Runa Islam and the Art of the Afterimage

As you enter ‘There Not There’ you will immediately notice the exhibition’s centrepiece: a smaller room containing Runa Islam’s captivating video, ‘Stare Out (Blink)’. In this 16 mm film, we are confronted with the negative of a woman’s face staring out at us. Before we know it, the film cuts to a blank screen – yet, we continue to see a dark outline of her face. How is this optical illusion achieved? And more importantly, how does this shape our experience of Runa Islam’s work?

Images that persist after they have disappeared are known as ‘negative afterimages’. The human eye is made up of numerous photoreceptors, which are cells that convert light into neurological signals. Negative afterimages are caused when these photoreceptors adapt to overstimulation. Usually, when viewing multiple images, the eye will make small movements known as ‘microsaccades’. This ensures that no photoreceptor cell is over stimulated at any given time. However, if the eye remains too steady, these small movements are not enough.


In ‘Stare Out (Blink)’, Runa Islam encourages us to stare at the arresting gaze of the stranger’s face before us. This means that when the screen unexpectedly turns blank, our eyes are slow in making the ‘microsaccades’ necessary to process the new image. On top of this, our eyes view afterimages in an antagonistic manner. According to Ewald Hering, the eye processes colour through three opponent channels: red versus green, blue versus yellow and black versus white. Therefore, a green image will produce a magenta afterimage and so on. Hence, even after Islam’s negative of woman’s face is gone, we see it linger before us as a black afterimage upon the white screen.



Runa Islam’s work has developed out of her interest in the methods of filmmaking: in particular the illusionary nature of the medium. She often uses film to question the ways in which new technologies mediate how we see the world.  Adopting diverse methods in the presentation of her work, Islam disrupts, alters and enhances visual perceptions. In ‘Stare Out (Blink)’, Islam uses technology to outsmart the most evolutionary advanced computer: the human brain. In creating an optical illusion – the afterimage – Islam draws our attention to the phenomenal capabilities of the human brain in recognizing, interpreting and processing visual signals on a daily basis.


In ‘There Not There’, Islam’s piece encapsulates the over-arching concept of the exhibition. In displaying a form of active disappearance that nonetheless persists in the mind, her work epitomises the ambiguous space between being ‘there’ and ‘not there.’ Viewed in a darkened space at eye-level, this work is truly a must-see when visiting the exhibition.

Hannah Marynissen


Further reading:


Bender, Feldman and Sobin: ‘Palinopsia’ in ‘Brain: A Journal of Neurology’, 1968.

Kamitani, Nishida and Shimojo, ‘Afterimage of Perceptually Filled-in Surface’ in ‘Science’, 2001.


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