The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | Spectral Tuning

Several years ago, following the death of British psychologist Richard Gregory, The School of Looking worked with Dr Patrick Cavanagh (Harvard University) on writing a programme to recreate some of Gregory’s experiments with the colour channels of a television set.

Richard Gregory (1923-2010), author of Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, thought that a television’s red, green and blue channels were comparable to the L, M, and S cones that capture colour in the eye. But he observed that the signal passing through the optic nerve appeared to be more complex, working with oppositions of blue/yellow, red/green and black/white.

© The School of Looking, The Animal Colour Debate (Dichromatic vision).

Spectral Tuning rewires the red, green and blue channels of a camera to explore this sort of oppositional colour matrix.

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | Radio Hat Workshop

People have been building crystal radio receivers since the early days of radio. These devices need no external power and there is an enormous sculptural freedom in the way the coil, the capacitor and the antenna can be elaborated to tune into AM radio signals that can be listened to using earphones.

© The School of Looking, Radio Hat Workshop (detail), 2020.

Radio Hat Workshop is the result of a joyful experiment in marrying this technology with the art of millinery!

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | Sacred Relic


The Cosmic Microwave Background is the oldest light in the universe. Once impossibly bright and hot, it has cooled to less than three degrees above absolute zero and faded to invisible microwaves. But it is still there –  a true relic of the beginning of the universe, perceptible to radio telescopes as a background to everything else we can see in the observable universe, the surface of a sphere that we observe from its very centre – a horizon that is the beginning of time and the end of space.

© The School of Looking, Sacred Relic (detail), 2020.

On 20 May 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson – working with the newly contructed Holmdel horn antenna at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, USA – recorded measurement of an excess 4.2K antenna temperature which they could not account for.

At first, Penzias and Wilson thought this might be an error, due perhaps to bird droppings on the surface of the dish. They went to Princeton University (less than 10 miles away) to consult with Robert Dicke, a leading cosmologist who was in the process of building a radio telescope to measure the Cosmic Microwave Background. Dicke immediately recognised the temperature they had measured as very close to what he had calculated he would find for the background temperature of the universe. Penzias and Wilson later received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery.

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | Made to Fade


In 1801, after hearing about William Herschel's discovery of "heat rays" (infrared radiation), physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) looked for an opposite (cooling) radiation at the other end of the visible spectrum.

Ritter did not find exactly what he expected to find, but after a series of attempts he noticed that silver chloride was transformed faster from white to black when it was placed at the dark region of the sun's spectrum, close to its violet end.

The "chemical rays" found by him were afterwards called ultraviolet radiation.

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | The Sense of Heat


Things get hot when their molecules vibrate, and when they do, they give off electromagnetic radiation. The faster the molecules vibrate, the higher the frequency (and the shorter the wavelength) of that radiation.

The sun is very hot and emits high frequency radiation in the part of the spectrum that we can see. The molecules in our own bodies are lower in temperature and vibrate more slowly, giving off electromagnetic radiation mainly in the infrared region.

Infrared torso. © The School of Looking

When astronomer and composer William Herschel (1738-1822) discovered invisible light beyond the red end of the visible spectrum in 1800, he referred to it as “heat rays” because the instrument that detected it was a thermometer.

A thermal handprint. © The School of Looking.

We now have Infrared cameras that capture this invisible light and translate it into visible light. The resulting image may resemble what our eyes see in unfamiliar colours, but in fact it offers us sensory information unlike any that we have: a true sixth sense – heat vision!

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | The Animal Colour Debate


Most mammals are dichromats, seeing two colours – blue and yellow – a simpler colour space than our own trichromatic vision, with its rich landscape of primary and secondary hues. But exactly what colours any animal can see will always be unknown unless we can find some way to ask them directly…

The School of Looking was introduced to a rich body of scientific research into animal vision by Dr Christoph Witzel (University of Southampton), who suggested some simple ways of interacting with animals through colour. The result was a series of simple, light-hearted experiments with many different animals involving illusions, coloured objects and coloured lights.

The famous ‘snake illusion’ was designed by Akiyoshi Kitaoka, a professor at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. Created with his kind permission, the floor of The Animal Colour Debate is a variation of Kitaoka’s illusion. Recently several researchers have observed – with surprise! – that cats respond strongly to the illusion, which prompted the artists to present it to some other animals and to capture their reactions on video.

© The School of Looking, The Animal Colour Debate (Snake Illusion Lino), 2020.
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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | UV tipi

UV TIPI: a contemplative environment of flourescent minerals, pigments and fabrics

Ultraviolet (UV) light is visible to some animals, in particular to foraging insects and birds. Should we then consider this light as colour? And is it possible for us to represent or even imagine colour that our own eyes have never seen?

Many freckles are only visible in UV. © The School of Looking.

There are cameras that can capture invisible colours and display them to us as visible colours, but a more natural form of translation is the fluorescence of materials that absorb UV and emit visible light.

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | X Renaissance


Considered by artist and historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) as one of the greatest Italian masters, Ercole de’ Roberti (c.1451-1486) is now almost forgotten as few of his works have survived.

Ercole de' Roberti, The Garden of Gethsemane, panel 35cm x 117cm. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen / Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Restoration: Getty Conservation Institute.
XRF map of three elements in Ercole de' Roberti, The Garden of Gethsemane: Red pixels/Mercury (Hg)/Vermilion; Green pixels/copper (Cu)/copper-based pigment/s; Blue pixels/tin (Sn)/Lead-tin yellow.

The restoration of two of Ercole de' Roberti's panel paintings (pictured) – which are now preserved in Dresden and depict The Garden of Gethsemane and The Ascent to Calvary – reveals the magnificence of his art in all its vivid colour.

In 2019, Veronica Biolcati of Tyndall National Institute (Cork) worked at the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles) on the technical examination of the two panels. The study was done in view of their exhibition at the Getty to inform conservators, curators, art historians, and scientists themselves.

Both works were examined to address two main questions: what do the varnishes present on each panel tell us about the conservation history, and what does the palette of pigments tell us of the artist’s technique?

Ercole de' Roberti, The Ascent to Calvary, panel 35cm x 117cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen / Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Restoration: Getty Conservation Institute.
XRF map of three elements in Ercole de' Roberti, The Ascent to Calvary: Red pixels/Mercury (Hg)/Vermilion; Green pixels/copper (Cu)/copper-based pigment/s; Blue pixels/tin (Sn)/Lead-tin yellow.

A series of non-invasive and micro-invasive analytical techniques were used, before and after the varnish removal. The conservation scientists used X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning, a non-invasive technique, to identify the rich array of materials that were on the artist’s palette in the late fifteenth century – pigments based on lead, copper, mercury, iron, gold, and many other elements.

The images also revealed pentimenti (underpaintings) and many other ‘lost’ details in the paintings. Another discovery, made by analysing a cross-section of a small painting sample, was a greyish toning layer covering much of the painting – with the notable exception of the figure of Christ – possibly applied during an early restoration. The natural ageing/yellowing of the varnish is one of the reasons the painting has become so dark. 

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | See Through Me

SEE THROUGH ME: X rays collected to collage the human body from head to toe in transparency 

A conventional X-ray image is a black-and-white photographic film, which has been exposed to invisible light from a cathode tube emitting high energy, high frequency light that penetrates matter. Although these are negative images, they appear natural to us: white bone, dark tissue.

The School of Looking, I Can See Right Through You (detail), 2020, mixed media. © The School of Looking_
© The School of Looking, I Can See Right Through You (detail), 2020, mixed media.

See Through Me is the result of a collaborative project begun during lockdown in March 2020. Departing from the monochrome X-ray tradition, they are printed as duotones, using contrasting, complementary colours to create highly coloured prints that are neither negative nor positive.

With X rays kindly donated by of Aikaterini Christidou, Carmela Uranga, Erik Rehl, Ginette Moutounet, Hedi Sassi, Heidi Ellison, Helen Stokes, Inka Ernst, J. Kevin O’Regan, June McGrane, Kailani Dema, Lotti Connolly, Lucy Dixon, Marie Pierre Carnoy, Philippe Fernandez, Reine Melvin, Salammbo Connolly, Sebastien Gastine, Sophie Gorman Sassi, Susan Dunne, Thea McMillan.

A VISION REVOLUTION 2. Gamma & X rays (27’44”)

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | Banana Music

“I wouldn’t know a gamma ray if I saw it”

Stan Lee (1922-2018)

BANANA MUSIC: radiation from a banana creates music

It's easy to forget that Gamma rays are a form of light. If we think of these rays at all, we think of them as nuclear radiation (which is correct) that has little impact on our everyday world. A banana is a rare source of this invisible light which is emitted in tiny – and therefore safe – quantities by the potassium in the fruit. This artwork is about making this most subtle light source perceptible.

© The School of Looking, Banana Music (detail), 2020.

Gamma rays are photons emitted by the nuclear decay of radioactive isotopes such as Potassium 40. Like X rays, they can pass through matter, but they are higher in energy and shorter in wavelength and, therefore, more penetrating and dangerous.

Gamma ray imagery, confined until relatively recently to physics labs, is now used in medicine (PET scans) and in astronomy (Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope studies the elusive but spectacular Gamma-ray bursts associated with the birth of black holes).

Like other forms of ionizing radiation, Gamma rays can be detected by a Geiger-Muller Counter.

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School of Looking INVISIBLE LIGHT | Artworks

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | Ray Days

Each week, the artists will lead Workshops, Talks and Guided Visits (virtual or onsite) accompanied by scientific collaborators from Tyndall National Institute and IPIC (Irish Photonic Integration Centre).

Each of these RAY DAYS focuses on a different form of invisible light, from the mysterious gamma ray to the familiar radio wave.

Free but pre-booking is essential.

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The School of Looking: INVISIBLE LIGHT | Seven Talks

7 October–29 November 2020

1: Particles or Waves?

2. Gamma & X rays

3. Ultraviolet

4: Visible Light (Different ways of seeing it)

5: Infrared

6: Microwaves

7: Radio Waves

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KEVIN GAFFNEY: Expulsion | In Conversation with Kevin Gaffney & Kathleen Soriano

In conversation with Kathleen Soriano (curator and broadcaster), Kevin Gaffney talks about the making of the work in Expulsion.

Exhibiting in Cork for the first time, artist-filmmaker Kevin Gaffney premiers Expulsion, which was shot in part at Crawford Art Gallery. Expulsion imagines a Queer State, an anti-capitalist society whose citizens strive to live in harmony with the environment.

Listen back to this In Conversation here:

Crawford Art Gallery · Kathleen Soriano in conversation with Kevin Gaffney
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Summoning a Queer State

By Karl Schoonover (August 2020)

At the moment of writing this, I am asking myself, what has happened to the state? Has the state abandoned us? There have been moments this year when it has felt that we are governed by institutions that seem unconcerned with the inevitability of our premature death. In fact, during the current crisis’s early peak, some government officials of the world’s most prominent democracies appeared surprisingly public in their resignation to losing segments of the population. This period of history feels like an unsettling flashback, especially for queer and trans people who survived one of the last great pandemics, HIV-AIDS. Once again, we face gaslighting public discourses that obfuscate facts while allowing people to die. Being vulnerable and being a citizen seem increasingly incommensurate states of being.

While completed before the current crises, Kevin Gaffney’s new work carries a prescience about our present moment. It forces us to confront rather than look away from the question of life within the modern nation state and outside it. It demonstrates the willingness of a state to jeopardize life to protect its future. From his earliest films, Gaffney has worked on refiguring the body politic. The speculative worlds he creates make havoc of the dominant institutions that yoke lived experience into conventional and orderly lives. Put another way, Gaffney is drawn to how queers experiment with ways to liberate their selfhood from the identity categories imposed upon them. Along the way, his work has resignified the messy bodies of post-conceptual art, offering a queer aesthetic formed around the visceral capacity to unhitch bodies from the reifying powers of identity that affix us to communities, genders, and the bodies we’re born in. In his latest work, Expulsion, he continues this project by asking about alternatives to current state formations, bringing to life a land where queer terrorists reinvent community around sex and gender dissidence. As with his other works, Gaffney fashions this imaginary realm from a textured history of institutions, traditions, and corporate capitalism. At one point in Expulsion, interrogators for the Queer State ask an asylum seeker for the name they would prefer if they were to be granted citizenship. The applicant responds, James Miranda Barry, a name many will recognise from Ireland’s queer past, as that of a 19th century doctor whose gender was assigned female at birth but lived as a man for their adult life. Another of those historical references for Gaffney’s Queer State is a late-twentieth century political movement called Queer Nation.

Queer Nation was formed around 1990 in the USA by some of the AIDS activists who had worked to establish ACT-UP and who decided to expand their protest agenda. Perhaps more loosely organised and less pragmatic, Queer Nation nonetheless borrowed the strategies that had made ACT-UP so successful: slogans with wicked wordplay, angry confrontation, joyous inversion of norms, and multifaceted shamelessness. In Expulsion, Kevin Gaffney imagines an ultimate expression of Queer Nation, a state formed of queers outside of heterosexual society, a mix of commune, sanctuary, and extremely exclusive gay ghetto. Is his invention, the Queer State, a utopian homeland or its quasi-fascist dark shadow? We are never quite sure.

Gaffney’s Queer State is a country founded by terrorists on the basis of their marginality and on the barren soil and scarred landscapes of extractive economies. Expulsion describes the process whereby refugees from other states can apply for asylum. This process involves an ideological indoctrination that freely incorporates queer retellings of patriarchal history, ecofeminism, anticorporate sentiments, and a loose neo-Marxism. As we observe the shockingly arbitrary process that grants asylum, we question the true nature of the community being formulated. When a Black applicant’s appeal for asylum in the Queer State is rejected, it feels inconsistent and cruel. The State tells him both that his mainstream character ‘would be considered a liability to our society’ and that his critique of corporatized consumer capitalism demonstrates ‘lack of compassion for [his] community’. Most troubling is the Queer State’s advice for his reentry into the non-queer world upon his forced, immanent return to it: adopt a non-confrontational attitude, embrace his masculinity, and aim for an individuality motivated by self-interest exercised in private. How could a radically humanist project expel an applicant only to return him precisely to the oppression it purports to oppose? Would an anti-hierarchal paradise demand such things? Offer such advice?

At several moments, as we question whether the Queer State is the anti-hegemonic community it purports to be, the film shifts gears, and intercuts sequences of video footage from the actual 1992 US presidential campaign of Queer Nation’s candidate, Joan Jett Blakk. Blakk is an African American drag queen who, at the time of the presidential campaign, had run for other public offices and would go on to be a member of the performance group Pomo Afro Homos. The documentation of Blakk’s campaign stump speeches comes in glorious imperfection, analogue video tape footage showing off an intentionally unpolished aesthetic. In this way, the shrill energy, playful scandalmongering, and sloppy fun of Queer Nation’s actual history erupts into the high-polish classicism of Expulsion’s Queer State. These two visions of queer disruption are brought side by side.

In the early 1990s, I was a young American queer coming of age who disidentified with the label ‘gay’. Queer Nation’s original call excited me for its refusal to settle for the begrudging tolerance afforded us by liberal heterosexuals (‘allies’ who had mostly abandoned queers during the HIV/AIDS crisis), its rejection of a minoritizing logic that condemned queers to the margins and had left us to die. Queer Nation rejected the impulses of conventional gay rights movements, spurning any politics striving for acceptance in mainstream society. It saw those who fighting for marriage rights for LGBT people as sell-outs, too willing to settle for an analogue of straight life and abandoning the radical potentiality of a life lived queerly. Today we would call Queer Nation’s resistance a campaign against ‘homonormativity’. But Queer Nation wasn’t just about complaint. It was also a beacon of unapologetic imagining, riotous anti-assimilationism, and a reclaiming of public space and the political sphere. At Queer Nation demonstrations I thought I detected the ascendency of a new political agency for LGBT politics, a promise that all citizens had the right to live, even in the most sexually dissident or gender non-normative way. While redressing the overwhelming dominance of heterosexual norms over life and dismantling patriarchal structures, the group was less conscious of how its particular forms of play and resistance were premised upon class privilege. This went largely unchecked in the group’s workings.

While the activities of Queer Nation regional chapters continue today, the group’s period of public national visibility dimmed by the mid-1990s, overshadowed by more mainstream fights for lesbian and gay legitimacy (e.g., demands for marriage rights) in a culture dominated by Clintonian compromise.[1] Queer Nation’s initial pronouncements, however, left us with questions that persist, and Gaffney’s Expulsion makes us confront those provocations: Can queerness be governed? Should it be governed? Can we imagine a mode of governing queerly? Will queerness ever find a place in statehood?

As a fantasy, Gaffney’s queer state intrigues the viewer with its volatile uncertainty. A satisfying queer heresy hovers in the Queer State’s declarations, including an overdue reckoning of history, a condemnation of the pink-washing of modern slavery practices, and a wonderfully concise critique of the patriarchy’s colonising of the concept of nature. However, Expulsion carefully avoids any full endorsement of the Queer State’s governmental operations, and it is not only through the juxtapositions of Queer Nation and this imagined state that the film foregrounds the Queer State’s ambivalent status. Beginning from its initial images, Expulsion performs its unsureness through an iconography of equivocal symbols. Take, for example, the flag paraded by a Queer State citizen through a depleted landscape. At the centre of the bright colours and triangle of the flag is a circular hole. Does this hole represent an empty duplicitous truth at the core of the Queer State’s project? Or is it that project’s acknowledgment of indeterminacy? A liberatory refusal to settle on queer identity? There are other startling images that lack full explanation, such as a uniformed body with a leather mask lying on a pile of rubble. This might be either a prisoner of the Queer State whose punishment reveals the hypocrisy of the Queer State’s project or simply a lovely pervert finally freely able to explore their sources of pleasure.

This unresolved ambivalence towards the Queer State’s justifications and its practices is kept crucially taut by Expulsion and, as such, it returns us to the dilemmas of the current moment. Why do we need a guarantee of the status quo’s persistence in the future in order to value human life in the present? Why do we need assurances of our own privilege in order to act humanely? Gaffney’s work does more than stage the incommensurability of a queer state; it shows us the dangers of not facing our own vexed relationship to being governed. One challenge of this moment is being able to imagine participatory democracy as something other than simply majority rule and to reimagine what a state can and should do for us.

Karl Schoonover writes about art, film, and other moving images.  He teaches at the University of Warwick (UK) where he is Professor of Film and Television Studies.  His most recent book Queer Cinema in the World (Duke University Press) was co-authored with Rosalind Galt.

[1]Two canonical accounts of Queer Nation from the early 1990s provide perspective on the group’s protest activities and a critique of its rhetoric: Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman, "Queer Nationality" Boundary 2 19.1 (1992): 149-80; Lisa Duggan, "Making it Perfectly Queer." Socialist Review 22.1 (1992): 11-31.

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