The Sense of Being Stared at was presented on the 19th April 2016 at the international theatre festival Sismográf in Olot in 2016 as part of a durational collaborative work with the artist Ada Vilaró. In the work, four members of the group (Mireia Zantop, Lesley yendell, Paloma Orts and Denys Blacker), stood with their backs to Vilaró, who was seated at a short distance behind us.
During the two-hour durational work, Ada was instructed to fix her gaze on the back of one of the group at a time for a short duration. This was to be done in silence and with no visual contact with her and the artists. If and when they felt her gaze was fixed on them, they would raise a hand as a sign. She then marked down the times that this coincided with her actually looking at that person. The effect on the audience was mesmeric. The group appeared to be raising and lowering our hands in a choreographed way. From the audience’s point of view, the work was aesthetically pleasing but also hypnotically captivating. some of the people stayed for the full two hours to watch.
Interestingly, the majority of times that someone raised their hand they were in fact being watched by Ada. this came as a surprise, although they coincided in their experience of, at times, having had a physical sensation of being touched on the back while they were being looked at. There was also a particular moment during the piece when they all lost concentration to such a degree that they began to look at each other. Finally someone turned
to look at Ada, only to find that she had taken a break. They had felt her absence although they hadn’t seen her leave. They may have heard her leave unconsciously, but as the performance was on the street and there were many people walking by that would have been very difficult. Important qualities described by the artists after the performance were; mutual trust, knowing, agreement, confidence, open structure, non-conditional, unifying, political freedom, respect, empathy, determination and practice.
The Sense Of Being Stared At is taken from the title of a book and of an on-going investigation into telepathy, directed by the renowned british biologist Rupert Sheldrake that has been running since the 1980s. Sheldrake has been researching the apparent human ability to know when someone is looking at you even though you don’t have visual contact with that person. Many people have had the experience of feeling that someone is staring at them from behind, and on turning round to check, have been able to verify that indeed someone was looking directly at them. it is also common for the opposite to happen; a person reporting that they have the ability to make another person turn around by staring at them from behind. Sheldrake, in his paper The Sense Of Being Stared At, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS), states that in Europe and North America, between 70% and 98% of the people questioned, admitted to having had this experience. This phenomenon now has a scientific name; “scopaesthesia” from the greek word skopein, to look at, and aesthesis, sensation. over the last 30 years or more, Sheldrake has carried out thousands of trials that consistently show significant results to support his claims about this strange human ability.
Even though these experiments have been conducted following rigorous scientific methodology, there is harsh criticism of his research. He has been called a heretic, his work dubbed paranormal and attempts have even been made to discredit the way his experiments are conducted. The American neuroscientist Christof Koch refused to comment on Sheldrake’s paper on the subject, answering the invitation to peer review it in a letter saying, ‘I think it is a waste of time’. Sheldrake’s work has been controversial for many years. In 1981, John Maddox, the editor of Nature magazine titled his review of Sheldrake’s book, ‘A New Science of Life, a book for burning?’.This is a field of research that inspires deep resistance and prejudice. Sheldrake has noted that his most vehement critics are also atheists.
Sceptisism is healthy when the facts are examined beforehand, but many of his critics refuse to even look at the evidence. Why is this so? What is it that makes for such extreme reactions?