Digital Wondering 03

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Abstract from the essay Touch/Space: The Haptic in 21st-Century Video Art by Susanne Ø. Sæther. This essay was first published for the book Screen Space Reconfigured in 2020 by Amsterdam University. In it Sæther focuses upon the haptic in recent video art. Since COVID touch has become increasingly political. Who we touch, how we touch and what is out of bounds is at the forefront of all our minds. The full essay can be found here.


Susanne Ø. Sæther, Synne T. Bull: Screen Space Reconfigured (Published by: Amsterdam University Press, 2020)

Susanne Ø. Sæther
Touch/Space: The Haptic in 21st-Century Video Art

Through the conceptual framework of the haptic, the whole essay charts a striking motif in much recent video art: the co-presence of a hand touching the screen and a distinctly layered spatiality. Critically deploying various notions of the haptic culled from film and media theory and perceptual psychology, Sæther discusses Trisha Baga’s low-tech 3D video Flatlands (2010) and Victoria Fu’s immersive video installation Belle Captive I (2012) and expounds a contemporary haptic space that verges between planarity and volume, between the near and far, and that exceeds the frame to enfold us. As Sæther argues, the salience of this motif points to the split between human sense perception and the networked, computational operations of 21st-century media, and the attempt to grasp this split.


In an influential 1995 article, Antonia Lant discerned how a new spatial language emerged in early cinema during the first decade of the 20th century.(1) Cinema around this time passed from the relative still images of tableau-based scenes defined by layered sets, shallow spaces, and textured flatness into a cinema of temporal and spatial continuity, depth, and dimensionality. As Lant demonstrated, this passage was marked by a curious co-presence between different representational modes, each with their particular rendition of spatiality. Thus ‘drawing, bas-relief, incised images, printed textile undulation, [and] moving human figures’ were frequently juxtaposed, as were planarity and volume, surface and depth, emergence and recession, resulting in what she describes as a ‘peculiar spatial ambiguity’.(2) With remarkable precision, Lant’s description of cinematic spatiality at a transitional moment over a hundred years ago fits equally well with 21st-century video art. Surveying such art, particularly since around 2010, one again encounters a ‘peculiar spatial ambiguity’ wherein the shallow and the deep, surface and depth, plane and volume are juxtaposed, intriguingly and often conflictingly so. Thus a ‘flat’ desktop icon of a movie file might be layered over a photograph of the deep space of the universe, as in the opening image of Camille Henrot’s acclaimed video Grosse Fatigue (2013). Or cardboard cutouts might be combined with flat-screen presentations of 3D printed objects of disparate anthropological origin, rotating against a green screen backdrop to flaunt their dimensionality, as in Mark Leckey’s installation The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (2013). That Henrot and Leckey’s works were both exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2013 attest to their traction in the art world.(3)


‘Haptical cinema’ is the term Lant gives to this spatially ambiguous instance of early cinema. She derived her notion of the haptic from 19th-century Austrian art historian Aloïs Riegl’s distinction between haptic and optic perception and spatiality, developed to discern a shift from Egyptian to Late Roman art.(4) For Riegl, haptic qualities were associated with the close-range, tactile perception (Nahsicht/nearsighted) roused by the shallow spatiality of Egyptian art, while the optic—with its long-distance, disembodied vision (Fernsicht/farsighted)—was associated with the spatial depth and emerging perspective that developed in Late Roman art. ‘Haptical cinema’ is thus for Lant a cinema in which the plane and ‘flat’ spatiality of Egyptian art resurfaced in early cinema to mark the moment when it was about to explore a new spatial language of depth and dimensionality, and which drew attention to its own striking fluctuation between these different spatial modes.


Recent video art, too, charts the contours of a spatiality in emergence. This is a spatiality indigenous to digital screens in which software filters, desktop windows, and generic graphic effects pile upon each other at touching distance; in short, a kind of layered, incongruent, and proximate spatiality that pertains to a digital version of ‘haptical cinema’.(5) However, the haptic qualities Lant discerned in early cinema are here further amplified by the salient motif of hands that physically touch the screen image and cause it to change.(6) Again and again, one encounters depictions of dismembered hands that tap, pinch, and swipe at the plane of the screen. These works thereby evoke a physical and lexical notion of the haptic understood as ‘pertaining to the sense of touch’ (OED), clearly impacted by the recent influx of touchscreen interfaces and their solicitation ‘to touch in order to see’, as Nanna Verhoeff has stated of touchscreens.(7) In Riegl’s distinction as well as in most subsequent iterations thereof, the sensation of touch is, in contrast, activated without direct, physical contact.(8) Recent video art thus brings to the fore both an ongoing reconfiguration of on-screen spatiality in which the influx of haptic interfaces partake, and a tension between a metaphorical and a physical conception of the haptic as it has been applied in contemporary film and media theory. More specifically, such art charts an imbrication of the sensory capacity of touch with the spatiality of digital screens, and by extension, a relationship between the human sensorium and contemporary media machines that seems specific to the 21st century.




Grasping Haptic Space: Stacked and Atmospheric


Victoria Fu’s double-channel video installation Belle Captive I (2013) effectively stages the tension between the optical-metaphorical and physical conceptions of the haptic, summoning a spatiality that both enacts and troubles the dyadic scheme between far and near, flat and deep, vision and touch on which Riegl’s legacy rests. Here Fu has sourced green-screen stock footage from the Internet. Originally created for commercial use, the footage shows a series of mundane objects and people performing everyday gestures and expressions. We see, for instance, a woman drinking a glass of water, a man flexing his back muscles, a parrot, a rotating tomato, a dog drinking water, the face of a smiling boy. Fu has then cropped, blurred, layered, and looped these elements in an editing programme. Further removing them from their original contexts, she has piled the imagery onto original 16mm film footage of sunsets, including textural distortions inherent in the analog medium, such as light flares and film grain. Regularly intervening in this imagery is a hand that swipes, taps, and pinches at the plane of the screen, attempting to instigate an action or change in the image. Installed, these images are projected on and beyond a freestanding wall, spilling over onto the back of the gallery. Blending with this is a second projection that fills the back and sidewalls of the gallery space, showing the same 16 mm sunset scenes but refracted through prisms.


In Belle Captive I, the layered, incongruent spatiality so pivotal to Lant’s haptical cinema plays out in equal parts within the work’s imagery and across the physical space of the gallery. Looking first at the imagery, it is as if each depicted element is isolated in its own spatial layer and relegated to strictly ‘demarcated planar zones’, to use Lant’s own description.(9) Already within the first few seconds, this spatial construction becomes evident. The work’s initial image is the artist’s filmed sunsets: a series of passing hues of pink, purple, and yellow. Upon this background is inserted the upper half of the expressionless face of a young man, peeking over the lower edge of the image frame. A female hand enters the image to be layered upon the face, its fingers performing a pinching gesture. Yet, rather than shrinking the face, as expected from our habituation with codified touch screen gestures, the eyes narrow as if smiling. Here, three distinct planes layer up: the sunset background, the face that seems fully unbound from the background, and the hand that, while somehow interacting with the face, still operates on yet another spatial plane—that of the screen. These layers frequently change positions, thereby installing a sense of pulse and rhythm. Fu’s own sunset recordings serve as the more or less stable backdrop upon which parts of faces, human bodies, plants, objects, insects, and animals amass and interchange. As in the Egyptomanian cinema that Lant explores, spherical objects recur—a tomato, an apple, a head—turning and rotating to display their surface variations as well as their volume.(10) Dimensionality is thereby pitted against the planarity of the screen, which is reinforced through the hand that recurrently touches its plane.


Seemingly paradoxically, dimensionality and depth are also assumed through flatness. Through the trope of layering, Belle Captive I builds depth through stacking distinctly ‘demarcated planar zones’ upon each other. A similar spatial logic of the screen was introduced in the 1970s and early 1980s with the development of the windowed graphical user interface of the computer. As Anne Friedberg has noted, the ‘window’ of the GUI is also a ‘component of a mixed metaphor: a window and a desk’. As such, it is characterized by ‘[s]tacking windows on top of each other, piling documents in layers’, whereby the ‘space mapped onto the computer was both deep and flat’.(11) In Belle Captive I, this co-presence, and indeed co-constitution, of depth and flatness is further intensified. Rather than a perspectival ordering of near and far along a singular vanishing point, we here encounter a stratified space, wherein each layer seems to operate independently of each other with its own spatial codes and scales. Yet in Belle Captive I, these layers are nonetheless integrated so that they together establish a composite image that in its spatial organization pertains to the computational model of ‘the stack’. Since the 1970s, in computer science, ‘the stack’ has served as the governing conceptual model for conceiving of ‘interactions and dependencies between digital system components like protocols, data formats, or software’ or, in short, for ‘organizing processes and data’, as summarized by Till Straube.(12) Hence, Fu’s work reiterates in a pictorial language not only an aesthetics of the computer interface but also the (imperceptible) computational infrastructure that this interface depends on. Epitomizing this spatial logic of depth through flatness, and the planetary scaled through the infinitesimal, is the constant backdrop of Fu’s pinkish sunsets. Appearing as ambient colour field images, they serve as default computer desktop backgrounds, evoking at once the awe-inspiring infinity of the heavens and the banal planarity of the computer screen.


Inherent in this doubleness of the heaven/desktop background is also a flattening that is not merely perceptual but extends to the ontological status of the entities featured in Belle Captive I. The living and the non-living—humans, animals, plants, and things—here all perform their miniscule, repetitive actions in their own rhythm, scale, and spatial layers: twisting and turning, smiling and waving, stretching and bending, drinking and blinking at their own accord, they almost literally enact the ‘flat ontology’ proposed by Manuel De Landa. As De Landa explains, a flat ontology is not grounded in a relational and hierarchical order in which each level represents a different ontological category but is ‘made exclusively of unique singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status’.(13) Hence, the bottom half of the tomato that we see rotating in the upper-left corner of the frame in the beginning of the work operates on par with the muscular, naked back of a man stretching left and right under layers of blurry greenery in the middle of the work, as do the bees that soon flank the right edge of the image, and the coffee beans that fill it just after. Any such ontological flatness appears to be further deflated by what the artist has described as the ‘one-size-fits-all, generic flatness’ of the green-screen captured ‘individuals’ that populate the corporate infosphere and beyond.(14) Undergirded by networked flows of capital, this footage is produced to fit any kind of background and situation; bland, neutral, interchangeable, and transferrable as it is.


Through the work’s installational features, Belle Captive I gives physical body to the spatial layers in a manner that enforces the work’s interface aesthetics. With the imagery from the one projection exceeding the edges of the freestanding wall, a twisted and fractured version of the windowed graphical user interface of the computer screen is summoned. Whereas no desktop ‘windows’ are depicted in the work, the freestanding wall and the mismatching image projected onto it strikingly appear as such, evoking a pile of frame upon frame that effectively enacts the trope of stacked computer windows, as described by Friedberg.(15) Adding to the stack is the shadow thrown at the back of the gallery space by the freestanding wall, which thus appears as yet another ‘window’. Walking around the installation, the ambiguity between deep and flat is further dramatized and indeed literalized, since our peeking around the freestanding wall effectively confirms it as such; a plane from which the projected image bounces back and overflows. Yet, this wall’s tangibility as an object and its distance from the back wall onto which much of the imagery spills provides spatial extension and, indeed, depth to the video installation. Belle Captive I thus subtly but efficiently negates the present imperative of the interfaced image to ‘fit to frame’, in Stephen Monteiro’s succinct phrase. As Monteiro expounds: ‘The image becomes eminently convertible in contemporary interfaces, there to be stretched, compressed and rotated to conform to all manner of screen frames in proliferation of formats and dimensions developed for any number of devices and browsers.’(16) In Fu’s work, in contrast, bodies, heads, creatures, and objects are consistently cropped—a forehead here, a snout there, then half a tomato—rather than stretched, mutated, or compressed to fit the frame. Likewise, the ratio of the projected imagery does not match the freestanding wall that serves as projection screen. Here the interface is simply not contained by the screen but profoundly exceeds its limits. In Fu’s work, the driving logic of the (haptic) interface towards immediacy is augmented and played out across the physical space of the gallery.(17) Thus, the interface is turned into a pastel-coloured atmospheric environment whereby screen space is staged as simultaneously engulfing and as a panel for control; an informational abyss in which to lose oneself and a contained plane to directly manipulate—the Latin prefix ‘mani’, of course, referring to the hand.


The blurring that Fu has subjected the stock imagery to through software-based image processing and filters evokes the haptic visuality that Marks has theorized; that is, the ‘touching with the eyes’ invited by heavily textured or unsharp film or video images.(18) Sometimes the blur is slight, at other times profound to the extent that figure merges with ground and the imagery approaches full abstraction. For example, at one stage the unsharp white lilies of the top image layer fuse with the light blue sunset at the back, while the equally blurry stalks and dark greenery that spread from the flower across the image entangle with the shadowy areas of the naked back of a man as he stretches and bends his torso in an in-between image layer. Seconds later, a girl’s neck and clothing in the top layer are fully subsumed into the background as her features are dissolved by a zoom and her skin tone merges with the sunset behind. In parts of the work, ‘figures cannot be clearly distinguished, and layers of images move in an uncertain relation to the plane of the lens’, to reemploy Marks’ own description of a decidedly haptic film.(19)


For the haptic qualities of Belle Captive I, the blurring has two implications. For one, it serves to soften the ‘demarcated planar zones’ that mark the work, establishing a frail continuity between its different spatial planes. Indistinct contours, zooms, colour fusion, and abstraction temper the differentiation between planes. Significantly, this allows the spatial planes to temporarily meld into each other, marking them as pliable and permeable but without erasing the governing spatial trope of layering. In addition, blurring here invites the intersubjective intimacy that Marks identifies with haptic visuality. Following Marks, a significant consequence of this intimacy is the abdication of optical mastery over the image, whereby ‘the viewer relinquishes her own sense of separateness from the image’.(20) In Fu’s work, the digitally filtered texturality of foliage and feathers, sculpture and snout, combined with the ambient and immersive qualities of the installation laid out in physical space, surely denies the viewer the distanced overview and possession that optical beholding allows. Emerging instead is a profound sense of our embodied entanglement with the computational environment in which we live, here partly brokered by the interface.


If the haptic visuality and proximity brought forth in Belle Captive I may signal the dismantling of optical mastery, this position is complicated when considering the precise nature of the acts of physical touching shown in the work. Here, the hand and its index finger repeatedly attempt to explore and interact with the entities depicted through touching them. The hand in Belle Captive I is more specifically featured as an organ of what James J. Gibson in his classic study of the psychology of touch termed active touch, i.e. ‘self-produced movement that allows the perceiver to obtain objective information about the world’.(21) In this context, ‘objective’ refers to percepts that are experienced to be ‘out in the world’ rather than the ‘subjective’ sensations they produce in the subject, the objective and subjective however being conceived as poles on a continuum. It is this exploratory and manipulative mode of touch that in psychological terminology is generally termed haptic.(22) On the face of it, the hand that repeatedly touches and intervenes in the image apparently does so precisely to explore, control, and operate it. With formatted gestures known from haptic interfaces, it pinches to cause a face to smile, swipes to set the sculpture in motion, taps to shift a background image. Haptic visuality and haptic touch thus seem to be at odds. Mastery is optically dismantled only to be reinstalled haptically. Following the lure of the haptic interface, the acts of touching in Fu’s work here seem to ‘suggest tangibility where there is little to none’, and thereby to install a sense of control over the profoundly inaccessible computational processes these touches instigate.(23)


Yet again at other times, nothing happens with these touches, or something does, but the outcome is quite unexpected. While the exceptionally blurry sculpted head in bronze responds to a finger-swipe at the plane of the screen by rotating, as if dragged into motion by the touch, a later swipe undoes this causal relationship between touch and response when a woman’s torso stubbornly at first does not react to it, before then slowly starting to rotate but now in the opposite direction from the swipe. In these cases, a lack of haptic mastery of the image and its space is efficiently demonstrated. Towards the end, a yellow cockatoo sits in a human hand as a pointed index finger enters at the plane of the screen to repeatedly tap and swipe at the bird, with no result. Yet when a second hand enters to stroke the cockatoo, now seemingly beyond the plane of the screen, the bird promptly responds by biting at the hand. What this illustrates is that the world haptically explored in Belle Captive I is one that is fundamentally enfolded and unfolded by the screenic interface, conceived as a ‘liminal threshold condition’ that is as mutable as it is pervasive.(24) In short, the haptic condition we encounter in Belle Captive I is one in which the sensory capacity of touch is mobilized to explore, manage, and control our data-rich surroundings, yet where the capacity of touch to work as such a tool is rendered profoundly unstable. Corresponding to this unstable sense of touch is a proximate space in which distinct spatial layers continuously verge on being dissolved through blurring and abstraction, drawing the spectator up close in the process. As is the case in haptic interfaces more generally, in Fu’s work ‘input and output spaces are no longer separated but rather converge’, yet here this converged space expands beyond the plane of screen to fill the gallery space with its ambient pastel hues.(25) Fu’s self-recorded sunsets thus, in an almost literal iteration, signals the condition of ‘atmospheric media’, posited by Hansen, wherein human agency is dispersed across and configured by the networked, computational media that make up our contemporary living environment.(26)


(1) Lant, ‘Haptical Cinema’.


(2) Ibid., p. 73.


(3) Several examples from art critique, discourse, and curating from the last few years also attest to the perceived tension between flatness and depth in recent moving-image art, including the thematic film and video programme titled ‘Flatness: Cinema after the Internet’ curated by Shama Kanna for the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen in 2013, and ‘The Third Image – 3D Cinema as Experiment’ programmed for the same festival by Björn Speidel in 2015.


(4) Riegl, Late Roman Art Industry; ‘Late Roman or Oriental’.


(5) I here rely on a notion of the screen forwarded by Anne Friedberg, who argues that ‘the screen is not just a material object but also a material practice, which at once frames reality and represents a view of reality’, and, significantly, ‘a technology for representing space rather than a metaphor such as the window or a mirror’, as summarized by Anne Jerslev. Jerslev, ‘Screens and Time in David Lynch’s Inland Empire’, p. 2.


(6) Importantly, the works are not themselves interactive or inviting the spectator to touch the work. Instead, they are installed like most works of contemporary artists’ film and video—that is, either displayed on a flat screen or projected from front or back, in a black box or a white cube. Touching is here thus represented, and not experienced, by the beholder herself.


(7) Verhoeff, Mobile Screens, p. 82.


(8) Strauven, ‘Early Cinema’s Touchable Screens’.


(9) Lant, ‘Haptical Cinema’, p. 55.


(10) Lant, ‘Haptical Cinema’. Tom Gunning has also recently noted the importance of rounded and spherical objects for the establishing of depth and dimensionality in early cinema. Gunning, ‘Rounding Out The Moving Image’.


(11) Friedberg, Virtual Window, p. 227.


(12) Straube, ‘Stacked Spaces’, p. 5. More recently, however, the conceptual model of the stack has migrated beyond the realm of ‘communication standardization and technical specification to serve in media studies and the social sciences as a tool for critical analysis’ of information and communication technologies and infrastructures. (Ibid.) Benjamin Bratton has, for example, with great influence employed the model of the stack to ‘computing at large’, positing the stack as ‘geo-political megastructure organizing planetary space and society’, while also using the stack as a tool for ‘dissecting a vertically integrated, dynamic, heterogeneous assemblage’ of metaphoric layers, such as the cloud, the interface, and the user (ibid.). Bratton, The Stack.


(13) De Landa, Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy, p. 47.


(14) Fu, Whitney Biennial 2014.


(15) Friedberg, Virtual Window, p. 227.


(16) Monteiro, ‘Fit to Frame’, p. 60.


(17) As Kaerlein and others have made clear, interface design generally strives to fulfill the dream of the transparent interface. Kaerlein, ‘Aporias of the Touchscreen’.


(18) Marks, The Skin of the Film, p. 175.


(19) Ibid., p. 181. Marks here describes Seoungho Cho’s film Identical Time (1997).


(20) Ibid., p.183


(21) Schiff and Heller, The Psychology of Touch, p. 7. In this context, ‘objective’ refers to percepts that are experienced to be ‘out in the world’ rather than the ‘subjective’ sensations they produce in the subject; the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ pole of perception generally being understood as parts of a continuum in perceptual psychology.


(22) Tactile, on the other hand, is reserved for being touched, or what Gibson designated passive touch—‘“sensations” resulting from stimulation of passive skin receptors’—and for situations when the skin is touched by an object and does not move around to explore. Schiff and Foulke, Tactual Perception, p. 11.


(23) Kaerlein, ‘Aporias of the Touchscreen’.


(24) Hookway, Interface, p. 5.


(25) Herrlich, Walter-Franks and Malaka, ‘Daten zum Anfassen’, p. 135, quoted in Kaerlein, ‘Aporias of the Touchscreen’.


(26) Hansen. Feed-Forward, p. 5. See also Bruno, ‘Screen as Object’, for a brief historical genealogy of the atmospheric dimensions of projection in art.