Fillip 8 — Fall 2008

Living the Image: Looking at Yam Lau’s Scapeland
David Court

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.

I would like to look at the material conditions of the installation more closely. In keeping with the conventions of gallery-based “black box” video projection, the animation was installed in the gallery as a wall-sized projection, fitted to the architecture of the space. Seemingly little effort was made in the installation to conceal the laptop from which the video was being projected; it was left open and mounted at a conspicuous height on a column facing the projection. This appeared as a minor complication, reflecting a casual attitude about the conditions of display, but this placement of the computer screen in relation to the projection also calls for further reflection on the status of the mode of display. As a digital image projected onto a wall, Scapeland II can be situated within the developments of human-computer-interfacing and immersive technology (frescoes, Baroque wall-paintings, panoramas, etc.) as they intersect in the notion of virtual reality. This shift towards thinking the human-computer-interface on the terms of immersion—as an improvement on and replacement for the everyday modes of linguistic or iconic interfacing with a screen—expresses the pervasive desire to overcome the limitations of the screen in the operation of digital technology. With virtual reality, the notion of the screen as what Roland Barthes calls “a pure cut-out segment [of reality] with clearly defined edges, irreversible and incorruptible,” is stretched to its limit.6 The boundary of the screen stretches into dissolution while simultaneously sustaining its prioritization of one space or image over any other: “everything that surrounds it is banished into nothingness, remains unnamed, while everything that it admits within its field is promoted into essence, into light, into view.”7

Within this discourse of immersion, however, an alternative tradition might be identified by a strategic thinking of simulation, as a specific modality of immersion, on the terms of approximation,__as conceptualized by Anna Munster in her recent writing on the aesthetics of the digital in Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (2006). Simulation can be said to function on the seeming or near continuity between spaces by a similarity of scale, perspective, texture, etc., while approximation can be thought of as a force that works to forge connections between spaces while simultaneously maintaining the difference between them. Invoking the various everyday limitations in human-technological relations—lag in connection speeds, unevenness of global access, technological obsolescence, etc.—Munster proposes an aesthetics that values an imperfect and approximate relation of the digital to the material, a paring down of the expectations of the digital to deliver reality. This aesthetic of approximation values the differential relation between the organic and machinic as something other than inadequacy, resisting a hegemonic synthesis or polarity in favour of contact, proximity, and sustaining a conception of embodiment in which alterity has a place.

This notion of approximation seems an appropriate framework for approaching Scapeland II. In terms of scale and perspective, Scapeland II, as it appeared in the gallery, presented a space into which the body of the viewer and the space of the gallery could be extended, it was close enough. The movement and the presence of the image, however, were distinct from and incongruous with the habits and capacities of the body and the specificity of the space. There is no sound in the animation; there is no gravity in the movement of the “camera.” Further, as with the virtual “projections,” it is difficult to say whether it is the “camera” or the whole construction that moves, or if the animation can even be considered on these terms. The image of the animation appears so that you are looking through the closest “projection” onto the other “projections” as they are situated in the simulated space. Occupying nearly the entire image, this “projection” is framed more by the edges of the projected light than by its own edges within the virtual space, appearing proximate both to the surface of the image and to the surface of the wall that it is projected onto. Over the course of the animation, which loops continuously, this view rotates to each of the four “projections,” sometimes with a swift and disorienting movement that disrupts the physical logic implied by the simulation, and other times more slowly, presenting the “projections” at oblique angles as they move over, or into, each other. There is a continuous modulation in the relation of the projected image to the body and the physical space it inhabits as the “projections,” in their movement towards and away from the plane of the projection surface, shift from immersive image to troubling appearance. This, in turn, alters the viewer’s relation to the videos, as their status as stable representations of space is troubled by the movement of the animation. This shifts again towards the end of the loop, as the space seems somehow to envelop itself, multiplying its virtuality into yet another series of folds.

Simultaneously approaching and resisting immersion, Scapeland II seems to defer exemplarity for simpler technological means, for a lighter, easier virtuality. It does not visualize “a fantasy ride into a sublime, virtual realm,” or constitute corporeality as “instrumentalized objectified experience,”8 so much as it produces something like a mixed or hybrid reality. As a result, the relation between the body and the image, the way the body interacts or interfaces with the image, is less stable. In this uncertain relation between the body and the image, there occurs a slight disturbance of the “cinematic immobility” that is said to characterize the mode of attention called for by contemporary video projection and from which virtual reality and similar technologies promise a liberation. I would like to consider this affect in terms of stillness. In Scapeland II, stillness is not only a product of the conditions of display, it is a part of the mode of attention that this work calls for, the affect it produces: the human capacity to be moved.

Speaking about Scapeland_II_, Lau has suggested that “it offers the viewer a world, but also places her outside it at the same time,” that “landscape is never simply a view that you look ‘into’ but a presence that addresses the viewer.”9 It is my feeling that in _Scapeland II _this address acquires its force in the apparent proximity of the wind as it moves across the folds of the image. Offering this appearance of proximity, it calls on the proprioceptive and tactile modalities of vision, producing an action that is from the outside but within. This points to an understanding of perception that is both kinesthetic and synesthetic, such as that proposed by cultural theorist Brian Massumi: “seeing at a distance is a virtual proximity: a direct, unmediated experience of potential orienting and touches on an abstract surface combining pastness and futurity....Seeing is never separate from other sense modalities. It is by nature synesthetic, and synesthesia is by nature kinaesthetic.”10

The problem, as Massumi sees it, “is to explain the wonder that there can be stasis given the primacy of process,”11 invoking Bergson’s inversion of the position/movement binary in his prioritization of passage over position. The virtual, as autonomy of relation, is “never present in position, only ever in passing,”[12] and as such opens the body to the slightness of ongoing qualitative change. Along these lines, architect Lars Spuybroek has emphasized the function of the computer as an “instrument for viewing form in time,” an embodied prosthesis that fundamentally changes what it means to see: “we no longer look at objects, whether static or moving, but at movement as it passes through the object....Looking has come to mean calculating rather than depicting external appearances.”[13] This apparent shift in concern from the extension of the physiological capacities of the body to the temporal dimension in human-technological relations reveals the stakes involved in a consideration of how the digital expresses or shapes the temporal and how embodied human perception is situated in relation to a conceptualization of time on the level of information.

Scapeland II is a loop with a noticeable beginning and end, or at least there is a point at which it stops and starts over again, although this point cannot be determined precisely, as the animation fades in and out of darkness as it loops back to its beginning. The difference between the end and the beginning is reinforced, each time, by the appearance of a person in one of the videos, just before the projection fades. This makes an important break in the view of the landscape as eternal or infinite. As such, the videos in the animation appear as discrete events separated from the everyday flow of time, while the 3D space in which they appear presents a more generalized temporal procession, somehow

closer to the present. Another way to think about this situation is to see the animation as expressive of a specific spatio-temporal framing. Thought of this way, the cycling of the loop becomes more like an interruption of the affect that the animation produces. This imposes another limitation; or perhaps it can be thought differently, as an opening—a return to the space-time of the body as it is situated in the space outside of the “world” that Scapeland II offers—generating an affective, connective rhythm between the space-time of the gallery and the “world” of the animation, an interpenetration or co-contamination of space-times.

Massumi sees this temporal indetermination in the relation of proprioception and memory: “Every first-time perception of form is already, virtually, a memory. Perception is an intensive movement back into and out of an abstract ‘space’ of experiential previousness.”[14] This refers to the research of Benjamin Libet, who in the 1970s demonstrated a half-second delaybetween the onset of brain activity and the conscious awareness of the event, from which he concluded, as Massumi paraphrases, “thought hallucinates that it coincides with itself.” This hallucination coincides with Deleuze’s notion of _recursive duration_—what Massumi calls the “vagueness” or “smudging” of time in a complex of “future past relation”: “the elementary unit of thought is already a complex duration before it is a discrete perception or cognition. Further, it is a duration whose end loops back to its beginning. It is a recursive duration.” Consciousness would seem to be composed of a multitude of discrete repetitions—virtual perceptions that interpenetrate one another. From this emerges the brain-body’s potential to vary in the continuity of these unfolding temporal relations. This is Deleuze’s concept of the eternal return, the affirmation of difference as that which “inhabits repetition” or “lies between two repetitions.”[15] For Deleuze, repetition is the pure form of time, the conception of time that opens towards the future, towards the appearance of the new, which appears in the form of the eternal return: “The eternal return is the same of the different, the one of the multiple, the resemblant of the dissimilar.”

In what way might Scapeland II be understood to have a stake in these spatio-temporal complexities? What expression of spatio-temporal relations does it construct or value? At the very least, it can be said that the complexity of this work calls for the continuous re-negotiation of the body’s spatio-temporal parameters, and for a careful attention to the role that digital technology has in framing this experience. What is most important to me about this work is the mode of being that it expresses, the quality that it gives to my experience. Extending the possibility

to feel proximity to the weightlessness of the “world” that it offers, but also, paradoxically, to feel the limitations of the world I inhabit, it calls on the inventiveness of imagination in resolving itself to complication, and as such “attends to a consciousness that in turn fashions a reality.”[16] To return again to Bachelard: “phenomenology of the imagination cannot be content with a reduction which would make the image a subordinate means of expression: it demands, on the contrary, that images be lived directly, that they be taken as sudden events in life. When the image is new, the world is new.”[17 ]

  1. Gaston Bachelard, _The Poetics of Space, _trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 120.
  2. E-mail exchange with artist, April 2008.
  3. Henri Bergson as cited by Mark Hansen in _New Philosophy for New Media _(Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004), 100.
  4. Hansen, 13.
  5. Hansen, 71.
  6. Roland Barthes, “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein,” Images, Music, Text ed. Stephen Heath (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977), 69–70.
  7. Barthes, 70.
  8. Munster, 113.
  9. E-mail exchange with artist, April 2008.
  10. Brian Massumi as cited by Mark Hansen in New Philosophy for New Media, 109.
  11. Massumi, 8.
  12. Massumi, 12.
  13. Hansen, 123.
  14. Massumi, 197.
  15. Deleuze, 76.
  16. N. Katherine Hayles, “Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in Virtual Environments,” Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information, eds. Robert Mitchell and Phillip Thurtle (New York: Routledge, 2002), 239.
  17. Bachelard, 47.

Image: Yam Lau, Scapeland II, 2008. Video installation, detail. Courtesy of the artist and YYZ Artists Outlet, Toronto

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.

You Might Also Enjoy
BecomeA Member