Oblique or Obscure – Psychology & Art

For the past couple of years, I’ve been part of a small artist group, the Larks and Ravens. My personal interest, as ever, is psychology – in this case exploring  how visual art can trigger new  ways of viewing our everyday world and disrupt accepted thinking and behaviour. Our focus is social and environmental issues.

AnimalEyes-http_www_futurity_orgFrom early student days, I’ve been interested in the way the structure of our human visual system generates just one possible image of the world. A different structure generates a different image & different behaviours (or the reverse in evolutionary terms).


I see some of what the Larks & Ravens are trying to do as the equivalent on a conceptual level – can we play with structures which mean we glimpse the ‘normal’ world around us differently – even if just for a moment?

In parallel, I’m on a learning curve trying to grasp what visual art is, how it engages people (or not) and what role it can play in triggering social change. As part of that process, our group visited Tate Modern last week and saw 3 different exhibits. Each had a very different effect but each seemed to have something lacking (at least for me).

First we visited the Wolfgang Tillman exhibition. Here the aesthetics and technical sophistication made an immediate impact on my art colleagues but (I admit slightly shamefacedly) little impact on me.  I struggled with what Tillman “was trying to say” especially when I was aware of gallery visitors earnestly studying the exhibition booklet more than they were studying the art on the walls. To a large extent, this is probably my problem of not yet comfortably reading the language of art but, in any field, I find this level of obscurity off-putting. The definition of ‘obscurity’ is “not clearly expressed or understood“. Is that sometimes the artist’s intention or does it not necessarily matter if he or she has expressed their own ideas? I don’t know but I don’t want our Larks & Ravens’ art to be obscure, i.e. to require explanatory booklets for the uninitiated. I want our work to be accessible but ‘oblique’ (i.e. “expressed indirectly“) or it won’t offer new understanding or insight. How hard is that to do?

C9W_vEdV0AAUYZ_Next up, we visited the community engagement exhibit organised by the new Tate Exchange programme – “A space for everyone to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on life, through art“. For me, the art in this exhibition went to the other extreme. Its strength was that the interactive exhibits had been created collaboratively with a variety of artists working with community groups. But the exhibits seemed obvious and somewhat playschool in style. The advantage is that they afforded immediate physical engagement – balloons to blow, coconuts to throw, a hammer to wield and post-it notes to draw or write on – all of which appealed to children. But the disappointment was that most of the exhibits failed to elicit deeper thinking or emotional engagement with the underlying concepts of money, value and exchange. With the odd exception, the concepts seemed rather superficially realised. Clearly the depth of the socio-psychological concepts as well as the power of the visual art does matter.

IMG_20170413_164642Finally, we stepped outside and witnessed the Fujiko Nakaya’s immersive fog sculpture where, every 5 minutes or so, the outside  arena was submersed in dense fog for a period of 5-10 minutes before it cleared again. This made everyone smile. The visual effects were powerful as people were transformed into ghostly outlines or faded from view completely. But the thing which was most striking was the crowd appeal. Every time the fog started, people rushed out of the building and into the fog. Children raced around with delight appearing and disappearing and the adults took selfies with their ‘phones. So, the  fog experience was compelling and playful in a way it would be great to be able to reproduce. Ironically, whilst “obscuring” in its visual effect, it wasn’t “obscure” in its tangible realisation. No explanatory booklet required. But is it OK for it to feel more a form of art entertainment than a thought piece? It’s certainly a crowd puller.

So, our experiences at Tate Modern on one day have given me plenty to think about and ponder on with my Larks and Ravens.

My dream, as a psychologist working with visual artists, is to create experiences which have real visual and visceral impact, which enable people to see their ‘normal’  world differently and which trigger new thinking and conversations about important socio-political issues. I want to avoid work that’s so obscure it requires an accompanying booklet or so obvious that it doesn’t challenge or surprise. I’d like to create work that’s oblique but grabs attention – a combination which I’m learning is hard to achieve.

Meanwhile, my learning curve continues to bend…….


Posted in Psychology | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

May 2016 to March 2017 Solar Storage Data

As the days get longer, our solar generation increases. March actually generated about the same as last September but the Wattstor battery control system is cautious about allowing the batteries to discharge beyond 70% or so until it’s confident there’s enough light hours in the day to fill them. Our lead acid batteries perform better and last longer if fully charged, but they won’t charge at high power for the last 15% or so of their capacity, so won’t reach 100% until the days are several hours longer. We think this explains why, despite there being as much solar generation in March as in September, this month saw both much higher grid export and import as the batteries were not maximising their storage capacity to the same extent.

We hope April 2017 will see our first 100% charge, possibly on the same day as we hear the first cuckoo.

As usual, the charts below show (i) our updated daily averages for our various power sources, and (ii) the percentage of our power usage coming directly from the sun, directly from the grid, or from the sun via the batteries.

Posted in Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Underground Energy Storage

The Glyn Rhonwy pumped storage scheme has apparently received the go-ahead, overcoming objections to any development like this in a National Park.  It uses a disused slate quarry for the upper reservoir, which should make the overall development cheaper, and limit any new environmental impact.

Pumped hydro storage is efficient and good value for money so it’s a shame that the best places to do it tend to be wild uplands where we are most uncomfortable about industrial intrusions of this type.

Here’s an idea for a pumped storage scheme using abandoned coal mine workings.  It could offer even greater capacity than Glyn Rhonwy, with even less environmental disturbance.  If it could be made to work, it should be readily reproducible elsewhere in Wales.

Posted in Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The divisive nature of referendums

We’ve experienced two referendums in the UK in the past 2 years (first Scotland’s Indyref and then the UK’s Brexit). Both have proved socially divisive – across and within countries, across and within regions and neighbourhoods and even across and within families.

Unlike General elections, referendums offer a binary choice – black or white? Whereas what we are choosing to vote for in elections is nuanced because of the mix of manifesto policies and leadership qualities about which one might hold a mix of views. And our lives don’t change irrevocably when one government replaces another and, if we don’t like what we get, then there’s a chance to review and vote differently in 5 years’ time.

In contrast, referendums force us to make a binary choice which (at least in the two most recent cases) will make a huge and irrevocable difference to all our lives. Consequently, having voted we feel challenged to justify the choice we made – particularly if friends, colleagues or even families voted differently. Cognitive dissonance operates and soon we have amassed a whole set of reasons why our choice was right and others’ choice was both wrong and ‘stupid’. The more our ‘rationale’ is challenged by others (or by subsequent events) the more the opinions supporting our behavioural choice become entrenched. It’s easy because we engage in such post-hoc rationalisation all the time and largely unconsciously.

But it might actually be more fundamental than that. Psychology studies (‘the Minimum Group Paradigm) have shown that, even when people are allocated to one of two groups on a purely ad hoc basis, they exhibit in-group versus out-group behavior. They behave in ways which favour members of the same group over members of the other group even if this costs them and their group. If members of one group  are subsequently transferred to the other group, they aren’t treated as favourably as the ‘original’ members  – they have to serve their time as effective  outsiders or ‘migrants’!

So, hypothetically speaking,  even voters allocated randomly into two groups labelled those who voted ‘A’ and those who voted ‘B’,  would start to view those in the ‘other’ group less favourably than those in the their own group. If asked to justify why they thought they were allocated to A rather than B, they would happily generate convincing ‘rationale’ which made them feel their allocation was definitely right and their group was superior even though the selection was actually random.

So, if we think that people who voted differently from us in either referendum are less worthy or even ‘stupid’, let’s remember that, as primitive emotional beings, we are quite capable of developing such views and accompanying ‘rationale’ even if our initial group membership was allocated randomly.

mirror people

How could you lot be so stupid?

Posted in Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

May 2016 to Feb 2017 – Solar Storage Data

Spring is in sight and we have just done the analysis of February’s performance with our solar PV (4kW) plus Wattstor battery (6kWh) system.  The longer days and the sun being higher in the sky have started to make a significant difference despite much of February being gloomy and wet. Some of our evening cooking and lighting (once the sun has set) is now supported by Bert-the-battery rather than from the grid.

Chart 1 shows the daily Wh averages for each month since May 2016. Our daily consumption is staying relatively steady at just over 8kWh/day. (It does vary somewhat day to day depending on the significant effect of charging our Twizy which also has a 6kWh battery to fill. We try to charge the Twizy when the sun is contributing the most to avoid either taking from the grid or depleting Bert-the-battery in order to fill another battery. In the winter, that’s hard to manage.)


Chart 2 shows the percentage of our daily electricity consumption which comes from each source – the solar panels directly, the solar via the battery or directly from the grid. In February, 31% of our consumption was covered by the solar and battery combined – the best performance since October. The battery alone contributed 12.5% of our consumption. Because the lead acid batteries spend most of their time on absorption as opposed to bulk charging (to protect themselves), we aren’t capturing as much of the solar into the battery (for later use) as we would like. As Chart 1 shows, the actual solar generation was up to 50% of the overall consumption but the amount of the solar generated power which the battery could absorb in real time is restricted so roughly 25% of it was passed to the grid for others to use. We try to view this in a generous spirit!


We now look forward to the long sunny days of March (typical weather here in Wales of course..).



Posted in Technology | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

May 2016 to January 2017

This month saw a small increase in solar output, offset by a major face-lift on our house which increased our electricity demand – the cement mixer and jack hammer are both electric!    So although the solar output has started its slow recovery after the Winter solstice, the proportion of our demand met by solar energy – either directly or via the battery – remained about the same as December.





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

May to December 2016 – Domestic Solar Battery Data

“‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;”

So, how has Bert, our Wattstor solar battery, fared in this darkest month of the year?

The chart below shows the daily Wh averages for each of the 8 months we’ve had the system. It shows our daily demand, the solar PV input, the amount we’ve had to import from the grid and the amount we’ve exported to the grid because it’s more than the battery can absorb at that point in time.

dec-avsOur demand stayed fairly level at around 8kWh per day. The solar dropped to an average of 2.3 kWh a day and it rarely got a chance to generate a surplus (over the amount the house was using) in order to top up Bert-the-battery. It still managed to export an average of 408 Wh/day to the grid when we would (selfishly) rather have that stored in the battery for our own use! Still, at least it’s public spirited and we are being paid for everything we generate.

The 2nd chart shows the proportion of the electricity we have used each month which is provided by each source – either directly from the solar panels or from solar stored in the battery or from the grid.

decpercentNot surprisingly, 84% of the electricity we consumed in December came from the grid. We still got 8% from the solar panels directly and 7% solar via the battery.

It’s now January and already the sun is disappearing behind the hill a few minutes later each day so stay tuned for a bigger yellow and orange bar in January.

Posted in Technology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment