What Escapes from Our Perception, the World which “Could Have Been” 

Shin Hyunjin 

Independent Researcher 

How correct is my eyesight? Have I seen the entire thing? In other words, do things that I perceive as real actually real? Can I overcome the physical reality to see the entire existential truth of the entire world that considers the unconscious and symbolism? These questions are closely related to the world of the work of Song. He focuses on the fact that the human cognitive mechanism cannot help but lose some of the perceived data. This is also the foundation of the social function of art. 

The artist points at the perception of exhibitions. He creates a question to ask the possibility of something that may be different, beyond the limitations of our perceptions. First, when we enter the exhibition hall, the first thing we see is a white line of paint approximately 30 centimeters above the ground along the walls. It may seem like an ordinary washboard that we can see in a house, but it is actually the basic foundation of the exhibit. When asked what the white line represents, the artist answered it has the same volume with the biggest sphere that can be in the exhibition hall. That is, if a balloon in the exhibition hall is filled with water, and it ends up bursting, the water from the balloon will reach up to 30 centimeters in height. The white line divides the exhibition hall to the area that can be used and the area that cannot be used. The 30 centimeter area from the ground represents the space that we “perceived as real” among the physical, 3-dimensional, experiential location of the entire exhibition hall. Therefore, the volume of the area that can be used is the size of what we perceive. That is only 30 centimeters high, and it is unfortunate that there is much more to the area than we perceive. However, at the same time, what is more important is that the volume of the rest of the exhibition hall slips through our perception. 

“Target” which stands in the middle of the exhibition hall also asks a question of whether it is possible for us to perceive the entire thing. “Target” looks exactly like any other target, and there is a smaller circle as we go closer to the middle. Normally, five cardinal colors are used for a target. These colors represent each direction - blue for east, red for south, yellow for the middle, white for west, and black for north. On top of that, the artist implements the five melodic notes to each of the five directions, and creates sound. Do you know the color at the middle of the target? When we stand in front of the work, we realize that the colors of the target continue to change. Although the area of the circle does not change, there is a possible 5×4×3×2×1=120 combinations of color. We may see targets from archery games or other parts of our lives, but do we remember the color of the middle part? Is it possible for our brain to think that the color at the middle is red or black? As I have no knowledge of sports, I personally thought that it was red. Let us think of the target as a metaphor of perception. We may have set a particular design of a target as our own perception. Some may think that the middle of the target is red, just like how they remember it. However, the target in my head, the designs that I have thought of, is one of the 120 possibilities. The other 119 possibilities move away from our cognitive areas. If we think about this, perhaps Square Moon is an attempt to show the absence of the moon, eliminating the sphere from a square. 

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari mentions that Sapiens are the only beings that can talk about what they have not seen, touched, or smelled. Even right now, without a target in front of us, we (despite the fact that we may not know each other and never come across one another) are talking about the target, overcoming the restrictions of time and space. Harari mentions that the Sapiens can not only talk about simple concepts like a target, but also talk about more complex concepts like God or democracy. I think Harari and Song has a point in common, a cognitive mechanism that allows people to talk about what is not visible. 

Thanks to the cognitive mechanism that allows humans to talk what is not visible, humans have created such complex culture that we see today. Otherwise, we will not be much different from dogs or cats. This is why the theory of evolution mentions that the start of man with cognitive skills, is a revolution. The cognitive mechanism includes abstractness. Abstractness is like the set that we learn in mathematics. For example, we may categorize characteristics A, B, C, in a single set where A is 5 circles, B is 5 colors, and C is the algorithm in which these factors are place in. We call the set “target.” However, in order to talk about something that is more complex than a target, such as the Olympics, we have to go through some more abstractness. To talk about the complex concept of the Olympics, we have to take into account relatively simpler sets, such as the Olympics, games, countries, archery, bow, and target, and go through cognitive activities. It is interesting that the transformation into such sets do not happen at the level of a concept, but actually happen physically in the neurons of our brains. There are over 80 billion neurons in our brains, and they transform a certain electric stimulus to a function. Then the neurons use this to communicate. Foester calls this the reflexivity of communication, He says that there are some parts that we do not even perceive because it is so clear, but this can only be because we communicate by using the same words for a single set that we have created in the past, such as “target.” That is, the set of certain group of information that we come across so frequently, such as “Target,” does not even come into account in cognitive activities. We only repeatedly think of “target” as a function at the primary cognitive level, and completely disregard the characteristics that it has. When we have to think of something complex, we only call out the sets of different information that we store in our long-term memory if the given perceived data is unexpected. That is the cognitive mechanism of human beings. If you want to communicate fully, it is possible for us to understand the whole concept of “target” as there are only approximately 120 designs of a target. But for most part, if the 80 billion neurons are to go through everything that we store in our memories to “communicate correctly,” we may need more wards at the psychiatric clinic than we think. 

Normally, when we talk about archery, we do not think about the details of a target whenever the word “target” comes out. We do not feel the need to talk about the other 119 possibilities. That is, our cognition makes the characteristics of “target” escape from our cognition. That is how we think about more complicated things. If a group of a certain concept becomes a complicated function, we may call that an axiom, or idea.* 

What I am trying to say is first, we can talk about the target all we want with anyone, but the other 119 variations may slip by us whenever. In the history of evolution, where we do not simply just talk about the target, but about archery, the Olympics, philosophy and ideology, there was always the cognitive mechanism where we forget the world “which could have been.” Second, if we communicate with someone who thinks that the middle of the target is black in color, we may have awkward feelings about the person. Philosophers discuss areas where the philosophy in the past has missed due to these blind spots, and also report the differences between theory and practice. However, philosophy does not go beyond expression with reason and words. On the other hand, our intuition explores in between the lines to find out what words have forgotten to say, and as we can see from Song, we perceive what is outside the norm created by cognition and seek emotion. The complementariness that Song suggests may be one of the world “which could have been” that has escaped our sense of reality. Song’s work express the world of which may have been, that escapes while we are trying to transform what we have perceive to reality. He uses not the words of philosophers, but as something that we perceive. He is not saying that the world that may have been is this, but he seems to send a message. He is trying to suggest something that cannot be understood by our consciousness. If someone tries to perceive and sympathize with his work, it may be expressed as a feeling of awe. Badiou mentioned that this is how truth becomes reality. This shows not the rational words of science and philosophy, but the world “which could have been,” and art serves as the starting point where we can start to talk about the complementariness that comes from this. 

What is art? At least for the audience, who are not artists, art is useless unless it is possible to talk about it with others. If art cannot bring a sense of awe, it is impossible to talk about in the fist place. It will be difficult to realize how useful art is from a social perspective. Luhmann defines art as something that we cannot communicate, but integrate into the communication network of the society.** 

* Heinz von Foester who presented the Second-order Cybernetics mentioned so on one of his papers. Heinz von Foerster, “For Niklas Luhmann: ‘How Recursive is Communication?’,” in Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, trans. Diane Slaviero and Louis Kauffman (New York: Springer, 2003), pp. 305-306. 

** Badiou, Petit Manuel d’Inesthetique, pp. 9-35 / Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System, pp. 139-141.