I Stared Into the Void at a Secret Light Show in Las Vegas
It’s the only piece of art I’ve ever had to sign a liability waiver to view.
All photos courtesy Louis Vuitton
Las Vegas floats like a mirage above the floor of the Mojave Desert. It is a city built on illusion. Its dancing fountains, emerald golf courses, and all-you-can-eat $9.99 buffets defy the inhospitable stretch of desert, roughly the size of West Virginia, that encroaches on all sides. Many visitors leave feeling fooled.
Smack in the center of this neon jackpot alarm capital, The Strip, exists another of the city's great perceptual tricks. It's perhaps one of the most tranquil places on Earth—a temple to the void, you could call it—hiding just above Las Vegas Boulevard. On the fourth floor of The Crystal's Louis Vuitton store, a retail palace where one could conceivably spend a week's pay on an iPad case, American artist James Turrell's light environment, Akhob, quietly obliterates the world outside. It's the largest ganzfeld chamber Turrell's ever built, and arguably one of the largest permanent ganzfelds in the world.
Ganzfeld is German for "total field." Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Metzger coined the term in a 1930 article "Optische Untersuchungen am Ganzfeld" (approximately, "Optical studies in the ganzfeld") published in Psychologische Forschung, in which he described a phenomenon he observed when subjects were made to experience an unstructured visual field. In one experiment, Metzger constructed a smooth, white, homogenous surface that would take up the whole of a subject's visual field. Under high illumination, observers plainly saw the wall. But under low illumination, not only did the fine details of the surface disappear, the whole wall vanished. Observers reported staring into a boundless, milky space, either indeterminately or infinitely large, like the sky. The so-called ganzfeld effect is reputedly disorienting, in some cases, causing hallucinations and vertiginous symptoms.
Turrell studied perceptual psychology at Pomona College, and rose to prominence as part of the Southern Californian Light and Space Movement in the 1960s. He was interested in the ganzfeld effect even in his earliest work. In collaboration with artist Robert Irwin and psychologist Ed Wortz, under the umbrella of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's storied Art & Technology program in 1968, Turrell was already experimenting with perceptual deprivation and ganzfeld conditions.
Today, his best-known project is the Roden Crater—an extinct volcanic cinder cone near Flagstaff, Arizona, that he's been transforming into a naked-eye observatory for the past 40 years. Akhob, at CityCenter's boutique mall, is relatively new, having opened in 2013. Turrell's studio politely declined comment due to his "extensive travel schedule."
Visits are free and booked by appointment. At our scheduled time, an Akhob attendant meets my girlfriend and I on the lower level, conducts a brief tour of the other artworks displayed around the showroom, then shuttles us by elevator into a tiny, dark waiting room three floors above. It's the only piece of art I've ever had to sign a liability waiver to view.
Another attendant, this one dressed all in white, leads us from the waiting area down a hallway into an antechamber known as the Pyramid Room. A tall, tapered staircase points at a small archway, but otherwise the space is virtually featureless. It could be a lost set from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain.
Up the stairs, we walk through the first viewing room—a tight, white womb—and into the second, which is larger and egg-shaped and edgeless. The entrance between the two chambers is ringed with a glowing band of LEDs. At the very front of the room, the attendant warns us that the floor drops off. It's a six-foot fall. The far wall, just beyond the rim, is a massive plaster lens, white and perfectly smooth.
We're told the light cycle will last about 20 minutes, and our guide can terminate the program if at anytime the effect becomes overwhelming. Gazing into the front wall, with our feet planted about a yard from the drop, the room floods with color. Initially, it's a bath of pinks and oranges—a novel display that tints every surface. It's not disorienting; no nausea, no hallucinations. After a few minutes, the attendant notifies us that we're about to enter the first of two ganzfeld phases. This one will be blue. The light incrementally scans the shades of blue, beginning with the pale hues and increasing in intensity. I keep my eyes on the seam between the room and the lens.
As the shade of blue reflected by the front wall and the shade of blue bouncing around the room approach exactly the same color, that lip becomes the only bit of information I can use to distinguish the shape of the space in front of me. When the two meet up, the experience becomes heavy. The walls sublimate. The field ahead appears like a mist. I can feel the ground underfoot. But to my eyes, I'm walking in the void. It's as intense as any psychedelic experience I've had.
"It's a soft surface. I would describe it as an infinite fog."
Rutgers University Psychology professor Alan Gilchrist studies lightness perception. He's one of the few researchers working on visual perception today, and also a fan of Turrell's art.
"A ganzfeld is without edges," explained Gilchrist, who still regularly builds large-scale apparatuses like ganzfelds to examine human sight. "That's the important thing. We get a lot of information from borders or edges, contours in the visual field." The measure of the intensity of light is called luminance, and the shade of an object is determined by the luminance ratio at the border, that is, the differing brightness on either side of an edge. "Of course, we couldn't see an object if there weren't any edges," Gilchrist added. "The object would disappear," because edges create the experience of an opaque surface. "In the ganzfeld, you don't really see a surface. It's a soft surface. I would describe it as an infinite fog."
Gilchrist said the experience can be approximated by cutting a ping-pong ball in two and putting a half over each eye, then shining some light evenly across the surfaces. It's an unnatural environment, the sort of thing usually only encountered by pilots flying through a whiteout. (Turrell just so happens to be one.) Creating a fully immersive ganzfeld like Akhob takes some careful design work. "You have to go to some lengths to fool the eye," Gilchrist said. "We're very good at discovering any imperfections or micro-textures on a surface."
A minute, maybe two, into the blue ganzfeld and the space in front of us begins to read as colorless to my eyes. The blue has faded. It's hard to focus on any one spot. I can't find any information anywhere. Drawing my eyes away from the lens to the room behind, my vision snaps back. The viewing room glows white. For how long has it been white?
In James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space, monographer Craig Adcock describes the light in Turrell's ganzfeld installation as "unexpected." The phenomenon is so unusual, according to Adcock, that "in laboratory conditions, it is not uncommon for viewers to experience a complete shutdown of their visual systems."
The shutdown occurs because there are edges in the spatial domain, Gilchrist explained. But there are also edges in the temporal domain too. "When you first go into the ganzfeld," he said, "maybe there are no visible edges, but there is a change. If you go into a blue ganzfeld, your photoreceptors are all of a sudden hit with blue light as opposed to whatever light they were hit with before. When you stay in there, as that blue light continues to strike the photoreceptors, you're getting further and further away from any change and you're adapting and the field is going to become more and more neutral-looking."
"The reason that happens," Gilchrist continued, "is because when the image enters your eye—your eye is a bit like a camera, remember—the image is projected into the rear interior surface called the retina and when the eye moves, it's like the retina is moving across the image, as if it were feeling the image, like running your hand across Braille." That relative motion, he said, between the retina and the image, seems to be an essential condition for vision. "You can demonstrate that."
Your eye perceives variation. If you can make an object in the visual field move precisely together with your eye—a stabilized retinal image, Gilchrist calls it—what you're looking at will disappear. That's roughly why we don't see the blood vessels branching in front of our own retinas. It's the same phenomenon in a ganzfeld, where the eye is starved for new visual information.
Gilchrist mentioned an old experiment by colleague John Krauskopf, wherein Krauskopf showed subjects a large red disc with a circular green centre. He used a technique to retinally stabilize the boundary where the red and green areas joined. The result? The green center disappeared. Subjects reported only a big red disc.
"Here's a situation," said Gilchrist, "where there's green light striking the cones at a certain location in your retina, but you don't perceive any green. You perceive only red. "What that shows us is that the color of a surface doesn't come from the light coming from that surface, but only from the change in the color of the light at the border. It's a great efficiency for the eye and the brain. Instead of the eye having to send the brain information at every pixel, it only has to send the brain information about how the light changes at the edges. And that's all of the information the brain needs."
Traditionally, the eye has been thought of as a photometer or a carpet of photocells. But Gilchrist thinks it's more dynamic than that. "It's picking up only the change at edges," he says. "The ganzfeld makes perfect sense then; without any edges, you don't see any surface at all."
Even for the dramatic perceptual disturbances, neither my girlfriend nor I experienced hallucinations inside Akhob. It's on that front that the parapsychology community has hijacked the study of ganzfelds. Some ESP-believers claim that the perceptual deprivation encourages extra-sensory abilities to emerge; Gilchrist calls that research "bullshit." But he does admit, "with prolonged exposure, you can get a bit of hallucination," which he explains away as something akin to apophenia, or the way the brain tries to make meaningful connections, even over meaningless data. "If you look at the pattern of snow on a television screen," he said, "you can see a lot of things in that snow. It's just that your brain is so determined to find some sort of meaning on whatever input comes in."
Turrell himself isn't terribly concerned with the precise science animating his art. "The work I do does not have to do with science or demonstrations of scientific principles," he told Adcock. "My work has to do with perception—how we see and how we perceive." Per the catalogue for LACMA's Art & Technology show, Turrell is more interested in placing viewers in the unique position to perceive their own perceiving.
The name "Akhob" is ancient Egyptian for "pure water." Turrell's installation, then, is a baptism: a mental, maybe spiritual, rinse to renew over-stimulated visitors. We left feeling rested, ready to open up our hearts and wallets to the city once more. Sometimes, all you need is a long bath. But in Vegas, one must soak in the void.
Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.
Akhob, ancient Egyptian for "pure water," bathes visitors in the warm glow of 900 colour-changing LEDs. All photos courtesy Louis Vuitton