segunda-feira, 7 de junho de 2010

Augmented reality in art

Claude Monet — Impréssion Soleil Levant, 1872

Beyond representation


A witty article – “L’exposition des impressionistes” – written by the painter, engraver and playwright Louis Leroy, for the satiric newspaper Le Charivari, named and consecrated at one go the most important aesthetic European movement of the last span of the nineteenth-century. The succession of incidents that led to the exhibition organised in 1874 by the Société Anonyme des Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs, at the photographer Félix Nadar’s study, had begun eleven years before, when Edouard Manet saw the Salon de Paris of 1863 refuse his scandalous “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.” This censorship by the French academy would lead the Emperor Napoleon III to decree the carrying out of a Salon des Refusés, to let the public judge the merit of the artistic creations of the so-called “refused” (works). By 1864 Manet would exhibit the first of a series of scandalous pictures for that epoch.

There are three elements in this story that I would like to explain short, as I am writing regarding a reunion of artists and professionals immersed in technologies of virtual realism of computational origin.

Curiously Manet refused to participate in the show that would be considered the first exposition of impressionist painters. On the other hand the tremendous criticism that Louis Leroy addresses against the paintings of the exposition mentions openly their lack of definition:

“Impression, I was sure of it. I also told myself, since I am impressed there must be there any impression – and what a liberty (freedom), what an easiness in this craft! A preliminary drawing for a wall paper has more definition than this sight of the sea.” (1)

Finally, the exhibition organised by Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Guillaumin and Berthe Morisot (the only woman painter belonging to this group), took place at Nadar’s studio, one of the most famous and inventive pioneers of photography that by then came off from his first experimental phase (Niépce, 1822, 1825, 1826; Niépce & Daguerre 1825-1829; Fox Talbot, 1834; Daguerre, 1839).

Nicéphore Niépce, heliografia (1825) Wikipedia

By then time exposure portraits, landscapes and city sights were already frequent, as well as object and machine images made in a mechanic way, i.e. through the direct action of day light over photosensitive materials. These surfaces chemically emulsified had and have the quality of retaining and fixing in image a certain exposition to the photons reflected by the illuminated objects. That that doesn’t reflect the light, because it lets it pass, or because it has an absorbent colour, is black, and that, that reflects the light in all its visible spectrum, is white. Between these two extremes there is a long range of grey. The outlines (contours) are abrupt transitions of state, shape, colour and luminosity. The line doesn’t exist. The grains do, like the pioneers of photography saw, when they understood the physics of the chemically emulsified and then sensitised particles.

Some impressionist painters, from Monet and Pissarro to Seurat, exactly understood this extraordinary important fact of perception. The points of primary colours congregate in spots, the colour and intensity transitions of which are understood as contours, volumes and lines – i.e. as images built along a complex, an interactive and ultra-rapid process of sensorial impression and of emotive and cerebral work.

Manet (1832-1883) refused the invitation from the younger rebel painters like Monet (1840-1926), Renoir (1841-1919), or Cézanne (1839-1906). Why? Only because they belonged to another generation? Nadar (1820-1910), who received the future “impressionists” at his photography study, was a decade older than Manet and a score older than Monet! So there must be another explanation.

This is my interpretation: owing to an extraordinary conjuncture, I think the behaviours of Manet, Nadar and of the artists of the Société Anonyme express the three founder movements of the modern culture of the second half of the nineteenth-century and of all the twentieth-century.

Nadar — Sarah Bernhardt (era como aqui a vemos...)

Manet represents the provocation and the urbanity of the new realistic programme announced by Goya (1746-1828), Géricault (1791-1824) and Courbet (1819-1877). Nadar is the leading figure of the surprising emergency of the technological realism, which, in spite of the innumerable falsifications, manipulations, and now special effects, goes on expanding like a sort of an absolutely facsimile speculation of reality – “ça a été” (Barthes, 1980). The Impressionists at last opened the door to an interminable formal analysis of the artistic practice, working and helping their successors work towards abstraction and later on accepting to welcome the iconoclastic traditions, originated in the Protestantism and even in the Zen Buddhism.

Curiously we are in the presence of three distinct typologies of realism: the critical realism, the technological realism and the analytic realism. While the first permits the integration of the technological and aesthetic acquisitions of the processes of figuration, representation and speculation in an essentially political narrative, and the second innovates without any compromise in a sort of noematic crescendo of the representation apparatus (the determinable X — that identity through time called upon by Husserl), the third, finally, sets up a “destructive” discipline in the art.

However, if we elect “Avatar”, the film produced by the writer and inventor artist James Cameron, to illustrate one of the latest examples of the technological realism, we fall into a paradox: the extreme measure of realism obtained through stereoscopic digital film techniques (Reality Camera System 1) and augmented reality systems, which instantly allow us to see the result of the graphic computation of processes that capture the real movements of cinematographic action (using the producer’s “virtual camera”), is after all good for creating a narrative universe of pure fantasy and propaganda.

To adjust our theoretic presumption, we need to turn to two new causes of the modern and contemporary paradigm of the manipulation of the communication and symbolic representation processes. The former is called illustration, caricature, comic, anime, Ukiyo-e, and the latter, propaganda, public relations, seduction and language games.

One of the important arts of the critical realism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is illustration, above all the one practised through engraving techniques by Hogarth (1697-1764), Goya (1746-1828), Daumier (1808-1879), John Tenniel (1820-1914) and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), among others.

The explosion of the means of mechanical reproduction of writing and of image, of which lithography (Alois Senefelder, 1796) and photogravure (Niépce, Daguerre, Fox Talbot) were powerful instruments, associated to the true revolution of the transport systems, in operation by then, made possible the appearing of a new phenomenon: the proliferation and popularisation of the means of communication and art. The emerging of an urban mass-society aimed at a new paradigm of communication, new artistic production ways and a radical change of the nature of aesthetic reception. This was what happened, although under the form of a true growing synthesis between merchandise and pleasure.

The libertarian narrative of the French Revolution, associated with the optimistic and commercial pragmatism of the Industrial Revolution displaced the centre of the symbolic communication and figuration, of the cathedrals, of the churchyards, of the imperial saloons, to the city of speed, multitude and light. A new Pop realism would no doubt appear from such a cultural agitation.

Carl Jung (1875-1961), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and later his nephew Edward Bernays (1891-1995) are three among a brilliant group of pioneers, who raised the knowledge of the person’s behaviour, and above all the mass behaviour to unimaginable heights by the hand of wizards, who until that time guided the consciences of the faithful and of the subjects. Adam Curtis, in his prized documentary film of 2002 for BBC, “The Century of the Self” emphasises the importance of Bernays (the author of Propaganda, a book that is not much known nowadays), in the creation of the present and omnipresent system of Public Relations.

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.” – (Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda, 1928).

“The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.” – (Edward L. Bernays, The Engineering of Consent, 1947).
It seems so, that there is a very present realism, which didn’t exist when Impressionism appeared. For want of a better expression, let’s call it media realism. Why realism? Why not propaganda and manipulation?

If we think a little over the present publicity, at least the most creative (which “Postman Returns”, by PostPanic, is a good example), what do we have in common?

I would say, first we have a good story or a good anecdote, then seductive images, musical rhythm and at last a quasi-order in the shape of a tempting invitation or kind blackmail. The most important thing though is that the communication and the seductive shape have a precise objective here: to lead us to reality, or at least to an effective and immediate part of the surrounding reality. In the thicker and thicker and more complex labyrinth of the city, publicity is a vector of communication, information, social and cultural status. Because the urban and post-industrial obsolescence is enormous and the post-modern memory too volatile, realism, clearness, rhythm and humour – which is simultaneously an expression of critical realism and mnemonics – are crucial for an efficient way of commercial communication. The consumer needs help in the stream of material and virtual objects which flow into his choice possibilities. It is in this dialectics that the communicational intelligence becomes critical and needs a type of special creativity, lexical and dyslexical at the same time, where the qualia (and no more the aura) appears as indispensable. The commercial and informative propaganda is for the effect of this analysis the same reality, the media reality.

R. Crumb [in Wmagazine]

If we finally consider the worldly realism, that goes from William Hogarth (1697-1764) to Robert Crumb (1943-), and also through Hokusai’s Japanese pictures and the great influence these “images from the floating world” (Ukiyo-e) had in the nineteenthcentury Europe and went on having during all the twentieth-century, not only in Europe, but also in the United States of America, influencing decisively the emerging of the comic strips, of illustration bands published in the press, and the author’s editions and comics magazines, and are still continuing to influence such strong and global urban aesthetic movements like anime and manga, we can’t help registering here an important and powerful underground movement, without the educated preoccupations of the critical realism, properly so called, but nonetheless less perspicacious and contusing. In other words: that that distinguishes the worldly realism from the educated critical realism is the exaggerated sense of humour, the worship of mockery and provoking eroticism in opposition to the palatial game of shadows of the critical realism. Another important distinction derives from the audiences that each of these two realisms convenes. Manet’s public has never been the same that has been devouring Crumb’s heavy fantasies, although it certainly shares the taste for Hokusai’s pictures. The discreet production for an aristocracy of art appreciators is not to be mixed up with the mass production addressed to the urban crowds.

This short text, meant to isolate the core of the present electronic digital imagination, would need some more time and detail to avoid literal reading of the ideas expressed here. For example, how to explain Walt Disney – or Shrek, Hulk, T-1000, or Avatar – according to the different incarnations of realism that have been described? Where do the Teletubbies stay in this divagation?

The present electronic digital imagination lives somewhere at the intermittent contact point between technological realism, media realism and worldly realism. The skeletons, the hard cuirasses and the increasingly complex and hybrid grey matter of the digital world, form a kind of mutant techné, the applications of which demand increasing dedication and learning by the human race. From the initial realism, whose improvement already allows the digital world to make perfect illusions, we set out for a kind of augmented reality, or immanent artificiality, in which genesis and development, the interference of the collective of cognitive gods, producers, programmers and designers, who perform the creative process, will have a tendency to be dispersed and densified simultaneously into a finer and finer network —full of knots, levels of complexity and diversified degrees of interference, from where the new artificial life will start some day its development.

Meanwhile another paradox remains: the quicker the processors are, the more time and dedication are demanded from those who cause the creative processes.

The goal and the wish always meet a step ahead!


  1. In “Exhibition of the Impressionists”, Wikisource. And “Le 28 avril 1874, Louis Leroy écrivait dans un article intitulé “L’exposition des impressionistes”: “Impression, j’en étais sûr. Je me disais aussi, puisque je suis impressionné, il doit y avoir de l’impression là-dedans” — in Impressionisme.

[delivered for publication on April 3, 2010; published by Sines Digital on June 4, 2010]

Copyright © 2010 by António Cerveira Pinto

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