Book Review

Qui Bene Distinguit, Bene Docet

Peter Krečič, Art Historian, Author, and Director of the Ljubljana Architectural Museum

Should any theoretical work bear the Latin motto “He who distinguishes well, teaches well,” it would certainly be this book. With great erudition, a keen grasp of contemporary digital imaging technologies, as well as considerable courage, Or Ettlinger has taken on our civilization’s widespread question of the virtual, and the terminological mess caused by contemporary computer technology, which the notion of virtual space is very closely related to. He provides a departure point for an understanding and scientific research of the virtual, and ends by establishing the foundations for creative use of virtual space with a new area of artistic production – virtual architecture. The essential contribution of this work lies in the realization that the new presentation possibilities introduced by contemporary digital imaging technologies are not an epochal shift in the making of artistic illusions, and their importance does not truly compare to Western art’s discovery of linear perspective and its successors, such as Baroque illusionism and film. Instead, this book proposes that the production of virtual worlds, no matter how technically advanced it may be, is simply an extension of the historical art experience, in which the creation of illusions is an essential component of art itself.

The Architecture of Virtual Space is first and foremost a new theory of art, firmly rooted in the classical tradition of the history and theory of art, which in the past half-century has been marked in particular by Erwin Panofsky and E.H. Gombrich. As computer technologies arose, they surrounded themselves with a whole new terminology due to the circumstances of their development, and much of the contemporary notion of the virtual – and virtual space in particular – actually emerged in this environment. This new conceptual perspective, however, provided the author with an opportunity to look once again at the artistic past, and to discover that any artistic attempt to create an illusion always produces a new place in the universe of virtual space. What also gives this work special value is its attempt to chart the locations of virtual places within virtual space, to which an entire chapter is dedicated. He introduces the concept of what he calls contextography (the term is derived from geography), provides its basic principles, and uses it to delineate distinct context zones within virtual space. In another chapter, he enters the computer itself – one of the most complex machines ever devised for producing illusions – and elucidates its working procedure as merely that of ‘an abstraction machine’, thus enabling whole new perspectives to open up, and keep evolving, as computer technology continues to advance.

What we have before us, then, is a mature theoretical work that comes as a long-awaited revelation after many years of dreariness in the theory of art history. It creates a theoretical bond between previous theories of art history, from Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl in the late 19th century, to Panofsky and Gombrich in the 20th century, and links them to the theory of new media. It expands the theory of new media by viewing such media simply as artistic tools – promising devices for reaching new levels in the art of spatial illusionism. In a special chapter the author builds upon his findings to propose a new creative field of architectural production. His concern does not lie in the affirmation of computer design and presentation techniques or the invention of new ones, but rather in the potential to make new virtual places in virtual space – architectural production in virtual space, for virtual space, and without consideration of execution in physical space. With the multitude and variety of images surrounding us, the author might have just discovered the best imaginable place for experimentation and for his theoretical reflection.