Experiencing the camera obscura and hundreds of illusionistic fantasies in Edinburgh
n illusion occurs when our preconceived notion of reality does not match what we see. Noam Chomsky once said, “If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusions.” I can’t agree with him more; yes, most people encounter multiple illusions; maybe a short-term self-imposed lens to discover, explore and understand the meaning of an incident or perhaps to make sense of being eternal. An organic cognitive illusion spectacle, the world or one’s perception of it, appears spontaneously on familiarity or newness.
These illusions can be ambiguity driven, distorting the axis orientations, paradoxical in nature or based on fictional narratives practised in art/ design/ science - more often trans-disciplinary in the plausible paradigms. Recent advances have been achieved through generative design and artificially intelligent special effects used in films/ animations, where an army of oodles and heaps can be seen in an establishing shot with the help of a drone camera. An optical illusion – can multiplying an image by a few hundred or several thousand.
Being in Edinburgh, Scotland, particularly visiting the old town, Edinburgh Castle on the hilltop quickly catches one’s attention. Once, we started walking up Victoria Street from the Grass Market to see the evening performance and music festival known as The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. It took us longer than expected to reach the castle, as one quickly gets overwhelmed walking on medieval streets and experiencing the 16th/17th-Century architecture around one. Most of the signage was unique, customised and hand-lettered. It reminded us of vintage antiquity we only see in museums nowadays and included road and street signs, shops and stores signage as well as historic insignias and emblems. There are several trails and historically significant places to explore on the Royal Mile, from the ancient 11th Century castle to Holyrood Palace and the ruined Holyrood Abbey. Narrow alleyways, often no more than a few feet wide, lead steeply downhill to both north and south of the central spine, which runs west to east. Significant buildings in the Old Town include St Giles Cathedral, the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, the National Museum of Scotland, the Old College of the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Parliament Building, full of underground vaults and hidden passages – relics of the past.
I take particular interest in museums and exhibitions of all sorts. My eyes therefore couldn’t miss two great points of interest, Tartan Weaving Mill & Exhibition and Camera Obscura & World of Illusions just next to the castle’s ginormous entrance gates. I couldn’t visit the Tartan Mill this time because the time was short. However, I decided not to leave Edinburgh without visiting the later mentioned museum, as I had read a lot about illusions, and my curiosity about Camera Obscura was heightened. The following day, I was inside the building to experience hundreds of illusionistic fantasies under one roof, though stacked over five floors. After the basic check at the ticket counter, a very informative young person guided me in his Scottish accent (I loved it) on how to access the various tiers of this old and mysterious building. The grand anamorphic moving illusions using the mirrors and the projectors amazed me; this was a wonderfully immersive experience in its class. The Irvine peacock’s painting What’s Up awaits you next before Drawing Hands of MC Esher. The first fun activity starts with funhouse mirrors – that alter the way you look.
You might sometimes appear tall and skinny; you simultaneously seem fat and short to others. Many other forms follow further interaction. Next is an interactive stereoscopic viewing of the city. It also amuses you. There was a very sensitive-looking mechanical piece with the precision and craft of a Swiss watch, Singing Cat by Rossini and then a few other critical works by MC Esher and René Magritte, before I arrived in the mind-boggling world of charming Wentzscopes, Anamorphs, Telescopic Peepshows and Lenticular Prints. Infinity corridor offers you another level of illusion with great selfie opportunities. Technology often provides wonders and comparisons, but simple rotational ambigrams by Scott Kim, a manifestation of a painting Before & After Marriage (1884) by Richard L Gregory, has been the favourite interaction for all married couples.
A few more lenticulars and three-dimensional mirrors caught my attention for some time, as I started to reckon the famous personalities layered on top of each other, Muhammad Ali, Mozart, Beethoven, Jimmy Hendrix and Audrey Hepburn, to name a very few. There were Japanese illusionist works, the Moiré patterns, and much more to test one’s brain cells before I entered a dark room with a large screen mounted on a wall, televising thermal images of one based on the body heat; through a thermal camera; fantastic.
There was plenty of impressive op-art, including John Langdon, famous moving cubes by Patrick Hughes and Rob Gonsalves. Next, I entered an electric compound. Lots of colourful Mesmer domes, twin plasmas, lightning tubes, Jacob’s Ladder and crackle balls allow one to conduct electricity, over one’s skin, not through one’s body. I thoroughly experienced a few tremendous works by a German artist, Ludwig Wilding. I approached more fun-filled interactions, including zoetrope and praxinoscope (an animation device invented in France in 1877 by Charles-Émile Reynaud) and Shepard tables – an optical illusion first published in 1990 by Stanford psychologist Roger N Shepard in his book Mind Sights.
A shadowbox and swap heads opened up another fantastic chapter; you take a picture against a chromatic green screen, and it saves your entire silhouette for a few seconds after you move away. Swap Heads allows you and your partner/ friend across each other with a thin transparent mirror wall in the middle; once both manoeuvre the dials on a little counter in front, face features start swapping, fusing and becoming one. It reminded me of an American science fiction/ action film from 1997; Face Off directed by John Woo, and starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. I was recently looking into a few artificial intelligence software/ apps and found an interesting one that allows you to create multiple faces, with features to change, download and use in your projects. The faces do not exist; they are all AI-generated.
Finally, it was time to approach the Camera Obscura placed in the old Tudor like chamber, that has exciting stories attached to it. The Camera Obscura, a part pinhole camera, part periscope, is powered by nothing but daylight. There are multiple accounts about who worked first on this phenomenal technology; the most believed trial starts with a Chinese philosopher called Mozi in 400BC, then Ibn al-Haytham in 1003, who significantly contributed to the solution to the billiard-ball problem to do with finding the point of reflection. He described the pinhole camera and camera obscura in his Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics). This book was translated into Latin later and enjoyed an excellent reputation during the Middle Ages. It is believed that the invention of the Italian vernacular was primarily based on this knowledge. In 2001, famous British artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters was met with controversy. His argument, known as the Hockney-Falco thesis, is that the notable transition in style for greater precision and visual realism that occurred around the 1420s is attributable to the discovery of the capability of optical projection devices – precisely, a camera obscura to project authentic images. The evidence is based mainly on the characteristics of the paintings by great artists of later centuries, such as Ingres, Van Eyck, and Caravaggio.
Now, who brought all of this to Edinburgh? Maria Short arrived in Edinburgh from the West Indies in 1827, claiming to be the daughter of Thomas Short — inventor of a masterpiece: The Great Telescope. As a way of sharing her most recent gift with the public, she established a Popular Observatory in 1835. It wasn’t long before she opened Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura, an attraction that enthralled visitors for years. Cinema was not invented for another fifty years. However, Maria Short had already captured people’sattenion with her live, moving images of the city. She must have been considered a witch with some supernatural abilities. After Maria’s death, a famous polymath named Patrick Geddes bought the building including the Camera Obscura. He renamed the observatory ‘The Outlook Tower and transformed it into a learning centre designed to expand the worldview of residents and tourists alike.
I eventually experienced this simple yet magical technology for the first time – a dark room with an oversized concave table in the middle. There is a beam of light and a moving image of Edinburgh appears on the table with a fantastic performance lecture by Berlinda. One must experience this physically, as it can’t be explained in words. Multiple Cameras Obscuras are installed at various points across the globe, mainly in the UK.
On the way back, there were a few other amusements. A bewildered fun illusion at the spinning multi-coloured vortex tunnel, where you stay static, but your sensorial capacity spins you. Losing myself in the magical mirror maze wasn’t fun. I felt contrived and constrained in the bamboozled jumble of hallways that seemingly stretch for miles, before finding the exit.
Woody Allen says, “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists?” In that case, I overpaid for my carpet.
The writer is an art/ design critic. He heads the Department of Visual Communication Design at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts & Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore