Saint-Germain, the room is red, the film is yet to begin. On the opposite wall, a white rectangle, large and dormant. Next to me, a stranger focuses his attention on a different rectangle, held in his right hand, its image sliding fluidly under his moving thumb. He scans his Facebook tirelessly. I notice that the interface has changed: it’s clearer, less cluttered, more streamlined. To the eye, the distinction is lost between the logo (blue letters on a white background), static at the top left of the page, and the other images, succeeding each other in a vertical stream, draped in white, like a binding agent. A binding agent is a product used to bind particles into a solid mass. Particle 1: logo, particle 2: stream. In a few minutes, when the room is plunged into darkness, the stranger will be captivated by the larger rectangle, deserting one mass of moving images for another, of a different nature, and yet.
The film starts, Outrage, by Takeshi Kitano. A story about the yakusa. The opening scene: a clan gathering, the lieutenants lunch while their underlings wait in the parking lot. At the end of the meal, the 親分 [oyabun], the clan leader, confronts one of his lieutenants, suspected of treason. A high angle static shot of a country road. We see the procession of vehicles leaving the 親分 [oyabun]’s estate. After a beat, the last vehicle comes into view, inside it the suspected lieutenant, delayed by the confrontation. We hear the conversation in the car, we see the car approaching. The camera pivots, moving above the vehicle, the stream of images freezes, and suddenly the title is stuck to the onscreen image in red letters, warning that the price to be paid will be blood. For a few seconds, there are two particles overlaid on screen. Particle 1: the stream of images, particle 2: the film’s title, a word written with the density of an image (in other words, a typographic choice). From the space in between, meaning springs. The first and second particles do not share the same degree of abstraction — the filmed images are designed to resemble reality, while the typography has a symbolic relationship to reality. From the combination of the two, the overall image of the film emerges, the one that forms in the mind of the viewer and will remain, once the room emerges from darkness and the screen becomes once again dormant. The image of the film, like that of the interface, is fragmented. All images are fragmented.
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(1) A man in the foreground unfurls a scroll on which we can see a map and some writing. Behind him, surrounded by a hazily outlined landscape, is a floating city. The man stands above the town. He overlooks the cloud that separates him from the city, but, since he is standing in front of an architectural structure (a parapet), he still appears to belong to the urban space. He is at once inside, and outside the city. His attitude appears to invite the viewer onto the balcony where he stands: the city thus unfolds before the viewer, its interpretation guided by the information on the scroll. (2) The figure of the man disappears. But the basic elements of the first image — a map of the city, some written text, images of the city — remain, although now more crudely fragmented. On the top right, the high angle view is unchanged. A transformation has taken place: the city is cut up, with different perspectives juxtaposed. As with the title of the film above, the image functions as a collage. (1) In the words on the scroll of the first image, the painter explains to the viewer that he chose to represent the building above the cloud in its most essential form, like a kind of hieroglyph: once placed there as a model, out of its usual context, it seemed better to show main façade, rather than other angles, and as to its position in the city, that can be seen from the map. The use of a second level of abstraction, that is, the map, more distant from our visual perception than the perspective drawing, reestablishes the truth of the city — in the end, the aim is not to represent the city as it looks, but as it is.
Neither of these two images are exact reflections of reality, they are not completely realistic; they are not fully constrained by the rules of linear perspective, organizing the representative space according to the perception of a sovereign eye, that of the viewer, towards which all lines converge, imprisoning all elements, forcing them to resemble optical reality. Free of vanishing lines, there is an ethereal quality to our first image, evidenced in the way the air circulates between its component fragments, a movement echoed in the clouds. The collaged, hieroglyphic, aesthetic of the portrait of the city can also be found in the second image: along with the high angle view are other photographs, showing different angles, adding to the initial perspective. In the first image, the visual field appears to be limited to the static space of the canvas, to its spacial aspect. Yet it also inherently encompasses the temporal perspective of the viewer — time is what keeps the space open. The second has a more obvious temporal dimension, that of browsing: the viewer must flick through the photos in order to establish their mental image of the place.
1937: Sergueï Mikhaïlovitch Eisenstein, russian filmmaker, through analyzing, among others, this painting by El Greco, offered up a new vision of the history of images. Through what he called cinematism he chronicled the prehistory of a key cinematic device: temporal montage. According to Eisenstein, an extra-cinematographic kind of montage, spacial montage, already underpins the principles of painting, through the juxtaposition of different elements within the same space: the limit of the painting. Film, the only medium capable of bringing together the temporal (a succession of images on a film strip) and spacial (the composition of each photogram) aspects of montage, is presented as the culmination of this history. It seems that in toady’s post-filmic era, the matter being handled is the database, which can be seen as collection of discrete elements. These elements - images, words, sounds - are coherent sets of vectors of meaning, and it is their relative disposition in space (coexistence on screen) and time (navigation sequence) which also defines the now ubiquitous system of representation: the user graphic interface.
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1983. The Apple interface, Lisa, is desktop on a desktop. Its visuals mimic the familiar (trash can, folder, window, page etc.), now integrated into the structure of the computer. This arbitrary system of representation facilitates the use of the machine, without requiring users to understand how it functions. A user wanting to get rid of a document would instinctively place it in the trash. Prior to this, at the end of the Second World War and in the following decades, researchers dreamt up the notion of a virtual architecture dedicated to the expansion of knowledge. 1993: the World Wide Web, a hypertext system of data transfer, is made available to the general public. Hyper: meaning excess or, to the highest degree. Throughout this open space, which represents only one part of the internet’s potential, interfaces generally mimicked the first cultural objects that researchers transferred en masse into the machine’s memory disks: books. We moved through the web anonymously, like people quietly wandering the aisles of a library. Sites were compilations of pages laid out like a sheet of letterhead, with the logo positioned in the top left corner. Later on, this format became rare, making way for the infinite scroll, which is a direct descendant of the ancestors of books: scrolls. To scroll (v. circa 1600) « To write down in a scroll ». From scroll (n. circa 1400) « Roll of parchment or paper ».
2007, bend in the road. The phenomenal proliferation of the iPhone pushed the hypertext model to the background. The home screen began swiftly to reflect an internal principle; that of the program. Like a script for a film, the program determines the appearance of the interface. According to the 1970s model, a computer program runs from the first to the last line, through successive control structures, in which it stops to make calculations that will determine its next steps. And all of a sudden, we could say that what you have here is less text, and more image, even though it is an image of text. Just like in the Middle Ages, when the art of memory Ars memoriae brought together different conceptual spaces, the iPhone interface systematizes a tabular presentation of applications. We are confronted with a multitude of spaces to enter, explore and escape from. Yet, we must remember that images from a particular era mirror its relationship to the world, although the emergence of a particular shape owes nothing to a conscious collective design. The Middle Ages saw the development of the art of cultivating memory, organizing things in a stable, ordered cosmos, where everything has a traditional place. Renaissance man invented perspective, organizing things in a world where man is the central figure, giving order to History. The iPhone interface is the symptomatic reflection of the inclusion of contemporary society’s structures of regulation and control into a previously borderless space. Completely stripped of our anonymity, we move from app to app as though through a giant mall, where the closed-off, proprietary model, controlled by private interests is the norm.
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An app is a representative space made up of elements from databases: text, images and sounds. The definition of multimedia includes textual, visual and auditory elements – note firstly that this could also define film, and secondly that the auditory aspects take a back seat in our day-to-day browsing. A browser like Google Chrome for example, blocks sound on autoplay, as it is judged to be too disruptive for users. The basic combination is therefore above all textual and visual, as in traditional Chinese painting, where the text is a poem, whose meaning influences the perception of the image. From the start, the image was created in relation to the text, making it a kind of montage, or mental arithmetic. According to a similar mechanism, the meaning of the elements that we perceive on screen is altered by their surrounding attributes. The previous image is added to the following image and the number of likes determines the brilliance of what is perceived, because this information is not located outside the frame: it is within the image. It is the white, or the black, or more broadly the unused, unoccupied space, the fertile emptiness of the interface, that is the binding agent, the arithmetic operator. Interfaces are gradually being striped of any superfluous visual elements (that's what we call flat design) that would prevent them from functioning as a unit.
The screen as an object, acts as a frame — the frame being, at least so we believed, the primary condition for all representation. Its predecessor, the cinema-screen, has been locked into a restrictive horizontality (as predicted by Eisenstein in a lecture given in Hollywood on September 17, 1930), a far cry from the richness of visual perception and the multitude of formats seen throughout the history of images. The painter Greco for example, demonstrated a singular flexibility in this area. He made numerous versions of Agony in the Garden, with the same scene and the same backdrop adapted, first to the constraints horizontal, and then vertical frames. The groups of figures are essentially exactly the same and have been simply rearranged, without distorting the overall image. This means the image unfolds as a juxtaposition of signs, elements, fragments and particles housed in the frame, whatever its nature. And, unlike a cinema screen, the screens we hold in our hands have all the scope and flexibility that our movements can give them. We move from portrait to landscape, from one type of screen to another, and the image follows, volatile, leaving one terminal to appear elsewhere, reformatted. There is a series of ads created by Corning, a company specialized in material science, which demonstrates that, covered with a thin layer of glass, like a second skin, absolutely any object can act as a screen. Bedroom windows, a worktop, the dashboard of a car. So the image-screen is caught in a duel action: the interface fades away, the object-frame disappears. The image emerges.
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The stranger in the next seat scans his Facebook without drawing breath. He entered the space via the blue square, and the particles slide across the white background. I give myself up to this luminous captivation, and think about what I was once told: that in a movie theater, the viewer has two bodies: narcissistic and perverse. We are absorbed in the image of the film, and at the same time, ejected from it (the room is large, there are other people, someone coughs and bam). It appears that every image has a certain power of absorption. In traditional Chinese painting, empty space and the negation of frame act on the viewer, including them in the representative space. There is the mountain and there are clouds, there is this tension that moves and captivates me, and I myself become a fragment of the image. With the perspective that came to dominate at the time of the Renaissance, the eye is fixed, fiercely riveted to the canvas, fascinated by its own power to shape the world. But in these forms of art, the screen still acts as a screen, a partition, an interposed object — a parapet. The image-screen however, is completely permeable, it is an opening, a portal, bringing the viewer into the representative space. There were Mark Rothko’s paintings, then there were Ann Veronica Janssen’s rooms filled with colored smoke and suddenly, I am inside the image, leaving traces in the mass of air. The screen is no longer a screen, I dive into the representation, leaving a trail of data in my wake, the representation distorts and reforms around me. The representation closes in on me.
(3) In front of a plain background, her face slightly tilted to the left, a woman combs her hair. Her collar is a little loose, there is a kind of intimate languor in the way she is dressed, which bleeds out into the space around her. A bedroom perhaps, or a bathroom. On the left of the surface: characters, and a stamp, marking the boundary of the image. (4) In front of a plain background, her face slightly tilted to the right, holding her hair, a woman washes her face. Her clothes are also loose, she is in her pajamas in the bathroom. On the right, on the mirror-screen, fragments of text-images are part of her private space. Empty space moves between these elements and the image of the woman: the screen absorbs the reflection of the human form. In physics, a reflection is a virtual image formed by the specular reflection of an object on a surface. Looking at this second image, I wonder about the physical reality of this mirror, and about how this image, freed from all medium, and therefore able to use anything as its medium, acts on reality. I think about the girls I see putting on their make-up in the metro in the morning, using their phones to work on their faces. They are not in front of reflective surfaces that retain no trace of what they encounter, but rather devices retransmitting what they capture. They look at themselves, then a second later, check their email, look at social media, get lost in the echos of lives all unfolding in the same space, inside the same frame, coming together in the time it takes to browse. I wonder what is the reality of a mirror that is no mirror and if the body of the viewer in some way continues to be doubled. I wonder at what level of fusion would the being dissolve and the image remain.
The Smart in Smarphone (transcript available soon) Interview on french radio, Sept. 19th, 2020 w/ anthropologist Nicolas Nova Shimmering Lives (not yet available in English) Paper published on french media AOC, Sept. 1st, 2020