The Observer Effect

The Frye MuseumWhen expectation comes up against reality, guess who wins?

Not reality. Not usually, anyway.

In Volume 391 of Nature, quantum physicists announced that when observed, particles could behave only as particles. But when unobserved, they could also behave as waves (Heiblum, 1998).

This was true even when the “observer” was a machine in an empty room.

As human beings, we all intuitively know that being watched changes our performance.

Psychologists demonstrated this in a number of studies through the 1980s. When we are skilled at a task–say, shooting pool–we perform better, consistently making more shots, in front of others. But if we just plain suck, we do a lot better on our own, unobserved (Michaels, 1982; Guerin, 1986; Towler, 1986).

And since the 1960s, critics and literature professors have relied upon reader-response criticism–the idea that texts have no inherent meaning until someone picks up a work and makes one from it.

Think of it as the fancy academic version of the schoolyard question, “When a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”

Not surprisingly, artists love to play with this. If reality changes through the simple act of being observed and measured,  what happens if you present a piece with the intention of it being changed by the viewer?

And this is exactly what the current exhibition at the Frye Art Museum is all about.  The Seattle artists included in Mw [Moment Magnitude] won’t let you get out of the museum without challenging your assumption that viewership is passive.

In particular, Lilienthal/Zamora’s installation “Through Hollow Lands” invites the viewer to interact–and change it. Unlike most of the museum’s past installations, this has no rope cordoning it off. No signs asking visitors to keep off, stay back, don’t enter.

Instead, the maze of fluorescent tubes offers doors, portals, hallways outlined in light. Suspended from the ceiling, some tubes hang inches from the wood floor. Others almost flush with the electrical wiring overhead. Horizontal, vertical, intersecting, floating–the bulbs “form rooms and constellations.”

A man circled the installation, pausing at each corner of the room to photograph it. He was systematic. Careful to get every angle. But he held back at least three feet on every side. Two other men stood by and discussed how the piece “disassembled expectations.”

I gazed at it from a bench. Then I stood and simply walked through one of those doorways of light and entered into the installation. I followed a corridor lined with fluorescent tubes. Found myself in the center of a floating room, both “void” and “container”.

And in the heart of all those burning lights, I experienced a breakdown of boundaries between performer/observer, negative/positive space, inside/outside, action/thought, art/life.

The gaze changes things. Not least because each individual’s gaze is unique. Meaning is a collaborative, communal act–but also an intensely individual one. And in another fiction, in another room illuminated by dozens of hot bulbs, a human being accustomed to invisibility once asked, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”*

The observer is only half the equation. It is the interaction between artist and viewer where the most powerful meanings open.

*Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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