Are Light Projections Virtual?

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Part 2 of 3 in the series Is X-Y-Z Virtual?

The winter holiday season is also a celebration of lights, and many cities pride themselves on the beautiful light installations along their streets and on their buildings. One such type of light installation takes the form of the projection of images onto physical buildings. There are many examples of such light shows, which vary in quality as well as in their degree of architectural emphasis. Here is one recent example from the city of Lyon’s festival of lights:

Another example is the following:

Probably one of the most suitable examples for this discussion, however, is the now famous light projection presented last summer in Kharkov, Ukraine:

Such light projections raise questions regarding both the nature of their visual content as well as their interaction with the buildings onto which they are projected. What is the actual location of what is seen in them? What is the role of the physical building? What happens to it when it receives the projections? This post, therefore, addresses these questions from the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory.

Since light projections can change in time different segments of a projection may employ different types of images altogether. In this case, some segments present abstract patterns of light onto the building, some segments present pictorial images onto it, and some actually transform and redefine the building itself. The first two types use the building as merely a neutral screen on which to project light patterns that are essentially independent of the building, which could be easily replaced with another building without fundamentally altering the nature of the resulting light show. In such cases, therefore, the term ‘virtual’ applies only to the visual content seen in the pictorial segments of a projection, but not to the light projection itself.

The truly fascinating segments of such light shows, however, are those which directly relate to the architectural structure of the building itself. The visual content of such a light projection is an alternative version of that building – whether deforming, collapsing, or evolving – presented in the exact same physical location as the original physical building, while appearing to replace it. Additionally, the magic of the last example is in its seamless transitions between the different types of images, and their resulting in a single continuous presentation made for a specific physical location.

This type of light projection is probably best understood by comparing it to the ages-old art of ‘trompe l’oeil’ mural paintings. Made already in antiquity and reaching wide production during the Baroque period, these were interior paintings made on walls and ceilings so as to appear to extend the space of the rooms in which they were painted. In the book The Architecture of Virtual Space, I proposed that their key difference compared to regular pictorial paintings is that in addition to creating virtual places, trompe l’oeil mural paintings present their virtual places as if they were a direct extension of the physical location in which they were painted.

For example, Fra Angelico’s Madonna of the Shadows from 1439, with its painted columns and their shadows, gives its whole scene a sense of direct presence in the convent of San Marco where it was painted:

Contemporary uses of trompe l’oeil paintings probably tend be found more on outdoor surfaces, providing added interest to not-so-interesting locations. One example is the work of mural painter John Pugh:

Architectural light projections, therefore, combine the effect of outdoor trompe l’oeil paintings with the added dimension of time. The buildings they create are completely virtual and are located inside of virtual space, yet through their particular way of presentation they make us perceive them as if they were actually located inside of the physical world. This is achieved by two main means. First, the architecture of the created virtual building is designed in full accordance with that of the existing physical building onto which it is projected. Second, the context of the virtual building’s presentation in an already-physical location inevitably adjusts our perception such that we accept what we see as if it too were located in the physical world – right there along with the street, the trees, the wind, and our own physical selves.

In addition, when such a transformation is successful, then even the parts of the show that are regular pictorial projections of a non-architectural nature receive a rare added depth of their own. Normally, the effect of a pictorial image is to make us perceive a virtual place that is located somewhere else – that is, somewhere inside of virtual space. In this case, however, the successful integration of pictorial images with the virtual building makes them appear as if their visual content were actually located within the volume of the virtual building itself. And since the projection of the virtual building onto the physical building already makes the virtual building appear to be located in the physical world, then even the content of the pictorial images now seem to be part of the physical world just as well!

By the use of this cunning device, then, a virtual fish could be made to appear as if it were swimming behind and in front of the façade of a physical building in the physical world… or in other words – as it would seem – a virtual fish in physical space. ;)

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.

What Is Contextography?

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Part 1 of 2 in the series Introducing Contextography

If you visited the section of this website which describes the book and went through its table of contents, you probably came across a peculiar word: contextography. This is a term which is introduced by The Virtual Space Theory in order to address some of the questions that inevitably arise due to its alternative approach to pictorial images and virtuality.

The Virtual Space Theory accepts digital technology’s victory in producing photorealistic images and therefore approaches the question of how to differentiate between pictorial images by shifting the discussion to virtual space itself. In other words, it proposes that all pictorial images present virtual places, whether they were made with a computer, a paintbrush, or a camera. The difference between various pictorial images, then, is not considered to be in whether or not what is seen in them is virtual, but rather in the context of the resulting virtual places.

For example, the following painting by El Greco from around 1610 shows the grim fate of Laocoön, the Trojan priest from the Homeric legend of Troy, who dared to defy the Gods and warn the Trojans of their impending doom:

El Greco, Laocoön, c. 1610-1614

This painting is also shown in the book as an example of architecture performing the role of the background of a painting – in this case, showing the city of Troy. And yet there is another painting which El Greco made in more or less the same period, and which looks very similar:

El Greco - View and Plan of Toledo, c. 1610

The second painting is a view of the city of Toledo in Spain, where El Greco lived and worked. Seeing this painting now raises questions as to the nature of the city we just saw in the first painting, doesn’t it? Indeed, the technique El Greco used in creating the city of Troy for his Laocoön painting was to stand on a hill across from Toledo and use it as a reference for the Troy of his resulting painting. Maybe El Greco even did this with some symbolic reference in mind to the people and city of Toledo, but this makes no difference to our discussion. The city we see in the first painting is not Toledo; it is Troy. Only the city in the second painting is Toledo.

To be more accurate, they are both virtual places, and despite their similar technique of production as well as similar visual content, they have totally different contexts. The context of the first virtual place is that of a reconstruction of a physical place which might have existed sometime in the distant past. In that sense, it has a very similar context as that of the film Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, 2004) made some four hundred years later:

View of the city from the film Troy, 2004

Returning the discussion to El Greco’s second painting, however, the context of the virtual place presented by it is rather that of a documentation of a physical place which existed at the time the image was made, and which the person making it was actually present in. In that sense, it has a very similar context as that of the following contemporary photograph of Toledo:

toledo-photograph1

The Virtual Space Theory, then, approaches the study of the various contexts of virtual space by reinterpreting them in geographical terms – hence the term ‘contextography’. It proposes that each such context can be considered as a section or a zone within virtual space, inside of which the virtual places that share this context are to be found. In that sense, the virtual place of El Greco’s Toledo painting and the virtual place of the above photograph are close neighbors in virtual space, and both are located very far away from the virtual place of El Greco’s Laocoön painting.

What contextography provides is an alternative system for differentiating between pictorial images, in a way that is independent of their medium, visual content, or technique of production. The book elaborates this system far beyond the discussion in this post, and maps out nearly 20 such distinct ‘context zones’ and their relation to each other. That work may still be extended further someday, but at this stage I think it is quite detailed enough to make the point. :)

“Avatar”: The Idea of What’s Real Is Irrelevant (part 1)

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Part 1 of 3 in the series The Idea of What's Real Is Irrelevant

One of the common approaches to understanding pictorial images, especially in photography and film, is to consider them in terms of how real they are. Following the release of the film Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), this series of posts will explore this idea and the way it is being challenged by the recent achievements in image-making. The idea of what’s real has many aspects and layers to it, and has been a recurring topic in philosophical debates for millennia. These posts will obviously not get into all of them, yet it is interesting to try and observe what might be behind the contemporary everyday usage of this term with respect to pictorial images.

When we look at a pictorial image and say that what we see in it is real, there are several things that we might mean by that. For one, it could be a way of saying that we consider that what we see in it has an equivalent in the physical world. Also, it could be a way of saying that the technique used for making the image was that of photography. In some cases, it could be a way of saying that what we see in this image is consistent and believable enough to be considered as something that could have existed in the physical world, even though it might not.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Cathedral over a Town, after 1813

For example, the cathedral in Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s painting Cathedral over a Town may indeed seem very real. Not because the painting looks like a photograph, but because its visual contents are quite convincing and believable. However, in the sense of having a physical equivalent, that cathedral is not real because there is no (and never has been) such a cathedral in the physical world – it is Schinkel’s own invention which he made specifically for the painting.

The following example, however, challenges these notions of what’s real quite a bit. It is a video which presents several famous buildings using advanced computer graphics, combined with unmistakable personal talent. Called The Third & The Seventh, it was made by Alex Roman in homage to the arts of Architecture and Cinema. This beautiful video runs 12 minutes long, and it is highly recommended to watch it in full-screen view:

In the context of our discussion, the contents of this video are visually very convincing, and in this sense they surely seem real. Additionally, the places we see in it are also real in the sense that buildings just like them indeed exist also in the physical world. And yet, in the sense of ‘real’ as meaning ‘photographed’, what we see in this video is not real at all: Even though it looks as if this video was filmed on location, everything in it is computer-generated.

Proposing an Alternative Model of Thought

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The approach of The Virtual Space Theory is to present a different way of thinking about familiar topics, as well as to bring together topics that might otherwise be considered mostly unrelated. This theory, however, is neither true nor false – it is simply a model of thought. Its goal is to provide a tool with which it might be possible to understand and explain phenomena that might not be explainable by other ways of thinking.

To clarify what I mean by the term ‘a model of thought’, a useful analogy is that of the different ways physicist have developed for explaining various phenomena. For example, from my secondary school days, I clearly remember studying the challenge of classical physics with regard to determining what the phenomenon of light might actually be: is it a wave or a particle? On one hand, some behaviors of light (such as interference or polarization) suggest that it can only be a wave: the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. On the other hand, the fact that light has energy and momentum (such as in the photo-electric effect) suggests that it can only be a particle: a flow of photons.

So which is it, then? I do not have the conclusive answer, and as far as I know, neither do physicists. The point of this example is not to try to engage you in the study of light in physics, but rather to demonstrate the power and value of having alternative models of thought to choose from.

In the case of The Virtual Space Theory, the subjects being tackled are pictorial mediums and virtuality. Its opening conditions are: A wide range of mediums – old and new – each with their separate theories, and the widely undefined topic of virtuality. Its tasks: To present an alternative model of thought that would be equally applicable to all pictorial mediums, as well as provide a consistent definition of virtuality.

The cost? In its proposed model, The Virtual Space Theory marginalizes the importance of technique, and disregards matters of style, meaning, or the social role of pictorial images – which happen to be at the heart of most existing media theories (as well as the main dividing factor between mediums). However, even though this theory does not address such issues, it does not necessarily negate them either – it rather recontextualizes them.

For example, let’s take the matter of the meaning of symbols in pictorial images, and demonstrate it using Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist painting The Isle of the Dead from 1883:

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, Third Version, 1883

Now, let’s also consider the following video:

These two examples are from different mediums, and as such, they might normally require very different theories in order to discuss them. Yet from the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory they are just two types of windows towards the same virtual place. Therefore, whatever the symbolic meaning of the cypresses you see, it is no longer associated with the art object of the painting or the video, but is rather to be found inside of virtual space. Deciphering what such symbols might mean, however, is a task that is left to other existing theories.

A Blog about Architecture

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For most people, whenever the word ‘architecture’ comes up, the first thing that comes to mind is buildings: Apartment blocks or luxurious villas, seats of power or places of worship, public monuments or hang-out places – along with any other kind of man-made place that makes up the physical world in which we live. Additionally, for anyone who is somewhat familiar with this field, the word ‘architecture’ also stands for anything that has to do with the process of making such places: The mental search for ideas, the experiments in sketches and scale-models, the production of plans, sections, and elevations, and the visual expression of the resulting vision in the form of pictorial images.

These, however, are not the kinds of architecture that this blog is about.

There is a whole other kind of architecture that is hardly ever discussed. That is the architecture that generates and inhabits the space we see through pictorial media. It is the kind of architecture that is to be found in images that are totally unrelated to the process of planning, building, or discussing physical architecture. It is a kind of architecture that is very familiar to most of us, except that we seldom stop think of it as being architecture.

At first glance, it might seem that to consider buildings in pictorial images as forming a distinct kind of architecture is a bit of an exaggeration. After all, if we look at the history of art, for example, aren’t the buildings we see in paintings nothing more than a copy of the buildings that the painter saw right in front of him?

Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street, Rainy Weather, 1877.

The above painting by Gustave Caillebotte is surely architecturally rich, but isn’t the architecture in it actually a documentation of a particular place in 19th-century Paris? The mere posing of this question expresses our romantic notion of the painter standing in front of an easel somewhere in the outdoors with a brush and palette in his hand. However, from a historical perspective, this way of perceiving art and artists is less than 150 years old: It is a legacy of the Impressionist movement, of which this painting is a prime example.

Up until that time, painters were mostly confined to their studios, laboring at the creation of images worthy of the revered title of ‘Art’, and guided by a set of high ideals and accepted principles for achieving it. It was precisely the Impressionists who urged painters to go out into the open air and simply paint what they see. For centuries before that, painters usually had to generate the space of their paintings and their visual content completely on their own – including the architecture in them.

Alessandro Botticelli - The Story of Lucretia, c. 1496-1504

For example, the above painting by Sandro Botticelli is surely rich in architecture, but you would be hard pressed to find the particular place seen in it anywhere in Italy. Not because it has not been preserved through history – but because it has probably never even existed in the first place. Some of the architectural elements in it may be direct copies of existing physical places, but others are merely a free variation on a physical place, and some are altogether invented for the sake of the painting. They were then all joined into a single composition, designed as a suitable setting for presenting the story the painter wanted to depict. In the creation of this place, therefore, Botticelli was not only its painter, but he also assumed the role of its architect.

While this point was demonstrated here using the case of paintings, the idea that is proposed by The Virtual Space Theory is that the same applies also to any other type of pictorial image – photography, film, computer-generated imagery, and so on: The places that are seen through them, in many cases, could very well be considered to be works of architecture in and of themselves. After all, in order for us to even be able to perceive them in terms of space, such places must have first been mentally envisioned, carefully planned, and meticulously executed.

That is the kind of architecture this blog is about.