• Cecilia Kramar

Interviews - Vanta Black – a World Without Color

By Ana Elisa Sousa

Interview with Marie-José Daoust

April 27th, 2021

You were a philosophy teacher for a long time, and you have worked with many things and then you retired, and you became a volunteer guide at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. What motivated you to become a volunteer?

I had to occupy myself. I was always an active person and when you retire, at some point you realize that being on a perennial vacation is boring. I needed to keep my mind busy with projects. I started looking around for the kind of volunteer work I would like to do. I wanted my brain to explore new fields. Perhaps that's why I eventually became a guide at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I enjoyed it at the outset because - I keep saying this - it got me out of my head and into my eyes. I'm presently learning how to draw… I'm not practicing enough, but it's very different, being in your eyes and your hands, instead of always in your mind with only words and ideas. I like what this does, how works of art come to you as phenomena, and you make meaning out of them. You don't just get « information » out of them. You construct meanings and I find this interesting.

Did you already have a relationship with the arts that motivated you to go to the MMFA?

Yes and no. I wasn't much interested in art throughout my studies and teaching life. However, both my children are artists: my son is a cellist and my daughter is a visual artist. I've had many conversations on art with them. For example, I asked my daughter very naïve questions about her art, and it got me interested. Perhaps this helped pushing me into volunteer work in an art museum.

The first time I went to a museum, I must have been 17 years old, it was to see some Greek or Roman things. Then I visited a Picasso exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Not that I liked Picasso that much, but his crying women studies for Guernica deeply moved me: they're all undone, deconstructed, and that showed me what crying is – you’re falling apart. In school, I had encountered art only through our history and literature textbooks, they were usually illustrated with works of art, but they didn’t strike me that much save a few exceptions. I was more interested in logic, reasoning and demonstrations.

You mentioned Picasso, does his work inspire you? From what other artists have you taken inspiration?

I'm not particularly drawn to Picasso, but I find him immensely stimulating. What I find interesting is the history of art and the fact that when things start changing in society as a whole, it shows up in art. Artists somehow perceive this and try out new visual worlds and words to express it, a new language. And in doing so, they give this change a form and encourage it to go forward. So, it's not necessarily Picasso. I also like some Renaissance painters because things were changing then. I like Giacometti and how he evolved. I like Gerhard Richter’s abstract works, he considered them as real beings, having an impact on their surroundings, not just as objects of contemplation. I love Rembrandt, but not everything, some works in particular, his self-portraits for example, that I find ahead of his time. The visual beaux-arts include architecture, sculpture, painting, engraving and drawing. I'm more easily moved by architecture, the big cathedrals, the mosques and also some contemporary skyscrapers: I feel very small in a very big space and this has a strong physical and psychological impact on me, whereas with sculptures and paintings, though they may have an impact, I’m usually struck by works that I don't understand immediately. Our eyes are really fast at “getting it”, this is evolution's gift in some way: your brain wants to know “Is there anything I have to worry about here?”. In my case, once I've gotten past this short first glance, there remain elements that I don't understand, and this is what I’m drawn to explore.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work at the museum?

The museum has put on some virtual tours of different types and lengths. I did a three-minute video on a piece in our decorative arts collection. But there was no live guiding, so when our coordinator at the museum was looking for guides to work on this Parallel Worlds project, I said yes, YES, I was so happy to resume some kind of contact again, if only virtually. So that's it, we're not guiding that much, but I'm glad to have participated in Parallel Worlds because it's put me back into communicating with other people. I also went back to the museum and loved it – I found I physically missed the works.

You are also a guide for visually impaired people at the museum. Have you perceived that their relationship with art is different from that of not visually impaired people?

No, I have not perceived that their relationship with art is different, at least not with the few people I happened to guide repeatedly on tours. They came because they were interested in art. For them, of course, it's an outing and most often they have to be accompanied by a seeing person; only once have I had a person who could go about alone with just a white cane. The big difference for me is that I have to describe the work, and they want the work to be described as it is. They don't want me to describe a work as I fancy it or to lie about it, in other words, they want it described in as objective and true terms as possible. I take that very, very seriously. As one visitor once put it, they want me «to paint with words». And they ask questions. For example, as I was describing an abstract painting where a smaller square nestled in other larger squares, one woman asked many questions about that square: Is it in the middle? Is it higher up? Is it a bit on the side or not?

Whether or not they have visual memories anymore, they want to view and come to know a work, like any seeing person. Looking at the artwork for them means using me for their first glance at it. I therefore try to be as neutral as possible in my descriptions. So, that part is very different from tours with seeing persons. It’s a demanding exercise. Preparing for a tour for the visually impaired is a lot of work, but most rewarding: it taught me to distinguish as much as possible the meaning I tend to give a work at first or second glance from what is in fact there, in the work itself as it were. Thus, whatever the visitors, I now often discover details and meanings I had not myself been aware of in works I thought I knew well. I find it satisfying to link interpretations of works of art to a factual basis.

Once the artwork has been described and the factual questions about the work answered, we have conversations that are exactly like conversations I have with seeing persons. These visitors might be visually impaired, but I discovered with them that I am somewhat impaired myself. For example, I found that my own sense of touch is not very good. I see, and because I see, I don't need to touch that much. We can't touch the sculptures at the museum, but with the visually impaired visitors, we've permission to do so wearing gloves and no jewelry whatsoever. As I rehearsed for a tour, at some point I needed to touch a sculpture that I was seeing right there in front of me: I blindfolded myself and … I was lost. I had to work at it, peeking on and off, for a good ten minutes before I recognized with my hands what my eyes had seen. Whereas when they touch things, they're good, they're really good at knowing by touching things. So I don't think that they're that different. I'm not an expert on this, but I think that when they are already interested in art, their relation to it is the same as any seeing person.

However, perhaps being visually impaired might have as a consequence that the people around them do not think of bringing them to museums. Some museums, like the MMFA, have started to put up forms, shapes and works that non-seeing persons can touch. Even paintings can now be fashioned that can be touched so that the visually impaired can experience them. But this is recent and available only in a few museums. It has barely started at the MMFA. In other words, our environment tends to isolate people who are somehow impaired instead of getting them to enjoy art. In that sense, they might have a different relationship with art as they're less familiar with it. Simply because our social context is not made for them, it somehow excludes them. In my opinion, this goes for any impairment. If you're deaf go to a concert or put music on! You will probably feel something of the music.

How do you think art can help in the vulgarization of science?

Well… perhaps in finding metaphors, or analogies. Often in art, we interpret works as metaphors of what’s going on, or of what is «out there». Developing metaphors and analogies, talking them out and applying them is useful. I often talk to myself out loud and this makes me understand things. Art is a symbolic kind of thing. Your question is interesting, I’ve never really thought about it, so I am going out on a limb here. With art, we are dealing with symbols. And «vulgarizing» it, making it accessible to everyone, is like interpreting or transposing signs from one area to another. And there is also this idea of starting from basics. This is why I like the works that were chosen for the colloquium on the theme of Vanta black, they were mostly of a very basic nature: clear shapes and lines, black on white, white on black, darkness and light, and colors a bit. Lines, shapes and colour: the fundamental «words» of visual art.

Vulgarizing entails thinking ordinary people are intelligent and that if you explain things to them, even if those things are complicated, they will understand. You can get them to understand by using ordinary language, metaphors, analogies, comparisons and drawings and so on. I don’t know if art itself does this, vulgarizing I mean. But being with art cultivates this analogical or metaphoric ability, this kind of transposition humans do in art when expressing themselves or their world view. Moreover, keep in mind that to get people to understand something that is complicated or even counter-intuitive, for example the theory of relativity, you will not be explaining it in all its details. However, you want them to understand the thrust of this science and how as a consequence, you cannot think it true while fancying any other conception at the same time. Science is knowledge, not a personal opinion nor a dogma, but something to seriously take into account until proven otherwise. As ordinary people, whenever we’re at a loss about something, we need to ask ourselves: what do we know about it? Good vulgarization encourages this. And I think this capacity to do this, to vulgarize and explain, is a kind of creative ability.

What is your advice to scientists, but also to people in general who want to bring more arts into their lives?

There's going to museums of course (or concerts, etc.). But there's also putting oneself in a creative posture in everyday life. This is much easier said than done. To do this, we must let go of this reflex of «getting it right» - if you're doing science, you want to get it right, this is what is expected of you, and of course, the results you will arrive at will be considered valid until proven otherwise and this has consequences. To put oneself on a creative wavelength, I think you have to let go of that reflex of avoiding mistakes, you have to go out of your comfort zone. Remember that artists «create» - they don’t know in advance what they’re going to end up with. They have an idea, perhaps, but they grope their way along. So, you might perhaps want to try drawing, painting, sculpture …

For instance, I want to draw, I’m just beginning, I haven't been to a drawing class yet because in a sense it would be premature, it doesn’t work for me, I’d want to «get it right». I’m rather referring here to the experience of being at a loss doing something you’re not familiar with or good at but persevering anyway and finding that something may come out of it that you might be satisfied with, even though you'd throw it away two years down the road. As I have an objective mindset on things and am impatient to find the «right» answer, I find that putting myself in this position where I don't know the next step or «the right way» frees me from doing what is expected, therefore enables me to be «creative». Well, my drawings are not very good but, with a how-to book, I keep at it because for the time being, they teach me to tolerate this feeling of not knowing, of having to be patient with myself, of having to practice, to let my own questions come to light, to invent my own «drawing persona» as it were.

The competitive performance-oriented atmosphere of our social organization in general, and of contemporary science, works against art and creativity. Perhaps not always, maybe some artists thrive on this performance and competition ethos, I don't know. But in my mind, art is a place for discovery and creativity, but then, so is science.

Interview with Dr. Patrick Cavanagh

April 21st, 2021

Dr. Patrick Cavanagh is a Senior Research Fellow at Glendon College and a research professor at Dartmouth College. He received an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from McGill University and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Carnegie-Mellon University. He has been a professor at the Université de Montréal, Harvard University, and the Université de Paris. He currently studies visual attention, shadows, and how we know where things are. He has also explored the contribution of various features such as shadow, colour, and texture to representations in art and how the artists’ use of the features offers insights into how the brain works. He has published over 290 articles and book chapters and one book on shadows. He holds an honorary doctorate from the Université de Montréal and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

When and why were you first motivated to incorporate art in your scientific career?

Quite a while ago, when I was working at the Université de Montreal with colleagues at McGill we were interested in how you understood the shape of objects, especially what shadows contributed to understanding the shape of objects, how they told you what was above what, and what and where they were. We did a whole study on shadows and the shape cues that come from shadows. And while we were doing that, I was just amazed at how a dark area on a picture could look like a hole or looked like a black thing or like a shadow and how the brain understood that. And of course, was quickly clear that the first people who had to think about that were the artists, who had to understand how to make shapes out of lines and then add shading and reflection if they could and how that would help define a scene.


There's a really interesting history of how artists have used shadows, and what they can get away with. So, when I'm talking at the museum later, I'll be pointing out how artists understand what's necessary to convey a scene and the shape and the lighting and the shadow. And they also understand what they don't have to follow. You know, they don't have to make it photo realistic. They can put the shadows where they want. In fact, the human brain doesn't seem to care what the shadows are.

You obviously use a lot of art in your research, and I'm sure you're going to talk a bit more about that during the colloquium. Is art is part of your life in another way as a hobby? Do you have a favourite artist?

I can't draw, so I'm definitely not an artist, but I love and enjoy art. Mostly realistic landscapes, people. For the artists, I like James Turrell, who's kind of a visual artist and creates surfaces with light and space. Uh, so he, he's maybe one of the closest people to fish and research. All artists are vision scientists as they discover how to represent the world in ways that are not physically realistic. I mean, it's a flat painting after all, in many cases. But James Turrell is further out there because he's not dealing with pigments and paint. He's dealing with light and holes in walls and interesting stuff. So he's quite cool. And of course, people like Caravaggio, Vermeer and, Van Eyck and Roos Campman (?) are outstanding artists.

I had the lucky moment one evening to be able to go into the National Gallery of Art in London, just about six of us who were vision scientists. And one of us happened to be one of the trustees of the National Gallery, so we had an evening of our own looking at Caravaggio and some others. And the thing that struck me, because I could get up very close to the paintings, which I probably wouldn't be allowed to do in normal hours, was how they don't just paint, you know, black here and white there. There's this incredibly detailed, finally done slight blur to every edge. There was a craft there, but I'd not noticed in any photographs from museums or sort of standing back from a painting. But when you get up close, you see that they're not just drawing a light, dark edge or whatever it was that they understood things about. If the edge were a little bit fuzzy, it's much more captivating and naturalistic. So yeah, seeing their work up close was a real revelation.

James Turrell's "The Light Inside", by Miguel da Silva, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Do you think that science can inform art? So for example, can the research you are doing with shadows help artists in their projects as well?

Well, maybe. Artists do all sorts of things by definition. They're just open to any possibility. We have worked with a number of artists in creating installations based on the science of colour, and on perceiving colour. We did one where the whole scene was rendered in pure colour. It was a three-dimensional volume that you would walk through and you can look at people, but that the brightness differences were gone. It was just in pure colour. People would slow down and motion would’ve seemed to stop and depth would disappear. There are a number of cases where we have had demonstrations based on science in art museums. Another one we had was called The Monster Flash. I got renamed Rhodopsin. That was done at the San Diego Art Fair and also in Paris and Palo Alto and New York.

So it's basically a huge flash [that] goes off. And first, you have to sit in the dark and then a huge flash goes off and whatever you're looking at in the room it's frozen as an after image on your eyes. And after a few seconds, it changes from being a colour after image, which we're mostly all familiar with, to a black and white positive after image that lasts 10 seconds or more. And that's based on the rod vision you have, which is what is usually used in dim light. So, that image is then frozen in front of you. The idea of this was first put together by an art colony in San Diego, they would try and get people to make different poses and freeze that pose and their vision and experience these different ways in which the structure of the image in front of you was constructed from this frozen image, although with no colour and kind of fragile because if you looked away, it would go away. [You’d have to] keep your eyes pretty steady.

So, we've had some interactions with artists with colour and that after image. In the cases where we did [collaborated] we also learned a lot from the artists. The ones who did the colour installation also had looked at how to modulate images on a screen. So there were more video artists, so we learned a lot from them as well, but some artists are interested in science and some not so much, they're on their discovering things. But we're always on the lookout for new things that artists might discover.

How do you see the use of art in communicating the science you do to the general public, not necessarily to other scientists?