Speculations on Digital Art and Viral Spaces
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Blog posting written by Sharon Lin Tay, Map Open Space curator and film/video/new media theorist at Middlesex University, England
A weekend in sunny Rome saw me playing the tourist at the Colloseum. Looking down at the arena from my vantage point several floors up in the seating area, I tried to imagine the gladiatorial spectacles that would have taken place there. I tried recalling all the bits of Roman history that I had studied at college in order to make sense of the ancient ruins I see before me.
Much of the original arena is gone, but I was able to see the outlines of what would have been the subterranean floors where convicted criminals, prisoners of war, and assorted wild animals were kept. The flat, horizontal structural outline of the subterrenean levels was fascinating and pleasurable to look at, and I had a good few minutes of picturing Russell Crowe on an imaginary arena fighting the lions.
I suppose it's a similar thing when we think about maps and remote sensing. Unlike other vertical representations of space and landscape, satellite images, aerial photographs, and Google Earth omit the human perspective. In a catalogue article on an exhibition called Beyond the Picturesque, John MacArthur makes an interesting observation about aerial photography:
"We can see everything, but from exactly where, at what altitude, and at what inclination is impossible to determine from the image. It is this elision of the viewpoint that makes the massive descriptive power of the aerial photograph into a pretext for reverie and imagined passage on the ground."
The omniscience of such a particular viewing position, the imaginative possibilities, and sense of control it provides gives much pleasure to viewers of maps, aerial photographs, and Google Earth. Tracing one's fingers along a route on a map or aerial photograph gives a tremendous sense of imagined mobility and power.
Yet, the flipside is also true: such a vantage point is unable to decipher the material relations on ground level. That, precisely, is Ursula Biemann's criticism of digital imaging in many of her video essays.
Coming back to my reverie staring at the Roman Colosseum's arena, fantasizing about gladiators fights and other gory spectacles didn't do that much more to further my knowledge of Roman history either.