Faculty member, Department of Art and Art history, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan
“Don’t sit so close to the screen!” my parents admonished when I watched TV as a child. Today we sit much closer to the many screens that support our digital habits. We have had a love affair with the screen for a very long time. And, when we look upon one, we can lose ourselves in the imagery depicted therein. It is said that when people first saw Arrival of a Train filmed by the Lumière Brothers in the late 19th century, they fled in terror.
It is useful to remember that the painted screen came before the electronic screen. Paintings, songs and other stories are vehicles that allow us to travel to other worlds. This folk craft tapestry from Gui Zhou hangs in front of my television screen when it is turned off. The feigned symmetry transfixes me in its intricate puzzle of understated irregularity.
A screen divides one space from another physically and metaphorically. So what is the nature of the space on this side of the screen in relation to the other? Here, ‘in real life,’ we have coffee tables, couches and vases, but those things also exist on the ‘virtual’ other side. On this side we have flesh and atoms. We also have the smell of a flower. We have the sensation of holding our two-year-old daughter as we launch down a 50-yard snow covered slope on a saucer sled. But, the physical is not the only real thing, and it really never was. Though what we see on the screen is not concrete, it is real and getting more real every day because the more we absorb there, the more our experience of the world is defined by it.
The media sphere heavily influences our perception of reality, driving us to situate ourselves within its context in order to validate our existence. A convergence between broadcast television, computers and the Internet, is creating new conditions of viewing, and new contexts for making things to be viewed. Directly apprehending the artwork is relatively easy in such cases as web art or apps as art. Screen malfunction can have its own compelling aesthetic.
Where do we go when we cross over to the other side of the screen? From this world of atoms to that world, a noosphere of bits, what comes through the screen defines, to a large extent, our field of vision. We are gaining greater ability in shaping what lies behind the screen. The distribution model has evolved from mono-directional to multi-directional. And what was once a fairly passive experience of watching or consuming the image has become exceedingly interactive, resulting in an even more self-reflexive media space. For a long time, artists have been bending our perception of reality by redefining the screen as a context for communication. What if Vanderbeek’s Moviedrome had been a two-way transmitter?
The proliferation and inevitability of the screen has forced me to challenge my own reservations. And I want to declare, as much to myself as in general: “Sit close to the screen.” Sit close to witness, embrace and participate in a new pluralistic shared reality. And yet I hesitate. I hesitate because I want you to remember the drawbacks of digital living, which includes eyestrain, carpal tunnel syndrome, addiction and alienation. Sit close to the screen, but always remember your physical body. Find balance between the there and the here. Sit close, but don’t always sit still.
I get excited at the thought of a major power outage. To be thrust back into an old-fashioned Modernist world of materials, with all of our electronic devices laying quietly at our feet! But then I remember that the sound of gasoline-powered generators would destroy my peace of mind
I presented these thoughts originally as a visual essay that included artwork by: Hiroshi Sugimoto, the Lumière Brothers, Tosa Mitsuoki, Pipilotti Rist, Andris Feldmanis, David Hall, Nam June Paik, Grace McEvoy, Olia Lialina, Sebastian Schmieg and Silvio Lorusso, Ant Farm, Steina, Christopher Carruth, Stan Vanderbeek, David Hockney, Phillip Toledondo, Wim Wenders, and Dennis Chamberlin.