Introduction: A Brief History of Hiding in Plain Sight

  • Daniel Nevers, Curator

The notion of hiding in plain sight originally developed in the 1600s as a military tactic that posited that soldiers could occupy any space on the open battlefield as long as they remained out of the line of view of their enemies. As weapons technology advanced and combat evolved beyond rank-and-file fighting, the concept expanded to include early forms of camouflage.

Some 200 years later, Edgar Allen Poe established himself as the father of the modern detective story with the “The Purloined Letter,” published in 1844.1 It features C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur sleuth (and the model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes), uncovering the whereabouts of a scandalous missing letter. The plot hinges upon a trope of the genre that Poe is also credited with creating—namely, that the best place to hide something is often right out in the open.

As a theory, hiding in plain sight relies more on the limits of human perception than outright trickery. The paradox of the visible remaining unperceived is a function of our need to filter sensory information in order to navigate the world. According to Eviatar Zerubavel, author of Hidden in Plain Sight: The Social Structure of Irrelevance, the discrepancy between all that we could see versus what we actually notice underscores the critical role of intent attention to our perception. 2

The Monkey Business Illusion by Daniel Simmons. Daniel Simons, 2010

In 1999, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris designed a study to test what psychologists call “inattentional blindness.”3 Participants in the study were instructed to watch a short video of people in white shirts and black shirts playing basketball and to count the number of times the players in the white shirts passed the ball. At one point, someone in a gorilla suit walks into the frame, looks into the camera, and beats their chest before exiting through the teams of players. Post-viewing, about half of the participants said they had not seen the gorilla.

Focusing our attention on one thing can cause us to overlook another even if the latter is designed to be obvious. At a time when we are bombarded with ever-increasing amounts of information performing for our attention, it is possible to suffer from spectacle fatigue.

There are also social and cultural components to perception, according to Zerubavel. As members of distinct communities, “we are socialized into culturally, sub-culturally (ideologically, professionally), and historically specific norms, conventions, and traditions of attending that actually determine what we come to regard as attention-worthy and what we effectively ignore.”4

Seeing, in other words, is not just a phenomenological act but a psychological and sociological one. Perhaps it seems obvious that factors such as family, politics, and geography shape what we deem important, but they also impact how and what we physically see. The implications are far-reaching: Because we tend to take as fact what we see with our own eyes, the notion that our vision is partially shaped by larger influences forces us to question how we know what we know.

Through a sophisticated interplay between materiality, image and idea, the artists included in this exhibition encourage viewers to understand that there is often more to what we see than our senses recognize upon first glance. They purposely deploy strategies that challenge our perception, not to deceive but to reveal.


  1. Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Purloined Letter” in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Harper and Bros. 1910.
  2. Zerubavel, Eviatar. “Noticing and Ignoring.” in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Social Structure of Irrelevance. New York. Oxford University Press. 2015.
  3. Chabris, C., & Simons, D. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us. New York, NY, US: Crown Publishers/Random House. 2010.
  4. Ibid.