The Museum of the Sun

Essay by Paul Virilio, published in "TechnoMorphica," 1997.

The Museum of the Sun

TechnoMorphica 1997


"The art of painting cannot deceive us, because it does not have the reality of light," Schlegel wrote in the last century. 1 This raises the question of deception by live television images in our age. As they are transmitted with the speed of light, these images do possess this "reality of light," which is nothing but the "real-time" of transmissions that lights the reality of the scenes we watch.

1. "Les Tableaux," published in Atheneum, journal by August Wilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Schlegel, Berlijn, 1799.

Where pictorial representation could only pretend to compensate for immediate light because every figure happened to appear in a different time, television, thanks to live techniques, is capable of presenting this light of the moment, this sudden credibility that has eluded painting, photography and even cinema. This is where a last "horizon of visibility" emerges, that defines the perspective depth of the human environment. In fact, live television also sheds light on its own ultimate limit: the absolute speed of light. From now on, humankind no longer makes use of just the relative speed of animals and machines but also of the speed of electromagnetic waves, without realizing it hits upon an impenetrable BARRIER here. We are no longer dealing with the sound barrier or the heat barrier which are frequently smashed by supersonic or hypersonic vehicles, but with the light barrier, the ultimate frontier of an energetic intensity that limits forever all human behavior and perception.

Too often we forget that an event that takes place in the here and the now, also takes place "in the light" of a positive or negative acceleration. For example, a chance meeting of two pedestrians who address each other on a sidewalk is not the same as the unexpected meeting of two drivers who, in slowly passing by, wave at each other with the same sidewalk as the reference point of their meeting ... Imagine we would considerably increase the speed of these cars that are passing each other, "here and now." The meeting of the drivers then simply would not take place. Their reciprocal invisibility would not be caused by a phantom-like absence of their bodies, but only because their mutual perception would not last long enough for them to see each other. The meetings of the pedestrians on the sidewalk and of the drivers passing each other on the avenue most definitively take place here and now, but they also occur "in the light." In other words, these events occur "in the speed," a speed relative to the moving objects in question.

In contrast, when two people communicate in real-time through interactive techniques, the direct, face-to-face contact is made possible by the absolute speed of electromagnetic waves, regardless of the intervals in time and space that actually separate them. Here the event does not take "place" or rather, it takes place twice. The topic aspect gives way to the teletopic aspect, the unity of time and place is split between the transmission and reception of the signals, both here and there simultaneously, thanks to the technical wizardry of electromagnetic interactivity. This however does not solve the problem of the "televisual horizon" of this ephemeral encounter. Although the transparent appearance of the co-present speakers can be compared with or even regarded as analogous to the pedestrians or drivers mentioned earlier, the END POINT of their mutual perception is different. For the pedestrians meeting each other, the horizon of their perception is the end of the street. For the drivers passing each other slowly, it is the perspective of the avenue. The vanishing point of the urban perspective limits the area in which the encounters may occur. In the case of the tele-viewers watching each other in front of the screen, the horizon is not defined by "the background of the image," but by its outer limits: the frame of the screen, the framing of the transmission and above all the time allocated to their meeting before the screen darkens and becomes silent again. The "televisual horizon" therefore exists only during the transmission and the reception in real-time of the televised conversation. It is a present moment, defined by the framing of the perspective of the two tele-viewers and above all by the duration of their face-to-face encounter.

"To define the present in isolation, is to kill it," Paul Klee wrote ... 2 isn't this exactly the crime telecommunication techniques commit here, in isolating the PRESENT from its "here and now" in favor of an interchangeable elsewhere, which is no longer part of our presence in this world but only of a discrete and intermittent tele-presence?

2. "The thinking eye": The notebooks of Paul Klee, Juerg Spiller editor, Wittenborn, 1961.

This means that the real-time of telecommunication is not only, as is often argued, the opposite of the PAST, of "different time," but of PRESENCE, i.e. actuality as well. The "real" and the "represented" are being switched optically in such a way that the body of the observer is the only thing still present in his here and now and becomes the last mainstay of someone who is otherwise immersed in a virtual environment. So, following the focusing of the look of the film viewer, the "eye witness" of the small optical illusion resulting from the inertia of the retina, we are now witnessing the polarization of the body of the tele-viewer in the great electro-optical illusion of the transformation of our entire reality into waves. The immobility of the body of the witness is the culmination of the rigidity of the ocular system. Because all information converges without delay, concentrated on an attentive viewer who no longer needs to move his body in order to receive audio-visual information, the screen suddenly becomes the last horizon of visibility, a horizon of accelerated particles that replaces the extended geographical horizon to which only the body of the tele-spectator is still connected ...

Is this an appearing horizon, or a horizon of depth? The question of the optical density of our small planet as it confronts us today, is similar to that of the transparency of materials that are traditionally used for the optical correction of the direct light of the sun or of the magical electric light, such as air, water and the glasses of our spectacles. Unlike the "passive" attributes of these materials, what now concerns us are the enigmatic "active" optical qualities of indirect light of our tv-screens!

As we all know, there can be no speed without a horizon as end point. Has the frame of the picture tube really become a square horizon to us? Is this square nothing but a "cube," hiding in the two dimensions of the diminished and fragmented image of televised sequences? ... this question has yet to be answered.

We have to realize that the indirect horizon emerging at this fin-de-siecle arises from the appearance of a "third interval," of light (sign zero) besides the traditional intervals of space (sign negative) and of time (sign positive). This led to the unexpected discovery of a new PERSPECTIVE where the depth of real-time is more important than the expanse of the real terrain. From now on the world that we can experience through our senses is being illuminated by the indirect light of signs that instantaneously reduce the optical density of our planet to zero. To the spatio-temporal distortions of distances and delays caused by the speed of the physical transport and the mobility of people is now added another distortion, caused by intermittent instantaneous appearances that are transmitted from elsewhere ... The cybernization of geophysical space, the atmospheric volume included, that has steadily increased since the invention of the first automatic machines and that facilitated the emergence of advanced robots, has been rapidly increased by the new interactive techniques that have emerged so quietly. Controlling the geophysical space, which until now depended on steering moving vehicles, is being replaced by visual control of places that can be instantaneously approached ... By telescoping the near and the far and by optically amplifying the appearances of the human environment the expanse of the world suddenly becomes thin, "infra-thin."

Novalis wrote: "The true spectator is truly an artist: he guesses meaning and knows how to discern and how to retain what is important in the strange and ephemeral mixture of phenomena." 3

3. Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), "The Novices of Sais," Kurt Valentin, 1949.

In my opinion, the energetic aspects of observation, of images, or rather of information cannot be described more accurately. Indeed, when speed is not strictly speaking a phenomenon, but the relation between phenomena (relativity itself), if speed not only refers to transportation but also to seeing and insight, then the German poet describes perfectly the movements of the look that tries to capture the essential from the ephemeral stream of phenomena. This by the way is what information engineers call "image capacity." Just like microprocessors process computer images, the human eye is a powerful instrument for the analysis of visual structures, capable of determining the optical depth of events very fast (20 milliseconds). To the two existing types of potential energy (capacity) and kinetic energy (as applied), it may be necessary to add a third and last type of energy: cinematic energy (stored in information). If we don't, the relativist nature of our powers of observation might just be lost, once again separating the observer from the observed, as in the days before Galilei.

However, this historic digression is not germane. Let us return to real-time techniques. We are now capable of transmitting electro-optical images and electro-acoustical sounds at the absolute speed of elementary particles, as well as telemetric signals that enable us not only to tele-see and tele-hear but also to tele-act. Therefore many government sponsored laboratories are working very hard at improving the resolution of transmitted images in order to speed up this indirect transparency and increase the optical amplification of the natural environment. Let us not forget that the human eye edits time and space simultaneously. The ocular objectivity performs a relativistic tour-de-force: the limits of the field of vision and the successive sequences are doubled in the temporary edit of the rhythm of the images. The "act of the discerning look" therefore is no empty slogan, or else the relativity of the visible would itself be no more than a hallucination of perspective!

The search for high-definition television and high-fidelity tele-audio has to do with the controversial scientific problem of observed energy. Now that contemporary physical scientists have convinced us that the observer cannot be separated from the object of observation, we can legitimately ask what remains of the objective probability of "observed energy" which forms the basis of all measurements in experimental science ... Observed energy or the energy of observation? In leaving this question unanswered, we can still today produce high definition live television images whose imperfections are invisible to the naked eye. Because the resolution of the electronic image is superior to that of human vision, the image here would be more real than the thing it actually only represents. This literally stupefying phenomenon is possible, among other things, by speeding up the image from 25 to 50 frames per second and as we know, the subliminal limit of human perception lies at 60 frames per second. In this way the optical amplification of our natural environment emerges in this fin-de-siecle as the ultimate frontier, the last "horizon" of human's technological activity. And as improving the precision of tele-actual observation is to us today what was the conquest of territory or the expansion of empires to us yesterday, the recently popularized term "GLASNOST" is all but innocent.

Shortly after the events in Eastern Europe, in December 1990 a representative from a country bordering on the European Union declared in Strasbourg: "If they abolish the borders they have to abolish distances as well, because these are the biggest problem for the peripheral countries." In my view this sentence should be reversed in order to understand what is at stake in politics today. Now that recent developments in telecommunications have abolished distance, we should also abolish borders. With this I do not mean to only abolish the political borders of national states in favor of a federation or confederation, but that an end also has to be put to the "borders" of visibility of things that surround us, all in favor of a an ultimate time limit of the acceleration of the sequence of images. The world would then be present integrally on our screens, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As developments in transport have shortened the time we need to transport ourselves, the decreasing optical density of the horizon of visibility of our planet, that is at the MERCY of interactive technology, is accelerating. In other words, the light of the second sun illuminating all our terrains will grow stronger and stronger, as meteorological satellites inform us about the climates of the world ...

This means the end of the exterior world, of the MUNDUS of immediate appearances, where there was still the need for physical displacement, involving a certain amount of time and space. The corresponding intervals "negative" and "positive" are devalued in a peculiar manner by the interval of the absolute speed of light, the interval "zero." In this way the waves responsible for televised transmissions not only question the philosophical notion of "present time" but also that of "real moment."

To many of us the risk and the proximity of death lend a greater intensity and depth to each moment of our lives ... but is it not so, a contrario, that the new electro-magnetic techniques destroy and kill us literally by lending so much "depth" to the moment? The so-called real moment of television after all is only the moment at which our immediate consciousness disappears. In this way the intensity of the real moment steadily increases, at the expense of the "intuition of the moment" which was so dear to Gaston Bachelard.

In the case of video we are no longer dealing with the "small illusion" of the kind that in 1895 scared the viewers of the Lumiere brothers' film "The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station." We are now dealing with the liberating effects of a "grand illusion," presenting the entire world before us. This tele-presence is as little reassuring to us as the locomotive advancing on the audience was to those present at the first cinema projection. Where the relative speed of the instants of which the photogram was composed could only render the illusion of movement in the film of the Lumiere brothers, the absolute speed of the videogram makes things that are very far apart seem extremely nearby, as they pass by at the limit of visibility. The purely mechanical sequence of film at 17 or 24 images per second has been succeeded by the electronic raster of video images at 25, 30 or 50 frames per second. Therefore the real moment can only be killed on the condition that the spatial mobility of the tele-viewer is also killed, with the questionable surplus of a pure and simple on site mobility. The isolation of "the present" is above all the isolation of "the patient" who is completely isolated from the active world of sensory experience of his surroundings, in favor of a system of image feedback, resulting in the immobility of the body, in a body-to-body interactivity ... We are not dealing here with Marshall McLuhan's "global village" but with a core inertia that freezes the present world in each of its inhabitants. It is a return to the starting point for a population that is not so much concerned with the world at large and with the urbanization of the real space of our planet, as with the urbanization of real-time. When only the images of the world are distributed, we, the receivers thereof, will be increasingly "off-screen", and "out of this world."

"Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun: but if human lives many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity." 4

4. Ecclesiastes 11:7-8.

What will remain of this sweet morning light when the indirect light that is radiated by audio-visual equipment will have totally replaced the direct light and the geometrical lines of the rays of the sun? Will we place daylight in a museum and let only the indirect light of monitors filter through and determine our reality? In that case we would no longer need the crypt and the subterranean darkness, as the cast shadow would no longer belong to the sun-drenched landscape outside, but to the "virtual reality" that will totally renew our internal life. Simulators, VR-helmets and surveillance cameras announce the dusk of optical light and the dawn of electro-optical light. They foreshadow THE IMMINENT REPLACEMENT OF THE (AUDIO)VISUAL BY THE VIRTUAL. Schlegel's romantic analysis in Die Gemaelde 5 will no longer be valid: due to the speed of light the representations of appearances in real-time will be able to deceive us. The transparency of the day will be rendered insignificant by the absolute speed of electro-magnetic radiation. The only significant thing will be the TRANS-APPEARANCE of real-time tele-transmitted appearances ...

5. Friedrich Schlegel, "Die Gemaelde," French edition, Christian Bourgois, 1988.

Speed delivers us from the cosmic light. This is the paradox of a technological acceleration that will soon hit the time barrier, ending at the "real-time" of media ubiquity that unfolds only at the cost of what can be seen with the naked eye. The virtual viewing machine in this way accomplishes what painting and sculpture have, since the Quattrocento, only been able to hint at -- foreshadowing television with the subsequent invention of perspective, clair-obscur and Galilee's lenses.

So there we have it: the very last museum, the Museum of the Sun! This is where the light will be kept in which all things have been bathed since the beginning of time. This is the Museum of the Rising Sun, symbol of the Far East, concerned yet with the astronomic day but, like everywhere else, it will soon bury and shroud itself in the luminous shadows of the realm of virtual reality. Here cybernetic space will finally triumph over the geographic expanse of the world.


© 1997, Paul Virilio / V2_

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