Screen Life: Becoming Image

This image is perfect: an image of image makers imaging a screen projecting images of a live event — which, of course, joins the chorus of images as another image.....

(This is an excerpt from something I've been working on, on and off, for a bit....)

Look at professional sporting events. Players and audience alike shift their attentions from the players on the field to the players on the screen and back. Stadiums are hence building larger and larger screens. In fact, these screens are so big, they literally protrude into the playing field. To wit, in Dallas, a high punt may very well hit the massive screen that hangs overhead.

Watching the same event on TV, we are privy to endless views of every play. We presumably see the live event followed by the same event seen from different angles and at different speeds. Sometimes, the commentators becomes artistes, the image their canvas, as they write over the play, adding their own contribution to what we see.

Of course, for both the live viewing audience and the TV viewing audience, all there ever was was an image. All there ever was was something to be seen. And yet something is different. Something has changed. Just as there’s a difference between being in the stadium and watching the game on one’s TV, there is a difference between watching sports today and watching sports before the digital and its explosive proliferation of image making, distribution, and viewing.

Now look at the players between plays. They’re not looking at the screens overhead; they’re looking down at photographs of the previous plays. And what do they do before a game as a way of preparing? They watch tapes — hour upon hour of videotapes of the other team, of their own team, of themselves. When commentators want to compliment a player’s work ethic, they’ll say, “He spends a lot of time looking at tape.”

Instant replay is a peculiar use of the image. The assumption is that what we see live is, in fact, false: it is the image that gives us the reality. But it’s not just the image but the image manipulated, slowed down to an excruciating speed, to a near halt. In this case, then, it is the pure artifice of the image that guarantees the truth.

Now consider how the military sees the world. Radar supplanted eyes so we scan the skies and seas by looking at a screen. Unmanned probes roam over enemy territory sending back images of the terrain. Meanwhile, satellites circle the stratosphere 24/7, photographing anything and everything. Our military intelligence is a slide show, a picture book, a movie.

In the modern era, medicine has always had an intimate relationship with the image. Doctors make sense of patients with X-rays and MRIs. But today this has extended to the consultation itself as doctors visit with patients via webcams. This is called telemedicine and it is radically changing how we deliver and experience healthcare.

Cameras abound. They are part of our mobile phones, always tucked in our pockets, close to our groins and hearts. Cameras come built into our computers (I’m looking at the eye of the camera as I type this). Cameras are on street corners, in stores, poised at traffic lights.

But these cameras are not just cameras. In the old days — 15 years ago — we had to put film in a camera. When the film was done, we took it somewhere to be developed. Later that day, perhaps, we’d have prints of our photographs — not an easy thing to distribute quickly en masse: “Hey, you, wanna see my pictures of my house?”

Cameras today provide development even faster than the image itself: we see the picture in the screen, know what it looks like, then click. We screen the picture before we take the picture. Our cameras are screens that wind themselves into the image making process itself. When we take digital images, we don't look through a lens; we look at a screen. The image has always already been taken.

But these camera-screens are distribution agents, as well. One click, and our images — still or moving — can be broadcast to the world. We carry an entire movie studio — and theater — in our pockets.

The distance, the literal space, that separates the original from the copy, the live from the recording, is being effaced. This is not to say that the two are the same. Clearly there is a difference between you and I talking face-to-face with each other and talking via Skype. But this distance is no longer so far as to be able to maintain the illusion of the real and to secure the place of the image as a monument, as something outside the everyday, as something artificial.

The image is no longer something out there, projected on the big screen, something that happens after the fact. With the rise of digital technology, the image has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, the so-called original and the so-called replica literally touching each other, inflecting each other, sharing the space of the real: the punter’s football gracing the screen that shows the punter’s football hitting the screen. The time of the image has changed as technology has changed: the movement from image making to broadcast has become immediate. The image is no longer (solely) a record; it has become a companion.

We don't see images. We go with images. We become image.


t-bone-pain said...

As I was reading this, my wife asked me what the weather is supposed to be like today, and I grabbed my iPhone and told her it was supposed to be windy. Then I looked out the window. Hilarious.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Fantastic. But it's not necessarily a bad thing. Your phone probably knows the weather better, at least in some ways.