Royal Holloway University of London & Royal Academy of Arts
Prof. Johannes M Zanker, Dr J. Stevanov, Dr T. Holmes
The interaction of gallery visitors with real art work: mobile eye tracking in the Royal Academy
When Buswell (1935) and Yarbus (1967) developed methods to record human eye movements, they started to study fixation patterns on paintings, leading to a continuous research program on aspects of perceptual and cognitive processes as part of experimental aesthetics (Fechner 1876, Berlyne 1971). Due to technical limitations, our knowledge about eye movements on paintings has been restricted to observers looking from a fixed position at reproductions of art works under laboratory conditions. Although laboratory experiments are well controlled, they are far from the experience of a visitor in a gallery interacting with an original painting. The advance of mobile eye tracking (Land 1992, Durant & Zanker 2012) offers new insights to study gaze patterns on paintings in their real-world context. We used a TobiiGlasses2 system in an exhibition of Jackson Pollock paintings – known for their high complexity (Taylor 2002) – in Tate Liverpool (‘Blind Spot’, 2015), to collect an initial data set from observers walking freely through the gallery. These recordings reflect active interaction with the painting. Despite of challenges arising from large scale head movements, rapid changes of viewpoints and occlusions by other Gallery visitors, we found characteristic gaze patterns with preferred target regions, which would not be expected from the chaotic nature of this painting.
These initial observations from a radically novel approach in experimental aesthetics, asked for a more thorough investigation, which requires an extended collaboration with Museums and visitors of Art Galleries. The exhibition ‘Abstract Expressionism’ at the Royal Academy (London) offered a unique opportunity to study how individuals interact with large scale paintings created by Pollock in different stages of developing his characteristic drip-painting style. In an inspiring collaboration between the Royal Academy, supported by lenders from the US and Australia, and Royal Holloway University of London, and Acuity Intelligence Ltd., a exceptional project was developed as a starting point for a novel line research that connects sciences and arts, and can prompt fundamental changes in our understanding of how spectators look at and interact with artwork, and construct their aesthetic experience.
On 4 December, 2016, about 30 volunteers came to a private viewing of the RA exhibition to have their eye movements tracked, using cutting edge technology of head-mounted ‘glasses; which did allow them to move freely in the gallery whilst looking at two Pollock paintings from two different periods of his work: ‘Mural’ (1943) and ‘Blue Poles’ (1952). The research team, supported by a wonderful team of RA staff, was able to collect successful recordings of approximately 2 x 5 minutes from 25 participants, and in the meantime is in the process of analysing this huge data set with special software developed for this novel experimental approach. The initial results from 8 participants analysed so far indicate an impressive variability of individual gaze patterns, which suggests a wide range of individual attentional strategies that are employed by our participants when being faced with these abstract paintings without any pictorial narrative – but also some commonalities of most participants attending characteristic ‘hot spots’. The example below from two participants exploring ‘Blue Poles’ show as heat maps (pseudo-coloured density of gaze locations overlaid on a reproduction of the painting) how one participant is focusing on the central region of the painting, whereas the other participant is moving their eyes across the entire painting, often along the prominent poles.
The first picture shows participant B2 and the second picture shows participant R1.