Reconciling the Old and the New

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One of the key approaches of The Virtual Space Theory is to provide an interpretation of the visual arts which would reconcile the apparent rift between old media and new media. Such reconciliation is achieved by proposing a wider context which seamlessly encompasses the old as well as the new.

The technological developments of recent decades and their effect on visual media can easily give the impression that everything has changed: The creation tools are different, the means of presentation are different, and the visual language is different – not to mention the differences in values and subject matter. Accordingly, new theories have increasingly been developed in an attempt to understand the nature of these ‘new media’. From this perspective, older theories of art that were based mostly on the medium of painting seem practically outmoded, archaic, and irrelevant.

The Virtual Space Theory proposes that while the new theories of visual media are of course valid, they are still a matter of choice. That is, if one wants to understand recent developments by using the mindset of older theories, it is actually possible to do so. What is obviously missing for doing that, however, is the availability of an adapted version of these principles which would successfully also incorporate the contemporary vocabulary and phenomena. Such a proposed adaptation is exactly what The Virtual Space Theory is about, as fully elaborated in the book The Architecture of Virtual Space.

The Virtual Space Theory, as its name suggests, surely approaches contemporary topics such as virtuality, digital technology, and the latest visual media – yet it does so by relying heavily on the traditional approaches to the arts. The Virtual Space Theory is founded on the writings of art theorists such as Ernst Gombrich and Erwin Panofsky, who clearly represent the classical tradition of European art between the Renaissance and the early 20th century. Such a choice of references may seem peculiar to someone who is versed in the contemporary art discourse, which considers itself free from these older mindsets. And yet, a careful review of the old principles proved them to be surprisingly useful for understanding the latest media as well.

Let us look at a couple of straightforward examples to demonstrate the point. From a contemporary view of art, a painting such as Il Guercino’s ceiling fresco Aurora would initially seem to have nothing in common with current trends in visual media, to the point of being perceived anywhere from inaccessibly remote to downright boring.

Similarly, a film such as Tron Legacy (the upcoming sequel to the original Tron from 1982 – one of the first major films to employ digital techniques), when seen from the point of view of the classical tradition, might very well be suspected of superficiality, irreverence, and a lack of substance.

From the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory, however, both of the above examples can be understood along the exact same set of principles. These examples may obviously differ in their artistic intentions, production techniques, or forms of presentation, yet they also have much in common: Both of them generate an experience of space where in fact there is none (and as well populate it with their own idea of a hero on a two-wheeled vehicle), and both provide a physical object in the physical world through which to give access to this created space. In terms of The Virtual Space Theory, they are equal in that they both result in the creation of a virtual place in virtual space.

Such an observation, along with further observations that stem from The Virtual Space Theory, is the direct consequence of having a single overall model for understanding all forms of pictorial images – free of the constraints of various periods, mediums, techniques, or purposes, as well as the respective theories that come along with them. Thus, by introducing a wider context that is common to both the old and the new, The Virtual Space Theory allows the old to be revealed as fresh and fascinating, and the new to have depth and merit.

“Inception”: The Architecture of Mental Space

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At first glance, the film Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) seems to be a perfect embodiment of the ideas presented by The Virtual Space Theory: The film deals with visual places that have no physical existence; the means by which they might be accessed; the role of the architect who designs them; the rules that govern them; and the nature of the resulting experience of their visitors.

And yet, no matter how strong the apparent match may be, the actual relevance of this film to The Virtual Space Theory is surprisingly limited. Not that I am criticizing the film – I actually found it excellent in many respects. Yet its main value for this blog lies rather in the opportunity it provides to clarify what virtual space is not. In case you have not yet seen the film, this post does not include any plot spoilers, but it does analyze its underlying premise.

The following is the film’s official trailer:

First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way. According to The Virtual Space Theory, since Inception is a film, then, just like any other film, what we experience through it is located inside of virtual space. That is, whether you see it on the big screen in a cinema theater, on the smaller screen of a TV, or even on the tiny screen of an iPod, the visual content of what you are seeing through the screen is not located right there and then in the same space in which you are. You are inside of physical space along with the chair you sit on and the screen you are looking at, whereas the content of the film – regardless of how, where, or when it was made – is inside of a whole other kind of space. That other kind of space is what The Virtual Space Theory refers to as ‘virtual space’: a visual, publicly accessible, yet non-physical space.

Now that that has been dealt with we can discuss the film’s storyline and the kind of places it actually aims to present.

Inception is about dreams. And dreams, as we know from personal experience, are private. According to The Virtual Space Theory, the visual content of dreams is found inside of a third kind of visual space that is clearly distinct from both physical space and virtual space, and which it calls ‘mental space’. The visual experience of what is inside of our mental space is ours alone, and we cannot share it with others, no matter how much we may sometimes wish to do so. In fact, this desire to share that which is non-shareable by definition is precisely what lies at the heart of the inspiration to make art – which might then take the form of a pictorial image such as a painting or a film, which are publicly shareable.

A key characteristic of science fiction is that it takes a rule from the world as we know it, proposes a technological means to overcome it, and then builds a whole story upon that alternative premise. The film Inception proposes the hypothesis of shared dreaming – that is, the rule which it rewrites is that dreams are in fact private. It introduces questions such as ‘what if dreams could be shared?’ and ‘what if the visual content of dreams could be artificially constructed?’ It therefore proposes the existence of a machine that people could be wired up to intravenously in order to join each other’s dreams, and that the places in which the dreams would unfold could be planned in advance by an architect.

From there on, the film explores further consequent complexities, such as the ability to change dreams as they happen; the structure of dreams within dreams; the differences between the roles of the designer of the dream, the dreamer himself, and those who join in his dream; and the possibility of being hooked up to such a machine unknowingly. In the process, the film proposes fascinating answers to these questions and presents some ingenious examples of what ‘dream architecture’ might look like, as can be seen in the trailer above.

According to The Virtual Space Theory, however, none of that has anything to do with virtual space (apart, of course, from being visually presented to us through a film). To begin with, the film’s interest in the prospect of shareable dreams stems precisely from the fact that in reality they are not. Furthermore, even within the film, it is precisely the private nature of dreams which gives significance to the idea that someone could break into them. If they were as public as virtual space is, breaking in would not be as much of an issue. Second, even if the film’s proposed fictional technology did actually exist and mental space were to become shareable, this would still not mean that it is now just the same as virtual space is. They are still two fundamentally distinct spaces.

Inception’s dream-sharing hypothesis surely challenges The Virtual Space Theory’s principle that a key distinction between virtual space and mental space is the different scopes of their accessibility: public vs. private. Nevertheless, the film does not negate this principle completely. Mental space still remains essentially a private space, even if it is somehow broken into. That is, mental space has an owner, whereas virtual space does not. The film clearly shows how each dream has its own designated dreamer, and that it is his private mental space that is being shared with the other participants. In other words, having guests over in your living room still does not make it the same as a public café.

Furthermore, the technology proposed by the film does not claim to create dream states. Rather, it relies on the existing functionality of dreams as we know them to be, and only suggests that they could be shared, manipulated, and hijacked. Yet they remain dreams – visual experiences which we have inside of our private mental space when we are asleep.

A possible connection that Inception does have to virtual space, however, can still be found at a metaphorical level. One of the interpretations of the film is that its presentation of artificially created dream experiences is made as a poetic metaphor for the process of film production. Thus, the assembled team which fabricates and controls the dream stands for the members of a film production crew, and the target dreamer for whom it is intended stands for film audiences. In that sense, the film uses the notion of dreams to show us what filmmakers would love to do but in reality cannot. Sharing dreams is not part of our reality, but sharing virtual places is. Watching films – that is, viewing the same publicly available virtual places – is indeed about as close as we can come to the hypothetical experience of dream sharing.

The Different Contexts of Hogwarts and Olympus

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Part 2 of 2 in the series Introducing Contextography

In the recent film Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a teenage boy in present-day New York City discovers that the Greek gods are more than just a myth: he is actually the son of Poseidon, and finds himself at the center of a godly dispute of apocalyptic proportions. The film did not receive much critical acclaim, but still presents an interesting case study for some of the principles of The Virtual Space Theory. The following film trailer shows most of what I find important in this film in 1:30 minutes:

What seems to have bothered many film critics is this film’s similarity with the Harry Potter films, and indeed, they do have much in common. Both are about a teenage boy who thinks of himself as a loser in the present-day world, discovers that a fascinating mythical world somehow exists in parallel to it, and that in that world he was actually born to be a hero. In both cases, the young boy then joins a school that prepares him for his newly found role, makes friends, finds magical artifacts, defies authority, and saves the day.

And yet, a key difference between the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson films is in their contextography – a core principle of The Virtual Space Theory which was introduced in an older post. Following this proposed principle, the revealed mythical worlds of these respective films have different contexts through which they relate to our physical present-day world as it exists outside of these films.

In the Harry Potter films, the magical world that is revealed is presented as if it were a part of the physical world which we were simply unaware of. Their premise is that the magical world of centuries past is not lost, but simply gone into hiding. The films present a ‘Ministry of Magic’ that is located underneath central London, and a special wizard-training school called Hogwarts, located somewhere in the far north of England – as well as many other magical places hidden within our everyday environment. From a contextographical point of view, then, these virtual places are presented in the context of a documentation of the present-day physical world. Even more specifically, their context is that of a ‘fabricated documentation’: places that are not part of our everyday world, yet presented as if they were.

In contrast, in the Percy Jackson film, the physical world, as we know it, is left mostly unaltered: yes, there are mythological creatures in it, but not so many places in it which we were previously unaware of. In fact, it rather uses well-known ordinary places such as Las Vegas and the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee as the settings for some of its events. The major exceptions are the visits to the underworld and Olympus, yet even these places are not presented as a part of the physical world.

When Percy Jackson visits Olympus, he does not go to the physical Mount Olympus in Greece – he goes to the metaphysical residence of the mythological gods. His access to it, as seen in the clip above, may be through the Empire State Building in New York, but the final destination of its elevator is not in the physical world. The context of the virtual place of Olympus in this film, then, is rather that of an invention of a place that exists beyond the physical world. More specifically, its context is that of a ‘physical-like invention’: a metaphysical place that is made to appear like a physical place yet which has no location in the physical world.

These differences in context between Hogwarts and Olympus may be a bit difficult to grasp at first, yet they can still make intuitive sense. Of course both are seen in films, and as far as we are concerned, neither is part of our everyday world. But whereas you could take a map of England and wonder where exactly to go to if you wanted to try and find Hogwarts, you could not do the same with the metaphysical Olympian residence. The detailed discussion of contextography in the book, then, provides a systematic approach to the study of such differences between virtual places.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Film Star House

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Film stars do not necessarily always have to be actors – they can also be places. Paris and New York, for example, are very popular film stars, having appeared in countless films. Usually the film role of such places is to just ‘act’ as themselves, though sometimes they can play a different ‘character’, such as in the example of Berlin which was mentioned in a previous post.

In some rare cases, even a single house or a building can be a film star. This is the case of the Ennis House in Los Angeles, which was designed and completed in 1924 by Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s prominent 20th-century architect. Its most famous film appearance is as Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). In the film, this hilltop house assumes the role of a futuristic 97th-floor apartment:

This example demonstrates one of the design approaches taken by filmmakers for creating virtual places: redefining a physical place. In other words, a film is shot in an already existing physical place, possibly with some local modifications to suit the needs of the film. More importantly, it is then presented in a context which makes it appear like another place altogether. Technically, such as in the case of the Ennis House, the production process may also involve a stage-set version of the house, which eases design modifications as well as the placement of lighting and cameras. And yet the principle remains the same: a new virtual place in a film has been created based on an existing physical place.

The Ennis House has also starred in a long list of other films, TV commercials, and music videos, and has assumed various roles. Over the years, however, it became such an iconic film star house, that – similar to some human film stars – its real value is no longer just in its ability to act, but simply in ‘gracing the screen with its presence’. In the examples that follow, then, the house is presented unchanged, starring mostly in the role of its own self – Hollywood’s uninhabited film star house.

A series of TV commercials for Obsession by Calvin Klein, directed by David Lynch:

Music videos for Ricky Martin’s song Vuelve, and S Club 7’s song Have You Ever (and no, these videos do not represent my musical taste ;) ):

“Avatar”: The Idea of What’s Real Is Irrelevant (part 2)

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Part 2 of 3 in the series The Idea of What's Real Is Irrelevant

The previous post presented some of the varied uses of the term ‘real’ with respect to pictorial images. In this post I would like to focus particularly on the use of this term as a way of describing the technique by which an image was produced. In that sense, the term ‘real’ is often used to denote a pictorial image which was made with the technique of photography, as opposed to one which was made with some form of ‘special effects’– or in more recent times, by using computer graphic programs. In this context, then, to say that something in a pictorial image is real would be to say that we assume that the image is a photograph, and that there indeed was a corresponding physical object in front of the camera when that photo was taken.

Such an approach towards pictorial images seemed to work fine for many years since the techniques of making them could usually be quite easily discerned. As CG technology is improving, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to truly figure out how an image was made, and the irrelevance of this notion of what’s real is becoming ever more obvious.

The approach of The Virtual Space Theory in this matter is that regardless of how a pictorial image might have been produced, what we see in it has its own independent existence as a virtual place in virtual space. In other words, it considers it to be irrelevant whether what we see in a pictorial image indicates what was in front of the camera, or whether it was achieved through some cinematic trick. Instead, The Virtual Space Theory focuses the discussion on the virtual place which has been created as a result.

The recent release of the film Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) makes this point perfectly evident. In this film Cameron created a virtual world called ‘Pandora’, complete with richly detailed landscapes, vegetation, and life-forms. When watching it there is no way you could distinguish the line between what was physically present in the studio and what was generated using computer graphics. They completely blend together in the creation of a continuous and consistent virtual world. The following video is a documentary-like presentation of that world:

The visual achievements of Avatar clearly demonstrate many of the principles of The Virtual Space Theory, as well as emphasize the irrelevance of trying to decipher how an image was made. James Cameron himself actually explains these issues very clearly in the following interview (starting at 00:37):

Filming ‘On Location’, Different Results

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One of the most common techniques for producing a virtual place for the medium of film is to shoot the film in an already existing physical place. In cinematic terminology, this is called filming ‘on location’. If we follow The Virtual Space Theory’s principle of distinguishing phenomena from techniques, however, we will discover that knowing where the camera was rolling does not necessarily tell us much about the nature of the virtual place which was created as a result.

Let’s start with straightforward cases first. The music video for the song Style, which was mentioned in the previous post, was clearly filmed on location: One of its ways of conveying its rock-star style was indeed to film it in stylish places designed by contemporary star architects. Similarly, though with a completely different attitude, the film Der Himmel über Berlin (or in its English-language title, Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders, 1987) was also filmed on location in the city of Berlin, before the fall of the wall. As mentioned in the book, the story of this film may be fictional, but the virtual place of the city of Berlin as presented in it clearly reflects the physical city in which it was shot, as it was at that time.

In sharp contrast, another film which was shot in the city of Berlin is the film Æon Flux (Karyn Kusama, 2005). Even though this film ended up disappointing many fans of Peter Chung’s original animated TV series which inspired it, the result nevertheless remains an interesting one from a design point of view. The story it tells takes place in ‘the last city’ in a post-apocalyptic Earth several centuries in the future. For the creation of this virtual place the filmmakers chose to film it mostly on location in a series of specifically selected sites in the city of Berlin. Yet when shown together in the film, it resulted in the creation of a virtual place that is not Berlin at all.

Some examples of filming locations which can be seen in this film trailer are the House of World Cultures by Hugh Stubbins Jr., the Spandau Lake Bridge by Walter A. Noebel, and the Mexican Embassy by Teodoro Gonzaléz de Léon and Francisco Serrano Cacho. A list of filming locations is available here.

Another example of a film which was shot on location yet resulted in a virtual world that is very different from the physical places in which it was made is the film The Fall (Tarsem, 2006). This film revolves around a story which is told by a man to a little girl, and what is shown in the film is the mental vision which the girl generates out of her storyteller’s words.

To create this virtual world, the filmmaker carefully selected numerous beautiful places from 28 countries all over the globe as his filming locations, which were then filmed over the course of 4 years. A list of these filming locations is available here. And yet, the way these places are presented together creates a separate virtual world of its own which is clearly distinct from our world and any of the physical locations it was actually filmed in.