Living the Image: Looking at Yam Lau’s Scapeland
Somewhere in The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, that peculiar philosopher of daydreams, observes that “often when we think we describe we merely imagine.”1 With this statement Bachelard articulates a basic complication in our engagement with the world, a complication increasingly entangled in the currents of global digital networks and the conventions of computer-mediated communication, in the movements and modulations between bodies, technology, and the world. I am thinking about this as I begin to describe an encounter with Toronto-based artist Yam Lau’s recent work Scapeland II, as it was installed at the YYZ Artist’s Outlet in Toronto this past spring.
Scapeland II is one of a number of works Lau has produced in recent years that explore the potential in digital animation and 3D-modelling for new modes of expression, constructing complicated virtual spaces that push installation-based video projection into murky ontological territory. In the animation, a virtual camera presents a view into a virtual space in which there appear four video “projections,” arranged on a kind of cubic armature, along with some other virtual objects: a tree and some rocks. The videos, four separate views of a rocky landscape near a body of water, appear as though projected onto something like a curtain or veil, a transparent material undulating in a virtual wind with a similar rhythm and force as the wind that blows across the water in the videos. Here, a complication emerges: within the logic of the digital, there can be no separation between the video, the veil, and the wind; nor can the videos be understood on the terms of actual projection, where an image is projected onto a surface by a focussed light source. They are, simply, a composition of information into a particular appearance. There are no curtains and there is no wind; there is simply the appearance of an image.
But what about this word “virtual”? It is a convention, at this point, to refer to any computer-generated space or object as a “virtual” space or a “virtual” object. While this is not exactly inaccurate, it seems to point away from an understanding of the virtual as a modality of perception. “Virtual” does not describe an object so much as it expresses a relation, a movement. When I refer to the images/objects in Scapeland II in terms of the virtual, I am describing an action or affect more than I am making any ontological claims for the digital image, as the virtual appears to destabilize the very ground on which such claims are possible. This can be felt in the ontological instability of the video/veil/wind “projections”: the impossibility of their appearance as things-in-the-world and my inability to untangle this knot of image/object/force.
This instability appears as an organizing force in Lau’s work, echoing in his stated intention for his work to “subtract weight from the world.”2 Working to untangle the implications of this statement, I think of Henri Bergson: “we have to take into account the fact that our body is not a mathematical point in space, that its virtual actions are complicated by, and impregnated with, real actions, or, in other words, that there is no perception without affection.”3 This passage from Bergson’s Matter and Memory is important for contemporary philosopher Mark Hansen in considering the position of consciousness and the body in relation to the flux of information. Against the possibility of a non-human perception that appears in the supposed automation of human capacities by digital technology, Hansen proposes an understanding of the body as central to the framing of information: “when the body acts to enframe digital information...what it frames is in effect itself: its own affectively experienced sensation of coming into contact with the digital.”4
An understanding of the virtual as always complicated or contaminated by affect presents a way of thinking the digital image outside of the purely optical or disembodied, problematizing assertions that the digital inscribes the real “entirely independent of any interface with the human.”5 From this, the complexity of Lau’s statement emerges. To imagine the affect of an image as a subtraction of weight is to see the potentiality for the body to be in excess of its actual state in a folding-together of weight and weightlessness. The apparent lightness of Lau’s intentions necessarily invokes a tension in the relation between the material and the virtual.
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About the Author
David Court is a Toronto-based artist and writer, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Visual Studies at the University of Toronto. His work engages contemporary media experience within the context of aesthetic discourse and new media theory.