by Mark Cousins

Image Conscious

October 28, 2009 | by Mark Cousins

I STARTED GOING TO THE Cannes film festival in the early Nineties. Since then I have come to hate the expensive fakery of that Le Pennite former fishing village on the Cote d’Azur, but this year I enjoyed it. As well as seeing films – which is always the best bit – I spent time with my friend and film producer Catherine Aitken and our two novelist colleagues Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner. Catherine and I are producing the film version of Warner’s novel The Man Who Walks. Welsh (together with Dean Cavanagh) has adapted it for the screen and will direct it – his feature debut. The four of us did meetings with funders, on sunny terraces, in rooms full of glossy posters for films that might never be made. We pitched. We clicked. We spoke both the funders’ language – creative packages, getting to market, and so on – and our own.

If my hunch is true, so what? Aren’t we lucky to excel at words? And isn’t it daft, in the Scottish Review of Books of all places, to complain that we have this talent? I don’t think so. Consider two very different visual thinkers. When David Lynch was directing The Elephant Man, the mushroom cloud from Mount St Helens, which had recently erupted, reminded him of the cranial growth on John Merrick’s head and encouraged him to photograph that growth as if it was a volcanic cloud; Lynch dissected a cat in order to find textures and tones to inspire Eraserhead; he says that each of his films has an “eye of the duck” scene, corresponding to the position of a duck’s eye “which is always in exactly the right spot”. None of these make verbal or logical sense; Lynch, by his own admission, has real trouble with words. Yet as examples of visual thinking – a phrase we’ll come back to – they are innovative. They are full of pictorial energy.

Is there such a tradition of Lynchean visual thinking in Scotland? Not much of one, and the lack of it has consequences beyond the field of culture. Consider Temple Grandin, the autistic designer-engineer whose work was first brought to my attention by an American filmmaker living in Scotland, Donna Blackney. In ‘Autism and Visual Thought’, the first chapter in her 1996 book Thinking in Pictures, she writes “I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color (sic) movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head… Spatial words such as ‘over’and ‘under’ had no meaning for me until I had a visual image to fix them in my memory. Even now, when I hear the word ‘under’ by itself, I automatically picture myself getting under the cafeteria tables at school during an air-raid drill, a common occurrence on the East Coast during the early fifties.”

That sounds cumbersome, and a handicap, but Grandin points to the advantages: “Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage. Visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination…one third of the cattle and hogs in the United States are handled in equipment I have designed. Every design problem I’ve ever solved started with my ability to visual ize and see the world in pictures…. Today, everyone is excited about the new virtual reality computer systems in which the user wears special goggles and is fully immersed in video game action. To me, these systems are like crude cartoons…. I create new images all the time by taking many little parts of images I have in the video library in my imagination and piecing them together…. The great inventor Nikola Tesla was also a visual thinker. When he designed electric turbines for power generation, he built each turbine in his head. He operated it in his imagination and corrected faults.”

This is a remarkable endorsement of the visual, miles from the thought that imagery is idolatrous, or redolent of surface. Though Grandin’s experience is extreme – as a person with autism, she has unusual brain wiring – to a degree, many engineers, mathematicians and artists ‘see’ as she sees. Form, and how it moves through space and is composed within, comes naturally to their inner eyes, but words confuse them. I remember at school being able to ‘see’ the shape of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and visualise the square root of minus one, but panicked when asked to read aloud a paragraph of Great Expectations.

Such differences are usually explained by brain chemistry. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) studies show activity in the left hemisphere when linguistic reasoning is happening, and the right hemisphere when visuo-spatial thought is happening. So maybe my right is better than my left and, in general, the reverse is true of Scotland as a whole.

Short of mass brain scanning, this cannot be proved but more recent studies show that the situation is not so fixed. Evidence from split-brain patients suggest that both hemispheres can reason non-verbally. A 2003 FMRI study carried out by Amir Amedi and colleagues shows brain activity associated with sight taking place in blind people whilst reading Braille and remembering words. Another, from Cornell University, found that verbal and visual reasoning skills might not be separate, especially when the latter becomes more abstract. They conclude, “Many of the cortical areas operating during verbal reasoning are also active during object reasoning.”

If this is so then we shouldn’t be complacent about our lack of visual achievements. Maybe I posed the wrong question above; instead of asking whether we have a tradition of Lynchean visual thinking, should I have asked if we valorise such thinking? And are we sure as a society that we don’t validate word skills more than image skills? What if we don’t encourage those types of brains that are good at spotting the connection between Mt St Helens and John Merrick? Or that can see inside a turbine as Tesla could? If we make either of those mistakes we consign thousands of dyslexic people, artists, filmmakers, designers, and engineers to a potential life of frustration.

So what to do? Firstly, in schools, have visual logic classes. The Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf took his daughters out of normal school and instead immersed them in classes on composition, film editing, and colour, as well as verbal things like poetry. He gave them, in effect, a pre-art school art school. Each daughter went on to become a filmmaking prodigy and, in their teens, they won awards at festivals around the world.

Secondly, we have centres of excellence in neuroscience in Scotland. They should work with filmmakers and digital image-makers to study the nature of visual, engineering and design creativity.

Thirdly, why don’t our science and film festivals, or art colleges, together invite Temple Grandin, David Lynch and others to a regular multidisciplinary festival on image innovation? House it at the new Sean Connery Centre for the Moving Image mooted for Edinburgh? Such events would show that we are serious about images as well as words; that we understand the crucial role they play in art, ideas and enterprise. They would send out a message to young and not so young Scots that to have a brain full of pictures is something to be proud of, something valuable. Writers like Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner know this. Filmmakers like Lynne Ramsay and David McKenzie do too. Images are deep inside us. The same should be said for Scotland.

From this Issue

Wee Yin and Big Yang

by Hugh MacDonald

Image Conscious

by Mark Cousins

Irish in Denial

by James MacMillan

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