Sunday, September 25, 2011


Mutations of Visuality: the Screen
by Virginijus Kinčinaitis

Bronius Kutavičius. Vilniaus albumas. Sąsiuvinis Nr. 1.
1978, šilkografija, 60x45,2
Contemporary art exhibitions often disappoint many a visitor by showing “only image projections instead of real art”. On the other hand, adepts of media art do not even bother to attend traditional exhibitions. Why should they “look for art where it is not?”
Traditionalists can clearly see that material picture has been traded for dematerialized screen image. Multiple projections of the image on the wall are a parody of the painting, once surrounded by the aura of a frame. However, is not the same framed picture a kind of a prototype of the screen? It seems like all possible screens trace their pre-history to the picture.
The “screen” has been unanimously defined as a framed, virtual, two-, three- or four-dimensional space. The classical screen, according to Lev Manovich, a leading theoretician of new media, is exactly same framed painting. The dynamic screen (video, TV or cinema) emerged a hundred of years ago. Yet another development of the screen are multiple windows or “little screens” we open on the monitor of our PCs. In video art, the screens are cut, superimposed, manipulated in other ways. Gradually traditional screens abandon their frame and turn into virtual space where physical space of the body and the framed artificial space fuse into one, virtual space, overwhelming to the senses and sight. The invention of the radar had a tremendous impact on the new concept of the screen and the development of the opportunities provided by it. Whereas photography and film stock captures one single event and presents it in the past tense, the radar transmits the image in the present tense, dramatically transforming its very nature. The radar has come to dominate all the contemporary audiovisual culture. Video monitors, computer screens exploit its function to capture the changing object in real time. Thus, the real time type of the screen is taking place of both the classical screen (of the painting) and the dynamic screen.
Such, in a nutshell, is the genealogy of computer screen and virtual space as presented by Lev Manovich. The classical screen gives a static and permanent image, the dynamic screen, a moving image from the past, the real time screen shows the present.
In terms of space, the classical screen “freezes” both the image and the viewer: with the eyes being fixed on the vanishing point, the viewer’s body looses the freedom of movement. The artists of the 16th - 17th centuries were imprisoned inside camera obscura. The early photography continued along the same lines of the static principle. Long exposition times made both photographer and his model freeze. The first movie theatres were still open for movement, but with the advent of the classical cinema, the viewer started to identify himself with the character and got confined to a static mode of viewing. The faster the camera moved, the more static the viewer became.
What happens to the viewer with the emergence of virtual screenless space? Manovich claims that it creates an entirely new relationship of the viewer’s body and the image. In contrast to cinema, the viewer is now supposed to move to be able to experience the movement in the virtual space. On the other hand, the virtual space also limits the movement of a human body turning him into a hostage of the machine. In search of an alternative to such a concept of the screen, Manovich asks whether it could not be replaced by a fresco, mosaic or wall painting, provided the illusionary space and physical space are of the same scale and transitions between the two spaces are inconspicuous. In the 19th century this tradition reached its peak in the wax figure museum, dioramic and panoramic images. Similarly to virtual reality, a panoramic image creates the illusion of 380-degree space. The viewer appears in the centre of such a space that in fact is empty and is intended to make the viewer move. It does not belong to the physical space of the viewer, but is the location of imaginary action, in other words, an extension of the virtual space. The panoramas, cycloramas and cineramas of the 19th century were an intermediate stage of virtuality.
The audiovisual, screen culture displays a rapid tendency towards mobility and miniature scale. According to Lev Manovich, mobile phones, portable computers and video players may soon turn into a microchip attached to the corneal of the eye, plugged into a universal network. Some day the eye and the screen may fuse into one bringing the end of the traditional screen.
However, according Manovich, we still live in physical space even though under the siege of constantly multiplying screens. Yet exactly like several hundred years ago, the classical definition of the screen applies, it is just a regular, square plane through which our glance is directed to virtual space, yet physically it remains within our bodily space. What matters is that the mentioned transformations of the screen, the ways of accumulation and proliferation of visual information provide for new type of experience, redefining the contours of our identity and relationships. The mode of visualizing the world has direct implications for the nature of societies, values and mindsets, and of course, forms of art. Projected images dominating world exhibitions is a response of the world of art to this new situation that can be reflected upon, recreated or criticized only by a “screen discourse”. On the other hand, none of these developments would be possible without their prototype - the classical painting and the perspective applied in it, panoramic entertainment, or traditional movie theatre. Such an “archeological” approach and parallels between video projection and antique fresco or a projection of image produced by laterna magica should be noted more frequently. This would allow to avoid hasty classification into contemporary “screen” type art and “traditional” art and provide for a more universal perspective of visual culture and its impact on artistic expression.

dailė 2007/1 9

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