Seeing is believing

January 31, 2013 § Leave a comment


Martin Blom is loading up his car outside a supermarket one evening when an unknown assailant shoots him in the back of the head. The bullet damages the occipital lobe in his brain, rendering him cortically blind. At night-time, however, Blom is convinced he still has the ability to see.

Blom is introduced to a man called Loots who rides a bicycle and works at a circus. Every time a bicycle goes past when he is on his night-time excursions, it is Loots –  doing handstands or juggling as he cycles. The nurse in Blom’s clinic sometimes comes up to his bed late in the evening and silently removes all her clothes… So begins Rupert Thomson‘s extraordinary novel The Insult.

Blom has Anton-Babinsky – or Anton’s – syndrome. What he actually ‘sees’ are his mind’s imaginings, prompted by the evidence of his other senses.

Most people who suffer from sight impairment caused by damage to the eyes still have some partial remnants of vision. They can often, for instance, make out large objects or differentiate between darkness and light.

When the primary areas of the occipital lobe are severely damaged, however, the brain is unable to process any visual information. The eyes may be working perfectly, but the blindness experienced by the sufferer when the visual cortex is removed or destroyed is total.

Like people who still experience feeling in an amputated limb, Anton’s syndrome is a form of anosognosia – a condition in which the mind refuses to accept the existence of a disability.

In this case, the brain creates a substitute visual reality that is so elaborate, complex and lucid the blind person is totally convinced they can see. Their confabulation, which leads them to behave and talk as though they were sighted, may be so complete that even those around them can fall under the illusion. It can be some time before doctors realise their patient is sightless, attention only being aroused when they walk into doors or collide with furniture.

Of course, as in Thomson’s book, what the patient imagines they can see may well be radically different to what is there in reality. The condition is possibly similar to what happens when people experience hallucinations, which can sometimes be caused by simple visual deprivation. Similarly, one theory of apparitions is that they are not external phenomena but caused by stimulus to certain areas of the brain – perhaps by electro-magnetic currents – which creates the illusion of an external image. This would explain why one person in a room might see a ‘ghost’ when another does not.

A converse but related condition to Anton’s syndrome is blindsight. This is the ability of the cortically blind to respond to visual stimulus even though their minds are incapable of processing visual information. Images or movement sensed by the eyes enable the person to see without consciously being aware of it. Some people who suffer from cortical blindness are able to walk down a corridor avoiding objects that have been placed in their path with no awareness that the objects are actually there. The brain is able to see even when the conscious mind cannot.

There seems to be no research into the relationship between the two conditions. In The Insult, Blom largely successfully manages to navigate his blindness (not as though it does him much good…). It made me wonder if blindsight and Anton’s syndrome can occur concurrently – if a person’s denial of blindness and their creation of an alternate visual reality could be validated by the brain’s ability to still perceive the world without being able to consciously interpret it.

Blindsight: seeing without knowing it
The Dreamlife of Rupert Thomson


December 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

Forty-nine Rivington Street in London’s Shoreditch is now home to a designer shoe shop but in the late 1960s it was briefly a centre of media attention. Here, opposite the Bricklayers Arms, behind a temporary wooden door beneath a broken window, was the location of the Anti-University of London.

A brief clip from the video above* is featured in Luke Fowler‘s film on R.D. Laing, All Divided Selves. Laing, who once described all institutions as ‘collective phantasy systems’, was himself involved in the anti-institution movement.

Formed in response to the desire for free-thinking and a perceived need to rid education from the shackles of bureaucratic restraint and formal structure, the philosophy of the AU was summed up by one of its founders, Joseph Berke: “Schools and universities are dead. They must be destroyed and rebuilt on our own terms.”

Within ten days of opening, it had enrolled 200 students. All fees were scrapped after the first term and the tutors – who included key 1960s counter-culture figures such as Yoko Ono, Cornelius Cardew, C.L.R. James, Juliet Mitchell, Alex Trocchi and Bob Copping – donated their time on a voluntary basis.

Courses covered subjects ranging from political theory, the arts, psychology and media, usually with a radical stance. One term’s prospectus was decided at a ‘course creation rally’ at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.

Lectures assumed an unstructured fashion. In one reported exchange, Berke asked a class: “How can we discuss how we can discuss what we want to discuss?” Someone eventually answered: ‘”Maybe we don’t need to discuss it.” Berke then left the room, leaving his students to continue discussing whether they needed to discuss whether….

After the first year, the AU moved out of Rivington Street to the Arts Lab in Drury Lane before eventually making the full shift to de-institutionalisation by dispensing with premises completely. Meetings were held in pubs or tutors’ living rooms.

The AU itself appears to have been originally inspired by another anti-institution – the London Anti-Hospital. Although it might sound like somewhere you would go if you were feeling well and wanted to get ill, this was actually the site of an experiment in psychiatric treatment.

Based in a separate wing in the grounds of Shenley mental hospital in the northern suburbs, the anti-hospital advocated destructuring the ward environment and dispensing of the distinction between staff and patients. The experiment failed when the staff had to resume control to restore order.

As for the AU, it appears to have died a natural death but recent years have seen the re-emergence of ‘free universities’ which would seem to carry on the theme.

A couple of weeks ago I was nursing a hangover in the cafe of Brighton’s new library. Opposite me a man of mixed race with a foot-long beard was enthusiastically discussing religious ethics with a woman in a tie-dye top. Their companions displayed differing levels of engagement (one man – wearing huge boots with missing laces and clutching a cold cup of coffee – spent most of the time staring at a point in the distance somewhere out of the window, only interacting occasionally by nodding when a salient point was made). I had stumbled across a tutorial of the newly-formed Free University of Brighton, which uses the public cafe as its neutral, de-institutionalised campus. Long live the anti-university…

* The film itself, which was broadcast on a regional news programme, was apparently the subject of much heated debate within the AU’s ‘Ad-Hoc Co-ordination Committee’ over whether the BBC, as a state-owned media organisation and symbol of the establishment, should be granted access.

Antihistory – online archive resource for the London Anti-University

A final beckoning

November 30, 2012 § 5 Comments

‘I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand…’ (Disorder).

The first line of the first song on Joy Division’s first album. Ian Curtis is looking for someone to escort him on his existential journey to the dark heart of the human soul (any volunteers?). It is a theme that is echoed throughout Unknown Pleasures.

That album is characterised by the stark minimalism of Martin Hannett’s production, occasionally fractured, as at the end of Disorder, by Curtis’s screams. In contrast, the whole of Closer, remarkably recorded less than a year later, is permeated by a suffocating, ice-cold resignation. All traces of defiance have disappeared, vanishing like vapours into the desolate urban night.

On the first track here, it is apparent that Curtis himself is now the guide: ‘Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be’ – his exhibition of atrocities.

Intriguingly, the opening line – ‘This is the way, step inside’ – is etched into the vinyl grooves, not of Closer, but of Unknown Pleasures. On the inside sleeve of that record is a black-and-white photograph of a ghost-like hand disappearing behind a half-opened door.

The picture (above), taken in 1970, was part of the Somnambulist series by American photographer Ralph Gibson. It is uncredited on the album.

The same motif appears at the beginning and end of the video for Love Will Tear Us Apart, filmed in a Manchester warehouse in April 1980. A wooden door with ‘Ian C’ scratched into it is swung open from the inside by a hand that then vanishes. At the end of the video, the hand swings the door open again but the band have gone. It is an eerie portent for what was to follow just a month later and it is difficult to separate the symbolism of ‘the beckoning hand’ from the funereal artwork for the subsequent single and album releases, chosen before Curtis’s death on May 18.

On a rainy Saturday in January 1998, I found myself in the town of Macclesfield with an afternoon to kill. Without anything better to do, rather than out of any sense of morbid curiosity, I visited Ian Curtis’s memorial stone at the local cemetery. It has a simple epitaph poignantly bearing the title of the band’s final single.

A few feet away there was another stone for someone called ‘Cornelia F’. The inscription read: ‘Take my hand and I’ll show you’.

My head was alive with questions – why would someone with a Joy Division lyric as their epitaph be commemorated so close to the band’s singer? And who chooses to be remembered without a surname? (The link to Christiane F seemed more than a coincidence given Curtis’s fascination with David Bowie).

The mystery remained unsolved for a further 12 years until I pointed the inscription out to some people visiting the town for a Joy Division anniversary event. One of them later discovered that Cornelia had been a German fan of the band who had requested that in the event of her death her memorial be placed as close as possible to Ian’s. She had never even visited Macclesfield.

I thought about her family respecting her wishes and coming to this odd little town in northern England for the funeral. I thought about the respective tragedies, one short life celebrated, the other only of interest because of the most tenuous of connections to the first. I thought that perhaps one had somehow precipitated the other. Like Curtis, Cornelia had died  – on May 18, 1993 – by her own hand.

The girl in the picture

November 23, 2012 § 4 Comments

Another London at the Tate showcased photographs of the city taken between 1930 and 1980 by outsiders, often on journalistic assignments. Arguably the most striking image in the exhibition was one taken by American photographer Bruce Davidson in 1960. It shows an apparently homeless teenage girl holding a kitten.

Davidson had already achieved fame for his pictures of Brooklyn gangs and had been invited over by Queen magazine to take photographs depicting British life. Buying a Hillman Minx convertible with red leather seats, he toured the country while living off bananas and fudge. The results were published by Magnum in a book called England/Scotland.

One night in London, he encountered a group of teenagers who took him to ‘a cave’ and then to a concert in a ‘huge dancehall, possibly on an island’ (anyone any idea where these places may have been?). At the end of the evening he accompanied the girl outside. She was carrying a bedroll and picked up the stray cat. In Davidson’s own words: “There was a great deal of mystery to her. I didn’t know where she had come from, and I didn’t get her name, but there was something about that face – the hopefulness, positivity and openness to life – it was the new face of Britain.”

Davidson later became well-known for his photographs of the American civil rights movement and of passengers on the New York subway. Describing his work as that ‘of an outsider on the inside’, he has said that his mission in life is “to make visible what appears to be invisible [as] someone who is blind and suddenly begins to see.”

Fifty years on from that night in London, he is still haunted by what may have become of the ‘invisible’ girl with the kitten, searching for her whenever he visits the city.

Photographs trick us by making the ephemeral seem permanent, and never more so than when the subject of the picture is as transient as a homeless teenager. It is possible that she is no longer alive – but it is equally likely that she leads an ordinary life and has simply never encountered her own iconic image.

The man who created it hopes she has become a writer or an artist, or has at least led a full life and not spent it on the street: “She was Joan of Arc, she was any and every woman that had a spirit and a strength.”

She may still be out there. And hopefully no longer carrying her bed for the night.

Bruce Davidson’s best shot
Audio: Photographer seeks girl holding kitten
Bruce Davidson’s ‘encounters with the invisible’
Another London at Tate Britain

Why Sundays are always green

October 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the days of the week as colours.

Not just simple shades of colour, but very precise and specific hues, so precise in fact that it is almost impossible to pick them out on a colour wheel. For some of them, what I see ‘in my mind’s eye’ is actually a blending of two colours. For example, if someone says ‘Tuesday’, I will instantly see red blended with orange.

I had always assumed this was the result of memory association – perhaps I once had a book with the days of the week accompanied by the colours I now associate with them. But even if this is an explanation for how the associations were  initially learned, the experience is apparently a mild manifestation of a condition called synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia is a generic term for a ‘blurring of the senses’ and can take many forms – involving almost every possible combination of  senses – such as seeing colours when listening to music or ‘tasting’ words.

Although hypotheses vary, the condition in general terms is caused by increased connectivity between the sensory pathways, which could have occurred during the brain’s early development. There are two main groups of synaesthestes – ‘projectors’ who experience the condition in the external world and ‘associators’ who experience it only internally.

A few weeks ago I went to a talk at the Wellcome Collection by Michael Banissy, a lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths. His specialist interest in this field is ‘mirror-touch synaesthesia’, in which people who see others being touched actually feel the sensation themselves. This is caused by the part of the brain which deals with empathy being overstimulated to the extent that it produces physical sensations.

The attendees at the lecture were a mixture of students and others with a general interest in the subject. I wondered if there were any fellow synaesthestes in the audience.

At the end of the talk, we were asked if we had any questions. The very first one came from a man sitting at the front, who said: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the days of the week as colours…”

Interestingly, his experience was that the condition had largely disappeared as he had got older. He remembers the colours but no longer experiences the synaesthesia. I wondered if this too had happened to me – rather than being an automatic, unconscious response I just remembered the colours when someone mentioned a particular day (an example of re-membered memory perhaps – although that’s probably a subject for another post…). The cessation of his synaesthesia however seemed to coincide with his retirement, implying that a decline in neural activity may have been a possible cause.

Things started getting a little stranger as the man sitting behind me, who had earlier entered the room in a rather agitated state, said he too saw days  – and months, years and decades (the 1970s are apparently brown) – as colours. He was so used to it he wondered how the rest of the room (me and the gentleman at the front excepted, of course) ‘saw’ the days of the week – if not colours then what, the words?

Later, another man came up and admitted  that yes, he too, visualised days as colours. And, like me, just that and nothing else. A few people wandered up to us at the end, wanting to ask us questions…

According to Banissy, synaesthesia is experienced by four per cent of the population. ‘Weekday colour synaesthesia’  is the most common form – two per cent of us have it.