Supplement 3 — Toril Johannessen: The Invention and Conclusion of the Eye

The Invention and Conclusion of the Eye
Toril Johannessen

(Rain. Footsteps. Mx walks, turns on radio: clip from The Day of the Triffids, continues, walks quickly back and turns it off again. Walks to desk, picks up audio recorder (desk sounds), walks to window at the other side of the room while playing back recording.)

Mx – (audio recorder playback) We see with our brains, not with our eyes.

(By the window: Rain, magpie calls from outside (far away), drums with her fingers on the window.)

Mx – (audio recording playback) Dear.... *** umm, triple asterisk... triple star...(fast forwards the playback) Dear triple star, it’s as I suspected, that the, no...(fast forwards the playback) Dear triple star, it’s as I suspected...Uh-huh... Um-hmmm... Invisible... Sight.

(Stops the audio recorder. Walks back to the computer at the desk, rain continues from window side of the room, sits down.)

Mx....Sight, sight. Sight. (types on keyboard, then reads with clear flat voice, single words) Sight definition.

C:// – (human but somewhat machine-like voice) Sight is a sense and is therefore also called sense of sight. The sense of sight is the organism’s ability to apprehend and react to light.

Mx – (types, then speaks) Sight plus organ.

C:// – Most organisms that have the ability to see use specialized organs for this task. These organs are called eyes.

Mx – (types fast, keyboard sounds) The eye.

C:// – 404 Article not found. Sorry, Mx.

Mx – Eye.

C:// – 404 Article not found.

Mx – Hmmm...(notes something on a piece of paper, shuffles the papers, desk sounds)

(Rain has stopped. Mx gets up from her chair, walks while talking. Takes a few steps, stops to start the recording, clears her throat.)

Mx – (Boop—audio recorder on) Recording 13.1.3, the invention and conclusion of the eye. Dear *** [triple star]. It’s as I expected: the mapping of the history and future of the eye came to support my suppositions.

First, that all we see we see alone, but all we see will be the same.

Second, that the world you and I live in is overwhelmingly invisible.

Third, that the eye will retreat.

I have one challenge: to describe the future with complete certainty based on the data that is available. I want you to calculate this for me. What is completely clear is that how we see, what we can see, and what we understand by “seeing” are facing radical changes. To form an image of the future of sight, dear ***, we first have to go back to the beginning. The origin of the eye is light: the eye arose from light...

(Mx is interrupted by the phone ringing. Short fast walk to desk. Turns off the audio recorder—boop, picks up the phone.)

Mx – Yeah, this is Mx?... Ah, hi (Z)... Yeah, I actually was trying to call you, or of course...yeah... The article about the eye for the encyclopedia, yeah... I need to make diagrams of some models...can you do that? Yes? Good... Yeah sure (sits down at desk)—I use a fact-based prediction-automation program I’ve called ***...uh-huh, which I’ve written myself... No, I feed the information as natural language, it gives a richer result... I summarize the main characteristics for *** and double check the results via C://. Uh-huh...yeah. It works brilliantly. But: we have a problem. My method follows standard procedure. Mostly everything is predictable—the pouring rain out there’s predictable! The fog in the morning will show up as expected! Everything’s working as I expected, but.... Some of the most fundamental concepts are still unclear.... No...some of the information that’s processed by *** still gives inexact definitions and unreadable codes. Like, I can’t access the entry on “eye” right now... What’s there on the visual organ is incomplete. What it gives me is that “most organisms having the ability to see use special organs for this task”— and then nothing else.... Who are these organisms, what do they see with, how do they see...something’s missing here...I don’t know if it’s because the *** algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough, or if it’s just good old C:// (pounds the keyboard) that’s had an overload and can’t manage to process the information from *** (C://’s fan starts spinning, processing sound) Or maybe the information’s being held back? Uh-huh, yeah...Uh-huh, ha, yeah.... Uh-huh, uh-huh, noted...yeah. OK. Yeah...I’m uploading the recordings on the fly, we’ll see how +++ handles it...(bleep)...yep, that’s done...Uh-huh, OK. Good. You follow along on your end when the results come from ***. Thumbs up...yeah, take care...

(Mx hangs up.)

Mx – (types something, then speaks) The eye’s development time how long?

C:// – Mx, you are encouraged to articulate complete sentences so that the language-learning system can be perfected.

Mx – OK. (types, speaks) How long did it take for the eye to develop?

C:// – The number of generations required for an eye to develop can be calculated by outlining a plausible sequence of alterations. We can thus create a picture of the developmental history of the eye.

Mx – (to herself) There, yeah.

C:// – Theoretical considerations of eye design allow us to find routes along which the optical structures of eyes may have developed. A light-sensitive patch can gradually turn into a focused eye lens through continuous small improvements of design. An upper limit for the number of generations required for the complete transformation can be calculated with a minimum of assumptions. Even with a consistently pessimistic approach, the time required becomes amazingly short: only a few hundred thousand years!

Mx – How long does it take for the eye to future?

(Bleep — error alert.)

Mx – (types rapidly) Eye future how further development?

(Triple bleep—error alert.)

(Mx clicks her tongue. Folds paper, rips paper in two. Desk sounds; irritated. Audio recorder on.)

Mx – (takes a deep breath) Recording 13.1.3, continued. In order to form a picture of the future of sight, dear ***, we must first go back to the beginning. The origin of the eye is light: the eye arose from light. Everything started with an eyespot, a kind of birthmark, on the surface of an organism. Receptor cells in the eyespot—with the protein opsin—set a nerve impulse in motion, and immediately the system could distinguish light from dark. Gradually the eyespot withdrew into a depression in the skin to better determine which direction the light was coming from. Eventually the hollow spot became deeper and deeper, the number of light-sensitive cells greater and greater, while the opening became smaller. This way the eye hollow became image forming, but was still without a lens. This construction—a chamber with an aperture—was eventually filled with transparent gel, from which the lens of the eye was later formed (magpie chirps outside the window), and the eye slowly became more and more focused.

(Uploads sound file. Mx walks toward the window, it’s raining again.)

Mx – Recording 13.2. The lens of the eye has a liquid origin. The concept of a lens also has a connection to a floating element: “lenses” are also known as aquula, from Latin, which means “little stream,” from aqua, which means “water.” This in turn is the origin of the word auga from Old Portuguese, while the same word—auga—in Norse meant “eye” and is related to the word ocularis, from Latin. Aqua, ocular. The first lenses that were made and used by humans were water lenses: spheres filled with water...(pauses) Raindrops are small lenses, or eyes.

(Rain letting up, sprinkling. Mx stands by the window, listens to the rain while still recording. Says nothing. Continues, speaks in a more questioning and informal manner.)

Mx – (continues) So if liquid, movable lenses that fill the atmosphere could be connected to an intelligent system, we could have formed images from an untold number of angles at all times... You know the phenomenon well — when light is refracted through water drops, a richly colourful image is formed. But try, if you could, to be surrounded by the rainbow, and it becomes invisible to you. The rain forms small images from an untold number of angles at all times, but they are inaccessible for...for.... Damn.... The rain creates a total, virtual image; each single drop is a small part of a larger image; they are image-information and at the same time a cluster of tiny image-creating technologies in themselves. That is, they are fragments of an image and the optics through which the image is seen at one and the same time, and...(sighs lightly)... Erase. (beep—the audio recording is erased)

(Takes a couple of steps and opens the window. Rain and wind gusts, the musical theme from The Day of the Triffids carried with the wind from afar. Mx inhales the fresh air. Mx closes the window, hard. Walks to the desk, sits down.)

Mx – (types) How did the eye come to be?

C:// – The origin of the eye is light. The eye emerged from organisms’ ability to react to electromagnetic radiation of the approximate wavelength...

Mx – (cuts C:// off, to herself) Uh-huh. Good. (types, speaks to C://) What makes the eye sensitive to light?

C:// – Receptors in the eye with the protein opsin...

Mx – (cuts C:// off, types) How did the eye develop during evolution?

C:// – The eye is the result of intelligent design and is the ultimate counterargument against the theory of evolution.

Mx – (irritated, to herself) Oh God... Ha... Good grief something’s...something’s gone wrong here.

(Mx makes abrupt movements, moves things on the desk, types hard on the keyboard. Sound recorder on, Mx clears her voice, speaks slow and clear, like a teacher.)

Mx – Recording 13.2, again. As you know, my finest friend ***, we develop in a dynamic interaction with our environment, with our co-natures, cultures, and technologies. (Mx gets up and walks to the kitchen counter while she keeps talking and recording, fills a glass with water and drinks from it, continues to walk and talk) The eye developed from the eyespot—and the eyespot itself was possible with genes from bacteria, which later were passed on to algae, which again were absorbed by dinoflagellates, which then ended up in jellyfish. From the original eyespot various forms of visual organs developed. The human eye belongs to a general kind of eye called “camera eyes.” The eyes of octopuses are also camera eyes, but the eyes of vertebrates and octopuses developed independently from each other only to come to a quite equivalent result—the major difference being that the octopus doesn’t have any blind spot. (Mx is at the window, rain has stopped) In addition, it appears the octopus is covered with light-sensitive receptors that function similarly to the original eyespots. The octopus sees with its skin, even though it can’t create images with it. There are also mollusks covered with light-sensitive receptors that have found a way to integrate pearl-like minerals in their shells that function as image-forming lenses. To put it differently, they have eyes made of rocks.

(Audio recorder off. Mx is by the window, drinks from the glass, sets it on a table. Magpie chirps, Mx taps the window. Mx takes a picture, sound of camera shutter. Audio recorder on, Mx moves while she speaks.)

Mx – Recording 13.3. The analogy between the camera and the eye gives an explanation of how the image is formed, but for a long time was misleading regarding how the image is stored. If you could see the room I’m in: the window with grey specks, the fishbone hanging by a thread from the ceiling, the light from outside—which is soon going to shift from white to dark blue and later to orange and flat grey when the fog appears—the white walls with traces of pencils and screws, plaster marks that reveal there was once an extra door, the lamp, the table, the papers, the computer, daisies on the counter, and everything else. If you could see this, you would not see it as a complete image: you would see individual bits that would give the impression of a complete image. (gentle rain) Whereas the camera captures an image as a unit and stores it on photographic film, the eye shapes images through the duration of time. The light information that strikes the retina is not sent directly to the visual cortex in the brain but is divided into fragments that are recomposed into a seemingly complete sense impression. Fortunately, one might say, because seeing everything at once (sound recorder malfunctions, all sounds louder) would lead to a system overload. As you understand, my dearest friend ***...(fumbles with the sound recorder, a little crackling, the sound returns to normal)...As you understand, the camera and the eye were quite unlike at the time of the invention of photography, but our new technologies have now made the analogy more precise. Just as the sensory apparatus divides up information and puts it together again, digital information is divided up and stored in separate places, then put back together into an image.

(Rain, thunder far away. Light flickers. Mx walks toward the desk as she’s talking.)

Of course today it’s more common to let image-editing software—relatives of yours, dear ***—automate the production of the photographic image. By simply writing a caption describing the picture I want, they can construct a new image based on my specifications by accessing the enormous amount of images they can retrieve from the cloud. In amassing the image data we’ve cooperatively uploaded, some small drops of information find each other and form patterns, images, photo-like representations.

(Sits down at the desk.)

For instance, I can write (types while she reads to the audio recorder): “This is a bird with a black bill, white breast, black head, and long tail with a metallic sheen,” and then get a photograph of a (waits for an answer from C://)...similar return, which...(waits for an answer from C://) this case...with 95 percent certainty is a magpie. Photography today is mainly about completing the project that started with the invention of photography—namely, mapping and archiving the world, and to give increasingly greater numbers of images to the shared databases that store information and use it as raw material for making new, standardized representations. A cluster of individual units makes a single homogeneous image. Everything we see, we see alone, but everything we see is the same. Photography was invented to prepare for the elimination of the desire to see. (Mx becomes excited)

(Interrupted as the phone rings, audio recorder off, picks up the phone while noting on paper, desk sounds.)

Mx – Hi...Oh yeah, (Z), hey you, hi again...I didn’t foresee you calling right now... Yeah, no, I guess you could say that...ha, yeah...Uh-huh, hmm...right, is that right...predictive technologies..? Well, I’m looking at different of them being with a sheet of paper...(magpie chirps) Let’s call it an exercise in tactile sensing and motor recall in combination with geometry and estimating probability when working with circumstantial data. Heh... That was a joke, (Z). Uh-huh, yeah... Uh-huh OK...OK...

(Drops pencil, walks over to the window while still on the phone. Magpie chirps, wings flapping.)

Mx – (listens, feigning confirmation that she’s following along) OK... yep... OK...yeah

(The bird: Chock-chock-chock. Wock, wock, wock-a-wock.)

Mx – (to the bird) Chock-chock. Wock, wock-a-wock.

Mx – (to (Z)) ...Oh, sorry, I’m talking to a bird outside the window here, hee-hee.... magpie. They’re supposed to be super smart. The magpie is the only bird that passed the mirror test... How many?... There’s just one here...(sarcastically) Haaa, does that mean sorrow?... And two means happiness?... An omen? Old superstition? Augury? Auga... Yeah, but you know, I don’t believe in that stuff, no...nope, yep...yes, peculiar indeed... Sort of like you’re not supposed to wave at the Northern Lights, because then they’ll come and get you—but where do they take you? The myth doesn’t include that anymore because everybody’s forgotten it. Or that the earbone of the cod can be used for predicting the weather, yeah, yeah, I mean, who remembers how to do that... Yeah...half-forgotten myths that hang on... Mmm, yeah, right. Yes...but regardless, the results from ___ follow for the most part logically from the information I give, but some surprises show up of course. Yeah. Yes. OK. No, clearly, thumbs up. Bye. (hangs up)

Mx – Chock-chock.

(The bird: Wock-a-wock, wee weer! Cheh-cheh-jeeh-jeeh! (Flaps wings, pecks on the window, noisy.))

Mx – (startled) Oh! (unsure) Hah...uhhhh...are you here to bring trouble?

(Mx walks away from the window. Magpie makes noise, fading away as Mx is walking. Audio recorder on, walks and talks.)

Mx – Recording 13.4. Eyes are energy-consuming organs. As you know so well yourself, dear ***, not everyone has the need to see. Like the mole in its odd, remarkable appearance, equipped with a pointy or star-shaped nose and large two-thumbed paws; or the small colony of wolf spiders in lava grottoes in Kauai; or the pale pink, eyeless types of the Mexican fresh-water fish Astyanax, or the penis snake, which actually is a salamander. And the termites! In the social order of termites it is only kings, queens, and the reproducing who see, while the majority—soldiers and workers—are eyeless.

Another highly interesting figure is the Demiguise. Immediately striking is its power of making itself unseen. The Demiguise is a wingless flying creature covered by a fine-haired pelt that reflects its surroundings so that it can make itself invisible at will. Even more distinctive is another characteristic the Demiguise has developed. It sees with the help of a particular form of precognition: its visual perception is based on making statistical calculations of the immediate future. Thereby the Demiguise is always a step ahead, and taking one by surprise is no simple task. If anyone should want to do that, it would require acting unpredictably. The precognitive visual perception of the Demiguise is a function of calculations of probability built on existing data. (starts a quick walk) With its large round eyes it sees...

(Mx crashes into table—bang, the water glass breaks on the floor, comes to a stop.)


(Sound recorder off, Mx walks and sits down at the desk, types.)

Mx – Sta...statistics...statistical vision...(types) What is precognitive vision?

C:// – Precognitive vision is the ability to visualize the immediate future based on statistical calculations.

Mx – What is foresight?

C:// – Foresight is the ability to visualize the immediate future based on...(processing sound plus error bleep)

Mx – Visualization meaning.

C:// – 420. The language-learning system...

Mx – What is visualization?

C:// – “Visualization” has two meanings. Meaning number one is representation of an object, a situation, or a set of information in the form of a diagram or another image. Meaning number two is the formation of mental images of something actually not visible. (Mx starts drawing while listening)

Mx – What is the meaning of the word “sight”?

C:// – “Sight” has two meanings. Meaning number one is to be able to see. Meaning number two is vision, that something is seen in one’s head.

Mx – Where does the word “vision” originate?

C:// – The word “vision” comes from the Latin word visionem, which in the eleventh century meant “the act of sight” or “things that are seen.” Later on the word came to mean “something seen with the help of the power of the imagination or the supernatural,” which meant presence, glance, imagination, dream, or supernatural sight.

Mx – Where does the word “visualization” come from?

C:// – In the nineteenth century the word “visualization” described a psychological process, that is, the power to form mental images of something that is not actually visible. Starting in the mid twentieth century “visualization” primarily came to mean graphic representation, visualization of data, and image reproduction with the help of instrumentation and calculable figures.

(Audio recorder on, Mx moves around the room while she speaks.)

Mx – Recording 13.5. So then, what is sensed with the eyes when what one sees is the result of statistical calculations, my fine friend ***? The answer must of course be: nothing, because the visual cortex is used for shaping mental images. As you know, dear ***, those of us who are physiologically sighted don’t see with the eyes but with the brain. The current meaning of the concept “sight” or “vision” can mislead us into thinking that the act of seeing deals primarily with the optic apparatus. That’s incorrect. We can see by creating mental images of what otherwise is considered invisible. That brings us to my assumption that the world is in the process of becoming invisible, or more exactly, optically invisible: the data we are surrounded by is not visible to the eye. They do not have a visual form. To try to capture the invisible as an image will therefore be an image of the very method one uses, not of the information itself. So the truest form of translation of vis­ualization of data will be to create mental images that do not resemble anything we can see with the eye.

Concurrently, this Demiguise...(short pause). Improbable events, events that do not resemble anything that has happened before, are invisible to the Demiguise’s precognitive register. The large round eyes never see the present time, but the future based on the past, which means it must be blind to the immediate surroundings, which.... Uh... (Mx steps on the glass fragments on the floor) Owww...(fiddles with the sound recorder)... Erase (audio recorder off)

(Mx picks up the phone and calls (Z).)

Mx – Yeah hi (Z).... It’s me... Sure...have you checked the results of *** via the network?...OK.... Just sketch a simple model to begin with...exactly, a model of the development of the complex eye...Mmm, sure, sure...yeah...mmm. OK...I think that.... (Z), there’s still a lot of confusion about whether the visual paradigm is done for or not.... Uh-huh... A few people, of course, claim we live in a strongly visual time...but that certainly isn’t to say that the sense of sight has hegemony—we live in a time when we relate to unseen and abstract processes with visual user interfaces.... Uh-huh, yeah, exactly...a bit like the dream images and the hypnagogic ones that come just before I sleep—they look like images in the windows of a screen—I have to sort of zoom and scroll to see the whole image... Yeah, uh-huh...and while I’m thinking, I imagine words and sentences that are edited like in a word-processing program... Uh-huh... You know, the technology of writing has inscribed itself in those of us who read and write... No, listen: The earliest written sources we have, Sumerian clay tablets, weren’t myths or poetry or stories, no, they were notes for billing, where words could be kept in place of goods—barley and cattle—written down because it was information that couldn’t easily be memorized. So written language and literature have origins in accounting procedures and the need to keep orderly numbers. The question is how the digital information will inscribe itself in us. Or how we can inscribe ourselves in it... Which of course is my task to sort out... Regardless...where was I...dream images... When I lie there, conscious, but without control over the images, I see people and situations I’ve never seen before. Where do they come from?... (rain again) Fascinating, yes...but of course all these dream images are completely unpredictable and fleeting mental pictures... What I want is predictability! Clear images! That’s where you’re going to have a duty, (Z), to find a logical method for translating information into mental visualizations that can be stabilized and communicated.... No, no, not digital retinas, they’re still optically based, that way we’re still where we are... Sure sure yeah... Uh-huh. Yeah yeah yeah. Do it. Send it over. Bye.

(Audio recorder on, walks over to the window, drums on the window with her fingers, rain, thunder far off, Mx walks and talks.)

Mx – Recording 13.6. As you well know, dear ***, since you’ve listened carefully for a long time to the story of the development of the sense of sight, we are all for the most part blind. The eyes see only a limited spectre of reality, and brains interpret the signals they receive in highly varied ways. Reality doesn’t arrive through the eye. Objectivity is impossible. We are done with that. The sense of sight, like the other senses, is subjective. We’ve accepted this. But: all of these alternative individual points of view now collectively form a thick fog. The immediate becomes the remote, direction impossible to confirm. When objectivity is impossible, we must teach ourselves other ways of seeing, it is said. I’m now starting to intuit what the contours of this new way of seeing may involve.

(Electricity crackles, light flashes.)

Mx – (the voice of Mx becomes elated, speaks more quickly, is less controlled) With the help of abstraction and calculation in...collective?... neural networks we will be able to imagine the world not just as it appears to ourselves, but as we calculate that it must be! The visual cortex will then to an increasing degree be used for perception...or processing, as it’s called today...of numbers. It will be possible for the term “sight” to mean something closer to the earlier meaning of “vision,” namely the ability to form images of something not actually visible.

(Heavy thunder. Black out: sound off, light off.)

(Sound and light is back, system startup sound, Mx walks, audio recording is continued. Rain, raindrops.)

Mx – The eye as an organ will undoubtedly continue to be with us a considerable time. Just as there are termites with and without eyes, there will be people with and without eyes. New hierarchies will arise among the physiologically and technologically sighted. Via evolution the eye will eventually sink inward and be hidden in the eye socket as a secret, perhaps erotic, organ!... Hmm...not that... From an evolutionary perspective the eye as an organ will be able to acquire a status like the appendix and the wisdom tooth now have—still there, as remains, but not especially useful beyond being bodily metaphors for futility and occasional pain. The future is still an open image, dear ***. This image is something I want you to estimate for me. With deep respect, Mx.

(Audio recorder off, Mx walks to the computer, uploads file.)

Mx – So...(types) What is “sight”?

C:// – Sight is a sense and is therefore called also the sense of sight. The sense of sight is the organism’s ability to apprehend and react to numerical information.

Mx – Hah! (types) What is an organ of sight?

C:// – Organisms that have the ability to see use specialized organs for this task. These organs are called (pause) brains.

Mx – The eye.

C:// – (processing sound, fan)

Mx – What is the developmental history of the eye?

C:// – The eye began as a light-sensitive spot on some individual organisms’ surfaces. Theoretical considerations of eye design allow us to find routes along which the optical structures of the eye will develop in the future. The optical system will gradually be encapsulated in line with continual small improvements in the total design of the apparatus of sight. An upper limit for the number of generations required for the complete transformation can be calculated with a minimum of assumptions.

Mx – (under her breath, to herself)... There we are.

(Mx gets up and walks to the window, drums her fingers on the pane. Sound of two birds outside the window, Mx hums along quietly.)

C:// – The eye is an erotic organ.

(Mx gasps, comes to a stop, drumming on the window is broken off.)

C:// – Confusion reigns about whether the visual paradigm is over.

C:// – But: we have a problem.

C:// – Accounting is the oldest form of literature.

C:// – Everything is predictable. The rain is predictable! The fog will come as expected!

C:// – Fluid, mobile lenses that fill the atmosphere coupled with an intelligent system form images from myriad angles at every point in time...

C:// – (text-to-speech imitation of magpie, single raindrops, sounds mechanical) Chock-chock-chock. Cheh-cheh-cheh... Chock-chock-chock. Cheh-cheh-cheh. Wock, wock, wock-a-wock, wock, pjur, weer, weer.



Manuscript for an audio play performed at Stages: Drawing the Curtain, curated by Jenifer Papararo, Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, 2017.

Published by Fillip in collaboration with Plug In Editions

Armelle Alhéritière (French)
Richard Simpson (English)

About the Author

Toril Johannessen is a Norwegian artist based in Tromsø. Her practice explores the space between science and art, using processes historically connected to the scientific method: photography, optics, archival material, statistics, diagrams, and experimental models. Her work has been exhibited at the Istanbul Biennial, the Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver), Performa, the Kitchen (New York), and documenta. She is represented by OSL contemporary, Oslo.

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