Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Visual Thought: The depictive space of perception (Advances in Consciousness Research: 67)

by Liliana Albertazzi, Editor
John Benjamins Publishing Co., Philadelphia, PA, 2006
380 pp. Trade, $132.00
ISBN: 978-9027252036.

Reviewed by Amy Ione.
Berkeley, CA 94701


Those of us who adopt an interdisciplinary research agenda know that each project requires technical facility in disciplines that are often unrelated within the "typical" academic mindset. Because it is easy to overreach, groups and organizations that foster cross-disciplinary thinking are of the utmost importance to our success. These structures, at their best, create environments for communication and exchange, while encouraging the rigor needed to do it "right." Leonardo publications and events, as readers of Leonardo Reviews know, have long been at the forefront in forging excellence in cross-disciplinary approaches and in fostering collaborative efforts as well. Less well known is the Mitteleuropa Foundation, an Italian-based research center in cognitive systems and ontology, founded in 2002. Their research group in form analysis, for example, works on visual perception, emphasizing scientific phenomenology and Gestalt psychology. Within this context, they have also reached out to art practice, Japanese landscape design, and other areas. Directed by Liliana Albertazzi (Trento University and Mitteleuropa), the core group includes (among others) Athanassios Economou (Georgia Institute of Technology), Ernest Edmonds (Sydney University), Frederic Fol Leymarie (Goldsmiths College, London), Michael Leyton (Rutgers University and D.I.M.A.C.S), Nancy Nersssian (Georgia Institute of Technology), Gert J. van Tonder (Kyoto Institute of Technology), and Dhanraj Vishwanath (Rochester Institute of Technology).

Visual Thought: The Depictive Space of Perception, the first volume produced highlighting their research, originated from a 2004 symposium on form perception and understanding that was devoted to the primary level of visual appearances in the phenomenal field. Overall, this publication wrestles with how we experience vision and best model its complexity. Divided into three parts, the authors present a well-rounded perspective of the possibilities. Part I examines the perception of visual spaces, Part II turns to the depiction of visual spaces, and Part III, in turn, considers the relationship between the first two topics. Gestalt psychology, particularly Rudolf Arnheim’s writings, is a thread woven throughout the essays. In this respect, it is a timely retrospective, given that Arheim died at the age of 102 on June 9th, 2007. Like Arnheim, the authors of this book incorporate experimental analysis, theoretical arguments, art practice, and design. In light of the Mitteleuropa Foundation’s emphasis on Gestalt thinking, the emphasis on Arnheim’s work was not surprising.

Albertazzi sets the stage for the articles in an exceptionally well-done introductory chapter on visual space. Carefully argued and comprehensively referenced, her essay examines the diverse types of "spaces" visual analyses must confront. These include the optical space of psychophysics and of neural elaboration, the qualitative space of phenomenal appearances and the pictorial space of art. Portraying them as co-present in our environment, Albertazzi speaks to the different rules of organization found in these kinds of "visual spaces." She also addresses the specific singularity and reciprocal dependence that must be individuated as a preliminary step, before conceiving their implementation in terms of cognitive agents. The strength of the chapter is in its overview of the Gestalt legacy (its thinkers and principles) and how Gestalt’s history now impacts experiments, contemporary thought, and contemporary research and theoretical fashions.

"Pictorial space, a modern reappraisal of Adolf Hildebrand" by Jan J. Koenderink and Andrea J. van Doorn shows how well conceived the papers are in combining specific details and generalized information. In this case, the authors advance the idea that it is critical that we distinguish spatial perspectives and analyze the work of the German sculptor Adolf Hildebrand to delineate their point. Hildebrand became interested in perceptual spaces due to his interactions with the painter Hans von Mareesand and the philosopher and theoretician of art and aesthetics Konrad Fiedler. Surprisingly, although Hildebrand was a sculptor, his influential treatise The Problem of Form treats aesthetic perception as largely pictorial perception. Graphic illustrations, references to experimental work, and some discussion that personalized Hildebrand as an artist allowed these authors to effectively use him as a starting point in distinguishing the structure of pictorial space from that of visual space, while also showing where they intersect.

Gert J. van Tonder’s essay was perhaps the finest in the volume. In it, van Tonder showed his knack for combining solid scientific analysis with qualities often seen as "outside" of the scientific domain. Titled "Order and complexity in naturalistic landscapes: on creation, depiction, and perception of Japanese dry rock gardens," he opens with the comment that he knows that what he intuits as order and complexity is closely related to his subjective experience when looking into a classical Japanese dry rock garden (karesansui) design. Yet, as he further explains, he also knows that no specific grid, ratio, clearly identifiable fractal dimension or other measure reveals why he experiences the garden as a calming space innervated by a subtle balance of tensions. The qualitative and quantitative tension are addressed through experimental work that uses a computational model for image segmentation using forward-inverse medial axis transformation, nicely supplemented by his training with the Ueoto gardening school and studies of classical gardening history. This allows van Tonder to convincingly show that there is substantial overlap between the visual features that classical gardeners manipulated and the perceptual grouping factors used by the Gestalt school to describe the process of figure-ground segmentation. In addition, van Tonder points out that investigations suggest that karesansui design (focusing primarily on rocks and trees) simplifies the segmentation process, equalizes the salience of parts and wholes over a range of spatial scales, and balances the salience of figure and ground. Karesansui design seems to "recruit" mechanisms of perceptual completion to reconstruct visual features that are otherwise too complex to present in their totality, thereby achieving even more perceptually complex results with sparse design compositions of interest. If there is a downside to the van Tonder essay, it is its length. Informative and packed with information, each paragraph covered so much ground that I am certain I failed to entirely digest the depth of the article and the structure and complexity of the details he presented.

Equally compelling is Timothy L. Hubbard and Jon R. Courtney’s "Evidence suggestive of separate visual dynamics in perception and in memory." The visuals, experimental methodology and discussion of dynamics arising from physical forces provide the kind of varied frameworks that serve to make Visual Thought so fascinating. Here, comparing three "unstable" examples of frozen action stimuli with aesthetic artworks that imply movement reminded me the historical innovators in science and art who aspired to bring movement to still pictures (e.g., moving panoramas, magic lantern theaters, etc.). One section, on the Tai-chi tao symbol, has stayed in my mind. A series of schematic alterations they used in their experiments omitted the small dot in each side of the yin/yang symbol. How/whether this small part of the pattern that is inserted in the duality of the circle affects the viewer’s perceptual relationship would be of interest to me, since it is widely interpreted as one of the ways this symbol conveys the idea of the interdependence of all phenomena to the viewer.

Also of note are essays by Dhanraj Vishwnath, Barbara Tversky, Alf C. Zimmer, Jana Hol_ánová, and Frederic Fol Leymarie. For example, Dhanraj Vishwnath’s essay, "Coplanar reflectance change and the ontology of surface perception" grapples with the question: what is surface? He further asks whether the properties and descriptive modes applicable to a surface specified in our ontology of the external world are the same as those that our internal perceptual ontology specifies. While the questions may seem simple, his approach to them was original and quite stimulating. Taking issue with inferential models of perception (such as Marr’s), Vishvanath proposes that representational conflict is intrinsic to any percept of surfaces regardless of whether the identity of surfaces is defined by a change in surface geometry or lightness alone. While his proposals and examples were persuasive, some of the reproductions were hard to read/comprehend. For example, in Vishwnath’s essay the three-part figure on coplanar reflection change failed to make his point visually. I simply could not see the changes between the (b) and (c) sequences mentioned in the caption. Under the image it states that there was an addition of a thin demarcating bead along the perimeter of the main surface discontinuity to perceptually enhance the discontinuity feature. I found myself unable to perceive or conceptualize how/where (b) and (c) differed. I suspect this is due to inadequate contrast in the printing or the small size of the graphics.

The last chapter of the book, which celebrates the contributions of the late John Willats to the field, added an incredibly human dimension to the book. I was delighted the editor decided to include it, and must admit I read this chapter first. Jan J. Koenderink’s tribute speaks of his friendship with Willats, Willat’s art and academic projects, and how much the field lost when he passed away. The tribute brought to mind that vision is not a dry, academic topic confined to research agendas. Rather, as those of us who study it know well, it is something we experience so fully we are compelled to learn more about it. Indeed, it is because what we see "happens to us" that studies of visual cognition are tantalizing, thought provoking, and evocative. Willats’ artwork, some of which is reproduced in this section, further makes this point, as does his excellent article in the book, "Rudolf Arnheim’s graphic equivalents in children’s drawings and drawings and paintings by Paul Klee." Finally, Koenderink’s thoughts bring some fascinating background to Willats’ theory of pictures presented in Art and Representation, by exposing more of the man behind the theory.

In summary, the volume combines interdisciplinary expertise in an examination of conscious qualitative states in perception. Its primary theme is the co-presence and interaction of diverse types of spaces in vision, like the optical space of psychophysics and of neural elaboration, the qualitative space of phenomenal appearances, and its relation with the pictorial space of art. The essays agree that these qualitatively distinct "spaces" follow different rules of organization, although they co-exist. Essay after essay affirms that Visual Thought is a high quality book, one that expands visual thought beyond science and philosophy. Nicely combining theory with experimental work, this book is also a fine contribution to the many fields that intersect with our visual experience in the broadest sense.



Updated 1st July 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST