[-empyre-] July on empyre: Screens (week 3)

Sean Cubitt sean.cubitt at unimelb.edu.au
Tue Jul 17 00:32:44 EST 2012

Hi Scott, Ho Empyricists

Persistence in the fun and fury is a great description: everything in flux, but there are objects in the flow that crystallise, even for a short moment, the relationships we have with each other, with technologies and with the world – in short with images. Gunter Kress a few years ago wrote about ‘Screen’: Metaphors of Display, Partition, Concealment and Defence (Visual Communications 9(2), 2004): responding to it in a very useful discussion of screens in Cinema Journal 51(2) 2012 – wh. also has a great contribution from Erkki Huhtamo who joins us later this month -  Charles Acland writes that there's virtue in sticking with the 'simplest notion of a screen – that a screen is a surface for animation' . We would need to have another discussion about what constitutes an image (in the age of data visualisation) to describe the screen as intermediary between observer/user and image/text/diagram – and a detailed account of how such different screens as handhelds, electronic billboards, domestic, theatrical etc screens of specific affordances, sizes, shapes etc act as conduits and/or barriers and/or filters of content (which as McLuhan told us is always another medium) - let alone (as many of the contributors to this discussion are expert in) the valences of animated text

The screen is a relation that appears as an object: interestingly enough that is a close pass to one of Marx's formulations about the commodity – a real relation between people that appears to them in the fantastical guise of an object. Leading to a supposition – that the specificity of any individual screen design (and associated experience?) is an expression of the specific form taken by the commodity at a specific moment in the evolution of capital. Taken at its largest scale: the ubiquity of screens expresses the ubiquity of capital. Taken at the microscale: the 960x640 iPhone 4S display is designed (though disputed) to match the maximum resolution at 12 inches of normal human eyesight. The demon is the word 'normal': the standard observer (invented in 1931 for purposes of calibrating colours) is a biopolitical construct. The screen is intended to give the impression of continuity in a device whose principle is discrete. It is "good enough" technology, a principle of modern screen design. It could be described as an attempt to articulate device and physiology of the eye into a single seamless continuum articulating the myth of instant personal and biologically-integrated satisfaction at the heart of the atomistic personalisation of neo-liberal consumerism.

This kind of analysis (okay, you might not like the Marxism, but the articulation of design with socio-cutural formations) is a kind of rock in the stream: an empirical notch to anchor, even if only momentarily, and materialise the complex of relations between us and what we view – to make the immaterial and invisible screen material and visible – which is what I think Simon was kicking us off towards?

The more transparent (AR) and weightless (wearable) the screen, the more important it is to notice that, however briefly and intermedially it exists, it exists.


From: Scott McQuire <mcquire at unimelb.edu.au<mailto:mcquire at unimelb.edu.au>>
Reply-To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au<mailto:empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>>
Date: Monday, 16 July 2012 07:14
To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au<mailto:empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>>
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] July on empyre: Screens (week 3)

Hi everyone

I haven’t had a chance to participate in the discussion so far but now that I’m back in Melbourne I figure that I’m ahead of you all (in time zone terms at least!).   So, after an enjoyable read of most of the posts so far, let me launch into week 3.

One of the things that many people seem to agree on is that there is a new screen paradigm emerging defined by ubiquity, interactivity and so on. I agree with this analysis in part, but
I am also struck by the persistence of certain configurations. In his introduction, Simon suggested that older screen modalities such as cinema and television were disappearing. I think this is far from the case. Cinema numbers in fact grew rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s (especially in Asia) and today there are probably more cinema screens in the world than ever before.   This is not to say that cinema in 2012 is the same thing as it was in 1990 or 1950 (half those cinema screens are now digital — a term which covers a plethora of different projectors and operating systems, not to mention social and cultural affiliations).

What I want to underline here is the incredible stability of screen architecture over the century-plus history of cinema.  Understanding why change to screen architecture is slow is partly a way of attending to the specificity that those such as Sean Cubitt and Ian Bogost have been insisting on throughout this discussion. It’s also a way of resituating debates over the current emergence of new screen locations and modalities.

I would argue that there has only ever been one major change to the cinema screen in over one hundred years — the change from the academy ratio format that was standardized in the 1920s to the widescreen formats that took over the from the mid-50s. This stability reflects a number of factors such as the need for standardized formats to enable the industrial mode of content production that characterizes cinema from the 1920s, and the fact that changing screen image ratio demands changing the most expensive aspect of exhibition — the real estate.  In other words, to have a taller or wider screen often demands a different building.

Widescreen could have been introduced much earlier — all the technical capabilities were there in the 1920s when filmmakers such as Abel Gance experimented with multi-screen formats. But, as John Belton points out, unlike the introduction of sound in the 1920s, there were no influential corporations such as AT&T, RCA, Westinghouse and Western Electric, which all held sound recording patents, and thus had a vested interest in expanding the market for sound equipment. So it wasn’t until the 1950s that widescreen was introduced as a necessary response to the crisis caused by plummeting audiences who were all turning on to television.

I’d add two partial exceptions to this argument.  One is IMAX.  This is definitely a different screen format and one worth discussing more. But it really only survived thanks to the long-term support of Canadian tax-payers, who sustained it for several decades and allowed the format to overcome the perennial chicken and egg problem of content and venues (why make large format films if there’s nowhere to screen them?  Why build venues if there’s no content?)

The other, of course, is the digital threshold which is now significantly impacting cinema exhibition after a decade or so of slow take-up. I agree this a major change to the cinema apparatus, assuming this term extends beyond technology and equipment to embrace new forms content (live events) and relations to audiences (3D, interactivity).

However, in many respects the basic arrangement of the exhibition space, in which the spectator sits immobilized, silent, and in darkness facing a magnified luminous image, has been there for a century.  Arguably the experience of sound in cinema that has changed far more radically in the last 20 years than has the screen— I think Johannes Birringer mentions this —but agree that’s a different issue.

This is a long way round of saying that cinema is not disappearing, but is now complemented by a range of other screens, both mobile and embedded. If we understand cinema as a specific viewing situation, we can see how it continues in some respects elsewhere: for instance, with the growing standardization of video art displayed in galleries where the model of single-channel projection onto a wall has become a de facto standard exhibition format.  The key variation here is the (potential) mobility of the spectator, and the variety of points at which they enter/exit the screening (Boris Groys etc).  We can also appreciate the way that some of the newer modalities, such as large screens situated in public space, are capable of recreating something like the collective experience of film watching that was a key aspect of its political valence for theorists like Walter Benjamin.

I did want to keep this post short – something I haven’t managed to do! – so I’m not going to
broach the changes introduced by the personal screen of the handheld device.  But I do want to want to make a case for recognizing continuity and persistent elements midst the fun and fury of paradigm change.

Warm regards, Scott

Dr. Scott McQuire,
Associate Professor and Reader, School of Culture and Communication,
University of Melbourne, VIC 3010.
Office: Rm 124 John Medley (Building 191, enter at gate 10)
T: +61 (0)3 8344 8194 F: +61 (0)3 8344 5494 E: mcquire at unimelb.edu.au

On 16/07/12 8:02 AM, "Simon Biggs" <simon at littlepig.org.uk> wrote:

Welcome to week three of the empyre discussion on the topic of screens. We would like to thank this past week's invited discussants Simone Arcangi and Charlie Gere, as well as all the empyre members who have contributed to the discussion.

After the, at times, intense debate of the first week, considering what defines a screen as a screen and the scope of our topic, the second week has focused more on the inter-agency of the apparatus of (or around) the screen and its viewers/users. That the screen has shifted from being primarily an object of visual contemplation to something we employ in our interactions with other things has been noted. However, the  screen has its histories and theoretical baggage and it remains a challenge for us to consider it anew - and perhaps it would be erroneous to dispatch that historical baggage.

This weeks invited discussants have been key in the theorisation and historicisation of the screen. They are recognised for their panoramic overview of the subject and having contributed at critical moments to debates around both old and new media. They are:

Sean Cubitt, University of Southampton, UK.
Sean is currently Professor at Winchester School of Art but starts at Goldsmiths, University of London, in August, previously working  at Melbourne and Waikato (New Zealand) Universities. He edits the Leonardo Book Series for MIT Press. Forthcoming publications include anthologies on ecocinema, media art history, the history of British video art and transitions from analog to digital imaging. He is working on a new book on environmentalism, globalisation and political aesthetics. His recent work includes a history of screens, tracing the form of LCD and plasma displays, as well as cinema and data projection, from printing technologies of the 19th century onwards. With luck, a book tracing this history, alongside histories of colour and other visual technologies, will be published in 2013. Its central theme is that Western media have moved from a semantic and hierarchical model of vision to a democratic but arithmetic one which shares its formal properties with the demands of bio-politics and the commodity form of the 21st century

Scott McQuire, University of Melbourne, Australia.
Scott McQuire has a strong interest in the social and cultural transformations surrounding the deployment of new media technologies. In 2004 he co-founded the Spatial Aesthetics program for interdisciplinary research linking media, art, social theory and urbanism. Scott is author or co-editor of 7 books including The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (2008) and the Urban Screens Reader (2009). His work in the emerging field of urban communication has pioneered new ways of understanding the social impact of large video screens situated in public space. He teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

Simon Biggs
simon at littlepig.org.uk http://www.littlepig.org.uk/ @SimonBiggsUK skype: simonbiggsuk

s.biggs at ed.ac.uk Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh
http://www.eca.ac.uk/circle/  http://www.elmcip.net/  http://www.movingtargets.co.uk/
MSc by Research in Interdisciplinary Creative Practices

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