Phantom Portraits

Phantom Portrait Prints: Barbara Ellison

Perhaps what distinguishes us humans from the rest of the world is our insatiable desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We just cannot help actively searching for patterns. We have a passion for patterns. Our brains our pattern-detection machines that connect the dots making it possible to uncover meaningful relationships among the barrage of sensory input we face. If I see patterns that don’t exist then I am making what is called a “type 1 error” or false positive. From a psychological perspective this has been termed “Apophenia” and Pareidolia.

I am currently working on a project, which explores the psychological phenomenon of Apophenia and Pareidolia. They describe the way we often mistakenly perceive significant form in vague or meaningless random stimulus where is none.Pareidolia is a type of Apophenia, the psychological phenomenon of perceiving patterns in randomness. We have all had the experience of seeing animal forms in clouds, faces in rocks , or a recent example which showed Mother Teresa on a cinnamon bun! The core of this project centers on the fact that perception is interpretation and we are hardwired to see faces and forms all around us. Your brain can be fooled, you can be fooled.Our brain actively process sensory input, making many assumptions, and forcing fits to recognized patterns.

Our brains do not give a truly objective and accurate representation of the world. It give a human one – full of pattern recognition – sometimes real, sometimes forced.
I am exploring this domain in many ways and one current plan in development is to make a series of prints ( large scale and multiples of smallers scale works) which could be presented in the festival. They would be part of a limited edition of prints.

They are called Phantom Portraits and the series shall be titled “Through a glass darkly” They are termed as such both because of how ghostly they appear and due to the way they are produced. The process involves using a computer programe which uses algorithms to generate generations of random polygons. Then face detection software scans the polygons until it “sees a face”. I work with these polygon structures to createthe portraits. From up close, they are quite abstract and blurry, but from a distance they appear to be lifelike..Humans naturally and regularly experience Pareidolia, and it appears that so can computers. Illusions occur when physical reality doesn’t match perception.


Avatar is a ‘microperformance’ film (Duration circa 10’00’’) which could be screened, during the screening session at the festival. It’s a sound and film piece.
It is a new project I am working on which plays with the creation of a talking and singing Avatar which I have given life to from a still photograph in a magazine. I call her Java, her movements are somewhat restricted but she looks and appears to be strangely real and with life.