Changing Perceptions at Belfast Children's Festival

Visionary artists Cleary Connolly lend a fresh pair of eyes with high-tech helmets designed to simulate how different creatures see the world

If, in a random, hallucinatory flash, you might have considered fixing a beady eye on your immediate surroundings through the viewpoint of, say, a hammerhead shark, a giraffe, a horse or a chameleon, a rare opportunity to do just that is about to arrive. As Creativity Months gathers steam, the Belfast Children’s Festival, under its new director Eibhlin de Barra, has programmed a cluster of events guaranteed not only to increase audience participation in creative activity but to spark imaginations across the generations by, quite simply, enabling people to view the world through strange new eyes.

The ongoing imperative behind the work of award-winning, internationally acclaimed artists Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly – collectively known as Cleary Connolly - is the notion of putting visitors to an arts event at the epicentre of that event. Their current project, the intriguingly named Meta-Perceptual Helmets, is designed to change human perceptions, while in the process blurring the boundaries between art and science through a heady, witty, meticulously researched interactive combination of architecture, physics, mathematics and precision craftsmanship.

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'I think this is the most successful manifestation of our artistic intention so far,' says Cleary, speaking from the apartment in Montmartre, in the arty 18th arrondissement of Paris, where she and Connolly have lived for many years with their 16 year-old twin daughters Salammbo and Lotte. 'When people put on the helmets, they look at the world in a different way and they actually become the art by wearing these strange sculptural items. It’s like turning the whole process back on itself so that the spectator is no longer just the spectator but part of the whole experience. It’s all part of the continuity of work we’ve been doing for twenty years or so.

'My first time of getting to know Belfast was when I was there a few weeks ago for the festival launch and I’m really looking forward to coming back for the Children's Festival. We’ve done a variety of festivals with the helmets and very often the audience are children or young people, but this is our first time at a festival that is specifically for children. We are excited about going to Belfast and especially showing the helmets in the Titanic museum because the whole aesthetic has that kind of steam, shipbuilding aspect to it. Over the four days we’re there, we will be out and about quite a bit – at the University of Ulster, the Ulster Museum and Great Victoria Street Station. There’s a whole team of local volunteers and a van and a driver so we’ll moving around from venue to venue. Part of the reason I’m so excited is because the backdrops are going to be so spectacular in certain places. It should be great fun.'

The five helmets, whose technology replicates the visual perspective of a variety of creatures, real and imagined, represent what the artists describe as '… the ultimate chapter in our exploration of what we call 'observer participation', a notion that the artwork is only brought to life by the act of looking'. Apart from the groundbreaking artistic and physical experiences they provide, the objects themselves are weirdly beautiful. Hand crafted from sheeny, burnished aluminium, sprouting elongated or rotating lenses, they transform the wearer into a character straight out of X-Men.

As a starting point, the project questions why, if human beings have two eyes, their vision is so limited; why do they have so little depth perception; why don’t their two eyes offer two different views of the world; why can’t we look behind and in front at the same time – or sideways in both directions?

The concept and execution of the helmets makes significant reference to a fascinating book called Animal Eyes by academics Michael Land and Dan-Eric Nilsson, which provides a comparative account of all known types of eye in the animal kingdom, outlining their structure and function with an emphasis on the nature of the optical systems and the physical principles involved in image formation. Thus by donning the helmets, art is allowed to imitate nature in allowing us to acquire the hyper-stereo vision of the hammerhead shark, the 350 degrees sight possessed by a horse or the backwards/forwards vision of a chameleon. The work even ventures into the realms of myth and legend through its recreation of the smiling eyes of the Cheshire Cat and the all-seeing single eye of the Cyclops.

'Once a person gets inside a helmet, he or she becomes something of a hybrid creature, part human, part machine, part animal, part work of art,' says Cleary. 'The work challenges new perspectives of the world, from both inside and outside the helmet. When we are showing the helmets, we get a lot of technical questions like how the optics work and how they were made. There’s a whole science thing where you’re dealing with how images are transposed from the outer world into the brain and what happens to the optic nerve. And people ask us how we have managed to do that, by using prisms and mirrors and lenses – and, as artists, how we learned to do it.

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'Then there’s the whole notion of art and performance and sculpture that other people engage with very much. You get dancers, for example, who want to use the helmets to experiment a little bit and see what they can do and musicians who are interested in the acoustics. So there are many, many aspects that different people find interesting.'

The first Irish artists to have had a solo exhibition in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Mayo-born Cleary and Dubliner Connolly trained as architects at the famous Dublin School of Architecture in Bolton Street where they acquired and perfected the fine skills of draughtsmanship clearly evident in the preparatory sketches for the helmets. Their meticulous love of detail finds a perfect match in the exquisite beauty of the helmets themselves, whose sleek, polished surfaces cry out to be touched and smoothed. The story of the man behind their manufacture could have been written specifically for Creativity Month. 

'Yes, people love to touch them; they do have a certain fetish aspect that way,' laughs Cleary. 'We were very fortunate to have met a man who we work with quite regularly now. He’s called Neil McKenzie and his background is in refurbishing vintage cars. He’s a real artist with his hands. He worked in Bushy Park Ironworks in Dublin, where he developed a lot of techniques. Now he’s an independent metal worker. Whenever we work in metal, we get Neil to do it and a lot of the details on the helmets have come from him. We give him the sketches and he imagines how it will come together. He puts an incredible amount of time and love into making these pieces. He’s really an artist in his own right. He has the soul of an artist. We work really well together – it’s a great collaboration.'

Over the years, the pair have been what Cleary describes as ‘polyvalent', putting their philosophy of participation into practice in a thrilling variety of ways, through light projections, installation, costumes, interactive video, full paintings that people step into. Then came the helmets, inspired  by a series of early 20th century experiments by a psychologist called George M. Stratton, which involved him permanently wearing spectacles that swopped his sight from side to side, left to right, and turned the world upside down.

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Soon, these weird perceptions became his norm, as his brain automatically processed new ways of seeing. The brave new world opened up by Stratton’s experiences seems to offer infinite challenges to this duo of restless imaginations. Their next potential project is the gecko helmet, based on the little salamander-like creature which travels on its side. The helmet will attempt to replicate the experience of how one would negotiate the world if everything was turned sideways. Then there are plans for experiments with colour perception, dialling different colours into each eye and observing the effect.

Cleary’s dearest wish for the next stage of the project is to create a little home for their burgeoning collection of helmets.

'I’d like to have a collection of about twelve, to make it a really extraordinary touring exhibition that would treat a whole range of aspects of vision and perception. But we do feel that they need a home. We have a plan, which is to get a space here in Paris. We’re going to call it the Meta-Perception Club and have our own space here in the city where we’ll have the helmets on display when they’re not touring. And also a lot of our other interactive work too. It would be a place where we would have people coming and going – scientists and artists and sound artists and musicians. Like a real living hub that brings together people who are interested in art from that point of view. We’re just in the process of looking and searching for a spot that is affordable. We’ll find somewhere. We’ll get there.'

The Meta-Perceptual Helmets are at the University of Ulster on March 10, Titanic Belfast on March 11, Ulster Museum on March 12 and Great Victoria Street Station on March 13 and 14. For more information go to Catch up on other stories relating to Creativity Month here.