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Excerpt Image to Interaction

An excerpt from Arjen Mulder's book 'From Image to Interaction' (2011), as used in the Blowup Reader 'We Are All Crew'.

Tele­vi­sion re­me­di­ates the tech­ni­cal im­age me­dia of pho­tog­ra­phy and film – they can still be seen on the small screen ev­ery day – though it is not it­self pho­to­graph­ic but elec­tron­ic and, more re­cent­ly, dig­ital.

The elec­tron­ic im­age is con­struct­ed in re­al time by an elec­tro­mag­net guid­ing a bun­dle of elec­trons over the flu­ores­cent in­te­ri­or of a vac­uum cath­ode ray tube, mov­ing from the up­per left to the low­er right, like an eye over lines of type in a book. The im­age one sees on the mon­itor is con­struct­ed of lines, but they do not fol­low the con­tours of a body or ob­ject or even an ab­stract log­ic of their own with­in the im­age plane. They move in one di­rec­tion on­ly, al­ways along the same route, fixed in a sin­gle ge­om­etry. The elec­tron­ic im­age is not com­posed but writ­ten. Of all the pos­si­bil­ities con­tained in draw­ing and paint­ing, on­ly hor­izon­tal lines – the ones Mon­dri­an called “fem­inine” – re­main in the light-​writ­ten im­age. An elec­tron­ic im­age does con­sist of ac­tive points, lines and planes, but they form not a sketch, com­po­si­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion but a raster. A pho­to­graph evokes an il­lu­sion of still­ness, a film one of move­ment; a screen evokes the il­lu­sion of an im­age. The elec­tron­ic im­age is much more flex­ible than the pho­to­graph­ic im­age and many times more ab­stract than the most ab­stract paint­ing. The col­ors and in­ten­si­ties of the points of light in the pic­ture lines de­ter­mine the pat­tern the view­er will see, and this is of­ten in­ter­pret­ed in a pho­to­graph­ic way. Yet pho­to­genic­ity, the unique qual­ity of the pho­to­graph­ic im­age, does not oc­cur on the screen; in­stead, there is tele­genic­ity, which lasts much longer. A pop­ular TV per­son­al­ity can live on tele­genic­ity for years. A rep­re­sen­ta­tion can be fas­ci­nat­ing on the screen but make a bor­ing print­ed im­age. Stills from a per­for­mance by a tele­genic per­son­al­ity al­ways lack the sparkle that was present dur­ing the broad­cast. The elec­tron­ic im­age is a new­com­er to the em­pire of im­ages and is nei­ther tra­di­tion­al nor tech­ni­cal but un­sta­ble in na­ture (how­ev­er il­lu­so­ry the con­tin­uous move­ment in a pro­ject­ed film is, the im­ages on the cel­lu­loid are sta­ble). In the ear­ly 1950s, Mar­shall McLuhan ex­pressed sur­prise that peo­ple con­sid­ered the small, streaky, gray tele­vi­sion im­age, then viewed main­ly in bars, more cap­ti­vat­ing than the vivid, crys­tal-​clear Tech­ni­col­or films pro­ject­ed on the enor­mous screens of the movie Trans­for­ma­tion and Play – 185 palaces.

In 1948, nine­ty mil­lion Amer­icans went to the movies each week; by 1951, just 54 mil­lion did, out of a pop­ula­tion of 160 mil­lion. McLuhan’s ex­pla­na­tion was that tele­vi­sion was a “cool” medi­um and Tech­ni­col­or was a “hot” one. Since there was so lit­tle to see on the TV screen, you had to pay close at­ten­tion to make it out. View­ers ac­tive­ly con­struct­ed the im­age in their imag­ina­tions, and this led to the au­di­ence’s in­tense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with and in­ter­nal­iza­tion of the elec­tron­ic im­age. Some movie stars who were daz­zling on the sil­ver screen turned out to be unim­pres­sive on tele­vi­sion; oth­ers were at their best there. The same was and is true of politi­cians, com­men­ta­tors and oth­er pub­lic fig­ures. The hazier the mes­sage, the stronger the re­cep­tion. The clear­er the im­age, the less close­ly it is watched. The Tech­ni­col­or film im­age does not heat up the imag­ina­tion: the ex­cess of vi­su­al in­for­ma­tion makes us keep our dis­tance and re­flect. Hot me­dia keep at­ten­tion cool; cool ones warm the emo­tions.[1]

McLuhan de­scribed and an­alyzed the es­sen­tial tele­vi­su­al ex­pe­ri­ence: the im­age ac­ti­vat­ed the view­er, stim­ulat­ed his or her imag­ina­tion. What an elec­tron­ic il­lu­sion of an im­age has that an ac­tu­al­ly ex­ist­ing tra­di­tion­al or tech­ni­cal im­age lacks is that it does not take a round­about route via mean­ing to reach the view­er; he or she must ac­tive­ly ab­sorb and pro­cess it, in a form of agen­cy pho­tog­ra­phy and film can on­ly evoke through ar­ti­fi­cial vague­ness or un­usu­al per­spec­tives. Films and pho­tographs cre­ate sus­pense through what hap­pens out­side the im­age; TV, through what is seen. A tele­vi­sion im­age is not an icon, an in­dex or a sym­bol but a mir­ror. It is not aimed at some­thing be­hind or with­in it­self but at what lies be­fore it: the view­ers. The goal is not to make some­thing vis­ible but to achieve an ef­fect. And this worked amaz­ing­ly well in the 1950s and 1960s. First it caused a rev­olu­tion in Hol­ly­wood, and then in so­ci­ety as a whole. The ’60s were pure ear­ly TV ex­pe­ri­ence, from the Viet­nam War protests to eco­log­ical aware­ness and fa­mil­iar­ity with home­grown youth cul­tures. Be­cause of its in­ter­nal­iz­ing pow­er, the tele­vi­sion im­age is suit­ed to break­ing through hi­er­ar­chi­cal thought frame­works but al­so to dis­ci­plin­ing the pop­ula­tion in­to iden­ti­fi­able, ac­ces­si­ble tar­get groups and po­lit­ical pref­er­ences. Be­cause the TV im­age was cool, it was demo­crat­ic, in the sense that any­one who con­trolled the elec­tron­ic im­age could de­ter­mine the po­lit­ical agen­da.[2]

That con­trol was it­self de­moc­ra­tized in the ear­ly 1970s with the in­tro­duc­tion of video cam­eras and edit­ing equip­ment. Video art was orig­inal­ly a po­lit­ical move­ment, a takeover of a medi­um, part­ly for the pur­pose of mak­ing op­po­si­tion­al im­ages and crit­ical jour­nal­ism and part­ly to ex­plore the medi­um it­self and sup­ply it with new pos­si­bil­ities. Al­lan Kaprow’s dis­tinc­tion be­tween life­like art and art­like art ap­plies per­fect­ly to video art. Doc­umen­tary video art showed the view­er the world out­side, and be­fore long most of it was be­ing shot in con­crete of­fice build­ings and con­fer­ence rooms: ev­ery ac­tivist video art tape had a po­lit­ical aim, even if it is some­times hard to spot from a con­tem­po­rary per­spec­tive. Art­like video art was po­lit­ical­ly ac­tivist as well, but its fo­cus from the start was on chang­ing the art of the day. “Closed video cir­cuits” com­prised of cam­eras and mon­itors made it pos­si­ble for the view­er to ap­pear in the im­age; this was yet an­oth­er de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion, but it al­so sparked de­bate over “artis­tic con­tent.” Nam June Paik’s clas­sic Video Bud­dha (1974), lat­er re­named TV Bud­dha,[3] sums up this kind of video art. A Bud­dha stat­ue watch­es a live video im­age of it­self on a mon­itor. The most fleet­ing of things – a tele­vi­sion im­age con­struct­ed fifty times a sec­ond – com­mu­ni­cates with the least fleet­ing, the eter­nal Bud­dha. Each is en­light­ened, one tech­ni­cal­ly, the oth­er spir­itu­al­ly. Their light comes from with­in, and each looks in­ward. The Bud­dha stat­ue does not see the video any more than the video sees the Bud­dha. They trans­mit each oth­er’s im­age, but the ones watch­ing are us, the view­ers, the out­siders. And the joke of the piece is that we can stand be­hind the Bud­dha and wave at the cam­era, rup­tur­ing the Zen com­pul­sion of the closed cir­cuit. Much of the video art of the elec­tron­ic and ear­ly dig­ital im­age was de­vot­ed to show­ing the op­po­si­tion or dis­tinc­tion be­tween tech­nol­ogy and na­ture, be­tween hard screens and soft flows. In this con­stel­la­tion, video art rep­re­sents the cul­tur­al fac­tor con­nect­ing na­ture and tech­nol­ogy. All the mur­mur­ing wa­ter and sway­ing fo­liage in ear­ly video art was meant as a state­ment about the video im­age it­self. Video art re­sponds to the out­side world by hold­ing the world’s me­di­al char­ac­ter up to the light.[4] Artists be­came in­ter­est­ed in Bud­dhism when they dis­cov­ered that for cen­turies monks in Ky­oto had been rak­ing their gar­dens in pic­ture lines. Af­ter Zen (“The sound of one line scan­ning”), nu­mer­ous oth­er mys­tics fol­lowed. San Juan de la Cruz, Meis­ter Eck­hart, Ru­mi and the vi­sion­ary nuns, but al­so sci­en­tists and opera di­rec­tors, helped build the men­tal space of the video medi­um. Video art un­locked a world of still­ness and emo­tion­al pre­ci­sion, of at­ten­tion and over­whelm­ing­ness. Bruce Nau­mann’s spi­ralling neon text “The true artist helps the world by re­veal­ing mys­tic truths” looks like a joke, but he meant it com­plete­ly se­ri­ous­ly. There is noth­ing to see in the world but one­self; true be­ing lies with­in.

Count­less films and in­stal­la­tions rep­re­sent the video sense of life by zoom­ing in on an eye and div­ing in­to the black pupil and the dark un­known world be­yond. The video eye is a por­tal to an­oth­er ter­ri­to­ry, an in­land sea of in­fi­nite meta­mor­pho­sis, what Deleuze and Guat­tari called “the body with­out or­gans.”[5]

[1] Mar­shall McLuhan, Un­der­stand­ing Me­dia: The Ex­ten­sion of Man

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Cin­ema 1: The Move­ment-​Im­age (trans. Hugh Tom­lin­son and Bar­bara Hab­ber­jam) (Lon­don: Con­tin­uum 2005) and Cin­ema 2: The Time-​Im­age (trans. Hugh Tom­lin­son and Robert Gale­ta) (Lon­don: Athlone, 1989).

[3] Gilles Deleuze, Cin­ema 2: The Time-​Im­age. Pg 18

[4] Louis Del­luc, “Pho­togénie” (1920) in Philip Simp­son et al. (eds.) Film The­ory: Crit­ical Con­cepts in Me­dia and Cul­tur­al Stud­ies (New York: Rout­ledge, 2003).

[5] Jean Ep­stein, “On Cer­tain Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Pho­togénie”, in Richard Abel, French Film The­ory and Crit­icism (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press 1993).

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