Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#3 Edmond Couchot 1 Jan 1990

La Mosaique Ordonnée

Or: the screen seized by calculus

The video screen is placed horizontally in front of the apprentice welder. On the screen is the image of a sheet of metal; in the workman s hands, a blowtorch.


La Mosaique Ordonnée -

The pedagogic object of the manipulation is to teach how to weld fast and well, without burning the fingers or wasting material. The apprentice controls the power of the blowtorch by working the machines rollers, but no real flame comes out of the nozzle. He brings the nozzle up to the surface of the screen, close to the surface to be welded. The metal sheet - or its image - turns red, then blue, then softens. The flame is too strong, so the workman turns it down. The metal hardens; a little too much. The apprentice adds more power to the flame; the metal turns the right colour. The workman makes his weld. Then he removes the torch. Little by little the sheet resumes its normal appearance.

This is what becomes of the video image when the screen is controlled by computer; the mosaic of its surface has been rigorously ordered into a matrix of numbers whose values can be instantly modified by calculus. The image is able to respond to the viewer, who himself becomes more than a spectator. This response can be immediate - in 'real time’, as technicians say - presenting itself as a sort of dialogue or conversation between the image and the person who watches and manipulates it. Hence the technical term of conversational or interactive mage, or, more generally, dialogic image. This image, as we must agree unless we are to cling to obsolete ideas, is completely different in kind from the traditional video image, and all the more difficult to distinguish from it since they resemble each other like twins. This one depends on a completely different order of figuration. And its use, although limited above all to the techno- scientific domain, is spreading more and more within that domain, and is beginning to be part of the researcher's daily visual universe. The general public still has only limited access to it, but that access will soon widen considerably in the years to come. Just when the electronic image conveyed by media networks seems comfortably installed at the peak of its hegemony, a new image appears which is inscribed in a fundamentally different symbolic economy.

The incrusted image

From a morphogenetic point of view, the video image - or the electronic image, to distinguish it from the numerical image - depends on a system of figuration which consists in the first place, like photography and cinema, of recording by optical means the trace of fight left by an object that exists before the image. The plane of representation onto which the image is projected - the screen - is comparable to the plane of perspectivist painting defined during the Renaissance by Leon Battista Alberti. This system makes it possible to inscribe automatically(1) a certain image of the word - a representation - onto a material support. However, while the cinematographic (or photographic) image functions geometrically as a window open onto the world, the electronic screen presents the image in a very different way.

(1) indeed, central projection perspective takes charge almost automatically of the work of eye and hand and makes it considerably easier; the camera obscura, by substituting optics for geometry, speeds up even further this process of automisation of the image

Indeed the window, opening in a wall, allows the gaze to discover - when invited to cross it, and as far as the eye can see - a continuous, homogeneous, infinite space, extending in the direction of the gaze and prolonging without interruption the closed space in which the eye is situated. The perspective architectures of the Renaissance fascinate us for that very reason; the painting seems naturally to extend the room in which the spectator stands, enlarging it by a greater or lesser portion of space that is perfectly homogeneous. Similarly the image- window of cinema invites us to leave the auditorium, to forget it, by plunging into its opening. Darkness further assists this centrifugal escape beyond the walls by ceaselessly directing our gaze onto the screen. The electronic screen, on the other hand, does not work like a window, is not inscribed in a wall, does not lead the eye from the inside out; rather, it brings the outside in, in a violent centripetal movement, into the very space where the viewer is. It works by an effect of incrustation.

Let us note in passing that this incrustation effect is not exclusive to the electronic image. Every image has a particular way of inserting itself into the space which mediates it, and, depending on whether that space is more or less foreign to the image itself, the receiving spaceseems more or less rent apart, the incrustation effect more or less violent. A painting hanging on a wall, even if it aims to erase that wall's presence, always creates an incrustation effect. But that effect is more or less tempered by the frame which operates a transition between the wall and the painted space. Photos also incrust themselves, in their own way, into the pages of a magazine, cutting into the text. Conversely, images perfectly integrated with their supports, and sharing one body with them, like the wall frescoes of the Madeleine caves, or Byzantine mosaics, or even a certain form of painting which aims to valorize the painted-on surface itself, do not work by incrustation effect. Rather, they would work by envelopment.

With the mode of image distribution proper to TV, the incrustation effect is taken to its extreme. The visual and sonic image which the electronic screen introduces violently into the place where it is put, without the transition of the frame, imposes itself on the spectator at the expense of the space which surrounds it, and which it turns into 'background'. The effect is felt all the more strongly in that the image has become a piece of furniture, because its surface is small, compared with a painting(2), and because its fight is strong enough to compete with daylight. The electronic screen does not really open out onto the exterior as does the cinema screen - even if its images are morphogenetically identical - which draws the eye in a centrifugal, unbroken movement towards an immediate outside. Here, rather, it is the exterior which irrupts inwards, brutally pouring into the spectator's closed, protected space a flood of images that cannot easily be held back, or more precisely, a flood of visual and sonic events that take place elsewhere, in another space(3).

(2) The screen creates its own fight while the painting (and the photo) reflects the fight which touches it. and on which it is totally dependent.
(3) It is this incrustation effect that profoundly distorts the sense and the aesthetic pleasure of the cinema when a film is

watched on a video screen. The impoverishment, or deterioration, of the cinematographic image remediatised by the video screen does not result solely from its loss of definition and its reduction. On the question of incrustation and the new inside/outside relation
introduced by television, see Edmond Couchot, Images - De I 'optique au numérique, Paris, Hermes, 1988, pp.112-117.

This operation of incrustation, which breaks the spatial continuity of the space inhabited by the spectator and creates a topological inversion of inside and outside, has had remarkable effects on modes of perception of the image, and on the figurative arts. Since the 1950s, a whole generation of artists, beginning in the United States, has translated, in various plastic forms, the electronic screen’s incrustation effect. Rauschenberg's combine-paintings are the most obvious example. Going beyond collage, as practised since Surrealism, and beyond Duchamp's readymades, combine-paintings are first and foremost violent incrustations of heterogeneous, heterocfite figurative elements onto the neutral ground of a canvas whose principal function is as a means of presentation. On that canvas, which sometimes borrows ironically from the painting then fashionable (lyrical abstraction), Rauschenberg throws anything, all manner of banal everyday objects (toothbrushes, chairs, stuffed birds, ties, Coca Cola bottles), without any sort of hierarchy,without taste or distaste, without choice, exactly as the tv screen projects floods of heteroclite images from elsewhere onto the background of the domestic hearth.

It is true that Rauschenberg owes much to Cage, applying to painting the principles of his Theory of Inclusion. For Cage, any sound at all could be included in a musical work. The musician had to open his perception to all the sound events going on around him, just as they presented themselves in their abundance and their chance incongruity, without ever seeking to place them in a hierarchy. The habit of radio (or 'wireless’ as it was then), which long before television modified our modes of perception of sound - words, noise and music - no doubt strongly 'inspired' this musician who was able to translate its very essence.

Extending it into the visual domain, television prolonged and amplified this effect of inclusion, or incrustation - this word expresses a violence which characterises the image more - but it is still the same phenomenon. The art of the years following the expansion of television was essentially one of incrustation, of topological inversion of inside and outside, of chance encounters, of the refusal of choice and hierarchies, an art profoundly laid open to the event.

From scanning to calculus

Compared to cinema, the electronic image - even if it belongs morphogenetically, like that of cinema, to a system of figuration based on optics - introduces an important new element into the technique of recording: scanning. Its principle goes back to the middle of the 19th century (4) and consists of decomposing the image obtained by optical projection into a certain number of fine parallel lines. The electronic screen can thus be compared to a mosaic - a comparison made by McLuhan - but a mosaic whose ordering is not yet total: the line and the points forming them are yet be numericised, that is to say, fixed exactly by means of discrete numerical quantities. Nevertheless it is still the line that gives us access to the image, that allows us to work it, once it has been generated by the lens of the video camera, as did the first artists to take interest in the electronic screen. In this respect, scanning enables us to control the image as neither photography nor cinema allow us, since with them the image can only be captured by frames or parts of frames (cutting, colouring, collage, chemical treatment, or intervention on the bundle of fight itself at the moment of printing).

(4) The Abbé Caselli perfected, from 1855 onwards, an electric system - the pantelegraph - capable of transmitting drawings and handwritten letters over a long distance. This system used the principal techniques of scanning and synchronisation which much later would make television possible.

Numericising - that is, calculus - allows us to exert total control on the ultimate physical constituent of the image, the point, known in image synthesis as the pixel. Thus, the techniques of controlling the image have themselves passed from the plane to the line, and from the fine to the point. But the pixel is not the point, that primary element of painting, as analysed by Kandinsky.

Kandinsky's point belongs, like painting, to a system of figuration which, if it is is no longer dependent on optics (5), nevertheless remains that of the trace, of recording. For that painter, the point was born out of the shock of the tool on the 'original plane’ (from the contact of brush and canvas, of pencil with paper, or the bite of the engraver’s needle on the etching plate); a contact which fecundates the support and creates the form, or different forms of the point. The point results, technically and to an extent aesthetically, from the meeting of a particular support with a pre-existing object - the tool - that imprints its trace on that support.

(5) The aim of Kandinsky's painting was not to represent the world as photography did, but to create its own figurative objects, abstract objects of which certain characteristics could be found in the real world (points, lines and planes, for example, exist in nature or in the man-made world).

Even if the forms represented are abstract, and do not refer (by projection) to any recognisable reality, as in a Kandinsky painting, the inscription of the point bears witness to a key event: the meeting, organised by the artist, of these two realities: the inscribing tool and the receiving plane. And, in this, the pictorial point is very much like the silver salts of a photographic film, which turn into metal crystals on the impact of the photons emitted by the photographed object, or like the electronic signal which comes into being on the photosensitive ground of an electronic tube struck by fight. The trace-image bears witness to the meeting of two realities one imprinted on the other, coming into contact and thereby fecundating each other. And even if that image represents nothing, it at least represents the privileged moment of that meeting.

Image synthesis works quite differently. The pixel is not a point. It does not record the shock of a tool on an original plane, nor even the record of a trace of fight left by an object on a chemical or electronic support sensitive to fight. Nor is it even, as in video images obtained by synthesisers - or electronic manipulation(6) - the shock of a bundle of electrons on the fight cells of the screen. All these are so many operations which must imply, in all cases, the treatment of a preexisting physical reality - matter or energy. The pixel is above all language, a formalised language, but a language nonetheless. It does not translate any preexisting reality. It makes visible logical and mathematical models, abstract symbols.

(6) It is by a linguistic slippage that we call these instruments ‘synthesisers’ since in fact they do not synthesise language from calculations, but treat the modulation of the video signal, and work on a physical reality (of modulated electric energy). The same is true of all

electronic manipulations that 'divert' the screen from its primary technical function.

Equally, the image of the metal sheet which the apprentice welder manipulates directly on the video screen is the visualisation of a mathematical model simulating a metal sheet (or the visualisation of one model among others, different according to the nature of the metal, its thickness, etc.) and not the faithful representation of a real preexisting sheet. Thus we can see how simulation introduces a radical change in the system of figuration. The image is no longer the image of something, the representation of a pre-existing reality; in fact, it is no longer exactly an image; it has become a virtual 'reality', which one might say is parallel to physical reality, taking on its appearance, but above all functioning like reality and substituting itself for it.
As the trace-image is preceded by the real, so the the matrix-image of synthesis is preceded by the model.

The simulated image of a metal sheet, beneath its apparent likeness to that image which could have been obtained by a video camera filming a sheet, an image over which one could have had no control, is thus something other than a representation or a trace. To the symbolic universe of models and programmatic algorithms which are their writing, it gives a virtual reality ready to actualise itself, if one wishes, into an infinite number of experiences, of possible manipulations. It no longer refers, then, to that privileged moment when a pre-existing object imprints its trace on a photosensitive support, nor to the moment when the painters tool fecundates the original plane, it no longer represents it - literally - but creates it, it creates its own present, among a quasi-infinity of possible presents (7).

(7) Clearly, these images can be recorded on film or videotape, but they lose their interactivity, that is to say, a major part of their originality.

The time in which the dialogic image is inscribed, or which it generates, is no longer a time made up of events (televisual time is the prime example of this), of present moments which occur; rather, it too is made up of virtualities.

A universe of the third kind

Henceforth, the mosaic of the interactive screen, ordered into its utmost constituents, no longer operates by incrustation. The image is no longer inscribed in the space where it takes place, where the screen is situated, with that violence characteristic of televisual media which pours the outside in - from the far periphery in the case of televised images, or from the more or less direct vicinity, in the case of closed circuit images - in a whirlwind of endlessly renewed events. The viewer and the image are in dialogue, interrogate each other and respond to each other, form one body, one couple, a strange hybrid being - which some might find monstrous and narcissistic - and are tom away from both inside and outside, isolated and abstracted from any event.

The relationship of viewer and image is no longer established in the mode of communication proper to the media - a communication which always tends to purvey a preexisting meaning, like the photographed object, which is transmitted, and to represent (to duplicate by recording) the present of events which take place, or have taken place, elsewhere, outside the sphere defined by image and viewer. This relationship is now established in the mode of commutation, a mode in which meaning is no longer emitted from a single source (the television aerial, the tape recorder) or a point of fight projection (cinema, photo), in which it is no longer received and decoded - with an inevitable degree of uncertainty - but in which, rather, it is elaborated in the course of an exchange by direct and immediate contact, reciprocal contamination, between viewer and image.

This the order of communication which governs the media would be succeeded by the order of commutation, proper to dialogic systems in which meaning is born out of conversation, just as the figurative order of optical representation would be succeeded by that of numerical simulation. It is true that this succession is only beginning to take its place, and everything suggests that we shall still continue to function under a hybrid regime that mixes the two orders, each corresponding to a different and complementary economy of the image. But it is certain that the video screen henceforth has other uses ahead of it, and that these uses cannot fail to shake the visual arts and culture itself. The current crisis of the image also expresses - albeit rather obscurely, since among people who deal with the image, few understand just what makes these ‘new images' new - our anxiety at the appearance of an image which questions the principles we have lived by for centuries.

If the numerical technologies of the image are to entail as many consequences for our behaviour as television has had since the 1950s, we must first expect them to have wide repercussions, through sheer proximity, on the traditional visual arts (cinema, television, photography, plastic arts, etc.), repercussions in the form of reactions and shifts in these arts, as has already been happened throughout this century. It is clear that what can be seen today - the synthesised images used in television credit sequences and network logos, or in generally banal fiction films - is still, apart from a few very encouraging exceptions (some ads and promo videos), hardly representative of a new aesthetic, since these images lose much of their dialogic specificity when circulated through traditional media. They have not yet learnt to exploit the now spatial and temporal universe which is opening up to them, nor to free themselves from a too- narrow realism which seems their sole technical criterion.

Among those shifts entailed by numerical technologies, one might for example expect to see a profound renewal in the important art of cinematographic montage, as analysed by the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Beauviala. But we can also expect to see a renewal of certain visual and plastic arts, led to redefine themselves by reaction, as impressionist painting did at the end of the 19th century in response to photography (8). Interactive numerical techniques can above all bring about a new specific art, a very varied one, of which we can as yet have little conception, but whose importance certain experiments, although still limited by technical and material difficulties (the cost of machines, a too-slow speed of calculation, absence of adequate models of simulation, etc) already hint at. It is difficult, indeed absurd, to predict what the art of tomorrow will be.

(8) For example, television itself, which more and

more seeks out the type of (non-numerical) interactivity represented by viewer participation (instant polls, phone-ins, etc.).

But if techniques in general, and techniques of figuration even more, are already ways of perceiving and conceiving the world, if as well as methods, they are also aesthetics (in the etymological sense), then perhaps it is not vain to imagine the direction of this art of tomorrow, or more simply to imagine what new constraints artists will have to take account of, what new challenges they will have to accept in order to finally derive some fleeting source of pleasure. For of course, numerical technologies have nothing inherent in them which would guarantee any superiority in artistic creation.

The major interest of the numerical image and of processes of simulation would not seem to he in the creation of brutally new forms, never seen before, without any reference to our immediate world or link with our traditions, in a sort of hyperabstraction or hyperformalism which would only be a belated continuation of an already exhausted aesthetic preoccupation. Nor conversely, in an increased hyperrealism towards which the very techniques of simulation would seem to incline this image only too strongly.

Nor does it seem that one could operate on these techniques an art of critical diversion as certain artists (Paik, Vostell) have have done with the video screen; what is disconcerting about the computer is that it cannot be diverted. Apart from electronic palettes which are quite narrowly finalised in view of a certain type of image, so that it's hard to imagine what they could be diverted from, in the domain of three-dimensional programmable synthesis, it is difficult and above all absurd, to change the function of a machine whose only function is the one it has been programmed with. At the most, one might divert - or rather use - certain logics intended for scientific or technological use to make them serve artistic ends, something that in any case is quite current and does not bear witness to any particular critical position.

On the other hand, the mode of distribution of the conversational image - the way in which we access it, in which it is seen, and made socially available - seems to offer very great and very new possibilities. Television has already shown that the cultural upheavals brought about by the electronic image were much more to do with the specificity of the support (the mosaic of the screen), its mode of diffusion, and the possibility of its being received almost at the same moment as it is generated (five broadcasting) then from any aesthetic properties of the image itself. Now, numerical techniques affect not onlythe morphogenesis of the image but also its distribution. The interactivity between the image of a metal sheet and someone learning to weld does not present a really new image in terms of forms or colour; but the way in which the image is generated - it is the result of calculus - and the way in which it 'responds' to whoever watches and manipulates it are both fundamentally new. At present, apart from some very expensive but promising laboratory experiments, the general public can find quite complex interactive images only in the form of video or arcade games (9). Let us not fret over that, quite the opposite - remember that the dnema(tographer) started as a fairground attraction. These deep changes of morphogenesis and image distribution irresistibly demand the artists attention.

We should however point out certain very interesting attempts, such as the Vivarium conceived by Ann Marion of Apple Computers in the us A, which allows the public to interact with sharks simulated in real time and with behaviour comparable to living animals.

Interactive simulation opens up a paradoxical, fascinating universe for the creative artist. Until now, he only had to consider - as all of us do - the exterior world, the real (the things and beings which surround him) and his interior world, his imagination, going from one to the other, feeding one with another. The exterior world was subject (and still is!) to entropy, wear, death, carried away by the succession of events. But through the mind, he was able to turn aside the passage of time, to remember the past, project the future, leave behind him traces (his works) in more or less durable form. With simulation, the artist is plunged into what we might call a universe of the third kind, oscillating between the real and the imaginary, half object, half image, woven out of infinite virtualities, a universe in which space, and above all, time, are of another essence. Nothing in it can deteriorate, since the very texture of things is nothing but numbers, but everything in it is required to changed constantly, to commute. Nothing happens there, and nothing is ever actualised for once and for all. The present there is not the occurrence of the future, nor is the past a present which has ceased to be. The event no longer has currency, its representation no longer has meaning. Death and life, memory and forgetting are no longer what they were. What makes the very essence of our culture becomes obsolete. The exploration of this new universe will be the image creators' most exciting interior adventure in the years to come. (10)

(10) This article was originally printed in Communications no.48 ‘Video’, Raymond Bellour and Anne-Marie Duguet (ed), Paris 1988, pp.79'88

translation Jonathan Romney