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A New Formatting of perception
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A New Formatting of Perception

Dr. med. Ursula Davatz, Washington, D.C., USA

An information is a difference
which makes a difference

Gregory Bateson

Human perception is determined by our sensory organs and our brain, evolution's most complex product. More specifically, it is formed, via the socialization process within culturally conditioned systems of values, by tradition, religion, fashion and the dictates imposed by the spirit of the age or Zeitgeist of existing economic and political systems, by educational programs and other learning processes. We refer to this refined programming of our system of processing stimuli as the formatting of perception.

The Zeitgeist dictates what human beings are meant to believe, to see, to hear, to feel, to eat and to taboo within their specific culture area. Phenomena that do not comply with the Zeitgeist, the culture area and its traditional systems of values are not perceived, but are suppressed or erased.

Human perception is therefore restricted in its range. Without exception only a certain section in the variety of the real world is accessible to conscious perception. The intuitive or subconscious perception of reality is greater than the conscious one, but it is not easy to access. The part of reality we perceive subconsciously is stored - if at all - in the memory of our subconscious. A reality previously tabooed in education or religion is actively denied access to memory by our conscious control mechanism. Every culture area, every religion and every era develops and cultivates its own very specific perception section and, consequently, creates its own perception taboos.

Even Sigmund Freud (note on the «Wunderblock» in 1925 [1924], textbook edition, vol. III, Frankfurt; Fischer 1972, pp. 363-369) delved into the phenomenon of human perception and memory as well as their recording as «permanent memory traces». In one of his writings of 1900 he voiced the assumption that the human perception's «unlimited ability to take things in» and the recording of «memory traces» in the memory are due to two different systems. He describes one system as «wide-awake consciousness, which takes in perceptions, but preserves no permanent trace of them, so that it can again behave like a blank page towards every new perception». He sees the other as a «memory system at the rear», which retains and stores the «permanent traces of perception». He then continues with the hypothesis that «the inexplicable phenomenon of consciousness in the system of perception takes over from the permanent traces». He compares this system of human perception and human memory to a small device called a Wunderblock, a magic slate, then sold in the shops and which «promises to offer more than a sheet of paper or a slate».

This Wunderblock consists of a dark wax tablet covered by a celluloid foil, which has a sheet of transparent wax paper on the lower side. The pressure applied by the slate pencil presses the wax paper onto the wax tablet, creating a dark script on the otherwise whitish grey surface of the celluloid. The detachment of the wax paper from the wax tablet erases the writing, clearing the Wunderblock for fresh notes. Closer scrutiny of the surface of the wax paper and the layer of wax reveals traces of all the former inscriptions by the slate pencil, but they are no longer decipherable, as they all overlap each other.
Freud realizes «a remarkable match» between this Wunderblock and what was for him the «assumed structure of our perception instrument». On the one hand, both are endowed with a «constantly available reception surface», on the other, they can supply «permanent traces of the recordings received», with the minor difference that the permanent traces in the case of the Wunderblock on the layer of wax below are hard or virtually impossible to decipher whereas the memory often alters the permanent traces but is capable of raising them to the surface again.
The memory or system of recollection, storing perception and thus permitting consciousness, is additionally subject to a formatting process, in our view. This formatting process influences the storage of our perception and hence consciousness, which, as Freud says, «takes over from the permanent traces», i.e. the memory. Our culturally conditioned formatting therefore establishes which parts of our perception we can store and which parts we cannot, what may be included in our consciousness and what not.

Power and Perception

Artists, researchers and founders of religions are often individuals whose perception is well in advance of commonly held perception. They have a very specific ability to perceive and present new things intuitively, thus forming people's perceptive abilities in the future. Sometimes they are so far ahead of their time, the political, religious and economic order - Jesus of Nazareth, Giordano Bruno - that they have to pay with their lives, or are not publicly rehabilitated until centuries later - as in the case of Galileo Galilei, who proclaimed: «Und sie bewegt sich doch», or Copernicus with his new view of the world. Perception is so closely linked to power that frequently not until existing power structures have been significantly weakened or an empire has collapsed is mankind in a position to actually see the new conception of the world.

If these people are only a few years or decades ahead of the Zeitgeist, the artist - Mozart, for example - is criticized for «a few notes too many», or society rejects the aesthetic product, considering it to be ugly and unaesthetic, as in the case of Van Gogh, for example. Should the pioneers of human imagination be «just a few minutes» ahead of their time, they may trigger upheavals in the transformation of perception in human collectives. They cause an immediate change in perception and thus a general transformation of the Zeitgeist (Goethe, Mahatma Gandhi, The Beatles, Gorbachev).

From «more geometrico» to «more biologico»

A main characteristic of Da Vaz's approach to his oeuvre is that he never proceeds on the basis of an internal conception or idea before beginning a picture. He has nothing specific, no inner object, as it were, as his basis. His creative approach is not directed by any central volition. He therefore has no choice but to disappoint all the observers who ask him about his prior inner picture with the answer: «No.» The artist had no «pre-concept» before starting on the work. Da Vaz relies on his «emotionless feeling». His basic approach is one of concentration in confrontation with reality. When asked how the whole is structured, he simply says: «According to the most arbitrary of criteria».

The thought that «the most arbitrary criteria» could guide the process of intellectual order would have filled Descartes with horror, as he, in his discourse on the method, compares the process of intellectual order «...with the regular spaces that an engineer marks out on a plane on the basis of a free draft».

We all know from our own experience where the Cartesian method has taken us to, as our thought structures are still at the same Cartesian point of view: at the «more geometrico». Allowing our gaze to wander across such «locus of centralized organizational systems» we see: dirigisme and standardization in economy, education and culture. We also see: forests reduced to timber plantations, wild nature to leisure parks, sensuousness to consumerism and sensationalism.

Giambattista Vico, the founder of modern historical thinking, perceived this before. In his New Science he relates the history of civilization as a short story. «The order of human affairs progressed as follows: first there were the forests, then the huts, then the villages, then the towns and finally the academies.»

Vico leaves not the slightest doubt that ever since the existence of academies the woodlands cleared for cultivation begun to turn into deserts. That was back in 1744 when Vico's New Science was published.

The history of the foundation of modern art commences with the perception of the «inner forest-like character of our human nature». In ancient Greek philosophy the «forest» returns to the «City» in the figure of Dionysos, the god of sensuousness.

The life origins of modern art lie in surrealism, which, via impressionism and expressionism accompanied by an unforeseeable abundance of impulses, triggered the destructuring of human values and thinking patterns. Out of this «forest» comes movement into the «City», into the «more geometrico».

Using the metaphor of the «forest» again we may relate the history of our civilization in the following way:

There were those that descended upon the forest to burn it down, to hew and clear the rampant vegetation there. In the oldest epic of humanity Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, is portrayed as the first adversary of the forest. He seeks to conquer the wooded «Mount of Cedars», to kill the forest demon and to fell the trees. He wants to enter this land and establish his name.

There are the others who leave the «forest» for the «City» but taking with them considerable unrest into the laboriously acquired order of man-made environment. We call them «the biologists», for they take the «more biologico», the seeds of growth, into every closed system of values, deconstructing the structure which was built with such tremendous effort and strain.

Da Vaz doubtless comes «from the forest». His approach harbors the seeds of change, of constant transformation. Da Vaz' path hews a «clearing» into the established intellectual order to make room for the «inner forestness», he erects a «wildness of the unseen», interruptions into our reasoning, gaps in our formalistic thinking, in short, he is applying a reversed clearing process.

We err, we are definitely mistaken to ask about the sense of it all. «The question as to its reason», says Da Vaz, «is most likely a question of power, a question as to the control of what has not yet been configured in the mind. This excessive desire for knowing all the answers lures one into the heroic assumption that one has to be enlightened, at any time and in any place. This excessive control lowers the motivation for creative commitment and curtails any inner risk-taking.»

His later addition of titles to some of his works, usually appended years or even decades afterwards, does not mean that they are intended as a form of explanation or designation of the contents of his work. On the contrary, he uses them as a contrast in a debate with the pictures. He says: «The concept to use titles as a gameplan, as an elementary expression of literary perspective may open a possible access to the picture».

The effort needed to approach an unknown message is not diminished as a result, however. The time required to format our perceptivity takes longer than our attention span or the endurance of our curiosity may hold out. The basic attitude of our mind towards change is quite often one of inertia and resistance to any re-formatting of our sensory perception; it is human propensity to cling to tradition. If our perception is re-formatted nevertheless, our attitude towards change activates our intuition, our quest for new horizons is set in motion, and our perception starts an autonomous creative process. «Thinking is acting on trial», says Da Vaz, «and perceiving is what leads on from there».

Perception and Content

Da Vaz ranks as one of the visual artists capable of strongly influencing human perception. In a purely formal sense he is regarded to be an abstract artist, i.e. he does not portray a material world of objects. His point of departure is therefore not the concrete perception of the object world. And yet Da Vaz is not a deconstructivist in the traditional sense, who distorts the real world like Picasso, Chagall or Dali. Nor is he a concrete artist of abstract painting such as Mondrian or Bill. His pictures are not graphic-aesthetic works of art composed of geometric forms and colours. He does not deconstruct the moral-ethical values of our society, either, like Beuys, Warhol or Kienholz.

Da Vaz is a deconstructivist of the «new kind». He destructures perception per se by starting out from «nothing». He says: «I proceed on the assumption that the greatest possible creative power consists in nothing».

Da Vaz's forte is the new formatting of perception per se. His art leads the human senses through worlds of unfamiliar sensation without offering us any guideline assistance in the content. As if on a mental roller-coaster, he accelerates the observer's perception across the surface of the picture. He alters, distorts and deforms the image of customary three-dimensionality. No sooner does one start to believe that one can cling to something concrete in the content of the picture than the rug is pulled from under one's feet. Without any prior warning one is whipped into a new whirlpool of perception, into another corner of the picture. Da Vaz deforms the process of perception per se and not the content. «Content» says Da Vaz, «is deep-frozen perception».

Although a painted picture, unlike film, embodies a static representation, Da Vaz is still able to make his drawings and paintings set us in constant motion. Even though we fail to comprehend what it is that moves us, to find any concrete content, purpose or meaning, our perception is moved nonetheless. We perceive processes, we perceive movement in the picture and in ourselves.

This is a new art experience in the area of human perception, triggering a feeling of anxiety in some observers, probably because they can no longer gain their bearings from fixed, traditional contents. Their bearings in space and content are lost. Consequently, it is possible to view the paintings from all angles; there is no obligatory top and bottom, they can be turned in another direction and a new content, i.e. a new perspective is revealed. This dis-orientation in customary three-dimensionality affords a new perceptual experience.

Perception as a Process

The perception of processes, developments, restructuring and distortions corresponds very closely to the reality of the modern globally networked world in constant flux and development. Da Vaz therefore acquaints us with the complex world of the 21st Century through the medium of visual evolutionary perception. He formats our perception afresh; he takes us away from the visually static perception of contents fixed in terms of meaning and value, also named idioms, conveying to us the perception of processes and procedures with no beginning and no end, setting our imagination into never-ending motion as if we are caught up in a «perpetuum mobile». Via his paintings we are directly tuned into the pulse of life, which perpetually generates fresh energy in us on both the cognitive and the emotional level.

Da Vaz and his portrayals repeatedly dissolve the boundaries of our traditional perception, of our characteristic visual programming to lead us into an unfamiliar virtual world of new symbols that, because of their dynamic interaction, create a rich visual experience. He escorts us away from the three-dimensionally portrayed world of reality to a multi-dimensional virtual adventure world of the senses. The end result is successful, not only in his colour paintings but also in his black and white drawings. Even with the simple means of a pencil, rapidograph or even ball-point pen he is able to generate a multi-dimensional world in time and space.

Whereas the «permanent traces» can be seen as an accumulation on the surface of the wax paper of the Wunderblock described by Freud, yet they cannot be deciphered, nor can the Wunderblock "'reproduce' the erased writing from the inside", it is possible to decipher and experience the recordings of the «psychograms» in this Wunderblock by Da Vaz. His «Prozessgrammatik», engraved on the drawing paper, is accessible, drawing after drawing Da Vaz' Wunderblock harbors models for a new formatting of our perception.