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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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The Psychology of Awe

  • On February 22, 2018

The first time seeing Black Flags by William Forsythe, I experienced a sense of wonder and awe that I could not quite explain. It is a familiar feeling, not unlike the times when I saw a brilliant sky, visited a grand cathedral or attended an affecting theatre production. I was intrigued to explore this sensation, hoping to inspire the same in my future artworks.

Scholars have described awe to be “a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion” that rests “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear” (Keltner, D. and Haidt, J., 2003). It is interesting to note the mixture of both positive and negative feelings generated from awe, since I have not previously imagined such duality. In more details, Keltner and Haidt have listed the principal features that elicit awe and the situations in which we encounter it. The two central features are “vastness” and “accommodation”, while most of the experiences are related to religion, politics, nature, and art.

The concept of “accommodation” is especially fascinating to investigate, which is characterised as “an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures”. This could possibly explain the reaction I had towards Black Flags. The robotic arms featured in the artwork took on a life-like attribute and was choreographed to wave the flag like a human dancer. The phenomenon of this has clearly clashed with my current understanding of the world, where machines are programmed to move in a precise and rigid manner. On top of that, the emergence of its kinetic intelligence was almost supernatural, which could have influenced me to feel the wonder and awe I did.

Intelligence comes in many forms, however, such as linguistic, visual, social, etc. With the emerging deep learning technologies, the machine would acquire artificial intelligence in a visual, or social capacity as it gains human-like perception. This machine skill could greatly enhance a theatrical installation if we apply it to a suitable narrative. I want to further examine the potential this approach brings, and finally incorporate it into an interactive installation art piece.


Goals for the week:

  • Construct the lightbox for the sand plotter (Thur & Fri)
  • Redesign the interactive experience and update drawing (Fri & Sat)
  • Test the lighting effect in the blackbox (Sat)
  • Document the prototype on video (Sat & Sun)
  • Edit video (Mon)



Another aspect of awe I want to explore is the creation of sublime. Burke Edmund has written in details on this subject. He also suggested, “A true artist should put a generous deceit on the spectators, and effect the noblest designs by easy methods” (Burke, E., 1792). His view is consistent with what I wrote in my last blog post, that a design is best when it is simple but honest.

After the tutorial last week, I have made adjustment to increase the quantity of the sand plotters so that the installation could appear more impactful. This new set-up would also be effective for displaying the machine learning result since for image recognition there is usually more than one output.

I have also tested translucent material with LED light strips shining underneath as a platform, so that effect of the sand drawings could be enhanced. I assembled the sand plotter with a lightbox in a black box theatre and tested it with a few of my colleagues. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the set up has made an emotional impact on them, and one in particular described that it felt like “a spirit” was talking to her.


Prototype Video:



Burke, E., 1792. A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. With an introductory discourse concerning taste, and several other additions A new., Basil: printed and sold by J. J. Tourneisen.

Keltner, D. and Haidt, J., 2003. Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17(2), p305.

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