A Look At Looking (Through Not Looking)

A seires of ontological fantasy.

Made in: 2020
Unity, Cinema4D, Vuforia, Oculus Rift

Marina Zurkow, Sarah Rothberg

A Look At Looking (through not looking) is my Master’s thesis project at ITP, NYU. It’s an artistic research project that examines the inter-relation between human’s phenomenal worlding and vision-based perceptual experience that has been modernized through spectacle and media.

It consists of three experiments that defamiliarize users’ predominant way of perceiving familiar contexts with other animals’ perceptual mechanisms.


Episode I. How would a dog understand a map
Episode II. How does digital interface feel to a mole
Episode III. What does ︎ mean to a bat?

Episode I.
How does a dog understand a map?

“The map is not territory” --- Alfred Korzybski

It is a physical map made from smell.

Most of us read a map using eyes, the action of which shapes our understanding about spaces and places. What if we can smell a map, like what a dog normally use to navigate the world?

Different smelly materials were paced on a black cardboard mapping with the signature smell of according physical spaces. Users will sniff around to feel the spatial relations.

As scent flows, it is a transient map in which places have no clear boundaries.

Episode II. How does a digital interface feel to a mole?

“Perceptions are a user interface, but not necessarily reality.” --- Donald Hoffman

It is an augmented reality application that invites users to feel the tactile texture of a blanket from my childhood.

Mole can hardly see. Especially star-nosed mole, it uses a sense of touch to construct its world. Like moles, today we navigate our world through touching. Unlike moles, we experience the world by looking through the tiny screen we touch. The development of haptic technology has made our looking experience more immersive.

To what extent can we feel a sense of touch through the digital interface? How does that touch experience different from what a mole can touch?

Episode III. What does ︎ mean to a bat?

“The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” --- Guy Debord

It is a VR experience which embodies user to be a bat, wondering around Time Square and Apple store.

Learn more about this experiment ︎︎︎


As a being mainly relying on vision to perceive the world, human vision experience and perceived reality has undergone the process of modernization along with the flourish of automation, consumerism and the development of mass media technologies.

It seems even more relevant in the current century, when the technologies of imagery making, editing and circulating have been advanced, mobilized and democratized. The image-driven social media, synthetic media tools, hypermedia spaces, along with the ubiquitous data collection and micro-targeting algorithms work together as a system to further trap human’s attention and energy into the loop of seeing, having, appearing, sharing, seeing…… Media has become a new sensory organ for humans today, but it is an organ that is not controlled by humans themselves. When an individual re-lives the imagery carefully curated and presented through media, and compresses such experience into new imagery to be shared, the boundary of human experience is confined and its authenticity is questionable.

Coming from a background in marketing and advertising, I understand marketing as the process of myth making through perceptual persuasion --- a process to mass persuade consumers to believe in illusory desire and promise. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. (...) Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” These words from Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers, illustrates the very core purpose of marketing --- to train people to desire. Among all, visual representations are the most effective training tools.

I wonder: how, and to what extent, visual representations, as the carrier of commoditized desires and myths, reconfigures human’s phenomenal world? How media and technologies have pushed the visual resolutions and boundaries of the circulation?  And how could an individual be aware of such reconfiguration as the first step to regain authentic experience?

In response to these questions, I started my thesis project to research and examine the inter-relation of the phenomenal world, perceptual functions, spectacle and digital media.

The research was divided into four major parts: conceptual, methodological, formal and technological. I started by reading about previous discussions on spectacles, representation and history of human vision modernization. Then I moved on to methodological research on human and other animals sensing, perception and cognition in order to create the experiment mechanism. Finally, I researched the possible forms for expression and its technological feasibilities.


The methodology of the experiment was inspired by Jakob von Uexkull’s umwelt theory. Umwelt (from German) is the world as it is experienced by a particular organism. Uexkull described that organisms have different umwelt, even though they might share the same environment. Each organism is complete in its own sense. In order to feel what it is like to be in a different umwelt, Charles Foster, the writer of Being A Beast, spent six weeks living with badgers, sleeping in a dirt hole and eating worms. His writing about this experience was eye-opening to me. It provides a gate for me to feel the world from a non-human perspective (though may not be completely true). It makes me think of many things that we have taken for granted.

After experiencing how the umwelt embodiment works on me to shift my thinking paradigm, I decided to use this methodology for my experiments. I was then inspired by Stefano Gualeni’s essay, Augmented Ontologies, which theorized the potential of using interactive digital media as a heuristic instrument to “do” philosophical experiments through establishing stable cognitive and interactive relationships.

Hence in my thesis project, I created three experiments that defamiliarizes users’ predominant way of perceiving familiar contexts with other animals’ perceptual mechanisms, in order to examine how modernized vision experience has shaped humans’ umwelt.

Each experiment is a combination of research and art practice. I would start with an observed context of visual representations’ influence on human perceived realities. Then I would do research on the context and how other animals would perceive this differently. Finally, I would create an experience for users to revisit this context with other animals’ perceptual mechanisms.

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