Mediamatic Magazine vol. 8#2/3 Errki Huhtamo 1 Jan 1995

Armchair Traveller on the Ford of Jordan

The Home, the Stereoscope and the Virtual Voyager

The general panorama of the world. It introduces to us scenes known only from the imperfect relations of travellers. By our fireside we have the advantage of examining them, without being exposed to the fatigue, privation and risks of the daring and enterprising artists, who, for our gratification and instruction, have traversed lands and seas, crossed rivers and valleys, ascended rocks and mountains with their heavy and cumbrous photographic baggage, Antoine Claudet, 1860.

This experience was made possible by a new and sensational visual apparatus, the stereoscope. Erkki Huhtamo shows us that producing a simulacrum of reality, using technology as a means of virtual travel is not new at all.

The Aspen Movie Map, realized by the Architectural Machine Group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1970's, was a new kind of vehicle: a combination of the video-disk and the computer allowed us to traverse an urban landscape, to look around, turn at the cross-roads, even peer into people's houses without actually 'being there'. Indeed, few people had heard about the little town of Aspen, Colorado, where the daring and enterprising artists of the MIT group had transported their heavy and cumbrous (cinemato)graphic baggage, meticulously shooting each and every street from a moving car. Later, the footage was transferred on a computer-controlled video-disc; the linearity of the filmed sequences was broken and the user was given the possibility of selecting one's own routes. The paradoxical experience of the presence-in-absence made possible by the project has been called by many names: 'surrogate travelling', 'virtual world voyaging', or 'movie mapping'.

Although the Aspen Movie Map remained just an experiment, the mode of experience it enacted has become common. Artworks, such as Jeffrey Shaw's The Legible City and Michael Naimark's series of 'moviemaps' (The Golden Gate Moviemap, VBK - the Moviemap of Karlsruhe, etc.) have caught up with the idea. There are also industrial applications which, while not stemming directly from the MIT achievement, extend its endeavour to the field of 'telepresence': tele-operated robot cameras roam the deep seas while endoscopic cameras penetrate the human body. Our ability to visit audiovisual data-spaces is no longer restricted to those stored on 'local' off-line systems such as the video-disk or the CD-ROM; Mosaic offers a gateway to the vast networked on-line realms of the World Wide Web, as a first step towards the realisation of the dream of cyberspace. A growing number of these virtual voyaging applications address the private user-consumer. Piloting a Hurricane over the British Channel during the German blast of 1940, roaming the island of Myst, visiting the Library of Congress - all this can take place, if not 'by our fireside', at least by our desktop

The Magic Carpet Ride

In spite of the apparent novelty of all these applications, a sense of déjà vu often comes to mind - hence the parallel I have drawn with the text one Antoine Claudet wrote in 1860, describing the experiences made possible by a new and sensational visual apparatus at the time, the stereoscope. The stereoscope (an optical device for viewing 'stereographs', or photographs 'in relief'), in its turn, almost automatically recalls the idea of the 'armchair traveller', perfectly personified by the American physicist, essayist and stereo enthusiast Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1859 Holmes wrote about his stereoscopic travels: I stroll through Rhenish vineyards, I sit under Roman arches, I walk the streets of once buried cities, I look into the chasms of Alpine glaciers, and on the rush of wasteful cataracts. I pass, in a moment, from the banks of the Charles to the ford of Jordan, and leave my outward frame in the arm-chair at my table, while in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.1

1 Oliver Wendell Holmes, 'The Stereoscope and the Stereograph' in: The Atlantic Monthly, 3 (June 1859), p. 738-748. Reprinted in: Photography: Essays & Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1980, p. 59. (my emphasis)

But, one may ask, isn't this the way we look at television, switching channels and being instantaneously transported from one corner of the world to another? Predictably, the advertising discourses around television have from the earliest times of broadcasting often used travel metaphors, such as 'magic carpet ride', 'a modern Alice', 'the biggest window to the world', 'the answer to man's ageless yearning for eyes and ears to pierce the barrier of distance'.2

2 DuMont used these metaphors already in 1943-44 to 'prepare the ground' for the coming of broadcasting, see Cecelia Tichi: Electronic Hearth. Creating an American Television Culture, Oxford University Press, New York 1991, p. 13.

An advertisement from 1944 even promised the TV viewer would become 'an Armchair Columbus on ten-thousand-and-one thrilling voyages of discovery!' 3

3 DuMont advertisement, 1944. Reproduced in Tichi Electronic Hearth,p. 15.

The strategy of the CNN has, of course, been geared to provide the 'ultimate' fulfillment of these promises. It purports to offer an ever-present global travel-zone, connecting the living-room or the office with the hotspots of world politics and allowing the viewer to witness the scene of an earthquake or a folk murder 'as if actually there'.

The Armchair Traveller as a Topos

These examples show that technological 'breakthroughs' emerge from pre-existing fabrics of cultural discourses, even if their creators may claim otherwise. The ideas and goals that inspired Aspen Movie Map were far from 'new'. Producing a simulacrum of reality, using technology as a means for virtual travel, turning the spectator from a bystander into an active protagonist (an 'agent') and the ability to 'enter' the artificial environment are among the dreams and desires which underlie much of the development of the media culture. Their paradox is the fact that they have been invoked over and over again as unheard-of novelties, as proofs for technological change and progress.

To cope with this paradox, I have proposed to treat these 'dreams' as topoi, or as commonplace motives 'floating' within cultural traditions and simultaneously forming their storehouses of discursive formulas.4

4 See my 'From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd. Towards an Archeology of the Media', ISEA '94 Catalogue, edited by Minna Tarkka, The University of Art and Design, Helsinki 994, p. 130-135; 'Encapsulated Bodies in Motion: Simulators and the Quest for Total Immersion' in: Critical Issues in Electronic Media, edited by Simon Penny, the SUNY Press (forthcoming), New York. My ideas have been inspired by Ernst Robert Curtius's massive study Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (1948). My main objection to Curtius who sometimes resorted to Jungian archetypes to explain the appearance of certain topoi is that they are always cultural, and thus ideological, constructs.

In a way, the topoi are 'moulds for experience' that get activated in different times and places, and in very different social and cultural contexts. They may appear in many kinds of disguises and serve various purposes. Sometimes they seem to emerge 'unconsciously', implying that the people who evoke them operate submerged into the 'endo-world' of the present, unable to look back beyond its temporal confines (as was the case with the idealistic discourses on virtual reality by Jaron Lanier and others in the early 1990's). But a topos may also be consciously activated and exploited for propaganda and persuasion (by marketing people and politicians, for example).

The 'armchair traveller' is a case in point, a topos, which in the present technocultural context provides a platform for confronting highly different views about the on-going virtualization of culture. In the disguise of the 'surrogate traveller', for example, it has come to represent the progressist and utopian option, resonating with McLuhan's ideas about the new technologies as prostheses, empowering extensions of the human capabilities. On the other hand, the armchair traveller is also a cliché, deeply rooted in common parlance, particularly in connection with the television. It is often treated as synonymous to 'a couch potato', with a clearly pejorative connotation. It implies a state of relative passivity, an 'alienated', screen-mediated relationship to reality. Yet, there are intermediate positions as well, as exemplified by the critical 'virtual world voyaging' art installations by Jeffrey Shaw.5

5 Shaw himself calls his art-practice 'Virtual World Voyaging'. See my 'Virtual Voyaging in the Landscape of Doubt' in: Media Passage. InterCommunication '93: Agnes Hegedüs, Matt Mullican, Jeffrey Shaw, edited by Akihiko Yoshimura & NTT Publishing Co., NTT, Tokyo,1993, p. 42-49.

+++ Windows with a Conscience

As the example of Oliver Wendell Holmes has already shown, we can find the figure of the armchair traveller from other historical periods as well. In the context of the 19th century culture it seems to have gained an extraordinary significance as a product and a symptom of the massive reorganisation which took place in the modes of representation and experience. This had to do with the early development of media culture, which was, however only one thread in a much larger socio-economic and cultural process. Industrialisation, colonialism and the onslaught of the capitalist mode of production led to the sharpening of the ideological divisions in the industrialised societies. This was also reflected in the physical divisions that came to divide the city from the countryside, one part of the city from another, the home from the outside world.

Particularly in the lives of the rising middle-classes a growing polarity developed between the public and the private spheres of life; this was ideologically elaborated in countless manuals about 'domestic economy' and the proper way to design a home. The public space, epitomised by the streets of the big city, came to be identified with business, constant hurry, and a sense of threat (an uneasiness caused by the growing industrial proletariat); the private space, centred on the domestic parlour, represented rest, harmony and security. According to Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the absolute quality of this division was reflected even in such factors as the habit of covering the windows with heavy curtains and the strong resistance against connecting the bourgeois house with the gradually expanding gas and electricity networks.6

6 Wolfgang Schivelbusch Lichtblicke: zur Geschichte der künstlichen Helligkeit im 19. Jahrhundert, Hanser, München 1983.

However, there was also a third sphere 'beyond the horizon': the reality of the colonies and other distant lands; thanks to the new means of transportation, the colonial expeditions and the positivistic scientific thirst for verifiable facts masses of new knowledge got amassed. The new media technologies of the early 19th century (the rotation press, lithography, photography) came to play a crucial role as mediators and popular processors of this knowledge. Initially, it was the print media that adopted the role of a mediator, justifying its position by moral, educational or patriotic grounds.

Whereas the novels of Dickens or Balzac functioned as virtual 'windows with a conscience' to the harsh realities of the 'underprivileged' classes practically outside the door, illustrated magazines and popular scientific publications provided the armchair traveller with a means to carry them away from his immediate physical surroundings. They were by no means the only ways. In 1822, when Louis Daguerre opened his Diorama (a spectacle of atmospherically changing landscapes produced by means of painted and transparent screens backlit by natural light) in Paris, a newspaper urged Parisians who like pleasure without fatigue to make the journey to Switzerland and to England without leaving the capital..7

7 Cit. Anne Friedberg Window Shopping. Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 993, p. 26.

+++ The Universal Traveller

The goal of armchair travelling was explicitly stated by the print media itself. The Universal Traveller (1836), a popular compendium of the arts, customs and manners of the principal modern nations of the world declared in its preface:// It is the privilege of but few, to visit and observe distant countries and different nations...the majority are necessarily cut off from this species of amusement and information...(with the aid of this book) they may enjoy it at home, and in every season of the year...We will hold up a picture by which, in the comfort of your homes, you may see whatever is worthy of inspection, just as the literal traveller would see it.//8

8 Cit. Edward W. Earle 'The Stereograph in America: Pictorial Antecedents and Cultural Perspectives' in: Points of View. The Stereograph in America - A Cultural History, The Visual Studies Workshop Press, Rochester 1979, p. 9.

Significantly, J. W. von Goethe's novel Die Wahlverwandschaften (1809) contained a scene, in which a person amuses a group of ladies with his drawings, executed during his travels in foreign lands with the help of a camera obscura. In their loneliness, the ladies were pleased to be able to travel around the world so comfortably; to see coasts and harbours, mountains, lakes and streams, towns, castles and other places known from the history drift past their eyes.9

9 My translation.

The elements of the armchair travelling are already here, including the figure of the 'pre-traveller', although the mechanically reproduced optical image is still in the process of emerging as a carrier - the images produced with a camera obscura could not yet be fixed chemically; they had to be copied by hand.

When photography became viable in the early 1840's, architectural photographers set out on the road almost immediately, often with imperial scientific expeditions. They documented the remains of the ancient civilizations with unprecedented accuracy, but hardly without an ideological bias. They were soon followed by topographical photographers, who had a less scientific and patriotic fervour. The Englishman Francis Frith, for example, made seven trips to the Near East in the 1850's, publishing the results as a series of photographic books. According to Ian Jeffrey, Frith, who was more a traveller and a narrator than a scholar, wanted to give the feel of things, to show just what it was like to be there, on just those roads, among just those rocks.10

10 Ian Jeffrey Photography. A Concise History, Thames & Hudson, London 1981, p. 34-35.

Predictably, Frith found stereography perfectly suited for his purposes.

A Stereoscope in Every Home

Stereography became extremely popular soon after it was first introduced to the public at the great Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851.11

11 The principle of stereoscopic vision was scientifically demonstrated by Charles Wheatstone in 1838, but the phenomenon only became widely known after the Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster designed a compact lenticular stereoscope, which was manufactured by the French optical instrument makers, Duboscq & Soleil, and displayed at the Crystal Palace exhibition. It has been said that Queen Victoria herself got attracted by the device; with this promotional help stereography soon became a commercial success and a fashion. The main source of this version is Brewster's own and biased The Stereoscope. Its History, Theory and Construction, John Murray, London 1856 (reprinted by Morgan & Morgan, NY, 1971).

Its main subject matter was from the beginning the outside world - monuments, picturesque landscapes, well known touristic sites, distant and exotic lands. Taking advantage of the more practical and faster glass negative processes developed in the 1850's stereography became (parallel with carte-de-visite photography) the first mass-produced form of photography. The pioneering London Stereoscopic Company, founded in 1854, is said to have sold half a million stereoscopes within two years. Simultaneously, the list of stereoscopic 'views' in the company's sales catalogue is said to have grown from 10 000 to 100 000. Armed with the slogan A Stereoscope in Every Home the company showed the way for hundreds of others in Europe and the United States.12

12 For the early history, see William C. Darrah The World of Stereographs, W.C. Darrah, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1977, p. 1-5.

This popular appeal, which rapidly developed into a veritable 'stereoscomania', is to a certain extent the reason for the curious fact that stereography is practically absent from most general histories of photography. These histories have been, with few exceptions, written from the point of view of art. Already in the late 1850's the British photographic press started speaking about stereoscopic trash and proof of a vitiated art taste.13

13 Ian Jeffrey Photography.., p. 39.; see also Grace Seiberling with Carolyn Brooke: Amateurs, Photography, and the Mid-Victorian Imagination, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1986, p. 71.

This reflected the elitist and aesthetizing attitudes of 'serious amateurs' like Julia Margaret Cameron, who were trying to develop photography into a Fine Art. For the development of the media culture and the democratisation of the photographic image, the 'stereoscopic trash' was, however, much more significant than the Pictorialists' beautified achievements.

Another way of failing to grasp the significance of the stereoscope has been to dismiss it as just another optical toy for children, comparable to zoetropes, phenakistoscopes and kaleidoscopes. Even Anne Friedberg, the author of the otherwise remarkable 'media archaeological' study Window Shopping (1993) repeats this misinterpretation.14

14 Anne Friedberg Window Shopping. Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley 1993, p. 23.

The stereoscope can, however, with good reason be called the first 'media machine' addressed specifically for the home 'audience'. It certainly came into the family parlour as a new entertaining pastime, finding a place alongside such activities as piano playing, handicrafts, card games, reading and the habit of collecting almost anything from stamps to insects. Like these activities, the almost ritualised handing of the stereoscope from one family member to another, perhaps sitting around a table or by the fireplace, reconfirmed the family unity. The same function was served, albeit differently, by the collection of daguerreotypes of deceased family members, while the albums full of carte-de-visit photographs placed the family within a virtual society of relatives and notable acquaintances.

Like the 'telecomputer' or the domestic 'media engine' that has been promised, but not yet delivered to the home users of the 1990's, the stereoscope was meant for multiple purposes. This becomes clear from the speech that the door-to-door salesmen sent by the Underwood & Underwood company all around rural America were expected to deliver to their unsuspecting customers of stereo cards: ...they cost so little and yet are so interesting; if company comes they can help entertain themselves with a stereoscope and a collection of views; children read, hear people talk then study about places in the views; they can never visit all these places as it would cost hundreds of dollars to visit only a few and the stereoscopic views, as seen through a good glass, will give them a better idea than they can get in any other way.15

15 William Brey: 'Ten Million Stereo Views A Year' in: Stereo World, January/February 1990, p. 9. I would like to thank Larry Cuba for his help in locating this and other sources.

Indeed, the stereoscope established a virtual channel delivering the outside world to the inside. As the decades passed, the millions of stereo cards produced and the hundreds, perhaps thousands of them stored in the specially designed cabinets in the homes formed visual duplicates of the world, justifying, albeit virtually, the Underwood & Underwood slogan The Stereoscope becomes the connecting link between home and the place you wish to see.16

16 Item., p. 10.

Around the turn of the century, major stereoscopic companies such as Underwood & Underwood and the Keystone View Company even began marketing 'Travel Systems' or 'Tours of the World', consisting of pre-arranged sets of cards, maps, guide books and of course stereoscopic viewers. This made it possible for the whole family to set out on an 'all-expense-paid' World Tour. According to a Keystone guidebook, (t)his trip around the world should be taken leisurely, with ample time to get acquainted with the people visited and to understand how they live in all parts of the world. We will not need to hurry to save expenses, as time spent on this World Tour adds nothing to our cost of travel whether we make the trip in a few weeks or throughout an entire year.17

17 A Trip Around the World through the Telebinocular, edited by Burton Holmes, Keystone View Company, Meadville, Penna 1930, p. 3.

+++ Mental as Anything

The immersiveness of the experience was always one of the evocative aspects of stereography. In its basic construction the stereoscope continued the tradition of all kinds of 'peep-show' devices, which were a popular entertainment in the 19th century at country fairs and even in children's rooms. The person who 'immersed' his/her eyes into the 'hood' of the stereoscope was in a sense alone with the scene s/he was observing. The situation resembles the experience of wearing a virtual reality head-mounted display, as has been pointed out. The disappearance of the (visual) presence of one's own body together with the depth cues and the infinity of details a stereograph contains sometimes inspired descriptions about leaving one's body and travelling in spirit, as in the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes. By the turn of the century this had become a cliché which Underwood & Underwood could use in their sales literature: The Underwood Travel System is largely mental. It provides Travel not for the body, but for the mind, but travel that is none the less real on that account.18

18 Brey 'Ten Million Stereo Views A Year'..., p. 11.

In his articles Oliver Wendell Holmes amused himself (and obviously at least some of his readers) by giving exhaustive lists of all the details he could perceive in the stereographs he was observing, almost as if he had been standing on the viewing platform of an observation tower, with a telescope in his hands. This richness of details encouraged an active - almost 'tactile' - way of looking where the eyes seem to be constantly scanning the scene, moving from one detail to another. According to Rosalind Krauss, the actual readjustment of the eyes from plane to plane within the stereoscopic field is the representation by one part of the body of what another part of the body (the feet) would do in passing through real space.19

19 Rosalind E. Krauss The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1986, p. 138.

Perhaps this gives a partial explanation to the flip side of the 19th century stereography as the first successful platform of visual pornography.

The stereoscopic experience fit into the fabric of the 19th century culture in multiple ways. It is easy to see its connection with the positivistic ideology; the accuracy of details and the apparent truthfulness of the impression of reality it offered were common goals. On the other hand, the idea of using the stereoscope to leave the 'material frame' and let one's spirit travel free of the earthly restraints seems to refer to the ideology of romanticism. There is nothing strange in this. The discourses of positivism and romanticism which may seem to be opposed to each other, constantly merge and overlap during the 19th century. The ways people felt about the gradual coming of media technologies makes no exception.

It is, however very interesting that after the turn of the century the Keystone View Company started proving scientifically the validity of the virtual voyaging experiences its products purported to offer. In the guidebook titledA Trip Around the World through the Telebinocular, published in 1930, but based on earlier versions, a representative group of psychologists from American universities was called on to prove that (t)aking into account certain obvious limitations, such as lack of color and motion, we can say that the experience a person can get in this way is such as he would get if he were carried unconsciously to the place in question and permitted to look at it. In other words, while this state of consciousness lasts it can be truly said that the person is in the place seen. Some of the honourable professors made a qualification:// it can be truly said that the person is really seeing the place itself.//20

20 A Trip Around the World through the Telebinocular..., p. 9-10.

This scientifically highly dubious support was needed, although it hardly helped; the interest in stereoscopic world voyaging was quickly waning. Television with its promises about making the viewer 'an Armchair Columbus' were still years away, and so was the newly born interest in stereography, this time in the form of the View Master, which, however, made its fortune above all as a handy and highly evocative toy. The topos, which had been active for decades had slowly consumed its content; it had become an empty mould again. But then, new content started pouring in.