Landscape as Digital Elastic-Space: Constructing Conceptual Geographies in Digital Dataspace

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Image source: Minecraftbuildingtips.com

Ren Adams
Research Paper 2
Lynne Cooke – Advisor
March, 2014

Landscape as Digital Elastic-Space:
Constructing Conceptual Geographies in Digital Dataspace

Landscape is relative, performative. Tied to our sense of physical geography, political ideology and mutable notions of history and experience, it exhibits terminological fluidity, adjusting to personal identification, cultural authority and intellectual rigor. It can suggest the literal (a parking lot, Yosemite, romantic paintings) as easily as it implies the conceptual (spatial mapping, storied detail,[1] social divisions, memories). It serves as a physical anchor and philosophical boundary—the characteristic experience of linear time tied to the measurable boundary of social space. It is material, ephemeral, political and unstable, behaving as stage and script, environment and blueprint. Neither completely geographical nor entirely theoretical, landscape is defined and formed by human conception and geologic disturbance. The Information Age,[2] further shapes landscape in a digital context, making nearly all points on earth (and in history) accessible with a single click, enabling new levels of engagement. Artists can create immersive, ambiguous digital landscapes that rupture and re-contextualize the nature of time and location, by way of a strange, elastic-space topography. This fluid space is made possible by the inherent variability of digital media. Time, perspective and distance are contingencies in digital geography[3], and this elasticity suggests a perceptual and persistent present moment,[4] uniting the physical and virtual in the fabric of dataspace. By examining select pieces by contemporary digital artists in relation to my work on The Cascade project, I investigate the function of constructed landscape as a conceptual engagement of space-place in 2D digital art. Digital methods allow artists to grapple with the complexity of landscape’s many states of being, articulating intricacies in time and spatial relationships through the compositing of digital material.

The term “landscape” is loaded, capable of describing everything from panoramas to political divisions. Invisible property lines, the carving of roads, cities, monuments—social and personal engagements with space-place[5] encompass what we understand as landscape.  The physical and conceptual nature of landscape is tied to “place” and “space,” themselves multi-faceted states of reality and understanding. Space can function as a measure of volume, void or perspective, an active conceptual event, a site of processing, or an invisible distance between events and their interpretation (Richardson 62). What we experience as space is really a complex process of sensing and understanding (Paul 95), far beyond a geographic point or volumetric measurement. Place can similarly function as literal, defined location or suggestions on a map, while encompassing notions of identity, belonging,[6] stages of becoming or perceiving, or virtual waypoints in a digital environment (Ryan 1)(Richardson 63).

The nature of digital space further complicates conceptual involvement with space-place. Scholar Edmont Couchot asserts that digital does not represent “the parameters of space as we know it,” taking on new roles as (and within) dataspace[7] (Paul 94). Whether it’s the raw mathematics in a computerized coordinate system or chunky blocks in a Minecraft biosphere, digital space is a manipulation of information that takes on perceivable form. Artist-theorist Peter Weibel recognizes this fluidity as inherently important to the production of digital images: “for the first time in history, the image is a dynamic system” (Shanken 226). According to Weibel, an increase in technology has led to changes in the very structure of the image itself. Physicality is displaced by a technological simulation of reality, or, in other words, “the spatial form of image (as in painting) was followed by a temporal form of the image: film. The image was transformed from… a medium of space into a medium of time” (Shanken 224). The possibilities of digital imaging relate to the time-aware nature of film, allowing visual environments rooted in “virtuality, variability and viability” to take form (Shanken 225).  For Weibel, in “digital media, all the parameters of information are inherently variable” (Shanken 225)—in fact, information itself is as malleable as pixels.[8] Digital art is literally composed of bytes—coded ones and zeroes that can assemble (or fracture) to generate any conceivable form, program, idea or image. If atoms are the coinage of matter, bits are the coinage of information (Gleick 9, 356).[9]

Artists like Annette Weintraub, Cynthia Beth Rubin, Oliver Wasow[10] and Jennifer Kamp[11] take advantage of the latent mutability and fluidity of digital manipulation. For Weintraub, the use of fragmentation, dissolution, layering and compositing in digital landscape production are methods of “spatial construct,” simultaneously shattering and rebuilding the image at its core ‘atomic’ components (Weintraub, Artifice, Artifact… 362). She suggests digital processing is capable of naturally conveying dislocation, which is “a seamless sense of time and space closer to film vocabulary than the sense of entering into a dynamic continuum” (Weintraub, Artifice, Artifact… 362), thanks to its infinite malleability. Weintraub’s Night Light[12] series exemplifies this spatial recombination, digitally remixing the physical environment in order to emphasize the malleable (and ubiquitous) nature of the constructed commercial world. Fracturing underscores the dynamism of the urban industrial complex and the artificial nature of disposable culture, dismantling fabricated environments (storefronts, signs, neon advertising, artificial light) on a digital level. Pieces like Inferno (1994) (Figure 3) exhibit a disarming sense of chaos—an explosion of saturated, man-made color with unreliable perspective and distance that defuse attempts to judge spatial orientation or direction.  The viewer’s points of entry are limited to unstable horizontal passage, while dramatic, intersecting diagonals and fierce color, made possible by digital overlay and pixel manipulation, assault the viewer with a cacophony of commercialism. Merciless scale shifts suggest the endless barrage of media viewers face in daily life. The rich, manufactured color is exaggerated and all-encompassing, simulating the glow of advertising on city streets, but amped for conceptual affect; the theatrical lightning is both terrifying and mesmerizing, like commercial culture itself.

Similarly, Cynthia Beth Rubin uses layering, scale shift, modified color and variable perspective to fracture the predictability of landscape while delivering a collapsed sense of geographic (and personal) history. In Old House in the Shadow of the Castle (1998) (Figure 4), the Slovakian summer home of Marie Antoinette is enmeshed with the artist’s own visit to the historical site, resulting in an architectural and historical sampling. Various elements are mixed and remixed, building a vertical dataspace that offers multiple points in history simultaneously. Tangled overlays of foliage and weeds suggest abandonment and decay, as the home fell into disuse after the revolution—but bursts of bright stucco and foliage recall the architecture’s heyday, reminding the viewer it was once an important center of influence. Pockets of saturated digital color stamp a late 20th century presence on the building, its location and associated sequence of stories and on the artist’s understanding of the site, its history and her memories of visiting. This flexibility in time exhibits a unique pliability that carries over into the loose, interpretive manner of Rubin’s horizon and perspective. A pool of dates, conditions, stories and histories become intertwined—conceptually expressed as entangled, transparent and often colliding digital moments in a fractured, elastic space (Rubin).

In each of these examples, use of the inherent pliability of digital production mediates concept. Landscape, space and location are dramatically altered, forming emergent dataspaces that grapple with the very nature of space-place existence.For my own body of digital work, The Cascade, rupturing, reconstructing and collapsing time and physical space via digital manipulation is key. The Cascade engages landscape as a permeating condition—a collage of interpretive macro and micro understandings, always in a physical and socio-political state of flux. It develops a web of time, space, matter, and information, addressing the collapse of linearity and the generation of personal mythology, taking digital production and consumption to its core.[13]

Rooted in a personal connection to the Southern California landscape which permeates American television from the 1960s-80s, I excavate instances of the conceptual space-place of the Mojave Desert and its entanglement with the very real, the vividly scripted and the culturally iconic. The LA County of my youth functions like Rubin’s distorted house—it carries personal, regional, cultural, and international levels of understanding and history, intensified by its presence in television narrative. This transitory, filmic landscape punctuates a shared, macro-level understanding of time and location. The Cascade freezes a trace of this literal and ephemeral physicality—folding the moment back in on itself as distorted screen captures that undergo digital transformation, not unlike the rupture in Weintraub’s urban spaces.

The Cascade suspends geographic (and linear) traces as photographs once removed from their physical location by the original television filming and again removed by the act of capturing a temporal instant.[14] The photographic environmentsthus inhabit the actual, the imagined and the transient place of recollection, emblematic of a collapsed space conflating personal history, geologic reality and cultural production. Both an experienced and imagined sense of place adopt non-linear roles in this elastic dataspace.[15]

To develop each still, I combine transparent, layered screen captures, destabilizing the predictable environment with compositing.[16] Collapsing multiple perspective points into a single fusion, as in Mutations 3, No. 6 (Figure 5), creates false reliability in the structure of the landscape, mimicking the fabrication of television. The semi-reliable horizon is disrupted by bizarre scale shifts, transparent boundaries and conflicting horizontal marks that fight to lay claim to central horizontality. A tangle of hand-drawn elements are revealed in theforeground, as if sand has eroded, exposing ragged edges that imply forcible change.[17]The human impact on the natural desert, its Hollywood transformation and memory mutation, twist the weird, video-saturated space into an environment with its own vitality and ambiguity, its own inhabitants.[18]  

In stills from Horizons in the Digital Desert (or, how Johnny Discovered the Secret Air Base (Figure 7 and 8)an artificial, intentionally composite digital desert is patchworked out of television screen caps and prints. Extreme, layered horizons offset a mass of floating, intertwined material, providing ethereal, slightly grounded substance for strange, fractured pseudo-narratives. Characters are out of phase, oblivious to the viewer, occupying uneven terrain with unnatural gravity and drifting rocks. The video-blue soiree folds the original landscape, its hand-edited interpretations, its role in 1970s-80s television and its memory-generating nature into a semi-narrative of unanchored characters who discover disjointed architectural moments in virtuality—the cultural secrets of the Cold War unearthed via digital archaeology. The elasticity made possible by digital manipulation gives the horizons their veracity.

Digital imaging allows contemporary artists to grapple with literal and conceptual  aspects of landscape, in relation to social, personal, cultural and philosophical issues. By making use of the fluid variability inherent to digital manipulation, landscape is capable of taking on entirely new function and form, performing as a Postmodern collapse of time and history, space and memory.  Digital methods enable the production of work that exhibit their own sense of internal space, drawn from the real world, redefining what is understood as place and location. Constructed landscape thus functions as a conceptual engagement of space-place in 2D digital art, whether viewed on a screen or output on paper. Landscape’s many states of being and the intricacies in time and spatial relationships can be investigated through the dynamism of digital manipulation.

 

 

Works Cited

Binkley, Thomas. “The Quickening of Galatea: Virtual Creation without Tools or Media.” Art Journal (1990): 233-240. Print.

Binkley, Thomas. “The Vitality of Digital Creation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55.2 (2013): 107-117. Print.

Corcoran, Marlena. “Digital Transformations of Time: The Aesthetics of the Internet.” Leonardo 29.5 (1996): 375-378. Print.

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” The Anti-Aesthetic. Ed. Hal Foster. New York, NY: The New Press, 1998. 127-144. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2006. Print.

Paul, Christiane. Digital Art, 2nd (World of Art). Thames & Hudson Ltd.: London, 2003. Print.

Richardson, Jack. “Moving Considerations of Space in Visual Culture.” Visual Arts Research 32.2 (2004): 62-68. Print.

Rubin, Cynthia Beth. House. 2014. Web. 3 March 2014. http://cbrubin.net/house/index.html

Ryan, Maureen and Jennifer Kamp and Megan Evans. “The Suburban Landscape Reframed Utilizing New and Traditional Technologies to Visualize Changing Notions of Place and Belonging.” The International Journal of the Arts in Society 6:6 (2012): 99-115. Print.

Shanken, Edward A. Art and Electronic Media (Themes & Movements). London: Phaidon Press, 2009. Print.

Tufte, Edward R. Envisioning Information. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 1990. Print.

Weintraub, Annette. “Artifice, Artifact: The Landscape of the Constructed Digital Environment.” Leonardo 25.5 (1995): 361-367. Print.

Weintraub, Annette. Projects. Annette Weintraub, 2014. Web. 3 March 2014. http://www.annetteweintraub.com/realms/projects.html

Weintraub, Annette. Stills. Annette Weintraub, 2014. Web. 3 March 2014. http://www.annetteweintraub.com.

 

Wasow Untitled #339 1996
Figure 1. Untitled 339, 1996. Oliver Wasow. C-Print. Size unspecified.

kamp_dancing_rooftopsFigure 2. Dancing Rooftops, 2011. Jennifer Kamp Digital Print, 30 x 40 cm

 

inferno1994
Figure 3. Inferno, 1994. Annette Weintraub. Tiled and laminated phase-change print. Size unspecified (Weintraub, Projects).

house
Figure 4. Old House in the Shadow of the Castle, 1998. Cynthia Beth Rubin. Size unspecified.

2914_6Figure 5. Mutations 3, No. 6 (2914). 2014. Ren Adams. Digital image composed of layers of photography, digital manipulation, digital paint, ink, pencil, and watercolor. Various sizes possible.

2514_10Figure 6. Mutations 2, No. 10. 2014. Ren Adams. Digital image composed of layers of photography, digital manipulation, digital paint, ink, pencil, and watercolor. Various sizes possible.

experiment1Figure 7. Horizons in the Digital Desert (or, how Johnny Discovered the Secret Air Base), Still 3. 2014. Ren Adams. Digital image composed of layers of photography, digital painting, woodcut, drypoint, monotype, ink, and watercolor. Various sizes possible.

experiment14Figure 8. Horizons in the Digital Desert (or, how Johnny Discovered the Secret Air Base), Still 5. 2014. Ren Adams. Digital image composed of layers of photography, digital painting, woodcut, monotype. Various sizes possible.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Edward Tufte describes macro and micro readings in Envisioning Information. He uses a street view map of New York to illustrate the viewer-activated phenomena of generating “individual stories about the data” when viewing visual information (37). Someone who lives in the city would have extended micro readings of the street view map:  shops visited, favorite lunch spots, perhaps even identifying life-event locations like the place where they celebrated graduation, or suffered a break-up. The map contains layers of theoretical information applied by the viewer, which varies dramatically between individuals. A tourist who visited the same locations might also have micro readings of a macro map, as would someone familiar with the setting via movies or television. Someone who had never been there and knew nothing of the setting would have a broader macro understanding of the map as a piece of data, providing insight into a distant series of structures. This kind of extended context allows for what Tufte calls “storied detail,” and layered reactions connected to the “relationship between the measurements of its space and the events of its past” (38).

[2] The “Information Age” as a historicizing concept is widely considered to be the phase immediately following the Industrial Age. We live in an age of information—a socio-cultural climate that straddles the material and immaterial, our daily interactions taking place across physical and theoretical environments. The phrase “Information Age” itself defines a sphere of existence, production, interface and influence. Technology frames it. It proliferates across the arts and sciences, through economies and empires—and an ethereal, pervasive component, information itself, occupies the core, in place of steam and iron.

[3] Scholars like Marlena Corcoran have identified the relationship between digital culture and time as one of structure and process. For Corcoran, time is “constitutive of digital experience” itself, involved in everything from the literal time it takes to download a web page, to the time a processor takes in running through and presenting byte strings as output (Corcoran 375). The relationship between time and “digitality” also relates to the way time is expressed, distorted, shattered and reconstructed through digital phenomena like hypertext and live web interaction.

[4] Theorist Fredric Jameson suggests the persistent present moment he feels characterizes Postmodern work is a function of cultural amnesia—an avoidance of linearity and historicity, which expresses an escapist, Postmodern attitude (144). I would argue that the fracture of linear time in Postmodernism  is far from avoidance of tradition and history, as he suggests, behaving more as a collapse of traditional understandings of time and a willingness to attempt the representation of multiple points in time (and space) simultaneously, thereby abandoning any belief that narrative linearity is key, instead embracing the digital connectedness of hypertextual thinking.

[5] I use “space-place” to allude to scholar Marcus Doel’s assertion that located encounters reside in a fluid relationship between space and place. Doel suggests that space is actually a “post-structural form within which the event of seeing takes place,” whereas “place is an event: it is verbal rather than nounal, a becoming rather than a being” (Doel qtd. in Richardson 63). Place, then, is not strictly geographical or physical, but is itself an event of perception and understanding, made possible through conceptualizations that occur in space. I would argue that the relationship between space, place and the imagestied to our notion of physical space and location become complicated and hypertextual in the information era.

[6] Our own personal mythologies are tied into cultural and social narratives, which often connect with a sense of physical and cultural location. Scholar Lucy Lippard describes this interaction with landscape as the “lure of the local” where “crucial connections of life and history with memory can contextualize place with added meaning” (Lippard qted. in Ryan 3). This relates to the idea of storied detail, emphasizing the “relationship between the measurements of its space and the events of its past” (Tufte 38).

[7] Additionally, Couchot asserts that “dataspace, although accessible through hardware that is part of our physical reality, is an exclusively symbolic space, purely made up of information. As a space constructed out of calculations, it certainly differs from our physical reality In many ways; it is the spatial reference system used in digital media” (Paul 94-95).

[8] The raw components of digital work are 1s and 0s, bits and bytes, numerical strings and equations. When run through a translation device, like computer processors, the encoded numbers generate external output ranging from static photographs on a monitor to interactive digital installations projected into the physical world (Binkley, Vitality… 109).  All of the images, structures, databases, queries and dynamic interactions we encounter in digital dataspace “[are] abstract information and not concrete material,” transcending our usual understanding of physicality in their endless reconfigurations (Binkley, Quickening… 234). Paradoxically, then, information is as malleable as pixels—and pixels themselves are units of information.

[9] Therefore, digital artists actually manipulate information, combining bits into bytes and bytes into output expressions.

[10] Oliver Wasow’s Untitled 339 (1996) (Figure 1) comes from a body of constructed digital landscapes which emphasize the fantastical and extraordinary. A digitally smooth seascape is intensified via saturated color, strong light and dramatic perspective as a strange, silvery hot air balloon drifts near the ruin of an ill-fated companion. The piece is undeniably “landscape,” yet constructed with an eye to the hyper-real and otherworldly. Recalling the surrealism of Jules Verne, the beach straddles the space between reality and the unknown as the viewer realizes the ascendant balloon (which seems one part oil painting, two parts photograph) features a dangling racecar instead of a basket. Here, the use of digital manipulation to construct perceptual geographic space functions as a kind of fictive reality capable of fooling the eye and informing our understanding of the believable and expected (Paul 44). Unlike the other works described in this paper, Wasow attempts a seamless congruity that denies the digital fractured aesthetic.

[11] Digital artist Jennifer Kamp fractures digital space in order to address the sometimes frightening, unpredictable nature of cultural and environmental change. Moving from an idealization of childhood geography to an understanding of her European ancestry’s impact on aboriginal Australian settlements led Kamp to dissect, distort and reassemble familiar family homes within an ambiguous, uncertain digital dataspace (Ryan 101-102). Pieces like Dancing Rooftops (2011)(Figure 2) exemplify her use of digital technology as method and methodology. Here, houses have been punched, pulled, stretched and decapitated, hinting at the perceived safety and normality of the suburban residence, while openly addressing the many levels of denial and distortion that occur on a cultural level, especially in regions where colonization has disrupted indigenous populations. The viewer can almost sort out a recognizable building, yet is left wandering a pinched horizon where sudden scale shifts and strange, de-saturated color generates a sense of unease, an uncanny experience.

[12] Weintraub says of the series (1992-96): “Night Light is a series of digital images based on the landscape of industrial enclaves, highways and commercial strips. These images represent a world of exaggerated, unnatural color and reflected light, in which icons of popular culture and fragments of signage reanimate a desolate industrial environment. This landscape of vibrant signs references the illumination of media, movies and popular entertainment and embodies the dynamism of the commercial landscape and its evolution from neutral surroundings to active agent” (Weintraub, Stills).

[13] As we encounter the data cascade, scholar Henry Jenkins suggests “each of us constructs our own personal mythology from bits and fragments of information extracted from the media flow… transformed into resources through which we make sense of our everyday lives” (Jenkins 3).

[14] I snap rough shots with a cell phone camera, right from the active TV screen. The camera has a short depth of field, resulting in data loss, moray patterns and conflicting light. The stills then undergo digital manipulation. Some elements are drawn or produced using printmaking techniques, then folded back into the digital version. Stills are also output on paper, manipulated, re-scanned and returned to digital format. The original landscape also undergoes mutation in the very process of videoing, which is further elasticized in the digital manipulations.

[15] Transitional space (including conflicting/unstable narrative) and regional collision are the focus. The project currently makes use of stills from The A Team, Knight Rider, Emergency! and MacGyver, filmed across Santa Clarita, Valencia, Topanga Canyon, Carson, the Antelope Valley and greater Los Angeles County, California.

 

[16] Digital collage and composite imagery often constitute a shift from the affirmation of hard, definable boundaries to their complete erasure (Paul 31) or obstruction, an angle that is important to the conceptual core of The Cascade.

Using montage, or digital collage, as a method also manipulates time and space, by way of overlay and blending disparate elements (Paul 21). The newly collapsed field forces different moments, structures and plot points together, sometimes allowing vehicles or characters to engage with previous or future versions of themselves.

[17] In this case, I manipulate thin, often impenetrable veils, peel-backs and jagged edges which display the raw aesthetic of digitality. Unlike Wasow’s smooth, almost airbrushed dreamscapes, the marks left by violent use of the magic wand tool in Photoshop remain  in the digital image—the kinds of artifacts typically hidden or removed in more polished, illusionistic work. Leaving jagged grains in the already overturned environment reminds me both of television turbulence and the quality of digital pixels themselves, without being as obvious as some glitch art.

[18] In Mutations 2, No. 10 (Figure 6), several incarnations of California highway are forced into the same horizontal space, impossibly co-existing. Movement through the picture plane becomes reliant upon angled intrusions and an acceptance that blue is above, yellow below. Even in its spatial conflation, the aesthetic of the Mojave Desert is unshakably present, much like Weintraub’s neon—the distortions maintain the arid outlay of rock and asphalt, as well as the video blue that carries the time-stripped canyon into American cultural memory.

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