The Science of Vision, and Odette England's Attentional Landscapes

The scientific idea of "attentional landscapes" was proposed in 1996 to visualize the allocation of visual attention [1]. In experiments, the eye movements of participants were recorded while the participants looked at copies of ambiguous paintings by Archimboldo, Dürer and Escher.

This method of study is based on the way we perceive our visual environment. Three to four times per second we make very fast eye movements, and during these ‘saccades’ we are nearly blind. Visual perception only takes place when our eyes are stable, fixating objects of interest.

Additionally, due to the different density of receptors in the retina of the eye, each of these fixations resolve only a narrow area of the visual scene that can be approximated by a Gaussian distribution with the standard deviation of one degree. In fact, Rembrandt used a similar highlighting of semantically important foci long ago.

Thus, by tracking "attentional landscapes", spatial limits of visual consciousness are shown in order to explicate a person’s idiosyncratic interpretation of complex pictures. During the last decade, this basic approach became a standard in the work on visual perception. The method has also become of importance for applied areas such as market research and medical imaging. Overall, this is a striving field of scientific efforts in the European Union and elsewhere [2].

The work by Odette England brings the concept of "attentional landscapes" back to the source – the understanding of visual art. Using photographic material, she also explores the limits of perception, but in a novel way that enriches the original approach with another set of ideas. Those are related to the Ishihara plates developed for testing deficiencies of color vision. Artistic forerunners here are authors of antique mosaics and French pointillists of the late 19th Century. Therefore, England simultaneously plays with two different traditions in the history of art and science, mirroring the limits of perception.

This integrative approach nicely agrees with the capacities of the human visual system. In order to understand England’s work, an active process is necessary: We need to scan the images, fixate the areas of interest and integrate these pieces of perception with the previously acquired knowledge.

As with the work of Mark Rothko, in particular his Black-Form paintings, viewers must comb and scrutinize the work to begin to understand it. This introduces an element of duration and awareness into the process of perception. In this way, images become more than patterns on a surface, but, rather, abstractions of childhood events transformed into a perceptual theory. The benefits of understanding and enjoying her work are thus only possible with the investment of quite a lot of activity, and this is also – although in a relatively unconscious fashion – the only way we are able to perceive our environment.

— Professor Boris M. Velichkovsky, Dresden University of Technology


[1] Velichkovsky B.M., Pomplun M., & Rieser H. (1996). Attention and communication: Eye-movement-based research paradigms. In W.H. Zangemeister, H.S. Stiel & C. Freksa (Eds.), Attention and Cognition (pp. 125-154). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

[2] Velichkovsky B.M., Baccino T., Cornelissen F.W., Geusebroek J.-M., Hansen L.K., Hari R., Lorincz A., Pannasch S., & Walter H. (2007-2009). EU NEST-Pathfinder Project PERCEPT: Perceptual Consciousness – Explication and Testing (