Perceptual Cells: James Turrell’s Vision Machines Between Two Paracinemas






  • James Turrell’s perceptual cells incorporate the neurophysiological apparatus as an active participant not only in the reception of projected moving-images, but also in the very production and transmission of virtual moving-images. Combining two perceptual phenomena—the stroboscopic effect and the Ganzfeld Effect—Turrell’s perceptual cells integrate the architecture of projection with the architecture of organic vision to produce a single networked extra-sensory medium. This paper performs a phenomenological analysis of Turrell’s Light Reignfall (2011) perceptual cell, following its design, effects on the viewer, and cultural and material history. In the process, the paper situates the perceptual cell between the history of avant-garde cinema (what historians have called “paracinema”) and the history of perceptual psychology and parapsychology (what the author terms “para-cinema”). Between these two paracinemas, Turrell’s perceptual cells activate the aesthetic potential of what the author discusses as “edgeless projection.”


  • 1. J. Walley, “The Material of Film and the Idea of Cinema: Contrasting Practices in Sixties and Seventies Avant-Garde Film,” October Vol. 103, 15–30 (Winter 2003).

    2. According to James Turrell, the original design called for one male one female viewer (email correspondence, March 24, 2016). However, every single instance I have encountered in person or in publicity images and catalogs features two young women.

    3. E. C. Krupp, “Under the Dome,” LACMA Unframed (February 13, 2014), <>.

    4. J.D. O’Brien, “Light Happens: Based Upon a Distant Memory and a Recent Viewing of James Turrell: A Retrospective at LACMA,” The Los Angeles Review of Books (January 25, 2014), <>.

    5. Ibid.

    6. Raymond Bellour, “Of Another Cinema,” in Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, ed. Tanya Leighton (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), p. 420.

    7. F.A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. G. Winthrop-Young and M. Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 122.

    8. Walley, 18.

    9. For a discussion of Tony Conrad’s flicker films in relationship to the post-war avant-garde’s interest in cybernetic theory and neurophysiological perception, see B.W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).

    10. P. Sharits, L.L. Cathcart, and R.E. Krauss, Paul Sharits: Dream Displacement and Other Projects (Buffalo, NY: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1976).

    11. See McCall’s remarks on his shift to gallery light installation from an initial interest in cinematographic projection in A. McCall, “Line Describing a Cone and Related Films,” October Vol. 103, 42–62 (Winter 2003).

    12. Jordan Belson’s planetarium projections received special attention in Gene Youngblood’s seminal book Expanded Cinema (New York: P. Dutton & Co., 1970).

    13. Gloria Sutton offers an excellent analysis of VanDerBeek’s Movie-Dromes in her book The Experience Machine: Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome and Expanded Cinema (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

    14. G. Didi-Huberman, “The Fable of the Place,” in James Turrell: The Other Horizon, ed. P. Noever (Vienna: MAK and Hatje Cantz, 2001), 48.

    15. G. Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 67.

    16. C. Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. C. Britton et al. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), 60.

    17. J. Wackermann, P. Pütz and C. Allefeld, “Ganzfeld-induced Hallucinatory Experience, Its Phenomenology and Cerebral Electrophysiology,” Cortex Vol. 44, No. 10, 1364–1378 (2008).

    18. J.J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception: Classic Edition (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2015), 143.

    19. For a different discussion of James Turrell’s color fields in relationship to James Gibson’s model of perception, see P. Beveridge, “Color Perception and the Art of James Turrell,” Leonardo Vol 33.4, 305–313 (2000).

    20. For a detailed account of James Turrell’s interest in perceptual psychology and the role of emerging technology in California’s Light and Space movement, see C.E. Adcock, James Turrell: the Art of Light and Space (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 61–84.

    21. J. Canales, “A Number of Scenes in a Badly Cut Film,” Histories of Scientific Observation, ed. L. Daston and E. Lunbeck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 223.