“ The eye can confer the active gift of love upon bodies which have long been accustomed to neglect and distain”

Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World.

In the past few decades, cultural theorists have undervalued the role of love in the political domain. That is, we seldom imagine the potential of identificatory relations as powerful and transformative political tools. But love is back, and so is the body along with the advent of new imaging and visualization technologies. The skin and the screen, two surfaces deeply implicated in love and violence, return with a vengeance in today’s media-dominated society to question the dominant fiction that there is indeed an essential and alienating dichotomy between ‘meatland’, as some netfans call the fleshy world of ‘reality’, and the cyber-, non-corporeal space produced by digital media.’

Cynthia Bodenhorst, The Underskin of the Screen: Performing Embodiment Through the Looking Glass, an installation by Cris Bierrenbach.

Let love return through the screen! Let love beam out of your laptop and zap your heart like a lazer. Let the screen be a conduit (not a mirror or a barrier) so that…

So we live in the society of the spectacle? So what? Let the screen be a semi-permeable membrane – a warm skin that transmits our love and desire, forwards and backwards, into the future and the past.

Let the screen be the glue that fuses forever subject and object. Let the screen meld our bodies and minds, yours and mine. Let the screen re-imagine our bodies beyond real and representation.

Needy for connection? Then let the screen be our conduit for conversation, communication. Let the screen satiate our craving for love.

Text (and VO, not me?):

“Masks are arrested expressions and admirable echoes of feeling, at once faithful, discreet, and superlative. Living things in contact with the air must acquire a cuticle, and it is not urged against cuticles that they are not hearts; yet some philosophers seem to be angry with images for not being things, and with words for not being feelings. Words and images are like shells, no less integral parts of nature than are the substances they cover, but better addressed to the eye and more open to observation. I would not say that substance exists for the sake of appearance, or faces for the sake of masks, or the passions for the sake of poetry and virtue. Nothing arises in nature for the sake of anything else; all these phases and products are involved equally in the round of existence…”

Film: a transition thing


So says George Santayana in his Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, published in 1922.

This quotation kicks of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Published in Scotland in 1956, it’s still the go-to text for sociologists and philosophers and really anyone interested in the complexities of human social interaction.

In it, Goffman used the framework of the theatre to describe face-to-face human encounters, in which the individual is a perpetual performer on the societal stage.

These days we like to think we’re all experts at this of course, choosing costumes and props and mannerisms and even facial expressions daily as we develop our ability to affect and control our relationships. Maybe the recent rise of the staged self-portrait (I just can’t bring myself to say ‘selfie’ here, the word seems hopelessly anachronistic already), shared via the net is the ultimate manifestation of Goffman’s ideas, but actually, the dream of enhanced human face-to-face interaction has been around for ages.

Film: Metropolis

What we’re looking at here is essentially the invention of the videophone, which was imagined in the late 1900s, even before the telephone was invented.

(Film: Chaplin)

Film: 2001

Just about every Sci-Fi story and film features the use of a device that allows face-to-face communication between folk who are definitely not in the same space. Often these communications are between family members or loved ones. What made these exchanges so real to the viewer, so plausible, wasn’t so much the design of the hardware (like the booth and the screen combo here), or the akward pauses and delays in communication neccessitated by the limits of the imagined technology, but the fact that the price of the call seemed like a complete bargain.

Blade Runner has a neat little videophone moment, in which the gumshoe cop come android assassin and our anti-hero Rick Deckard calls noir ice queen and actual android Rachel (no second name in the film version for this character) to try to get her to come out for a drink…

Film: BR

Film: Transition thang – maybe a freeze frame? Sound effect for 12 hrs – yes.

It’s pretty well known that the Blade Runner fan community is one of the most prop-obsessed and there are good number of hard core fans who dedicate huge amounts of time and it has to be said incredible skill, to the re-creation of objects (as well as costumes and even sound effects) found in the film.

Actual props from the film are rare, and those that have survived are often part of impressive personal collections, only able to be seen by the casual Blade Runner fan when on loan to film museums. And then often only in the States.

Their rarity, combined with the cult nature of the film and the professionalism with which the original screen used props were made, make them pricey. Check this out.

Film: BR Prop videophone

Wow. ***something admiring about this***


David Foster Wallace wrote a super piece about the rise and fall of the videophone in Infinite Jest. Sure, the novel is set in an imagined near future, but the more you read this bit, the more sure you become that it has actually already happened. The piece is pretty long, and of course it’s written in DFW’s prose style which for his purposes here sits somewhere between American stoner dorm room and commercial business jargon, so forgive me as I shorten, paraphrase and generally speaking hack up one of my favorite writers, for my own ends. How selfish. How arrogant.

FILM: AMSR b&w matt?

VO (not me?):

Back in the day, video phoning enjoyed an interval of huge consumer popularity. Callers thrilled at the idea of phone-interfacing both aurally and facially on first-generation machines that at that time were little more than high-tech TV sets.

But within, like, 16 months, the tumescent demand curve for the videophone suddenly collapsed like a kicked tent, so that, very quickly fewer than 10% of all private telephone communications utilized any video-image-data-transfers and the average phone-user decided that she actually preferred the retrograde old low-tech voice-only telephone after all.

So why the abrupt consumer retreat back to good old voice-only calling?

The answer, in a kind of trivalent nutshell, is:

TEXT: 1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self- obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.

It turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone users realized that they’d been subject to an insidious but wholly marvellous delusion about conventional voice-only telephony. They’d never noticed it before, the delusion — it’s like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenanced only in the context of its loss.

Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything like even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation let you enter a kind of hypnotic semi-attentive fugue. While talking, you could look around the room, doodle, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, stir things on the hob; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone.

And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvellous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided.

It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported. (VO & TEXT)

Video phones rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for face-to-face exchanges. Those callers who, out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or cuticle trimming, now came off looking rude, absentminded, or childishly self- absorbed. Callers might look up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.

The whole attention business was monstrously stressful, video callers found. (VO & TEXT)

And the videophonic stress was even worse if you were at all concerned about how you looked to other people. Which, let’s be honest, who doesn’t. Telephone calls could be fielded without makeup, toupee, surgical prostheses, etc. Even without clothes, if that sort of thing rocked your boat. But for the image-conscious, there was of course no such answer-as-you-are informality about videophone calls, which consumers began to see were less like having the good old phone ring than having the doorbell ring and having to throw on clothes and attach prostheses and do hair- checks in the hall mirror before answering the door.

But the real coffin-nail for the video phone involved the way callers’ faces looked on their screen, during calls. Not their callers’ faces, but their own, when they saw them on video. Checking your appearance while calling was no more resistible than a mirror. But the experience proved almost universally horrifying. People were horrified at how their own faces appeared on a screen. They perceived something essentially blurred and moist-looking about their videophone-faces, a shiny pallid indefiniteness that struck them as not just unflattering but somehow evasive, furtive, untrustworthy, unlikable.

The proposed solution to what the telecommunications industry’s psychological consultants termed Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria (or VPD) was, of course, the advent of High-Definition Imaging and Masking.

Mask-wise, the initial option of High-Definition Photographic Imaging — i.e. taking the most flattering elements of a variety of flattering multi-angle photos of a given phone user and combining them into a wildly attractive high-def broadcastable composite of a face wearing an earnest, slightly overintense expression of complete attention.

This was quickly supplanted by the more inexpensive and byte-economical option of actually casting the enhanced facial image in a form-fitting polybutylene-resin mask. Users soon found that the high up-front cost of a permanent wearable mask was more than worth it, considering the stress-reduction benefits, and the convenient Velcro straps for the back of the mask and caller’s head cost peanuts. The high-def masks, when not in use, simply hung on a small hook on the side of the video phone console, admittedly looking maybe a bit surreal and discomfiting when detached and hanging there empty and wrinkled, but all in all the masks seemed initially like a viable industry response to the vanity-stress-facial-image problem.

But combine the natural entrepreneurial instinct to satisfy all sufficiently high consumer demand, on the one hand, with what appears to be an almost equally natural distortion in the way persons tend to see themselves, and it becomes possible to account historically for the speed with which the whole high-def-videophonic-mask thing spiralled totally out of control.

Not only is it weirdly hard to evaluate what you yourself look like, like whether you’re good-looking or not, but it turned out that users’ instinctively skewed self-perception, plus vanity-related stress, meant that they began preferring and then outright demanding videophone masks that were really quite a lot better-looking than they themselves were in person. Soon most consumers were using masks so undeniably better-looking on videophones than their real faces were in person, transmitting to one another such horrendously skewed and enhanced masked images of themselves, that enormous psychosocial stress began to result, large numbers of phone-users were suddenly reluctant to leave home and interface personally with people who, they feared, were now habituated to seeing their far-better-looking masked selves on the phone and would, on seeing them in person, suffer an illusion-shattering aesthetic disappointment.

So, how to fix this? The answer was a return to the old fashioned, aural only telephone.

Or you could write a letter.

VO/TEXT/BOTH: Dear Francis,

I didn’t know him, just like I don’t know you, but I do know that you admire him and so do I.

I feel like I’ve gotten to know you though your writing and that may be a false kind of knowing, but to me it feels true.

And just like that, when he wrote, it was as if someone was writing in my language, the language that’s in my head and I know for sure that that is a real feeling because, well, because no one else I’ve read has managed that. (and because I sound like him now – maybe he put his language into me, gave me a way of speaking which was better, more truthful, honest, direct, than my own).

I knew I was going to like you when I read a piece of yours that mentioned Franny and Zooey and DFW really close together. Well, it might have been one piece or it might have been a couple of bits of writing that ended up being published near each other.

And you were in a show with a friend of mine and that made me think, in a totally illogical and frankly silly way, that we were a little closer than strangers.

I suppose too that my interest in these particular references could make me come across like some sort of winsome, amorous schoolgirl.

Anyway, this is the first death of a stranger that has had me genuinely despairing.

I meant to write you a letter before this, just as a fan I suppose, but somehow I never seemed to find a reason to get going on it.

So this is just to say, I enjoy your work and that I wish, no doubt like you, that I could read just one more essay of his on tennis or porn or grammar or generosity or common human decency.

Kind Regards,

Jane Topping

TEXT: A Brief History of the Videophone

IMAGE: series of photos of videophones, plus ‘evil screens’ shots dropped in v. quickly.

VO: Wiki videophone sumnint? Something that transitions from videophone screen to screen as semi permeable membrane.

Other ideas:

Include video of watching the hypnosis video on laptop – from viewer pov – touch the screen. This could be the last thing.

Include stories – the video suicide, the artwork at transmo, ross at my window.

The stories punctuate – they pull the viewer into the biography of the artist. They are coms fails. They could be titled COMS FAIL #1, COMS FAIL #2 etc….

Buffy eyes – sound for this?

AMSR – this has to include sound, no VO. Long enough to work on the viewer – to give them a sensation. Could be repeated. The audio could go over text of failed coms – these failed coms may work better as text only if that makes them register more internally with the viewer. The truth, the horrible unpalatable truth of coms fails, made to be my biog perhaps (?), should be pessimistic I think.

Keep talking to the viewer throughout- come closer, touch me, develop an (uncomfortable) sensual relationship with the viewer. This is then fulfilled, though selfishly (as it is me and me) by the touching of the old self in the hypnosis video.

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