Featured Artist: Sameer Farooq

Video Documentation: Jordan Kawai


Art Gallery of York University
Toronto, Ontario
May 16 – May 27, 2016

Behind the Eyes
was the second in the Creative Campaigning: Performance as Resistance series, a collaboration with the York Federation of Students (YFS) and advocacy student groups to further articulate their vision of an active campus. Working towards a large performative piece, student leaders learned how to collectively identify issues and understand how art can play a central role in activist strategies. Through working with contemporary artists and using contemporary art practices, the program strove to activate participation campus-wide on sociopolitical issues, educational concerns, and the promotion of equality. Taking a hybrid approach to knowledge production and socially engaged practice, the work spanned over the course of the school year from research to execution. The performances took multiple forms, including theatrical performances, photography, film, publications, workshops, academic lectures, and discursive events.

Behind the Eyes is an experiment that retrieves images from the depths of the brain in a series of live Vision & Image Streaming exercises. We asked students: what do you see when you close your eyes? What images flicker behind your eyelids? We filter, internalize, and construct a vast amount of images at rapid rates each day. Today, as we grapple with a constant flood of information, attempts to calm the brain and construct our own images are a challenge. Sameer Farooq embarked on a quest to locate those images and bring them forward: to externalize the internal images. In collaboration with multiple student advocacy groups and associations, Farooq asked participants to see with eyes closed, unlocking a library of images from the collective minds of York students. Turning the focus inwards to reveal the prophetic power of an image, his research-as-performance work examined the individual as a moving archive. Through meditation, intuition training, and guided visioning exercises, students visited their inner image stream and examined the cultural, historical, and social geographies through an atlas (or encyclopedia) of images.

Behind the Eyes is a contemplative work that moved to conjure up peaceful scenes, build imaginary worlds, tell existing narratives, and release difficult images. Mindfullness and meditation are the most recent tools students are utilizing to alleviate stress and open discussion of mental health issues on campus. Recent conversations about mental health have facilitated the de-stigmatization of youths struggling to overcome fear, grief, trauma, loss, and fatigue. Following the students’ lead and their needs, Farooq guided eight students in a one-on-one image streaming performance that exercised the mind’s eye. Through discussions and consultation with the Psychology Clinic at York, The Centre for Vision Research (CVR), and professors in the Department of Psychology and Faculty of Health, the research underscored the complexity of what it actually looks like when we peer behind the eyes.

We conducted research with neuroscientists on campus to formulate strategies on how to activate the brain to bring forward visual evidence of subconscious material. The CVR was an integral partner in facilitating our research on neuroimaging. The Centre is highly interdisciplinary and collaborative, rooted in a fundamental research programme that merges techniques in human psychophysics, visual neuroscience, and computational theory. Together with the researchers, scientists, and faculty, Farooq designed and built a script for the performance, taking cues from their tested methods of image retrieval in brain analysis and his own personal experiences with Shambhala meditation and teachings.

Behind the Eyes was performed, unrehearsed, in a darkened studio in York University’s Centre for Film and Theatre. Farooq held a guided meditation and image retrieving session with the students in private. The “performers” responded to the guided meditation, verbal prompts, and sound cues to probe their internal archives and stream a detailed verbal account of the images they saw in their mind’s eye.

Later at the Sherman Health Research Centre at York University, the students re-performed the image streaming session, internally reviewing and making images in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with the same audio prompts and meditation lead by Farooq. This neuroimaging procedure uses magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed scans of the organs and tissues within the body. The technology measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. Dr. Joy Williams facilitated the study and produced a report for Farooq on the medical findings of where the “stuck” images were in each of the participants’ brains.

As an additional student engagement component, the Fundamentals of Social Work class assisted in the beginning of the project with the research and development (finding out what issues students are rallying behind on campus), and afterwards (interviewing the performers on their overall experiences in the visual streaming sessions).

Behind the Eyes, 2016 (short documentary)