Designed Screens

Essays by Paul Elliman
1 791 words9 min read
The wait at the corner shop is enlivened by the ‘deli screen’: an LCD product that hovers over the cash register. Times Square orients toward the Jumbotron. The baseball game, football match, figure skating contest are reanimated in real-time and superscale by the DynaVision, house-sized walls of liquid crystals and glowing plasma. Design is now, more often than not, the arrangement of pixels spread across screens. Screens themselves are part of the landscape and while most talk centers around what’s on them, screens themselves have their own mythology, their own history, their own peculiar metaphysics.

1. Screen
PE: The irony is the name—screen—as if it were there to protect us.
MR: It is an irony embedded in a double meaning: to PROTECT, on one hand, and OBSCURE on the other. (Obscuring as a kind of protection?) Does it reveal or conceal?

2. The big screen
PE: I remember the ‘launching’ of the biggest cinema in Europe — the Géode in Paris — with its thousand-metre-square hemispheric screen. The screen becomes the auditorium, and the audience is supposed to feel like it’s entered cinematic space. Giant screens capture or focus mass imagination in public spaces.
MR: I was at Clinton’s first inaugural 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 captures the world at a scale of 1:1. Abel Gance tried it in the 20’s with his three screen version of Napoleon. In the sixties, Cinemascope’s elongated proportion was extended by Cinerama, a concave screen that curved to embrace an 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 ‘sky-dome spectacular,’ General Cigar’s ‘Movie in the Round’ and Charles and Rae Eames’ storied ‘View from the People Wall;’ a nine screen projection on the ceiling of the IBM building. All precursors to the omnipresent IMax theaters.
PE: Screens finally came to out-scale the world, e.g. the staple political image of the moment: the politician (Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, Chirac, Mandela, XioPeng) dwarfed at podium by their own portrait on a three story video wall.

3. The small screen
PE: In one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of drive-in movie screens, the night sky behind the giant screen is traced with airplane lights that radiate from the bright rectangle. This jump: from car wind-screen view of a movie, to airplanes flitting across the sky, evokes those miniature screens embedded in the back of an airplane seats. On some flights, passengers get to watch their own take off and the landing on these screens.
MR: The on-board experience moves from the public to the private in a few short years. The first in-flight movies were just that, film projected on a common screen, transforming the cabin into a theater. The miniaturization of the screen individualizes 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 3 in the morning. These screens must be all over the city, at the desk of every sleeping nightguard. Every now and then a building blows up, or a child goes missing. 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 our world in all its tragic glory.

5. Invasive screens
MR: The fluoroscope. It’s a device equipped with a fluorescent screen on which the internal structures of an opaque object, such as the human body, may be viewed as shadowy images formed by the transmission of x-rays through the object. Much more vivid than the drab x-ray machine, the fluoroscope screen magically reveals the mysterious interior workings of the body in real time. The invention fueled countless animated cartoons: a character stands before the screen and 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 palm pilot.
PE: Teletubby’s have a screen where ordinary people have stomachs, but their tele-prosthetics allows them to view ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Like watching TV screens.

7: TV screens
PE: A friend of mine who works on ‘home-theatre’ 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 almost fulfilled. Philips recently licensed the plasma technology from Fujitsu, and their own Flat TV is being heavily advertised in the US. 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, getting better all the time..."
PE: Good song. (Is that what Frank Zappa meant by Architecture you can dance to?)


8. more TV screens... (Video Art?)
PE: When artists first started using video, discussion was often 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 resides clearly in the screen, 1970’s performance group Ant Farm, (whose work was mainly about our obsessions with cars and TV) drove a car at high speed into the screens of a tower of TV’s.
MR: The destruction of the TV screen is the only form or 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 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’s screen. Said he was disgusted by the foul-mouthed Pistols appearance on the early evening Bill Grundy show. There’s a lot of TV screens in contemporary art, Nam Jun Paik of course, and his TV Robots, 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 premier of a movie, usually it’s the projector. In Bunuel’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 Videodrone, James Woods gets eaten by the screen.
MR: The screen as fragile tissue. The screen as trangressable. I vaguely remember the opening sequence of ‘Persona,’ the boy reaches to touch his own exaggerated image on the flickering screen.
PE: Warhol made consistent use of the screen in the process of film-making. 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 video screen, and 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 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 Natasha 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/or’s in favour of a more encompassing quality, that is: the screens (and our) ability to reflect. In any of those attempts to describe our world through celluloid, video tape or pixelled bits, the thing being reflected is after all us, ourselves.
No matter how familiar, how prevalent (in the deli, the stadium, the town square) they become, they refuse to lose 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.)