Tron (1982) stunned audiences in the early 1980’s as it allowed the moviegoer to follow Kevin Flyyn into the first-ever computer-generated cinematic world. Over thirty years later our fascination with technology, the digital and moving images is greater than ever as our lifestyles are now dictated by our everyday interactions with the digital and technology. We can now immerse ourselves into the digital through social networking, browsing the web, video games and movies. “Interactivity” has become the new buzz word as technology seems to have now put the power of decision in the hands of the user. We often focus on the interactivity of the user through a user interface, whether it be a computer, a television, or a movie screen, but what happens when the images displayed create an purely virtual or digital environment for the spectator? Rather than experiencing Kevin Flynn’s universe through the constraints of the cinema screen what if the images surrounded us to create an environment? I will explore not only what it means for the spectator to immerse themselves into a digital world, but also how these artists move beyond the traditional screen to create an environment and what this means within cinema studies.
Charles Musser and Tom Gunning both suggest a prequel to the cinema we know today. In just the past few years we have witnessed further “enhancements” to our movie-going experiences in the form of IMAX screens and 3D glasses, however, the works I will examine are new media installations which move beyond the cinema screen and use moving images to either manipulate space, the environment or architecture.
Each piece distorts physical space and displaces the user in a contrasting manner, allowing an analysis of a range of digital environments. “Eyjafjallajökull” by Joanie Lemercier is a 2010 audio-visual installation inspired by the Icelandic volcano, which wreaked travel havoc across Europe in May 2010. Lemercier paints directly onto a wall a wire-frame landscape resembling the shape of a volcano. He then projects lights and animation over the painting to create depth and movement. What was one a flat wall appears to morph into a digital landscape that comes to life.
Maotik’s 2013 collaboration with music composer Fraction, “Dromos,” is a live audio-visual performance designed to create an immersive digital environment. “Dromos” is performed in a dome and uses generative graphics to not only immerse the spectator into a digital world, but also manipulate the space so that the shape of the dome is no longer tangible.
Marshmallow Laser Feast creates an immersive digital experience through VR in “Eyes of the Animal.” As the title suggests the experience is meant to put the spectator in the perspective of the animal, either a dragonfly, a frog or an owl. Marshmallow Laser Feast has scanned the Grizedale Forest in England using LIDAR which, in turn, gives the Forest a digital aesthetic. The spectator then wears a VR helmet which gives 360-degree views of the forest accompanied by forest sounds and haptic feedback.
The convergence of film and new medias within the last few decades has blurred the lines between different disciplines and, furthermore, has raised questions of how we study these works. Erika Balsom and Toni Dove both help us to understand moving images beyond the space of the cinema screen. Dove equates the main differences between new media installation and traditional film to narrative versus environment, claiming that new media installations, rather than presenting a story, are presenting an environment. A further distinction Dove makes regarding film versus new media, which is important, is the idea of the “cinematic cut” versus a continuous flow. The use of a continuous flow allows the spectator to feel as if they are in an natural environment and the natural environment becomes an integral part of Youngblood’s theories of “expanded cinema.”
Youngblood proposes the idea of the “Artists as Ecologist.” Youngblood proposes the idea of the “Artists as Ecologist.” He claims that The spectator is no longer looking at a painting, sculpture, or screen. The spectator is now invited to participate in a relationship with the artwork, one which Youngblood would call a natural and ecological environment. While Youngblood was looking at works like Expo ’67 like Roman Kroitor’s “Labyrinth” and Stan VanDerBeek’s 1963 “Movie Drome” one could easily see the parallels between these works and the contemporary works I will examine.
“Eyjafjallajökull,” while inspired by a real volcano, is recreated in a purely digital aesthetic. Lemercier has no interest in creating a realistic interpretation of the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, the computer-generated aesthetic points not only to our fascination with the digital, but also to the extension of the digital into our physical world. As the light and animations fall upon Lemercier’s painted wiring on the wall the spectator will begin to feel as if the digital volcano in front of them is three-dimensional— as if one could reach out and touch it. The sensation Lemercier is able to create for the spectator points to Youngblood’s “Artists as Ecologist,” as the spectator feels as if they are in a natural environment— an environment expanding from the digital mind. One can take this a step further in both “Dromos” and “Eyes of the Animal” in that both of these pieces fully immerse the spectator. Particularly a piece like “Dromos” is a continuation of works like VanDerBeek’s “Movie Drome.” VanDerBeek, inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, imagined a spherical theatre in which films fully encapsulated the spectator. Maotik’s “Dromos” takes the spherical theatre and creates a performance in which rather than being surrounded by projected film the spectator is in an environment of digital images. One could see the use of VR in “Eyes of the Animal” as the next step in this progression— the spectator is made to feel as if they are physically in this computer-generated environment.
These works point at a filmic history, but use moving images beyond the constraints of the cinema screen and narrative. As moving images and technology continue to prove to be an integral facet of our everyday lives these pieces prove that the digital can now change and warp our physical environments and like Youngblood imagined, they bring a participatory aspect and consciousness for both the spectator and the artist. (Words: 1024)
Tom Gunning. “Cinema of Attractions” 1990.
Charles Musser. “Toward a History of Screen Practice” The Emergence of Cinema 1990.
Gene Youngblood. Expanded Cinema 1970.
Toni Dove. “Theater without Actors: Immersion and Response in Installation” 1994.
Erika Balsom. “A Cinema in the gallery, a cinema in ruins” 2009.
Joanie Lemercier. “Eyjafjallajökull” 2010.
Maotik. “Dromos” 2013.
Marshmallow Laser Feast. “Eyes of the Animal” 2015.
Stan VanDerBeek. “Movie Drome” 1963
Roman Kroitor. “Labyrinth” 1967