ILLUSION: Nothing Is As It Seems

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, June 9th, 2014

ILLUSIONS: Nothing Is As It Seems

We recently explored the Center for the Future of Museum’s top trends in museum design, and one of the major themes was multisensory experiences. ILLUSION: Nothing Is As It Seems is an exciting new exhibit that just made its American debut at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego and is taking sensory explorations to a whole new level. As a guest you can experience the feeling of digital bugs crawling off the screen and onto your body, morph into your spirit animal while looking in the mirror, or see the laws of gravity disappear as oil drips from the floor back into an oil can.

The exhibition blends art, science, and psychology into 21 unique installations that will challenge the way you think through optical, perceptual and audio illusions. As the team behind the exhibition says, it “shows that what we perceive is often radically different from the reality of what we observe by playfully allowing visitors to experience concepts used by magicians and explored by neuroscientists.” The exhibit invites you to not only determine what’s truly happening (e.g. decode the illusion), but press on and uncover what science and psychology is at work behind each experience.

Columba Illusion

“ILLUSION will immerse our visitors in a world that will make them question their senses while exploring the workings of the human mind,” said Dr. Steven Snyder, executive director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

The exhibit debuted at Trinity College’s Science Gallery in Ireland. It was created and curated by psychologist, author and magician Richard Wiseman, and researched by deception artist Paul Gleeson. We had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Gleeson to learn more about the ideas at work behind this exciting exhibit.


What inspired the creation of ILLUSION?

Magic and illusions themselves have been around since the early 1800’s and have left an indelible mark on history. They’ve also been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century by the likes of David Copperfield and David Blaine. Magic has always generated an insatiable fascination from the general public, and is more relevant now than ever before.

From a neuro-scientific point of view, illusions have become a well-studied and researched area, particularly in the field of optic studies. We might see faces in the clouds, or convince ourselves that we’ve seen a ghost. But it’s all an illusion. With this in mind, we wanted to strike an interesting balance between illusion, science and art that would engage and excite people from all walks of life.

Boundaries Illusion

How do illusion, science and psychology each play a role in this exhibit?

Each of the three topics have been showcased either individually, or as a combination through various pieces in the exhibit. ‘Columba’ for example, represents a psychological illusion which neuroscientists have become fascinated with in recent years called Pareidolia. Pareidolia is when our mind tricks us into seeing significant patterns, when in actual fact, there are no significant patterns to be found. This is the reason we see faces in the clouds or in inanimate objects like slices of toast.

Columba, in its simplest form, is nothing more than a series of beautiful and delicate edged optic fibers hanging from the ceiling. But somehow, as we look at it, we see the shape of a young girl sitting still. Our minds cannot un-see her, because of psychological phenomenon such as Pareidolia, and something called ‘persistence of vision’.

One of the simpler pieces is the ‘Motion After Effect’ illusion, which can be traced back to 4,000 years ago in the writings of Aristotle. This seemingly innocent and simple swirling mechanism has the power to momentarily alter your entire field of vision. It does this in the most stunning way imaginable – an illusory technique which you won’t be able to explain, but that can be explained through science.

Guests at ILLUSION

How is technology used to enhance the illusions and sensory experience?

Technology is used quite a bit in this exhibition, particularly in one of the most popular pieces called ‘Delicate Boundaries,’ which uses infrared sensors and touch sensitive plasma screens. The idea is that on the screen, we see lots of bugs made out of light projections crawling around the screen. When the viewer engages with the piece and touches the screen, the bugs actually leave the screen and start moving along their palms and up their arms.

This is nothing more than a light projection that’s initiated by the infrared sensors, and cannot be physically felt. Yet the viewers can’t help but convince themselves that they can feel the bugs moving along their skin, and get very creeped out, for want of a better word! This combination of light, sight and technology create an incredible sensory illusion unlike anything you’ve felt before. If you’re an Arachnophobe, it might be wise to avoid this one!

Two of our other pieces ‘Titre Variable No. 9’, and ‘Typographic Organism’ explore a really old principle used by stage magicians during the Golden Age of Magic called the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’. This technique was used to create the illusion that ghosts and apparitions were appearing on stage. It represented the first steps into the discovery of Holographic science. These two pieces in the exhibition take a more modern and interactive approach to this technique, and show how the technology has evolved.

The exhibit was described as being “curated.”  Can you share a bit about what criteria you used to select or commission the individual pieces?

Professor Richard Wiseman was the curator of ILLUSION, and willingly brought his mass knowledge of all things psychology (or ‘Quirkology’ as he likes to call it), magic and illusion to the table. It was in the hopes of discovering the most interesting pieces possible, that explored the subjects in a way that hadn’t been seen before.

I was the Researcher on ILLUSION. I work as an illusionist myself, so I was the perfect person to act as a communicative aide to Professor Wiseman throughout the entire process. This involved carefully examining more than 200 submissions that Science Gallery received from around the world. I then presented the cream of the crop to a small board of judges consisting of Prof. Richard Wiseman, Michael John Gorman, and Prof. Fiona Newell. The remaining pieces were then adjudicated and debated over, leaving us with an exhibition which we are beyond proud of.

Aristotle Illusion

The team behind ILLUSION has created something truly unique. By using technology and traditional illusion techniques that reach back to the ancient Greeks, this blended experience is both intellectually intriguing and engages a sense of play. We’re excited to see how this multisensory experience is received by audiences on this side of the Atlantic!

Images courtesy of ILLUSION


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