Screen Genealogies: From Optical Device to Environmental Media
Video Essay
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by Craig Buckley, Rüdiger Campe, and Francesco Casetti

The screen might seem self-evident, but it is not. Video practitioners and critics in the 1960s and 1970s stressed very different terms, for instance. Terms such as feedback, topology, narcissism, and broadcasting, to name only a few of the most common, were more important than screen. More than the screen, it was the ability to watch a moving image recorded, played back, manipulated, or delayed in ‘real time’ that were sources of interest.

The concern for the screen is not an essential or self-evident quality of video, it belongs to the cultural and political questions we bring to these technologies today. Whatever we understand the screen to be, it is only one element of video, film, gaming, computer monitors, or mobile phones. Each of those technologies may be perceived through a screen, but how that screen relates to the other technological, spatial, formal, and interactive elements, and how users relate to it, can differ quite significantly.

In this sense, one reason why the screen may rise up as a term for thinking video today is that it is a feature allowing us think very different kinds of media in relationship to one another. In that sense, screens are symptomatic of what media theorists have called convergence, the conversion of previously distinct media forms—print, video, film, computer graphics—into code that can be accessed through the same graphical user interface. It also speaks to the rapid proliferation and transformation of screens in our daily life world, from movie and television screens, to phones, tablets, monitors, GPS devices, billboards, facades, kiosks, and more. For that very reason, it seems important to find ways of thinking carefully about screens, in ways that do not simply mix them all up. One of the ways in which that might be done is to examine more carefully the screen as a spatial, architectural, and environmental technology, rather than a strictly optical one, which is often how we think of it. There is no screen without a space and an architecture, and conversely, an attention to the spatial and architectural relationships required by screens, or configured by screens, can be an important means of distinguishing different operations of screening, together with the deeper histories to which they belong.

The spatial and environmental emphasis has been central to a project that we have been working on at Yale University. Entitled “Screen Genealogies,” it has been running, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, over the past two years. The collaborators, Craig Buckley, (History of Art), Rüdiger Campe (in German Languages and Literatures), and Francesco Casetti (Film and Media Studies Program) have hosted a series of the seminars bringing together scholars from different disciplines and institutions to explore spatial and environment approaches to the screen.

To emphasize the screen’s spatial functions, also means thinking about this entity in very different historical terms. As we have sought to argue, the common notion of the screen as a surface that displays impermanent images and which disappears under these images—an understanding epitomized by movie and television screens—is a recent one. It is only in the early nineteenth century, in connection with new period spectacles like the phantasmagoria, that the word screen was firmly linked to optical experiences. Before the 19th century, screens meant things like “fire screens,” which warded off the heat and sparks from fires. It meant a “partition of wood or stone, pierced by one or more doors, dividing a room or building in two parts, or “a wall thrown out in front of a building and masking the façade.” It also meant devices useful for concealing objects or people from view. In military contexts, it described a group of soldiers detached from their units in order to cover the movement of an army. It also described apparatuses used in the sifting and filtering, whether of grain, coal, or air, etc. […] For most of its history, a screen was a filter, a divide, a shelter, or a form of camouflage. Only the advent of cinema, and later of television and video, made the screen acquire its most common identity as a surface supporting a changing representation.

The current explosion and transformation of screens paradoxically brings about the reappearance of these older meanings. New media expand the screen’s function beyond the optical. Surveillance cameras provide protection and defence, their very display functions defining differences between inside and outside, security and insecurity. In retrieving information, computers filter vast reservoirs of data by combining a user’s query with a search engine’s secretive algorithms. Hand-held devices enable users to create existential bubbles in which they can find intimacy and refuge in any range of situations. Global Positioning Systems parse territory and identify the right routes. Digital interfaces underline the separation between two worlds, and maintain control over the passages between them. Illuminated digital façades promise to make buildings more conspicuous and responsive, while also hiding and dissimulating their underlying structures from view. Screens have again become filters, shelters, divides, and means of camouflage. They remain surfaces that display images and data, yet their opticality has been deeply affected by their reference to, and connection with, and intervention into the various spaces they inhabit.

In the project and its forthcoming book, Screen Genealogies: From Optical Device to Environmental Media (Amsterdam University Press, 2019) a range of objects that we might not typically think of in terms of screens are theorized in these terms. These include such things as Casetti returning to Siegfried Kracauer’s description of the film screen as the polished shield of Athena. To conceive of the screen as a shield is to understand it as something that reflects the world but which also protects the hero from being destroyed by the deadly gaze of medusa, opening up the screen’s latent status as a site of spatial conflicts within film theory. It includes Yuriko Furuhata’s analysis of smoke screens in terms of past and contemporary geo-engineering, in particular the link between Nakaya Fujiko’s fog environments at the Pepsi pavilion at Osaka 70, and its relationship to efforts by her father to create artificial weather during wartime military research. It includes Buckley’s effort to outline a genealogy of the media façade, one which does not begin with new lighting technologies and advertisement in the 1970s, but with a much older dialectical conflict over the façade’s role as a facial media between inside and outside. It also includes recent work by Noam Elcott on the media archaeology of screen formats and by Nanna Verhoeff on the “spectatorial territories” created by recent interactive screen projects for public spaces.

To borrow a notion from the philosopher and historian of science Ian Hacking: screens today are not only devices of representation but also devices for intervening in the world. Such an approach aims to rediscover the history of screens in places where we don’t expect to find them; it also seeks to comprehend the ways in which an optical understanding of the screen came to dominate other historical possibilities.

To approach screens genealogically means that something other than looking back to the find “origins,” “precursors,” or “anticipations,” which has been the focus of much media archaeology to date. Rather it would insist that screens are never pre-existing objects nor are they the inventions of particular individuals or groups. What is essential is to highlight the processes and struggles where a set of technologies, spaces, spectators, and operations come together in order to become a screen. A surface becomes a screen through an arrangement of apparatuses and by virtue of the struggle between forces and practices. What is always at stake is an ensemble of elements—an assemblage—characterized by certain dispositions and sustaining certain types of operations. A genealogy of the screen would thus emphasize processes of transformation and emergence, rather than moments of invention or historical culmination.

The book Screen Genealogies: From Optical Device to Environmental Media is published with Amsterdam University Press in 2019 and available online.

Watch the lecture Screen and Screenscapes by Francesco Cassetti, held at Het Nieuwe Instituut, 2019.

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Craig Buckley, Rüdiger Campe, and Francesco Casetti
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