VR is potentially more effective than seeing the same scene in traditional film or photography (but that’s temporary of course, once upon a time film was deemed the ultimate empathy machine, and photography before that). But I think this is a limited view of empathy. I can empathise with you if you break your leg, because if I were to break my leg, it would also hurt. I can put myself – as I currently am – in your position, and imagine that pain. But I think it’s also very important to try and empathise with people who have radically different values – even opposing views – and empathise with their pain.

As a person who believes strongly in the eradication of borders, can I empathise with somebody who voted brexit? As a person who despises the ever increasingly authoritarian government in Turkey – my home country, can I empathise with those who adore it? Similar questions can be asked about the opposing factions in the US and all over Europe. It’s quite popular these days to talk about echo chambers, filter bubbles, fake news, alternative facts etc. These are all real phenomena, but I fear they are being used as some kind of excuse – even scape goat – for some of the issues we’re having right now. I fear they are disguising what’s at the heart of the problem – which is in no way new – our own unconscious biases, our inability and unwillingness to listen to those who we radically oppose, to try to understand their actions and feelings from their own point of view. These are difficult issues, but it feels like we’re unable to even have any conversations around this right now. Because empathy and sympathy get mixed up, explanations and justifications get mixed up. And as a result it feels like we’re seeing more and more social and political polarisation around so many issues, resulting in increasing amounts of hate from all sides. And this VR piece was a reaction to all of this.


Commissioned by STRP
Score by Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek)
Producer: Juliette Bibasse
Assistant: Rob Homewood