“Reveals: Seams, Scars, Thresholds, and Frames“

Third Annual Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies, 

Weimar, June 15-22, 2013

In the philosophical tradition that we call “Platonic” different realms of being (ideas, things, images) are subjected to a strict ontological segregation; a logic of representation governs the manner in which they are connected. Media theory that goes beyond communication studies and semantics intervenes in this field by replacing these ontological distinctions with empirical media that generate and process these distinctions in the first place. Generally speaking, these media are hybrid objects defined by their highly operational character: that is, they conceal, quote, and even reflect openings, closures, connections, cuts, montage, passages, transgressions, metamorphoses and so on. These can be identified as seams, scars, thresholds, or frames. Instead of ontological distinctions media theory thus arrives at topological transitions.

The 2013 Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies will focus on such a topology of transitions by exploring a wide range of seams, scars, thresholds and frames in art, media, and other cultural practices such as religion, architecture, and design.

In product design the seams or gaps where parts of objects are conjoined are called ‘reveals’. In these liminal zones the operations that constitute a certain entity, object or process can become visible. Consequently reveals can either be an integral part of a design, like the flaunted seams in the Rietveld Utrecht Chair, or –more commonly– are made as small or invisible as possible when not hidden altogether. Reveals are zones of difference in two senses: both in organizing the relation between the inside and outside, between front and back, between medium and message, as well as in being different from the thing itself.

Reveals play an essential role in both late medieval and modern art as figurations of thresholds, for instance between figure and ground. In religious paintings the ground has often been rendered as curtain, as torn textile, or as cracked seam, thereby giving the image a bodily quality. Similar figures of mediatic self-reflection can be observed both in more narrative cinema (Jean Epstein, Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock), and of course in the more avant-garde manifestations of involution from Dziga Vertov to Paul Sharits. A media studies approach as proposed here is less interested in the categorial segregation of image support and image plane, but instead studies the historical techniques and modes through which support and plane, ground and figure, are interwoven, how they refer to each other both in material and metaphorical ways. From this perspective, the ornament must be grasped as a threshold zone between figure and ground, just as clouds also have long figured the border between different realms of reality while simultaneously demarcating the border of figuration itself.

The most prominent reveal in art, of course, is the frame; it is the obvious case of a liminal organization which has a constitutive role in generating images. Since the 15th century the practice of trompe-l’oeil, which operates by transgressing a simulated frame, has been a means through which art has reflected its relation to the space of the spectator, blurring the border between two- and three-dimensional space. Nearly 600 years after Alberti and more than a century after the invention of cinema we may well be witnessing with the proliferation of digital imaging another fundamental transformation of the very definition and status of the frame – both in cameras that can “stitch together” image sequences into panoramic surrounds, and in what could be called the post-frame condition of contemporary cinema both at the level of the physical delivery system (the sequentiality of successive photograms displaced by the “refresh” of myriad pixels) and at the level of visual syntax, where new zones of semiosis are being explored in the hybrid fields of sequences saturated by special-effects, resulting in image types (heterochronic, heterotopic, etc.) where the homogeneous signifying field has been replaced by various types of seams and threshholds operating within the image. What are the demands made on so-called visual literacy by this media-epistemic shift?

At the same time a vast arsenal of practices that serve to hide reveals, to produce effects of so-called “seamlessness,” are amongst the most central of cultural technologies. These range from the crude (such as duct-tape) to the syntactic (for example the idioms  of “suture” that produce the “transparency” of classical Hollywood film narration), from the exploitation of perception-thresholds (like the 24fps of a certain episteme of celluloid projection) to the protocols that allow for interoperability between computing architectures. Seams, scars and thresholds also have a decidedly temporal aspect, evoking past actions, pointing to the time where things were once joined or separated. By studying how these delineations are negotiated – how they are revealed and/or hidden – we can investigate how effects of realities (or their interpretations) are generated through space- and time-based media. Indeed, it might just be that seams, scars, thresholds and, in a wider context, frames constitute one of the most important (and still all-too under-examined and under-theorized) dimensions of our current media landscape. This is the landscape that will be explored by the 2013 Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies.