In 2018 I was awarded one of Allenheads Contemporary Arts ‘BEYOND: Open Doors‘ residencies. Allenheads had recently acquired an astronomical observatory for their site and so the BEYOND artists were responding to the theme of going ‘beyond’ this world.
I arrived at the residency interested in experiencing those periods where no useful observing can take place. Those moments waiting for the clouds to pass, for the Moon change phase, or the Sun to set. Twilight is a time that has particularly captured my attention during my stay at Allenheads and I spent time in the woods alone during this time, experiencing the changing light, sounds and sensations of this period.
During the weekend we were visited by astrophotographer Gary Lintern. His background is in psychology and has an interest in unconscious processing. Our discussion briefly touched on night vision and how to improve it. Gary mentioned a researcher called Nelson Zink, who developed a device for peripheral vision training. This provided an aesthetic, conceptual and experiential starting point for my exploration:
“On the bill of a baseball cap we mounted a metal rod welded to a binder clip, extending about a foot in front of our eyes. On the tip of this rod we glued a small bead of plastic resin about the size of a baby green pea. This created a fixed point on which to focus. We reasoned that with our focused vision on the bead, any physical activity would necessitate the use of peripheral vision.” (Zink, 1991)
I thought I would give it a go.
In order to train your night vision, your eyes need to focus on something straight ahead (an orange ball of epoxy putty in my case), whilst your mind concentrates on all the stuff going on in your peripheral vision. The article claimed that If you persevere through the hours of training you could reach a feeling of ‘zen’ where you would be able to run through a dark forest simply by sensing what’s underfoot.
I walked and walked. I went out again at dusk and walked until dark. I stopped wearing my glasses as this apparently only amplifies the tunnel vision of modern life. I even spent some nights sleeping in the forest overnight, allowing the darkness to engulf me fully.
Behind ACA is a pine forest, due to be felled anytime in the next ten years. Beyond the forest is miles and miles of grouse shooting moorland. There is a sense of tension. Spending time in the forest and up on the moors makes you feel away from civilisation (I walked for nine miles and didn’t see another person). The forest is populated by owls, red squirrels, dear and thousands of rabbits. But there is also the bleak reality that the trees are in neat rows and come the glorious 12th, the area will be swarming with ‘gentlemen’ paying thousands of pounds to shoot on the carefully managed land.
I never did reach this sense of zen the authors spoke of.
Zink, H., Parks, S. (1991) ‘Nightwalking : Exploring the dark with Peripheral Vision’, Whole Earth Review)