Optical Media Archaeologies

Optical Media Archaeologies

Anthony Enns
Optische Medien: Berliner Vorlesung
Friedrich Kittler
Merve Verlag, 2002.
Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion
Oliver Grau
MIT Press, 2003.

Anthony Enns juxtaposes two models of German media theory in reviewing new works by Oliver Grau and Friedrich Kittler.

Two histories of optical media have recently been produced in Germany, and at first glance they would seem to be complementary texts. They both cover roughly the same time period - from the origins of linear perspective to the development of virtual reality - and both authors were clearly familiar with each other’s work. Oliver Grau’s Virtual Art is a revised and translated edition of his earlier book Virtuelle Kunst in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Virtuelle Strategien (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Press, 2001), which was itself an expanded version of the dissertation he completed at Humboldt University in Berlin in 1999, and Friedrich Kittler’s Optische Medien is the transcript of a 14-lecture series he presented at Humboldt that same year. [ link to Bruce Clarke on Kittler’s technosublime in ebr ] Grau’s book often reveals the influence of Kittler’s work, such as his discussion of Wagner’s operas as a precursor to film (Grau 138; Kittler 235-237), and Kittler’s remark that perspectival effects were first employed in Roman frescoes in Pompeii similarly invokes Grau’s discussion of the Great Frieze in the Villa dei Misteri (Grau 25-33; Kittler 51). Kittler’s recommendation even appears on the cover of Grau’s book: “The highly ambitious task of locating the latest image technologies within a wider art-historical context has now been accomplished.” The task of Kittler’s lectures could similarly be described as locating the latest image technologies within a media-historical context. While their goals are therefore quite similar, the differences in their methods and conclusions seems to indicate some of the tensions between the discourses of art and media history, which are unavoidable when discussing contemporary computer-generated images.

In order to locate these books within an historical context, it should be noted that they are both informed by a uniquely German approach to media history that Siegfried Zielinski has termed ” media archaeology.” Zielinski defines this approach as the process of digging out “secret paths in history, which might help us to find our way into the future”:

In this concept both re-construction and the conception of possible future developments rub together. Against the enormously growing trend toward the universalization and standardization of aesthetic expression, particularly in the expanding telematic nets, the only strategies and tactics that will be of help are those that will strengthen local forms of expression and differentiation of artistic action, that will create vigourously heterogeneous energy fields with individual and specific intentions, operations, and access in going beyond the limits that we term mediatization.

The purpose of such an approach, therefore, is not only to contextualize the most recent optical media technologies within a larger history of devices for storing and transmitting images, but also to identify the breaks and ruptures in this history, where new technologies were designed to meet new needs by generating new effects.

Zielinski’s project is clearly reflected in these texts. Not only do they both echo Zielinski’s comment about the use of window metaphors in describing virtual image spaces, which connects the camera obscura to contemporary computer displays (Grau 162; Kittler 70), but they also outline a similar approach to media history. In his discussion of previous works on optical media, for example, Kittler notes that Friedrich von Zglinicki’s Der Weg des Films (1979) conceives of every optical medium as being motivated solely by the dream of making images move, which was finally realized with the invention of film in 1895. In contrast to this approach, however, Kittler describes his project as an attempt to “emphasize the turning points and transitions in perception and in the arts, which were necessary in order to arrive at the threshold of the moving image” (49). Grau similarly plots the history of optical media in terms of the persistent dream of complete immersion in the image, which has been finally realized with the development of virtual reality, yet he also cites Adorno’s warning that “nothing is more damaging to theoretical knowledge of modern art than its reduction to what it has in common with older periods. What is specific to it slips through the methodological net of `nothing new under the sun’; it is reduced to the undialectical, gapless continuum of tranquil development that it in fact explodes” (7). Rather than conceiving of the history of optical media as a continuous narrative, therefore, Grau emphasizes that his study will focus on the differences between computer-generated images and earlier optical media, as illustrated by the introduction of human-machine interfaces, interactivity, and self-evolving artworks.

Both of these histories are also informed by similar theoretical concerns. Kittler frames his lecture series, for example, as a response to the work of Marshall McLuhan. On the one hand, his history of optical media supports McLuhan’s notion of media as the “extensions of man,” and Kittler argues that media technologies themselves represent “models of so-called man because they were developed for the strategic purpose of overwhelming his senses” (31). One of the themes running through these lectures is therefore the integration of media and physiological optics, which is evident in his discussion of film as the product of the 19th century discovery of stroboscopic effects and persistence of vision. Kittler even cites Edgar Morin’s claim that film viewers respond to film as they would “to an externalized retina that stands in telecommunication with their own brain” (232). Grau similarly notes that Hermann von Helmholtz’s 1871 lecture On the Relation of Optics to Painting outlined the scientific principles behind the panorama, which had a direct impact on Anton von Werner’s The Battle of Sedan (1883). Helmholtz claims, for example, that paintings are capable of producing three-dimensional effects by extending the distance between spectator and image, because viewers cannot discern spatial relations when they are unable to distinguish between the two images they see with their eyes (105). In his discussion of the origins of the computer interface, Grau even notes that McLuhan appropriated the term “symbiosis” from cybernetics in order “to describe the future relationship between humans and machines” (162). Grau is therefore similarly interested in McLuhan’s notion of media technologies as extensions of the perceptual apparatus, and his project also illustrates the connections between media technologies and physiological optics.

Yet Kittler disagrees with McLuhan’s notion that new media would install a peaceful “global village,” asserting instead that these technologies are inherently linked to war. Albrecht Dürer’s Befestigungslehre (1527), for example, outlined the science of fortifications by employing the principle of the camera obscura to chart the path of ballistics (65). Photography, furthermore, was used to miniaturize military directives during the German-French War (178), while the development of television was made possible by military technologies like radar (302-305). Grau also points out that the camera obscura was employed in military surveys in the 1700s: “[T]he army was very interested in accurate drawings of the terrain, detailed panoramic vista, and views of the landscape. Only detailed cartographic data could be used effectively to play through questions of tactics, field of fire, positions for advance and retreat” (53). The work of military draftsmen like Paul Sandby, who produced an illusionary landscape room in Drakelowe Hall near Burton-on-Trent in Derbyshire (1793), thus represents a precursor to the panorama: “The new medium of the panorama provoked the exponents of its forerunner medium into mobilizing the maximum potential of illusion that was possible” (55). Kittler and Grau also trace the military origins of virtual reality from Fred Waller’s work on flight simulators in the 1930s and his invention of Cinerama to the stereoscopic television goggles invented by Morton Heilig in the 1950s and the head-mounted display developed for military pilots by the Bell Helicopter Company in the 1960s, which enabled humans to be “telepresent” in a computer-generated environment for the first time (Grau 155-163; Kittler 318-319). Like Grau, Kittler concludes that virtual reality was developed through the increasing “bombardment of the senses - particularly the senses of bomber pilots” (319). Rather than encouraging a greater degree of global peace and harmony, both of these histories illustrate the ways in which optical media were developed and employed for the purposes of violence and control, an argument that indicates a significant departure from Zielinski and an increasing engagement with the work of Paul Virilio.

Kittler and Grau also address the use of optical media in the dissemination of propaganda. Kittler points out, for example, that in the 17th century the magic lantern was employed by Jesuit monks, such as Athanasius Kircher and Kaspar Schott, as a means of promoting Catholic beliefs: by projecting images of hell before a mass audience, they created hallucinatory effects that were far more powerful for the purposes of indoctrination than the text-based reformation (92-99). The Vatican was also the first to establish a department for the specific purpose of disseminating such propaganda, and thus it essentially became “the first propaganda agency” (92). Starting in World War I, film also became an ideal tool for war propaganda, yet Kittler notes that these films were simulated in studios and thus contained similarly contrived and artificial images, because trench warfare had made war itself invisible: “One could just as easily film white noise” (255). Film was also used to condition viewers, as can clearly be seen in training films for assembly line workers: “If unconscious attention is nothing more than a film trick, then man can be constructed and optimized” (242).

The central argument of Grau’s book similarly addresses the use of optical media as a means of control and propaganda, as illusion spaces have historically been used to subjugate and suppress viewers by annihilating the distance between viewer and image: “Immersive art often molds propagandistic messages, conveyed by its images, thus working specifically against distanced and critical reflection… [A]ll socially relevant new image media, from classical antiquity to the revolution of digital images, have advanced to serve the interests of maintaining power and control” (339). Grau notes, for example, that in the 16th century Pope Innocent VIII authorized the construction of a series of life-size dioramas depicting the life of Christ in order to erect an “image wall against the Reformation, where the Catholic Church enclosed its own with powerful images and welded them together in a common outlook” (45). 17th century baroque ceiling panoramas, such as the nave of Sant’Ignazio in Rome by the Jesuit Andrea Pozzo (1688-1694), similarly exercised power by captivating “the observer’s perception and rational consciousness” and thus reinforcing “the earthbound believer’s duty of obedience to the Holy Church” (49). Panoramas were also powerful tools of propaganda. The Battle of Sedan, for example, coerces “the observer into participating inwardly in the battle on the side of the Prussians, at a `moment of national importance,’ and in sharing the perspective of the soldiers in their dramatic fight” (108). The panorama thus suspends the viewer’s ability to reflect critically on what they are seeing, as “the picture was designed to arouse, or even create, nationalistic and patriotic feelings in the audience” (112).

Because virtual image spaces produce even more powerful immersive effects, Grau adds that they exercise an even greater degree of control over the observer: “In virtual environments, a fragile, core element of art comes under threat: the observer’s act of distancing that is a prerequisite for any critical reflection” (202). This is most clearly illustrated in Grau’s discussion of Charlotte Davies’ Osmose (1995), in which the virtual environment produces intense effects comparable to scuba diving: “This full-body inclusion demands…that the observer relinquish distant and reserved experience of art and, instead, embrace eccentric, mind-expanding - or mind-assailing - experience of images” (200). Even when such environments are interactive, thus transforming the observer into an active participant and the artist into a passive onlooker, Grau points out that they still maintain this power, as observers are only able to intervene within the parameters set by the artist and they “can be steered by appropriate commands programmed into the system” (343). As with earlier illusion spaces, therefore, virtual reality works “against distanced and critical reflection” by “relocating the observer in the image, removing the distance to the image space, intensifying the illusion, and renewing the power exerted over the audience - an idea that has consistently driven constitutive dynamics in the development of new media of illusion” (339).

In his conclusion, however, Grau also suggests that despite the fact that “[n]ew image media, as a rule, enhance the power of the powerful,” there is still “a slight possibility that the recent, ubiquitous spread of the new digital image media will, for the first time, begin to erode this gradually: “Internet, open source, Quicktime VR, Streaming Video will perhaps, but only perhaps, make inroads into this power relation” (340). In other words, the key to disrupting this power relation is media competence, and throughout his survey of virtual art, Grau consistently privileges works designed to educate users about media. Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss’ The Home of the Brain - Stoa of Berlin (1991), for example, is an immersive and interactive space designed to familiarize the user with the work of media theorists like Marvin Minsky, Joseph Weizenbaum, Vilém Flusser, and Paul Virilio. Agnes Hegedues’ Memory Theater VR (1997) is similarly designed to educate the user about the history of spatial illusions, thus building their media competence within the virtual environment:

[Hegedues’] interpretation of the immersion concept does not focus on sensory experience that leads to diminished inner distance. Hers is an experiment with creative, active immersion that encourages rapid combinatory interaction between the associative fields of images and promotes playful exploration of epistemological processes. It is an attempt to allow active production of memory through the juxtaposition of disparate, heterogeneous, even deviant elements, in spite of total sensory immersion in the media construction. (233)

Grau suggests that this method might even “point a way for the virtual spaces of the new media to actively encourage and support reflection and awareness” (233). Grau thus champions a wide variety of virtual art projects that encourage users to reflect on the theory and history of media while simultaneously developing media competence, and he also describes several works that enable critical distance and reflection by interrupting the virtual experience. In Maurice Benayoun’s World Skin (1997), for example, users are surrounded by images of warfare, which they erase by taking pictures: “The experience of war through images is interfered with, destroyed, by the medium of photography” (239).

This discussion of new digital image media represents the most striking difference between these two texts. Indeed, Kittler appears far more interested in the prehistory of technical media, which constitutes two thirds of his book, and he only devotes the last eight and a half pages to the computer, which some reviewers have described as a severe weakness (see Adelmann). Kittler adds, however, that this lack of attention to the computer is motivated by a fundamental distinction between optical and digital technologies. The computer, in other words, can no longer be described as an optical medium, as it is not designed to process images: “All the differences between individual media are leveled out. Regardless of whether the digital computer transmits sounds or images…it is internally working only with endless streams of bits” (316). In contrast to Grau’s account of the dimensional expansion of the human-machine interface - from early text-based interfaces to graphical interfaces like Xerox PARC to three- or four-dimensional virtual reality spaces - Kittler argues that this dimensional growth was not motivated by “the search for visual realism, but rather the task of opening up the complete programmability of the Turing machine to the user, which, because of its unimaginable number of programming possibilities, required as many dimensions as possible” (318). Kittler thus reiterates Vilém Flusser’s vision of media history as a gradual dimensional reduction, which he traces from the Reformation’s attack on two-dimensional images to the introduction of the O-dimensional bit: the computer is the “complete reduction of all dimensions to zero” (318). Kittler thus conceives of the computer as the end of optics, an argument that seems to echo Lev Manovich’s claim that computers enable the complete automation of sight by eliminating perspective altogether: “[C]omputer vision research can be seen as a struggle against perspective inherent to the photographic optics” (237).

Other critics have similarly pointed out that despite Grau’s intention to address the differences between optical media, his focus on the continuous dream of immersion often causes him to overlook more significant historical breaks or ruptures. In her review of Virtuelle Kunst, for example, Yvonne Spielmann points out that Grau’s discussion of film is extremely limited because he fails to account for films that direct the audience’s attention toward the film itself rather than immersing them in an illusionary space:

[T]his is not plausible at all and particularly not true with reference to early film where the differing practices of illusionist and anti-illusionist film coexist. While the first tends to make the medium invisible and leads to fiction and narrative cinema, the latter reveals the medium, produces different stages of realism and motivates Soviet montage film and experimental film.

Spielmann thus concludes that a greater expertise in media studies would be needed to integrate film and television into the “Art History discourse on the image.”

A similar criticism could be made concerning Grau’s discussion of the computer: by solely defining new digital image media under the criteria of immersion and illusion, he seems to simplify and generalize a field that is far too heterogeneous. Even his own descriptions of genetic and transgenetic art, such as the works of Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, do not seem to fit this overarching theme. Grau’s attempt to contextualize virtual art within the history of illusion spaces certainly represents a significant and ambitious attempt to locate contemporary computer-generated images into a wider art-historical context, yet his book ultimately seems to be lacking the media specificity that Kittler provides in abundance.

Enns’ interview with Joseph Tabbi appears in The Iowa Review Web

Works Cited

Adelmann, Ralf. Rev. of Optische Medien by Friedrich Kittler . Sehepunkte 3 (2003).

Manovich, Lev. “The Automation of Sight.” Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation. Ed. Timothy Druckrey. Denville, NJ: Aperture, 1996. 229-239.

Spielmann, Yvonne. Rev. of Virtuelle Kunst in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Virtuelle Strategien by Oliver Grau . Leonardo Reviews. Ed. Michael Punt et al. 29 April 2002.

Zielinski, Siegfried. ” Media Archaeology.” ctheory.net. Ed. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. 11 July 1996.