Techniques of the Observer

30 September, 2011

Last night at ITP's Theory Club (a group that meets bi-weekly to discourse on abstract topics of interest), I gave a presentation on Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer. I called the talk Techniques of the Observer: Vision and Technology from the Camera Obscura to OpenGL. It was based on one portion of the proposal for a Platform Studies book on OpenGL I wrote over the summer. In Techniques of the Observer, Crary proposes a technique for characterizing a historical period's ideas about vision by looking at its optical technologies and the metaphors they embody. The Camera Obscura tells you a lot about the Renaissance's objective and universal geometric world view. Stereographs, phenakistoscopes, and film, all from the Modern era, couldn't be more different from the Camera Obscura: they build the image inside the user's mind using tricks of perception, hacks of the user's sensorium. These resonate with a Modern world view of a series of independent subjectivities bound together into a consensual democracy.

In that earlier blog post and in this talk I set out to extend this way of thinking to cover contemporary computer-generated imagery. For the last 20 or so years, our most contemporary images have been the product of computer simulations designed to emulate an objective Renaissance perspective, but convert it into something fungible enough to become interactive and, when we want it, fantastical. And now, right now, we're beginning to connect a new set of powerful artificial eyes to this simulation. We're introducing something like the Reality Effect but to an inhuman mind's eye. I think this combination explains some of the new Sensor Vernacular aesthetic that many of us have been struggling to put our fingers on. It is comprised of the first works of a new regime of vision struggling to be born.

I've uploaded my slides to Speaker Deck, a great new service that actually makes the process of uploading and viewing slide decks online simple and pleasurable. Here they are: