Date: Tue, 29 Apr 1997 21:53:33 +0200 (MET DST)
From: Calin Dan

Something About Flatness

Calin Dan

This is the section 9 of a text called art in the nettimes. some mass-media common places. statement for a flat interactivity, and delivered in the context of the recent debate on >net art<. (it can be found like the most textes here in the nettime archive, www.factory.org /p)

Statement for a flat interactivity. The (new-) screen mentality developing in the track of the www adds some extra confirmation to evidence accumulated during the short but by now tormented history of the moving image. Precisely to the facts that: a) cinema was not a plug in for the Renaissance optical cube; and b) moving images did not increase the meaning of tri-dimensionality. From film to TV to computer, the visual language didnít mark an "evolution", but spiralled back towards a (meta/pre)historic flatness.

The shocking window opened by the Lumiere brothersí first movie projection in the wall of a cabaret theater already contained the prophecy of flatness: light, movement and prospective cannot change a steaming engine or a travelling happy bourgeois family into something different. What maintained active for decades in the hypnotic force of cinema is the revival of an old theatrical recipe: how to install a ritual atmosphere by working with the illusion of depth with the help of controlled light and multi-layered flatness. That was actually how the medieval "misterium mysticum" performances were staged; that is the way theaters were built from the baroque times until the 19 centuryówith layers of flat decorum propelled with invisible cranes, wheels and ropes, in a scenario of interactivity where the button could be a word, a gesture, the sound of an instrument. All under the supreme rule of light control.

What ruined the hypnosis and revealed the flatness of the procedure was the interference of uncontrolled light. (Dominant light is actually one of the embarrassments of modernism, introduced by Copernicus with his perception of the universe. The ecumenism of electricity, defined otherwise as >the 4th dimension<, is another one.) The installation of more casual moving image devices in our domestic decorum abolished the miracle of light effects, but enhanced flatness as an obvious quality of information.

TV broadcast, video games, web pages with hyper-text structures prove precisely the opposite of what is commonly assumed at this moment. We are definitely not in the way to capture the 3d in the box of our display monitors, or to build an electronic/digital equivalent of the theatrical vision (from light cube to light tube, if I may; there has to be mentioned another embarrassing heresy of modernism - the optical prospective as settled in the 15 century by L. B. Alberti). But we might be close to achieving the goal underlining the image making process for the millennia: a synthesis of the meaningful flatness of representation with the symbolic depth of movement. We might also have an opportunity to finally acknowledge a consistent although remote fascination for the flatness of images, even when animated. Flatness is a dangerous component of reality, as far as it is not assumed as such. Art history can be read as a history of failures due to the oppression of flatness. Letís say.

The Magdalenian hunters scribbling the walls of the European caves, or the nomads painting the rocks at Tassili have an understanding for the emergencies of mental perception and a knowledge of the ways to fulfil them. In times of magical relation with the environment, a flattened representation is both an instrument of control and a carrier of superior powers. By flattening the essential aspects of his surrounding (animals to hunt, enemies to defeat), the "pre-historic" painter doesnít operate a reduction, since by that way he can capture a spiritual dynamic via a frozen movement. The eye does not perceive the movement of the buffalo. The drawing does. And by that it makes obvious another level of the real, the hidden faces of a world otherwise perceived boldly, like a container filled with hostile events. Mapping that container pushes in view the movements and the vectors which give sense to this world. In other words, the world is eventually flat, and dynamic. And therefore meaningful.

3D is predictable, therefore oppressive and limiting. 3D is like censorship. While flatness is comprehensive in a way which gives room to the imagination for building other dimensions too.

Later on in time, the refinement of representation still keeps for a while the dialectic approach to flatness. Where the Egyptian painting gives a perspective, it does so precisely in order to capture the movement, to suggest the vibration of the monumental form, and not in order to play with illusions of volume and masses. In those times, human and animal are still homologue categories - floating shapes in a shamanic flux which unifies the energies of the cosmos.

Flatness was magic - 3D is ideology. When sculpture became a public entertainment, allowing the pedestrians to turn around carved figures, the bond to the domain of magic understanding was displaced by the veil of misunderstandings, instrumental for the political power to keep a grip on reality. This process begun roughly in the Roman times, and it had a simple mechanics: making the real look unreal if compared to the powerful illusion of prospective. Before that, the sculptures were confined to the architecture of the temple, altar, mountain. Sometimes they were even impossible to be viewed. They were concepts. And concepts move in the thin air of flatness.

The taking off point for any good interactive situation is to assume the flatness of the screen as an evidence that cannot be transcended just by illusionist procedures; as the flatness of the Earth cannot be denied just by satellite photography technologies. As far as our daily trade proves, we live on a flat planet and we look at flat surfaces where flat shapes happen to move. Interactivity cannot and does not have to go further than the flatness of data which allows information to achieve beyond-the-3d performances. Two dimensions + movement = Multi-dimensional content. The formal aspects of such a process are undefinable, but the requirements are there - on the net: the poverty of the tools, the emphasize on transmission, the fluidity of the connections. A return to older visions might be possible via net art. Or not.

The true virtual reality is the one which goes further than the third dimension, keeping at the same time a flat vision, which is the vision of (f)light . The VR we know now is just the cyber equivalent of the bourgeois realism, a fascinating kitsch defined by basic similarities, effective and addictive because it cuts down any chance for the uncontrolled to burst in our hyper controlled environments. VR and 3d are the sedatives who keep the undisturbed life consumers from becoming life critics.

Therefore, we must be cautious with a theoretical heritage who states that "escaping [...] flatland is the essential task of envisioning information"[1], and look into more obsolete experiences like the history of the collage [2], or the stage writings of Schlemmer [3]. Envisioning information means precisely capturing its essence - which is flat speed.