(This is a re-adapted extract from: Chierico, Alessio. Aesthetics of Seams. The Emergence of Media Properties, Universität für künstlerische und industrielle Gestaltung Linz, 2016. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3974.0563.)
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”
The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord (1967)
Media of representation
In general sense, representation is a term which implies a distance between a subject and its reproduction. This reproduction must be considered in equal way, in any form of mediated experience. However, our aim is to focus on visual representation and to expose the seams that it wants to hide. Representation is the primary end for many kind of media, and certainly it is the fundamental intent that supported the development of the classical artistic media, like painting, sculpture, etc… About this, it is important to remember that artistic media have been historically considered as privileged tools for artistic production, according to the classical taxonomy which does not account post-media theories in art.
It is necessary to acknowledge that the most relevant step in the history of visual representation, is the invention of the perspective technique. This innovation was theorized during the Renaissance by Leon Battista Alberti, who in his essay De Pictura, dated 1436, defines this technique as follows: “First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.” (Alberti, 1972). The perspective was not a mere technique for visual composition, it dictated a new cultural paradigm which is still reiterated nowadays. According to Erwin Panofsky, the perspective can be seen as constitution of a symbolic form which strongly influenced numerous aspects of Western culture (Panofsky, 1996). For instance, terms of common use like: “perspective” and “point of view”, incarnate deep conceptual values which involves the acknowledgement of a subjectiveness, that must be socially absorbed.
According to Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, the perspective was also responsible of a great shift in visual culture: pre-perspective visual representations were made according to what the artist “know” about the image subject. After the advent of perspective (or immediately earlier, Giotto for instance) the artist started to depict what he “sees” (Gombrich, 1960). In fact, the previous quote from Alberti about perspective, imagines a window where “the subject to be painted is seen” (Alberti, 1972) and not necessarily known (Fig. 1).
In pre-perspective visual art, the representation was having iconic and illustrative value, it was supposed to recall a specific figure, context, or referent, in order to create the narrative behind the picture, without pretending that the image could be an imitation of reality. Since the perspective become a powerful tool for realistic representations, the research behind the image creation, moved toward the intent of simulate visual perception. In fact the invention of photography is a direct consequence of the invention of perspective, through the deployment of “camera obscura” technique, which was also used for painting and drawing.
Perspective, and representation travel on the same direction toward “mimesis” (in ancient Greek: μίμησις (mīmēsis), from μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai), “to imitate,” from μῖμος (mimos), “imitator”, “actor”): as a will to recreate the reality with the highest degree of fidelity possible. According to Bolter and Grusin, this is a natural process that every medium encounter during its maturation in a fully explored and controllable tool (Bolter and Grusin, 2002). The space of representation is the space of the image and the space of imagination. Vilem Flusser sees the window of Alberti as a door that is used to enter into a new reality (Flusser, 1977), which can be related to what is supposed to be real, but that do not tends to be abstract, and not necessarily detached from a mimic intent. This window should not be considered as a definition of boundaries where the representation unfold. Instead it should be conceived as design of a structure where new realities can occur.
Taking the example of the Andrea Pozzo’s fresco Glory of Sant’Ignazio (Fig. 2), made from 1685 to 1694, Pier Luigi Capucci noticed a continuity between the physical space of architecture and the virtual and infinite simulation presented by this representation. “Andrea Pozzo painted the ceiling and trompe-l’oeil dome on a wide canvas (17 m). But nothing in this picture appears to be flat and closed; indeed the space is curved and seamless expanded from the real physical world to the infinite virtual world” (Capucci, 2015). In Pozzo’s fresco the ceiling is hidden, because it is the physical support of the picture, thus, it reminds the fictional status of the image. According to Greenberg: “The limitations that constitute the medium of painting — the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment – were treated by the old masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only by implicitly or indirectly” (Greenberg, 1982). Visual media needs to hide themselves in order to satisfy the mimic intent of representation (Bolter and Grusin, 2002). The fruition of media content must be as much as possible alienated from the physical nature of the object.
If in one hand the window of Alberti becomes an imaginary layer where the representation can spread out of its borders, in the other hand it literally becomes a portable rectangular structure where the representation is confined. This is the case of canvas, which frame defines and constitutes the Alberti’s window, thus the space of representation. Lev Manovich (2009, pp. 228) and Erkki Huhtamo (2004) believe that the frame is not just a marginal element of the picture, but it has a fundamental role in isolating the fictional space from the context where is placed. In their research, both Manovich and Huhtamo find a clear connection between canvas and the screens we use today. For this reason its important to look back to the history or art, in order to understand how the forms of representation developed in our contemporaneity.
In his research about human senses, Capucci acknowledges that during the evolution, senses of distance like sight and hearing, acquired higher relevance then senses based on proximity and contact, like: taste, smell and touch. In his opinion this process explain the human fascination of immaterial, able to free the humans from the limitations of their body, and able to unfold the world of figuration and representation (Capucci, 1993). However, Capucci warns that senses of distance, float in a certain degree of ambiguity (Capucci, 2015). Sight and hearing are easy subjects of illusion and mystification. For this reason senses of contact are commonly considered and adopted as instruments of truth (this aspect remind us again the importance of materiality and tangibility, especially in Interaction Design and Human-Computer Interaction).
Nowadays, the issues related to representation and mystification of images become extremely complex. Since imaging technologies moved into digital domain, there are many new agents that influence both the image capturing process, and the image codification/decodification (construction/reconstruction). In these new technologies, the task of representation is increasingly shifting from hardware to software. Sophisticated algorithms are in charge to recreate the picture, according to aesthetic values which point to attractiveness, and that covers image aberrations. For instance, we can take into account the photographs made with smartphones: despite the great achievement in reducing the hardware size, keeping a decent quality of their cameras, the raw image they can produce is technically very poor, modest and plenty of noise and aberrations. For this reason, there are algorithms that beautify the image, covering and exploiting the aberrations, in order to achieve incredibly seductive images, which are entirely rebuild and very distant from their raw form (Fig. 3).
In reality, the image processed by these algorithms maintains very few informations about the scene depicted, in comparison to its modest original version. In this circumstances, the issue related to the referent of digital images achieve its extreme point. The artist Hito Steyerl feels that this process suggests a parallelism between the representation in digital image, and the functioning of representation concept in democratic politics. In other terms, the aesthetic distortion that elapses between the subject and its algorithmic depiction, corresponds to the distortion between the democratic system and its mediated conception (Jordan, 2014). As a sort of political statement Steyerl stands for the poor image. She believe that in the seams of its aesthetic, are contained signs which manifests the technological mediation of cultural practices (Steyerl, 2012). There are no mystifications and no intent to reproduce the reality, the medium shows itself, glorifying the transparency in a trustfully relationship with media.
The mimic will of representation points to create an immersive context which surround the spectator. This process tends to close the visual qualities of image. When the user is involved in the narrativity of representation, images aberrations, glitches,and flaws are slightly perceived (O’Regan, 1992), because the attention moves away from the image itself for focusing into the content. Paraphrasing Heidegger (2001), the image which is “ready-to-see” is not questionable, but the contemplative image which is “present-at-look” can reveal something about its nature (the concept of “ready-to hand” and “present-at-hand” by Heidegger, 2001).
Specificity as media uniqueness
In the famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, wrote in 1936, Benjamin argues that mechanical reproduction of art pieces, made possible by media like: photography, lithography, founding, etc…, enhanced by their modern developments, created the issues related to the uniqueness, authenticity and value of art. For this reason “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (Benjamin, 1968) bringing art to be closer to political practice.
According to Benjamin, the “aura” is a metaphysical element which surround the original artwork, an element which disappear when art become reproducible. Focussing on the importance of the uniqueness, Benjamin argued that:”Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, 1968).
Benjamin found that photography challenged the art field, which responded creating a new set of values and myths about art. Predicting the principles which gave birth to the concept of “medium specificity” and Modernism, he stated that:
“With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter” (Benjamin, 1968).
The critiques of Benjamin seems to be addressed against the same approach that Greenberg popularized few years later (this essay of Benjamin was initially published in 1936, the earlier works of Greenberg, about medium specificity, were published starting from 1939). It is not a case that Rosalind Krauss refers to the theories of Benjamin, in order to demonstrate that since the coming of photography, the idea of medium specificity become meaningless, and to prove that the concept of “aura” and the concept of specificity are strongly connected:
“Benjamin is famous for a deconstructive attitude toward the very idea of a medium. To this end he used photography not only as a form that erodes its own specificity – since it forces the visual image into dependence on a written caption – but as a tool to attack the idea of specificity for all the arts. This is because photography’s status as a multiple, a function of mechanical reproduction, restructures the condition of the other arts. As an example, Benjamin explained that “to an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” (Benjamin, 1979). And what follows from this is that, becoming prey to the law of commodification, the separate work of art, as well as the separate mediums of art, enter the condition of general equivalency, thereby losing the uniqueness of the work – what Benjamin called its “aura” as well as the specificity of its medium” (Krauss, 2000).
In this context the Benjamin’s definition of “aura”, is mirrored in the idea of uniqueness of the media driven representation, which emerges from the signs, fingerprints that the apparatus leaves in the representation itself. In this case, “aura” is a term that does not refers to the irreproducibility of a same content, but to the media signature, which is inherently bound to their content reproduction. In this sense, the specificity is not seen in the artistic medium, but in the representation and its device. This is a conceptual step that wants to underline how every medium conserves its uniqueness in the peculiar aesthetics that emerges from its technical properties. Contents shown by media are obviously characterized by technological qualities of the whole process of recording and reproduction. However, this focus on specificity is not addressed to modernistic visions about the meanings of art, but to modernistic visions about the meanings of media.
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