Unseeing seeing: Notes from a process of making What You See When Your Eyes Are Closed / What You Don’t See When Your Eyes Are Open (See/Don’t See)

Harry Robert Wilson

Act 1


Mamoru first invited me in for a conversation about See/Don’t See during his first development residency at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow in May 2019. We had previously shown work together at Buzzcut’s Let England Shake program at Live Art Bistro in Leeds and connected around ideas of live performance and visual perception. At CCA’s Intermedia Studio Mamoru and I had a 3hr conversation about perspective; medial differences between film, photography and theatre; live and mediated performance; analogue and digital uses of technology in performance; light, space and colour in relation to perception.

Fast forward to October 2021 and Mamoru got back in touch to invite me in for the next stage of development. This time as a dramaturg. I was able to join the process during the various stages of iterative development in 2022 through Mamoru’s residency weeks in Edinburgh at Dance Base, a work in progress sharing at The Lyceum and subsequent rehearsal periods at Summerhall and Tramway in Glasgow (there were also significant development periods at Schwankhalle Theatre in Bremen, Germany where Mamoru was joined by the brilliant artist and performance maker Susanne Zaun – Susi was also able to join for periods in Edinburgh).

What follows is a collection of my notes and responses from the ideas circulating throughout the process assembled in a way that echoes the structure of the performance itself. My hope is not to present a description or analysis of the show but a collection of thoughts in process that, much like the performance itself, avoids any strict definition or meaning.

So here we go: “It is time to wake up”.

Chapter 1 – Seeing is Believing – Take 1

“Every time I see the sun rise

Or a mountain that's so high

Just by seeing is believing

I don't need to question why”

-Elvis Presley – Seeing is Believing (1972)

The Monster in See/Don’t See is a Cyclops representing SVB (Singular Vision Broadcasting). The monster’s one eye is a camera, one perspective on events which gets taken as ‘the truth’. The monster has no depth perception and sees in 2D – so a flat cartoon image of a bazooka when viewed from the ideal perspective looks three dimensional.

As Maaike Bleeker reminds us in Visuality in the Theatre (2008) vision is not independent of our other perceptions but embodied. Bleeker asks how we can consider looking in the theatre “as a necessarily impure and always synaesthetic event that takes place in a body as the locus of intertwining of various perceptual systems” (Maaike Bleeker Visuality in the Theatre 2008: 7). Or to summarise James Gibson’s arguments in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, the eye is not a camera, the retinal image is not ‘transmitted’ to the brain, but instead, vision is part of a perceptual system, which includes the whole body.

In other words, we do not see one view from one place: we all have bodies that can move around and heads that can turn. In the process of making See/Don’t See we talked about visually playful camera tricks such as forced perspective and the painterly technique of anamorphosis as demonstrated in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassador’s (1566). The way that a distorted projection of a skull in Holbein’s painting forces your body to view the painting from a different angle creates a contingent moment where you may only ‘take in’ the full image on leaving the room.

In See/Don’t See there is no ‘ideal position’ or perspective from which to view the performance. We are encouraged to look away from the action to read captions or to split our attention between the live performers in front of us and the broadcast image from SVB being projected from the back of the Monster’s head. If I look at the projection, I get extra information and text but the image lacks depth/texture. If I look at the ‘live action’ I miss the ‘extra information’.

Take 2

The camera never lies. Or put in more complex terms, according to Roland Barthes, ‘Photography … can lie as to the meaning of the thing… never to its existence’ (Barthes 1992: 87). Barthes is discussing the photograph’s powerful indexicality: because the photograph captures light directly bouncing off its subject, it is a kind ‘certificate’ of their presence.

But in a world of endlessly decontextualised images circulating on social media, AI deep fakes and fake news I’m not sure if we can really uphold this position. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Lev Manovich argued that the advent of digital technologies of representation severed this indexical link between the photograph and its subject. Discussing the historic understanding of cinema as a record of reality Manovich writes in 2001:

“what happens to cinema’s indexical identity if it is now possible to generate photorealistic scenes entirely on a computer using 3-D computer animation; modify individual frames or whole scenes with the help a digital paint program; cut, bend, stretch, and stitch digitized film images into something with perfect photographic credibility, even though it was never actually filmed?” (Manovich The Language of New Media 2001: 295).

At the same time as the first residency at Dance Base in February 2022 a video emerged of a military tank running over a civilian vehicle in Kyiv in Ukraine. It was widely shared on social media and described by witnesses as a Russian tank deliberately running over a civilian. However, later reports emerged suggesting that the tank was in fact Ukrainian and that perhaps the driver, a Ukrainian soldier, was distracted by gunfire and lost control of the vehicle. Whichever account was true, the example serves to demonstrate how easily information (and mis-information) can be attached to an image in service of a range of competing political purposes and how effectively doubt and uncertainty can become embedded in the image.

James Gibson again: “A picture is not an imitation of past seeing. It is not a substitute for going back and looking again. What it records, registers or consolidates is information, not sense data” (280).

In See/Don’t See, though, there is a deconstruction of binary separation of image/reality; real/representation; unmediated/mediated. The bazooka looks real in the projected image, Mamoru’s fake 2D head worn by performer (and Mamoru’s husband) Gavin Pringle has a hyper-real quality, Fake Mamoru’s reporting of what he can see keeps shifting.

Take 3

Hearing is believing, touching is believing, reading is believing. Perception as a “keeping-in-touch with the world, an experiencing of things rather than a having of experiences” (Gibson 239)

The exhibition at the Wellcome Collection that See/Don’t See was performed at, In Plain Sight, focussed on a range of alternative perspectives on visual perception. It aimed to ‘question the central place that sight holds in human society through the different experiences of sighted, partially sighted and blind people’ (Wellcome Collection 2022). A significant portion of the exhibition explored sight in relation to other senses.

In this context, Mamoru wanted to embed accessibility into the creative process of making See/Don’t See. As such every spoken word in the piece was written down somewhere, either as projected captions, words on strips of fabric or printed in a read along booklet. There were words attached to everything. Words became texture and material as well as text.

Additionally, there was an audio description of the piece made for visually impaired audience members that consisted of pre-recorded dialogue from Gavin and Mamoru, which developed into a kind of listen-along radio play that added an additional narrative layer to the experience. In contrast to the usual neutral delivery of audio description, Mamoru and Gavin become more and more animated and their subjective responses to the live events happening in front of us poked through the informational description. At the start of the show there was a wonderful moment where the seeing audience had to wait, watching in silence as the opening audio description played on the headphones of audience members who had chosen to wear them. The description took the time it needed to take. In one performance I enjoyed listening and watching, aware of the privileged position of being able to layer up multiple versions of the performance, attempting to imagine the different ways it might be perceived.

Mamoru also offered the opportunity of a touch tour for visually impaired audience members. 15 minutes before the Saturday afternoon performance at the Wellcome we met a young partially sighted girl accompanied by her parents. As she was invited to explore various elements of the costume and set for the piece, Mamoru and Gavin talked through what she was touching and how it featured in the performance. It was remarkable to witness her surprise and delight at the size of the monster’s head and the texture of the orange tassels on Cyclops’ costume.

These creative approaches to access feel exciting and both highlight and challenge the idea that visual perception is often prioritised in theatre – to the detriment of those who are experts at experiencing the world in alternative ways.

Chapter 2 – Seeing is Consuming

There’s a moment in this section of the show where Mamoru emerges from the Monster costume for the first time. Up to this point we’ve only ever seen a 2D image of Mamoru’s head worn by Gavin. When I see ‘Real Mamoru’ emerge for the first time I experienced an uncanny reality effect. Like when you meet someone for the first time in person after having worked with them for a year over Zoom.

The Monster has a fear of being seen by the camera – a sort of anxiety about being seen in motion, of being perceived fully. It reminds me of Buster Keaton’s character in Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965) who spends the entire duration of the 20-minute film trying to avoid being perceived: he wears a veil over his face when walking home, avoids the gaze of animals and pets and covers a mirror in his apartment room with fabric to avoid his reflection. It is only when he wakes up from being asleep, towards the end of the film, that he is caught off guard – petrified by the gaze of the camera and an unnerving double staring back.

Interval: Seeing and Unseeing

Gibson’s text attempts an undoing of the perceived understanding of visual perception. Unseeing seeing. In Gibson’s text visual perception is not about transmitting retinal images from the eye and receiving them in the brain (the diagram many of us will be familiar with from school science lessons). Instead, visual perception is a continual flow between sensory information and neural activity. The eye is not a camera but an embodied sense organ working in and with the body.

In this interval section of See/Don’t See Gavin and Mamoru take off their fake Mamoru head and Monster costume, respectively, and swap their onesies so that Gavin wears the suit with ‘Gavin’ written on it, and Mamoru wears the suit with ‘Mamoru’ on it. Although they are now ‘playing themselves’ they have undone the roles that have been set up from the start of the show. The interval acts as a suspension: it suspends narrative time, suspends logics, suspends our understanding of what we think we have seen.

Act 2


From our conversation at CCA in 2019: in live performance the person in front of you is alive (but always moving towards death); in live performance there is always the potential for failure, contingency, disruption; live performance can make the energy and effort of bodies felt; performance can stage visual perception, it can draw attention to the act of seeing, it can make seeing embodied; live performance requires active participation/imagination.

In the ‘Nightmare’ sections Mamoru and Gavin share the space with the audience. They acknowledge their presence and encourage them to engage with ‘Gibsonist exercises’ such as ‘head-swivelling’ and ‘place-to-place going’. This performance event is really happening with us, but it is also a dream. In fact, these sections are nightmares: the audio description and captioning has stopped working; there are violent accidents that wake Real Mamoru up; there are visitations from the past (Elvis Presley, James Gibson, and a 13 year-old Mamoru are all channelled through Gavin to make the case for the power of TV). But this is definitely not TV.

From the See/Don’t See script:

RM: even though I cannot quite prove this, I am totally convinced that you are alive. Alive and seeing this dream together. 


RM: We are seeing this together, but nobody is seeing the same thing because we do head-swivelling and place-to-place going in our own unique way. That’s definitely not TV.

G: Mamoru and I are performing on stage for you to watch. But we are also watching you at the same time. That’s definitely not TV.

RM: […] Nobody’s dead. Everybody is alive. That’s definitely not TV.


From See/Don’t See: “I see the light but I don’t see anything in that light. Like when you are in a thick fog”.

In the ‘Reality’ sections of the performance Mamoru is lit by a spotlight from the projector. He circles around the edges of the space, always facing the light. He wears a pair of mirrored sunglasses that are actually iPhone screens displaying animated images of what he is seeing in the scene: a looping clip of James Dean in East of Eden; a cartoon ice cream; an image of Gavin as a boy.

At various points the projection transforms into an animated depiction of Mamoru’s childhood living room in Kobe, Japan. He watches dead movie stars on the TV. He waves at a man that he loves in the apartment block opposite his window. He measures the length of the movie stars on TV using his finger and then his arm. He measures the height of the man in the apartment block opposite with his hand. Cyclops emerges from Mamoru’s shadow.

Ironically, it is the ‘Reality’ sections of the performance that have a more vivid dream-like quality. They are like sense memories of childhood – rememberings of the development of visual perception through different stages of childhood. Maybe not factually accurate but the recreation of a feeling, a feeling of nostalgia, the painful longing to return home.

The In Plain Sight exhibition at the Wellcome Collection exhibited excerpts from the Color Journal of the artist Emilie Louise Gossiaux. In these drawings Gossiaux, who lost her sight in 2010, relies on her memories of the colours of different Crayola crayons to ‘see’ through her mind’s eye. Underneath each sketch of a single colour, Gossiaux has renamed the crayons based on a specific memory. Names include: ‘Shrimp cocktail’; ‘The asphalt I scraped my knee on, 1998’; ‘My sister’s eyes’; ‘Dad’s beat up Jaguar 1980’; ‘Bad sunburn 1999’. Memory, affect, visual perception, colour, nostalgia.

Each time we encounter the ‘Reality’ scenes they jump forward in time, from 1955, to 1966, 1969, 1980, 2022. At the end of the piece, in ‘Reality 5’, we jump forward to 15 minutes before the start of the show we have just seen. There is a concentration of time and a bringing together of the Reality and Nightmare scenes. We are nearly sharing the same space and time. The threads of childhood memories, relationships, visions of monsters, academics and film stars are loosely woven together for a brief moment before being pulled apart. We finish right where we began, but changed.


photo: Julia Bauer

photo: Julia Bauer