Designed Screens: A Compendium —

1. Screen

Paul Elliman

The irony is in the name, screen. As if it were there to protect us.

Michael Rock

There’s a double meaning: on one hand, to protect, and on the other, to obscure. (Or is obscuring a kind of protection?) Does it reveal or conceal?


2. The Big Screen

PE

I remember the “launch” of the biggest cinema in Europe—the Geode in Paris—with its thousand-meter-square hemispheric screen. The screen becomes the auditorium; the audience is supposed to feel as if they’ve entered cinematic space. Giant screens capture or focus mass imagination in public spaces.

MR

I was at Obama’s inauguration and we were so far from the podium we watched the event, together with about 50,000 fellow citizens, on a huge screen built on the back of a flatbed truck.

PE

(Reading a picture caption from The New York Times) “On February 20, 1962, commuters filled the concourse of Grand Central Terminal to watch as Colonel Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth.”

MR

The dream is a screen that can capture the world at a scale of 1:1. Abel Gance tried it in the ’20s with his three-screen version of Napoleon. In the ’60s, Cinemascope’s elongated proportions were extended by Cinerama, a concave screen that curved to embrace the audience. The New York World’s Fair of 1964 marked the apotheosis of the giant-screen frenzy. I was there, too. Pavilions competed for the most breathtaking displays: the circular Kodak theater, the GE “Skydome Spectacular,” General Cigar’s “Movie in the Round,” and Charles and Ray Eames’ storied “View from the People Wall,” a nine-screen projection on the ceiling of the IBM building. All were precursors to the ubiquitous IMAX.

PE

Screens finally began to out-scale the world. Imagine the staple political image of the moment: the politician (Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, Chirac, Mandela, Deng) dwarfed at podium by their own towering portrait on a three-story video wall.


3. The Small Screen

PE

In one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of a drive-in movie, the night sky behind the giant screen is traced with airplane lights that radiate from the bright rectangle. The jump from the car windscreen view of a movie to airplanes flitting across the sky evokes the miniature screens embedded in the back of airplane seats. On some flights, passengers get to watch themselves take off and land on those screens.

MR

The on-board experience moved from public to private in a few short years. The first in-flight movies were just that: film projected onto a common screen, transforming the cabin into a theater. The miniaturization of the screen individualized the experience from public theater to hundreds of tiny living rooms (the way a drive-in movie privatizes the film experience and the kids can wear their pajamas.) Is this why people travel in sweat suits and trainers?


4. Lonely Screens

PE

Part of the panoptical infrastructure are the Screens That Go Unseen, like the surveillance screen that monitors some lonely petrol station forecourt at three a.m. These screens must be all over the city, at the desk of every sleeping night guard. Every now and then a building blows up, or a child goes missing, an in the news we see the spectral shadow of a suspect in the bottom left corner of some blurry screen, as if to remind us of what screens are really for: to present out world in all its tragic glory.


5. Invasive Screens

MR

The fluoroscope is a device equipped with a fluorescent screen on which the internal structures of an opaque object, such as the human body, can be viewed as shadowy images formed by the transmission of x-rays through the object. More vivid than the static x-ray, fluoroscopy magically reveals the mysterious interior workings of the body in real time. The invention fueled countless animated cartoons: a character stands behind the screen and the doctor is shocked to discover a hamster on a wheel, an undigested ham sandwich, a hawk or a handsaw.


6. Prosthetic Screens

MR

Dick Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, gave the famous gumshoe the ultimate in detective accessories: the wristwatch videophone, realized as today’s smartphone.

PE

Teletubbies have screens where ordinary people have stomachs. Their tele-prosthetics allow them to view ordinary people doing ordinary things. Like watching TV screens.


7. TV Screens

PE

A friend of mine who works on “home-theater” technology told me how the plasma screen is supposed to work: “The screen is a honeycomb of pixels between sheets of glass. The pixels hold a mixture of neon-xenon gas and phosphorescent material in red, yellow or blue. Electrodes fixed to the front and back of each cell cause the gas to emit ultraviolet light which, in turn, causes the phosphors to project light, which creates the picture.” It’s a lot cleaner than the old-fashioned tubes, but it sounds extremely alchemical to me.

MR

Flatness. Eliminate the box. The desire to hang a moving image on the wall like a painting is fulfilled. Fujitsu’s first flat TV ads wen like this: the screen appears on the wall of a super narrow house populated by three hipsters grooving to the Beatles: “Got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time…”

PE

Good song. (Is that what Frank Zappa meant by architecture you can dance to?)


8. More TV Screens (and video art?)

PE

When artists first started using video, the discussion was about where, exactly, the work resided—was it on the screen, on the tape, in the studio, or some other mysteriously electrical part of the process? As if to make a work that resided clearly in the screen, the 1970s performance group Ant Farm (whose work was mainly about our obsessions with cars and TV) drove a car at high speed into a tower of TV screens.

MR

The destruction of the TV screen is the only form of resistance left, as emptily symbolic as that might be. The loony anchorman in “Network” inciting his audience to throw their sets out the window, proclaiming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The famous Apple_/1984_ ad with the girl swinging the hammer into the Big Brother video wall. And, of course, scores of disaffected rock stars, following Elvis, drawing revolvers and shooting out their TV screens in countless hotel rooms worldwide.

PE

Rave on Howard Beale! In England the Sex Pistols achieved another level of notoriety when an irate viewer put his foot through his television screen. He said he was disgusted by the foul-mouthed Pistols’ appearance on the early evening Bill Grundy show. There are a lot of TV screens in contemporary art. There’s Nam June Paik, of course, waking up as each screen flickers into electromagnetic life.


9. Movie Screens

PE

I can’t think of an example where the screen is attacked at the premiere of a movie; usually it’s the projector. In Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados,” a Mexico City delinquent hurls an egg at the camera. We, of course, see it hitting the screen in an explosion of yolk and shell. In Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo,” the screen star walks out of the screen and into the screen version of real life. In David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” James Woods gets eaten by the screen.

MR

The screen as fragile tissue, transgressable. In the opening sequence of “Persona,” the boy reaches out to touch his own exaggerated image on the flickering screen.

PE

Warhol made consistent use of the screen in the process of fiolmmaking. Most of his films were, in fact, made for multiple-screen projection. In his 1965 movie, “Outer and Inner Space,” a 22-year-old Edie Sedgewick is filmed in conversation with herself on two screens; it was billed as “double-screen experiments by double-screen experimentalists.”


10. Clear Screens

PE

(Reading from Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49) “Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube.”

MR

(Reading from Gibson’s Neuromancer) “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

PE

The screen is not supposed to say anything. It’s supposed to be neutral—neither blanc nor black, but blank. Yet identifying it as dead or passive or empty suggests our own loss of understanding or response to what is perhaps ultimately being screened onto us.

MR

Like that scene from “Paris, Texas” in which Harry Dean Stanton stands in front of the projector as home movies of his life with Nastassja Kinski play out on his body. The screen is always on, the reverse of the white page. White space is total reflection (in projection) or total radiation (in video). And as to whether it reveals or conceals…

PE

I’m happier resisting the either/ors in favor of a more encompassing quality, that is, the screens’ (and our) ability to reflect. In any of these attempts to describe our world through cellulloid, video tape or pixelled bits, the thing being reflected is, after all, us. No matter how familiar, how prevalent (in the deli, the stadium, the town square) screens become, they refuse to lose our interest. They are patient, these screens, silently waiting to ignite and brilliantly reflect the shadows that we recognize as our lives.

The End.

(As the screen might say.)