The Affective Topology of new media art
by Mark B.N. Hansen
…If the frame has an analogue, it has to be found in an information system rather than a linguistic one. The elements are the data, which are sometimes very numerous, sometimes of limited number.
You enter a tiny, well-lit room. On the four walls, you see what look like to be four sculptures of a human skull, apparently cast from different points of view. Yet as you concentrate on these objects, you immediately notice that something is horribly amiss; not only is the play of light and shadow that defines their sculptural relief somewhat odd, as if they were meant to be seen from the ceiling or the floor, but the skulls themselves seem warped in a way that doesn’t quite feel right, that just doesn’t mesh with your ingrained perspectival sense. You begin to explore these sculptures more carefully, moving close to one, then turning away, then moving close to another, and so on, and then circling around as if to grasp in your very movement and changing position the secret of their relation to one another. As you continue to explore them, you find yourself bending your head and contorting your body, in an attempt to see the skulls “head-on.” At each effort to align your point of view with the perspective of one of these weird sculptural objects, you experience a gradual mounting feeling of incredible strangeness. It is as though these skulls refused to return your gaze, or better, as though they existed in a space without any connection to the space you are inhabiting, a space from which they simply cannot look back at you. And yet they are looking at you, just as surely as you are looking at them! Abruptly you step back and stand rigid in the center of the room, as far from the skulls as you can get. However still you try to remain, you feel the space around you begin to ripple, to bubble, to infold, as if it were becoming unstuck from the fixed coordinates of its three-dimensional extension. You soon become disoriented, as this ungluing of space becomes more intense. Again you contort your body—or rather, you feel your body contorting itself---and you notice an odd tensing in your gut, as if your viscera were itself trying to adjust to this warped space. You find this experience alternately intolerable and amusing, as you once again move in to focus on still another skull, until finally, having grown impatient or unable to endure the weird sensation produced by this work, you abruptly pass through the door-sized opening cut into one of the room’s four walls and seek solace in some less unsettling portal to the digital world.
The work just described is Robert Lazzarini’s skulls (2000) as exhibited at the Whitney Museum’s “Bitstreams” show. It is, as you have just had occasion to experience, a sculptural installation composed of four skulls hung about eye-level and protruding about a foot from the walls of a small, well-lit, clean and bright room. To create this deceptively low-tech installation, Lazzarini laser-scanned an actual human skull to create a three-dimensional CAD (computer-aided design) file, which, he then subjected to various distortions. The resulting distorted files became the models for four sculptures cast in solid bone. As your experience testifies, Lazzarini’s work functions by catalyzing a perspectival crisis, confronting us as it does with “the disorienting ambiguities of digital space”1 ---with what would seem to be indices from a world wholly alien to our habitual perceptual expectations and capacities.
At first, we might be tempted to liken Lazzarini’s installation to traditional anamorphic representations: not only does his subject matter iconographically recall the bizarrely distorted skull that appears repeatedly in the anamorphic tradition, and most famously in Hans Holbein’s 1533 The Ambassadors,2 but the perceptual problem the installation presents seems to mirror the problematic of anamorphic distortion. Needless to say, this correlation has found its way into descriptions of Lazzarini’s work. Florian Zeyfang for example, portrays skulls as four sculptures that have been “anamorphically deformed” in the computer, and the Pierogi Gallery description of Lazzarini cites his use of “distortions such as anamorphism.”3 Nonetheless, despite their undeniable resemblance to traditional icons of anamorphosis, Lazzarini’s skulls cannot be considered anamorphic in any conventional sense of the term, since they do not resolve into a normal image when viewed from an oblique angle, but confront the viewer with the projection of a warped space that refuses to map onto her habitual spatial schematizing, no matter how much effort she puts into it, no matter how many angles she tries. This effect of protracted---indeed interminable---anamorphosis results from Lazzarini’s peculiar engagement with the three-dimensional media of sculpture: As the Pierogi description insightfully points out, Lazzarini utilizes what are, in effect, two-dimensional distortion techniques in order to model three-dimensional objects. The result is sculptural objects whose own depth interferes with the illusionary resolution of perspectival distortion. Accordingly, if skulls does inaugurate some new kind of anamorphic image, it could only be a radically attenuated anamorphosis that functions less to infold some secret4 than to mark our radical exclusion from the space the skulls inhabit and from which they come out to greet us, as it were, as envoys from elsewhere. Skulls confronts us, in short, with a spatial problematic we cannot resolve: with the “fact” of a perspectival distortion that can be realized (and corrected)---and that “makes sense” visually---only within the weird logic and topology of the computer.5
Our experience of these warped indices does not end, however, with the frustration of our visual mastery over them, but gradually and seamlessly shades over into the domain of affective bodily response: “As the object becomes a projection of the image,” the Pierogi description continues, “the wall becomes a projection of the ground,” which is to say that the perceptual experience of the work yields an oscillation or leveling of the figure-ground distinction and with it, an end to any hope of visual entry, let alone mastery, of the work. That the work aims to provoke precisely such a shift to a nonvisual, affective domain of experience finds corroboration from the artist who, in comparing the impenetrable, apparently irrational from of these objects to “the emotionally keyed distortion evident in the sixteenth-century paintings of El Greco,”6 foregrounds their role as triggers for affect.7 Even in doing so, however, Lazzarini adapts this minor tradition in figurative art to the specific problematic of the digital image: here, the affective response of the viewer is “keyed” by the impenetrability of the digital processing involved and the warped topological space projected by the objects it yields. By triggering a bodily intuition of a computer-processed form, the work mobilizes anamorphosis---according to its more general sense as a transition between forms8---as the operator of a suture between disjunctive formal dimensions, or what Edmund Couchot calls “diamorphisis.”9 In doing so, it deploys the anamorphing of form as the opening of a whole new domain—the synthetic modulation operative in contemporary computer music and computer graphics that has recently been dubbed “hyper-nature” by Friedrich Kittler.10 Because our constitutive embodiment prevents us from following along such modulation at the molecular level and in real time, whatever possibility we may have for experiencing it can only come via an affective “analogy” produced by our bodily response to it and whose “content” is warped space felt within the body. “What [the skulls] do,” one particularly astute viewer-participant observes, “is force the Viewer/User to summon up one paradigm of perceptual abstraction after another only to discard it as the eye moves a few centimeters this way or that, and in this way the beholder is forced to acknowledge that they arte witnessing the operation of a process within their own minds which normally is performed for them through the agency of formal abstraction or in the familiar distortions of TV or film, or more recently upon a computer monitor.”11 If we substitute “body” for “mind” in this passage, we are well on our way to grasping just how skulls situates the viewer in between the mechanic space of the image and the normal geometrical space of visual perception: to the extent that our perspectival grasp of the image is short-circuited, we do not experience the image in the space between it and our eye (as in normal geometric perspective); and to the extent that we are thus “placed” into the space of the image (though without being able to enter into it), out visual faculties are rendered useless and we experience a shift to an alternate mode of perception rooted in our bodily faculty of proprioception.
We could say then that Lazzarini’s work functions by catalyzing an affective process of embodied form-giving, a process that creates place within our bodies. And since it is through such a creation that we get a sense for the “weirdness” of digital topology, we might well think of it as a correlate to the impossible perceptual experience offered by the work. In sum, if skulls is exemplary of new media art, it is not simply because it manages to capture or synthesize what is at stake in the host of products and practices that have typically, if more or less randomly, been grouped under this confused and confusing rubric. Rather, its exemplarity stems from its success at deploying the capacities proper to the digital image---or better, to the process of digital modulation12---without channeling these through the coordinates of an image designed for interface with (human) vision.
In this respect, skulls exploits the extreme flexibility and total addressability that Couchot, Deleuze, and Kittler have all attributed to the digital image.13 Yet whereas these critics explore this unprecedented flexibility and addressability in terms of its consequences for the optical properties of the image,14 Lazzarini’s work mobilizes the digital image in order to catalyze a bodily intuition of space, an intuition of the origin of space in the bodily spacing explored in the previous chapter. Rather than acting as the “object” of digital modulation, the image here functions as a catalyst for the breakdown of the visual register itself: whereas computer graphics, in its quest to determine the “optimal algorithm for automatic image synthesis,” hypostatizes the optical dimension, skulls explores the topological freedom of digital modulation and attempts to give the viewer (or rather the “looker on”15) some interface with this visually impenetrable domain. Consequently, the image marks a break in the flux of digital modulation designed to interface us with its weird topology; it furnishes what amounts to a cipher or index of a process fundamentally heterogeneous to our constitutive perceptual ratios. To grasp this point, contrast the experience catalyzed by skulls with the representation of digital space as imagined by, say, a film like Lawnmower Man: rather than inventing a purely arbitrary metaphor for digital flux (e.g., the swirling, psychedelic forms that “signify” cyberspace), skulls presents us with the actual artifacts from the digital realm---digitally warped forms bearing traces of inhuman topological manipulation. If our apprehension of these artifacts doesn’t give us direct experience of digital space, it does comprise a new form of “affection-image”---a digital affection-image that unfolds in and as the viewer-participant’s bodily intuition of the sheer alienness of these forms.
In this sense, skulls might be said to engage the image as an “image to the power of the image,” following Couchot’s concept:
The synthetic image…[is a] recomposition outside of time, outside of the even temporality of instantaneity, and outside of the place where the object is located. The image of 3-D synthesis is a quasi-infinite potentiality of images, all similar to one another [a la fois semblables],…since they are capable of showing [their] object under a multiplicity of points of view and singular aspects. It is an image to the power of the image [image a la puissance image]. Never visible in their totality, consequently impresentable in any single time, these images of image no longer belong to the visual order of representation, they can no longer be submitted to its topology.16
Indeed, the synthetic image might be said to occasion a shift in the ontology of our spatial experience as such---a shift from an optically grounded spatiality in which object matches image according to a strict correspondence to a topology where image infinitely exceeds object. Here we are no longer in the geometric space that anamorphosis can puncture,17 nor are we, to reiterate the argument I have been pursuing throughout this book, in the ontology of images set out by Bergson and retooled by Deleuze in his study of the cinema.
In this chapter, I give an account of the factors that make skulls exemplary of aesthetic experimentation with the digital image. In a certain sense, this account brings to a close the larger argument pursued in this book: for by extending the function of bodily spacing beyond the domain of virtual perception and by soliciting a response in which affectivity takes the place of perception, skulls calls affectivity into play as a phenomenological modality in its own right---that is, a mode of experience autonomous from perception, and indeed one with a certain priority in the context of contemporary digital convergence. To unpack this liberation of affectivity from perception, I expand my earlier consideration of Deleuze’s notion of the any-space-whatever (ASW). Specifically, I propose that skulls triggers the production of a “digital ASW”---a genesis of an internal bodily space or spacing in response to a warped spatial regime whose realization is enabled by the accelerated symbol-shuffling capacity of the digital computer. The digital ASW is both like and unlike the cinematic explored by Deleuze. It is like the cinematic ASW in that it demarcates a fundamental shift in the human experience of space, a shift from an extended, visually apprehensible space to a space that can be felt only by the body. But it differs from the cinematic ASW on account of the means by which it operates this shift: whereas the cinematic ASW emerges as a transfiguration of an empirical spatial experience, the digital ASW comprises a bodily response to a stimulus that is both literally unprecedented and radically heterogeneous to the form of embodied human experience. To put it more simply: because it must be forged out of a contact with a radically inhuman realm, the digital ASW lacks an “originary” contact with a space of human activity (e.g., the “disconnected” or “empty” spaces of postwar Europe)---and thus any underlying analogy---from which affect can be extracted.
As a consequence of this difference, the problematic of restoring belief will have to be reconfigured in a manner at odds with that developed by Deleuze in Cinema 2: rather than a liberation of the “formal linkages of thought” within the image, what is necessary is a supplementary connection, beyond or outside the image, with the bodily basis of belief---namely, touch. For this reason, the digital ASW (which, remember, is a process of bodily framing [or spacing] and not a type of technical image) invests proprioception as a fundamentally embodied and nonvisual modality of experience, and one that---by lending affectivity an autonomy from and a priority over perception---takes Bergeson’s analysis to its logical conclusion. As an example par excellence of the digital ASW, the experience of the skulls yields a bodily intuition of internal, affective space that itself forms “a sensually produced resemblance” to the forces of our digital technosphere. Like the concept Deleuze develops in his study of painter Francis Bacon, such a produced resemblance does not in fact resemble the forces it channels; rather, it emerges as a result of bodily processing of these forces that, in this case, also happens to be the very medium of the “resemblance”---the affectively attuned, haptic, or tactile body functioning as an “aesthetic analogy” for the digital realm.
Insofar as it catalyzes a shift to a production of haptic space within the body, skulls perfectly encapsulates my argument concerning the distinction between the virtual and the digital and underscores the crucial connection of the former with human embodiment. Rather than deploying the digital as a new vehicle of expression, Lazzarini mobilizes the digital in order to provoke a virtualization of the body. What skulls affords is, consequently, not a direct apprehension of an alien space that is digital, but a bodily apprehension of just how radically alien the formal field of the computer is from the perspective of the phenomenal modes of embodies spatial experience. In the end, it is this difference that forms the “content” of our experience of skulls: by presenting us with warped indices of a weird, inhuman topological domain, the installation provokes an affective response---bodily spacing or the production of space within the body---that is unaccompanied by any perceptual correlate. In so doing, skulls extends our previous analysis of bodily spacing beyond the domain of VR, demonstrating that it comprises the affective basis for all so-called perceptual experience and that affectivity is also operative independently of perception in nonvirtual sensory experiences. As an aesthetic mediation of the digital that can only be felt, skulls furnishes eloquent testimony of the generalized priority of affectivity and embodiment in the new “postvisual topology” of the digital age.
1 This is the phrase used to describe the work in an accompanying brochure to he Whitney exhibition.
2 For a discussion of he development of the anamorphic representation from the late sixteenth century, see Jurgis Baltrusaitis, Anamorphic Art, trans. W.J. Strachan (Cambridge: Chadwick-Healey, 1977)
3 Florian Zeyfang, Amerikanische Kunst im Digitalzeitalter: ‘Bitstreams’ und ‘Digital Dynamics’ im Whitney Museum of American Art,” Telepolis: Magazin der Netzkultur, www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/inhalt/sa/3604/1.html, accessed December 4, 2001. Pierogi Gallery, “Robert Lazzarini,” www.pierogi2000.com/flatfile/lazzarin.html, accessed December 4, 2001.
4 Whether the secret of our mortality, as the art-historical reading of the skull as a memento mori would have it, or the secret of our symbolic existence, according to Lacan’s famous appropriation of Holbein’s image in Seminar XI, or some other secret entirely.
5 Here it is not without interest that recent computer modeling of Holbein’s anamorphic image has both complicated and simplified our understanding of anamorphosis, for although such modeling has revealed the existence of two privileged viewpoints for resolving the anamorphic stain (rather than one), it has fundamentally demystified the illusion of anamorphosis by giving it a precise location within the “virtual” perspective space of the computer. See Vaugh Hart and Joe Robson, “Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533): A Computer View of Renaissance Perspective Illusion,” Computers and the History of Art 8 (2) (1999):1-13.
6 “Bitstreams” brochure, Whitney Museum, 2000.
7 In light of my argument to follow---and particularly my appropriation of certain aspects of Deleuze’s notion of the sensually produced resemblance---it is not insignificant that Lazzarini suggests El Greco instead of Francis Bacon (who is, as we shall see, the object of Deleuze’s analysis), saying that, although he has “learned much from Bacon’s deformation process” and especially his “representations of isolated emotional states,” his work is formally more similar to the distortions of El Greco in the sense that he is interested in extending to three dimensions the play and tension between object and image, space and surface that he finds in the Spanish painter. See Max Henry, “Interview with Robert Lazzarini,” Tema Celeste: Arte Contemporanea 83 (January-February 2001), 65.
8 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1993) defines anamorphosis as “a gradually ascending progression or change of form from one type to another in the evolution of a group of animals or plants; esp.: the acquisition in certain arthropods of additional body segments after hatching.
9 Edmund Couchot, “Les Objets-temps: Au-dela de la Forme,” Design, Miroir du Siecle, ed. J. de Noblet (Paris: Flammarion/APCI, 1993): 382-389.
10 Friedrich Kittler, “Computer Graphics: A semi-Technical Introduction,” 33. Architect Greg Lynn has developed a notion of “animate form” that speaks directly to this problematic (see Animate Form [Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999]).
11 Blackhawk, “Notes on Bitstreams and Data Dynamics,” March 23, 2001, at http://bbs.thing.net/@1007497120E4jWGvJSPimiG@/reviews/display.forum?244, accessed December 4, 2001.
12 I define this term in the course of my argument below. For the moment, suffice it to say that digital modulation concerns the way the digital itself opens onto a continuous (i.e., not integral) flux of transformation.
13 See my discussion in the introduction and chapter 2.
14 Kittler, for example, focuses on the possible “optional optic modes” that can be developed on the basis of the computer image---raytracing and radiosity. (See Computer Graphics, “ 35.)
15 That is, the “regarduer,” using a term employed by Couchot, though perhaps in a slightly different sense, one that foregrounds precisely the impenetrability of the digital image (or in this case, digital space) to our visually dominated perceptual and orientational system. See Couchot, “Image puissance image,” 126.
16 Edmund Couchot, “Image puissance image,” 124 and 126.
17 Consequently, the virtualization of pictorial perspective imagined by art historian Michael Baxandall---that, to cite Kittler’s gloss (or rather imagining, since I can’t find this in Baxandall), “computer graphics provide the logical space of which any given perspective painting forms a more or less rich subset” (Kittler, “Computer Graphics,” 35)---does not apply.