Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Multitasking with Clouds - Svetlana Boym

For better or for worse, panoramas are dying a slow death, yielding to interfaces and cell phone screens. Once they reigned supreme, framing the rivalry of art, technology, and nature. The word “panorama,” from the Greek
pan ("all") horama ("view"), all-encompassing vision, was coined by the Scottish painter Robert Barker in 1792. He built the first panorama house in the world especially for his grand wide-angle paintings of the city made on large cylindrical surfaces. The panorama became an all-encompassing fashion, making its inventor rich and famous. Since then all kinds of “oramas” have proliferated—from cosmoramas to lifeoramas in the nineteenth century to the full-immersion “Cinerama” shown in Universal Studios tours, a forerunner of modern IMAX film-projection technology.

The nineteenth century was the age of panoramas. Daguerre began as a panorama artist and invented photography only after a fire had destroyed his panorama house. Art and technology competed in the public imagination of the new space of modernity. Photography was the next step in the game of illusions. Soon afterward, the train journey became a part of “panoramania” and framed many real-life panoramas. It was never merely about arriving at a destination but also about window-travel. Many works of nineteenth-century literature are framed by the train journey. Its unhurried rhythm inspired strangers to unburden themselves, to think about the meaning of life. We remember how one famous passenger confessed to his accidental neighbor that he might have killed his wife over a Beethoven sonata. And another unfortunate heroine found her end under the wheels of a train, as if punished by the writer himself. Panoramas became victims of their own success and in a peculiar reversal of fortune, from a painting of a landscape they began to refer to the landscape itself. Now when we speak of a “panorama,” we mean nature (often at its most scenic), not the now-obsolete panorama art. Panoramas occupied the space of play between nature and art, and besides the dream of the grand illusion and all-encompassing perspective, they also revealed a horizon of finitude, the limit of human vision. The painter of panoramas strived to create a life-like illusion, always aware of its impossibility. Painting “en plein air” was like trying to square a circle and dwelling on its elusive curves.

From painted panoramas to photographic exposures, from real to fictional train journeys, the road led to the discovery of cinema, which was imagined in a novella by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam,
The Future Eve, some fifteen years prior to the technological invention. Cinema would borrow the language of panorama (“panning” and “panoramic shots”), and movie houses shared architectural features with old panorama houses and train stations.

The early twentieth century became the age of cinema, which continued its own train travel from the first film by the brothers Lumiere,
The Arrival of the Train, to Dziga Vertov’sMan with a Movie Camera. The latter film's hero challenged “bourgeois realism” and jumped on the train tracks, this time not to kill himself but to expand human vision with an under-the-wheels panorama. In a more conventional fashion, many a romance was happily consummated with a train driving into a tunnel and the cheerful words The End written over it.

Yet much of the early cinema was non-narrative. The brothers Lumiere's “archaic” proto-documentary
The Arrival of the Train featured non-centered frames with actions taking place chaotically and spontaneously in different parts of the image. This kind of cinema was about narrativity itself and its euphoric potentialities. It allowed the spectator a narrative freedom to play with unpredictable adventures and roads not taken. It depended neither on formulaic plots that would dominate cinema with the introduction of the Hollywood code in the 1930s nor on the carefully calculated interactivity of the new gadgetology.

The industrial landscape was the contemporary of cinema’s golden years. Factories would give jobs to immigrants, and rails would transport them. Rails, not roots, were what mattered. Rails should not turn into roots. Otherwise they bind you to the soil and never let you go. Cinema celebrated industrial construction but also revolutionary destruction, often simultaneously. Thus in the films of Sergei Eisenstein, especially in
October, the old monuments would become ruins only to be transformed into new monuments that used some of the same reconstruction and retouching as the old ones.

Later twentieth-century visual art stopped trusting the enlarged renaissance perspective of the panoramas, turning to a more self-reflective and ironic conceptual perspective. It explored virtuality in its original sense, as imagined by Henri Bergson, not Bill Gates. It was the virtuality of human consciousness and creative imagination that evades technological predictability. Yet much of conceptual art was still haunted by the horizon of finitude, a certain clouded existential panorama; whether it acknowledged it explicitly or evaded the question is another matter.

In the early twenty-first century, Netscape took over the landscape. Just as the word “mail” turned into the retronym “snail mail,” the word “window” will soon become “snail train window.” Microsoft Windows offers faster and more exciting panoramas than the “snail train windows” of the malfunctioning and underfunded Amtrak service.

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