Drive Motion Landscapes: Installations

Drive, four channel video installation, 1995: “Alternative Realities”, curated by Rachel Kent, Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne Museum of Art, 1995; Zhu Qizhan Gallery, Shanghai, 1995; Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, 1996; Chandigarh Art Museum, India, 1996; Bangalore Chitrikala Parasheth Museum, India, 1996; University of Science and Technology Exposition Hall, Hong Kong, 1997.

Altemative Realities is an exhibition of five Australian artists who incorporate digital technologies within their art. Drawn from Melbourne and Sydney, these artists explore in different ways the possibilities, as well as the limitations, of technology in their work. The impact of technology upon the body, the urban landscape and the shaping of history is considered, while a critical look is cast at the darker side of technological progress. The failures of technology, as embodied by the systems breakdown or ‘crash’, are also exposed while the new possibilities which this opens up present an alternative form of visual aesthetics for the viewer to consider.

Heralded as a ‘technological revolution’ and the ‘second industrial revolution’, the advent of digital technologies from the development of the first modern computer in the 1940s to the present, has had a vast impact upon the political and economic fabric of our society. Primarily developed for military and scientific purposes, digital technologies have also, since their inception, expanded to embrace a broad range of social and cultural functions. The impact of technology within the realm of social and cultural production is reflected in the increased recognition, and widening application, of technology in the work of a growing number of artists and other cultural groups within and beyond Australia. On a broader level, it is reflected also in a growing awareness among the general community of the technologies within the leisure and entertainment industry.

In Patricia Piccinini’s The Mutant Genome Project GMSR Genetic Manipulation Simulator, biotechnology and its darker implications are explored in a humorously sinister way. Echoing the reality of the Human Genome Initiative, an American federal project currently attempting to map human DNA, it addresses issues of biotechnological advancement and its potential uses in the realm of genetic and social engineering. In GMSR Genetic Manipulation Simulator we are presented with a fictitious, superhuman creation called LUMP TM (Lifeform with Unevolved Mutant Potential). Created within the medical laboratory LUMP can be purchased on a cost-scale suited to a range of budgets, according to which of the eight extra biological features the buyer selects. LUMP TM is presented in a consumerfriendly, colourful games-format with randomly inserted bonuses or ‘easter eggs’ for the lucky selector of the right combination. Humour aside, LUMP-” is an imminently conceivable life form, a step away from the body-altering surgery currently available to us or, more chillingly, the Human Genome Initiative it draws upon. LUM P TM is designed to be explored interactively via the computer.

Alternatively, it is the technology of travel or ‘landscapes in motion’ that is explored in Ross Harley’s DRIVE: Motion Landscapes video series. An ongoing project since 1994, DRIVE: Motion Landscapes explores the ways in which technology mediates our experience of the physical landscape unfolding around us. The artist writes: ‘In travel … the environment is encountered via some electro-magnetic transportation system … Buses, trains, airplanes, ferries, cycles and so on, orchestrate the landscape into something akin to cinema, television or video’.’ This integrated experience of space, time and movement is captured in moving texts and a series of personal anecdotes, narrated by the artist, accompanied by video footage from different locations around the world. The underlying theme of contemporary society as essentially nomadic decentred and constantly moving between destinations is mirrored in the flow of text, narrative and imagery in each video.

Peter Callas’s Bilderbuch fur Ernst Will (Ernst Will’s Picture Book): A Euro Rebus, is an eleven-minute animation in which the ‘private history’ of Europe is explored via the traditional children’s pictorial scrapbook, or rebus. Using video and digital technologies, Callas’s work represents an examination of communication and the role of the mass media in the construction of historical narratives. Within the private domain of the picturebook, a collage of seemingly unrelated images constructs public histories via reference to historical and political events, dates and figures; this process of territorial mapping is extended via the virtual mapping of technology.2 Recurrent references to blindness and vision, and the image of a monkey typing away at a keyboard author or viewer? further add to the ‘enigmatic code’ contained within the imagery of the rebus. Like a dream or an illusion, the images present a range of possible readings as do the histories and events themselves.

Rosemary Laing and Moira Corby explore the perceived failure of technology via the systems breakdown or ‘crash’. Alternatively, new visual and aesthetic possibilities are exposed within these images. Moira Corby’s use of the virtual space of the computer has led her to experiment with the limits of technology in a series of nine images created by crashing the computer. Collectively entitled Crash Suburban Night the images are grouped into threes and illustrate in several stages the establishment of visual order and its disintegration via the breakdown of the computer.Based upon Western classical and medieval metaphysical concepts of harmony and proportion, the first three images are of a human face, the spiral structure of a shell, and a Gothic archway. Crashed data recognisable only as green and red colour patches and other distortions are then incorporated within the successive images, allowing the breakdown technology of the crash, a new visual dimension is opened up for artist and viewer alike to explore.

Similarly, Rosemary Laing’s photographic and perspex works, Untitled (skid marks) and Untitled (stretched horizon hole), propose an altered visual dimension via the failures of technology.

Both are based upon a photograph taken by the artist in which vivid tonal distortion is evident, due to a technical incompatibility affecting both the photographic and subsequent digitising process. The resulting acidic purple of horizon and sea represents not only a shift away from the conventional colour-curve observed in photography but, with it, a move from natural to artificial resulting in the creation of a veritable synthetic monster. Alternatively the two works, like the photograph they are derived from, propose a different way of seeing. In the establishment of a perceptual space between the natural and the synthetic, as symbolised by the horizon line itself, a new range of visual and aesthetic possibilities open infinitely before the viewer.

The artists in the exhibition Alternative Realities consider in differing ways the impact of technology upon our constantly changing world. Part of a growing global network of artists who are exploring the possibilities and the limitations of technology in their work, they provide an insight into some of the ways in which our lives are affected, and to some degree shaped, by the new technologies which surround us.

Rachel Kent, 1995

FOOTNOTES 1 Ross Harley ‘Learning to Drive: Motion Landscape video series’, Cantrill’s Filmnotes, November 1994, P-4. 2 Erkki Huhtamo, ‘Dreaming Europe, or mapping the global “anti-terrain “‘, Bilderbuch fur Ernst Will (Ernst Picture Book): A Euro Rebus, catalogue 1993.

Motion Landscape Video Series Ross Rudesch Harley

[First published in Cantrills Filmnotes, No75/76, Nov 1994 Notes]

Travelling Cinema

I can still remember those long childhood journeys made through the middle of the night and on into the early hours of the next day: staccato images, superimposed reflections, rhythmic sounds and fleeting sensations offered by an enchanted landscape endlessly flashing past my window. These trips impressed upon me a film-like sense of movement from our familiar Sydney home to the outer-Melbourne suburb my grandmother lived in. Ever since, my perception has been dominated by the multi-sensorial experience of moving mechanically over land and through space in the glass and metal chariots of our age. I recall our drives as a series of interconnecting travelling shots, though I didn’t quite think of it like that at the time.

And yet, the kind of ‘machine vision’ set in motion by these journeys never really left me. No doubt this is true for many of us who negotiate the landscape via the medium of the car, not to mention trains or planes1. From my perspective at least, the road was like a giant real-time widescreen/ sidescreen cinema machine. Whether I was lying in the back seat with my sisters and brother, head craned upwards to catch the whirl of the Harbour Bridge through the rear windscreen, or whether I watched more casually out the side passenger windows, I captured the landscape as a series of fragmentary animated ‘clips’, storing them in my mind for replay at some later moment.

I suppose here in Australia, we all learnt to ‘drive’ a long time ago. This was the basic starting-point for my Drive: Motion Landscapes project. Using video shot on trips made over the last four years, the series reflects upon the mechanical flow of contemporary life. When Paul Virilio claims that “what goes on the windshield is cinema in the strict sense.”3, I can’t help but nod my head in agreement. Even outside the movie theatre, our everyday experience has become profoundly mechanised, cinematic. Our encounter with place and our sense of landscape is continually mediated by the means we use to negotiate it. Landscape is itself no longer limited to the natural world, extending into the entire built and unbuilt environment (which is paradoxically unified and disrupted by our new-found mobility). In travel at least, the environment is encountered via some electro-mechanical transportation system. Although the car may have introduced many of us to this daily ‘travelling cinema’, the same principles seem to hold true for many other forms of transportation. Buses, trains, airplanes, ferries, cycles and so on, orchestrate the landscape into something akin to cinema, television or video.

Drive: Motion Landscapes

Hence my current project, which I would like to describe and contextualise here. Most of my comments relate to the ideas surrounding the series (and are not necessarily descriptions of the project itself). All of the images produced here are stills from the videos, and serve to illustrate the general discussion of contemporary landscapes set in motion by various media. However, some brief description of the work is still in order. Drive: Motion Landscapes is an attempt to edit and compose video recordings of my travel experiences into a continuing series of short interlinked works. Each one (there are seven at present, and five more underway) is a few minutes long, and emulates a short ‘ride’ in a vehicle. Layered videographic images of the passing landscape or outstretched ribbons of road, train-tracks or canals are woven into first person stories to do with those places. Some of these experiences of motion captured on tape are abstract or conceptual, while others are more biographical (and hence narrativised).

My aim is to link personal memories, stories, images and sounds into an evolving series of interconnecting video-journeys4. In this sense, they give expression to the idea of life as a series of long travelling shots. Each work in the series presents a number of moving scenes that reveal something of our contemporary ‘machine vision’ experienced in the culture of late twentieth century travel.

Although these ‘motion landscapes’ stem from my own experience and perception, each says something of the shared environment we all journey in. I’ve tried to merge public space with personal memories and stories. From the perspective of moving vehicles and other perceptual machines, the viewer is taken on a journey that has neither beginning nor end. The videos can be screened individually, in groups, or as a continuous whole. They are also part of my ongoing concern to make explicit connections between disparate aspects of contemporary culture. How does the road organise our experience and perception of travel? What kind of ‘kinetic architecture’ do we encounter from our mechanical cinema machines? And how might these ideas relate to other histories of say cinema or the railway?

Navigational Beacons

One of the first instances of ‘kinetic architecture’ that leapt out at me from the passing blur was the petrol station. It wasn’t until I spent a number of weeks at the Banff Centre in Canada that I became aware of how much I was fascinated by these ubiquitous sights. They glow on the horizon like giant navigational beacons. We watch as they pass silently by the homeward side of our most well-travelled roads. They are 24 hour shrines to a dying modernity, asserting their bold horizontal lines and standard geometrical form against all odds. Like it or not, the service station is one of the great industrial icons of our time.

Unlike any pre-twentieth-century architecture, they are landmarks designed solely for the driver. From behind safety-glass they appear in a motorised stream of motion, looming against the clutter of mere pedestrian-scale objects. Some might even claim a certain perfection of spatial communication: a commercial economy of means and singularity of expression. You can spot a petrol station at great distance and even greater speed. The wafer-thin illuminated canopy that hovers over rows of multi-product pumps is signage and roadside protection all in one. With monolithic sanserif type and clean logos towering to the side, the driver is lured to one petrol company’s station at the expense of another’s.

The epic disruptions and strange connections created by the motion of the car travelling at speed remain irresistable, fascinating and compelling. Writing of his experience upon moving to Los Angeles, the British critic Reyner Banham expresses a similar idea. He says “the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement. Mobility outweighs monumentality, and the city will never be fully understod by those who cannot move fluently through its diffuse urban texture, cannot go with the flow of its unprecedented life. So, like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Danté in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original”.2

In Calgary, the Texas of Canada and an hour’s drive from Banff, the competition among these grand monuments to commerce is astonishing. The trip to Calgary along the snow-laden mountains became the subject of the first video in the series Miles. The next, called Fuel, creates a three minute continuous loop of endless gas stations after dark. Like weird fast food places from another planet, these late-night places provide the empty driver with plenty of fuel to burn. Gas, food, and lodging in the same synthetic environment.

Of course, they also stand as dumb monuments to corporate waste and consumption. A lot of time has been spent making these places ‘attractive’, in the most fundamental sense. Ever since the American inventor Sylvanus F. Bowser came up with the idea for a simple pump in 1895, people have been refining the design of petrol bowsers and their immediate surroundings to attract new customers. When cars blocked traffic waiting outside the first curbside pumps in front of grocery stores, a few bright sparks (around 1907) came up with the idea of setting up drive-through garages instead.

These places took an enormous variety of forms in the teens, but they mostly looked like train stations for the new horseless carriages. Some of the stations were more like Revival Greek temples or Egyptian palaces. Others sported majestic domes, elaborate pillars, or even Japanese tea house pagodas. That was the whole point. Petrol stations were disguised in fantastic garb to gain market appeal. The garage had to be exotic, welcoming and attractive; perhaps even ‘beautiful’. From the 1920s till the 1960s petrol stations combined service-with-a-smile and a bewildering array of sometimes-bizarre thematic designs to draw customers away from the highway.

Since the mid sixties, we’ve witnessed the gradual ‘perfection’ of today’s purpose-built designs. Starting with American industrial designer Elliot Noyes’s high-modern schemes for Mobil in 1963, the petrol station has finally become a shrine to the god of its own creation. Made from brushed steel, monochrome petroleum-plastics, bold corporate graphics and dazzling metal-halide lighting, the contemporary petrol station now stands for nothing other than itself. It’s a pure sign of our petrol-based economy: a spectacular stage lit bright for an all-consuming multi-nationalism. That’s why petrol stations are now pretty much the same the world over. The ones I encountered in Calgary are essentially no different from the ones in Australia. Though there are distinct differences in the look of each company, there is no chance we could ever mistake a contemporary garage for anything else (as we might have done in the past). Most design standards are devised for the global marketplace. The language remains steadfastly modern and ‘universal’. If the International Style advocated by many this century has fallen into disrepute in architectural circles, here we find its ultimate commercial realisation. One can’t help but be at least a little in awe of such uncompromising global functionalism.

In fifty years time we’ll probably look back in wonder (perhaps anger) at these Modern temples of mechanisation. By then the depletion of natural resources, traffic congestion and environmental decay may well have bashed the final nails into the automobile’s coffin. But in the meantime, the future of the petrol station lies in the sale of new and different kinds of fuel. The grocery store with a pump out front has come full circle. The local servo is becoming a retail outlet, replacing fan belts and spark plugs with Fantails and fizzy drinks. The age of Seven Eleven, Food Plus and Shell Select is the age of fast fuel.

The Mobilised Gaze

I suspect we use the same ‘mobilised eye’ when we travel through other commercial landscapes. What is the real difference between the shopping mall and the airport? Or what about the differences between, say, ride films, arcade games, and virtual reality simulations that aim to blur the distinction between history and reality still further?

As Anne Friedberg recently put it, machines of mobility (such as cars, trains, elevators, escalators, etc) extended our gaze to provide a kind of virtual mobility. Her analysis concludes that “the coincident development of department store shopping, packaged tourism, and proto-cinematic entertainment began to transform this mobilised gaze into a commodity, one sold to a consumer/spectator”5. Such a view sits very well with the idea that the industrialised landscape is a spectacle of commercially integrated attractions. Not surprisingly then, the conditions for cinema spectatorship are also to be found in a number of social and technological transformations. Perhaps the information age is changing our experience of reality, using our involvement with new media forms as a way to restructure the environment.

Marshall McLuhan certainly thought that new technologies, especially in media, influence the development of new environments:

“To say that any technology or extension of man creates a new environment is a much better way of saying that the medium is the message. This environment is always ‘invisible’ and its content is always the old technology. The old technology is altered considerably by the enveloping action of the new technology.”6

The work of German sociologist Wolfgang Schivelbusch presents similar ideas more clearly and with more historical rigour than McLuhan ever did. Written in the mid 1970s, his book The Railway Journey traces the changes industrialisation brought to the organisation and experience of time and space in the 19th century. Although his main object of study is not strictly speaking the role of new media forms. The Railway Journey is an exemplary study of the origins and evolution of what many of us would now take for granted as a kind of ‘technologised consciousness’. It has also been extremely helpful in working through the ideas of motion and travel in Drive.

According to Schivelbusch, the railway brought with it profound changes to the structure and experience of everyday life. The new forms of mechanical representation that emerged out of this new technological ensemble initiated what could be called a ‘perceptual vortex’: it was as if the rider disappeared into an uncharted geographic space (though of course it was every bit as planned and charted as today’s virtual spaces). No longer grounded to a stationary point of view, the rider of the railway rushes through and across a pictorial and sensorial space that engulfs all who negotiate it. It is this very same vortex of longitudinal motion that animates many of the supposedly participatory media of this century, from cinema to interactive multimedia. The lateral motion, however, is almost always ignored in mainstream media. This sideways glance is the view of the passenger, and not of the driver barrelling down the line. I use this sideways viewpoint, in combination with ‘down-the-line motion’ in an attempt to counter this tendency. Mapless, Drift, and Accelerate especially work with this idea. Tracks, which features an ‘endless’ journey throught the New York subway, superimposes and intercuts a number of sideways views in order to gain a quite different perspective on the ‘ride’ experience.

Tunnel-vision is also one of the conditions for a first person kinetic cinema, of which the ‘ride film’ is the most obvious and exaggerated example. I would also argue that this technique has been exploited by a parade of commercial 20th century media innovations in order to create the illusion of heightened participation and presence. In fact, participation decreases as the audience is sucked into the vortex of unreflective forwards motion. Not surprisingly, similar forces are also thought to be at play in the organisation of contemporary space. According to film theorist Anne Friedberg, “The virtual gaze is not a direct perception but a received perception mediated through representation…The mobilised gaze has a history, which begins well before cinema and is rooted in other cultural activities that involve walking and travel…The cinema developed as an apparatus that combined the ‘mobile’ with the ‘virtual’. Hence, cinematic spectatorship changed, in unprecedented ways, concepts of the present and the real.”7

The annihilation of time and space that was so often talked about during the latter part of the 19th century and which we now take as a ‘natural’ part of everyday life could not have occurred without the appearance of a new ‘machine ensemble’ such as the railway (and later the freeway). Not only did it include the locomotives, carriages and networks of tracks, it also inaugurated a new architecture of tunnels, viaducts, telegraph poles, ticketing systems, time-keeping machines and cathedral-like stations. (Today’s technological ensemble includes the global telecommunications network, tourism, theme parks, and urban spaces organised around the car.) In short, the railway orchestrated a new landscape, which was apprehended by a change in perception made possible by a radically new form of mechanised movement:

“…the railroad was merely an expression of the rail’s technological requirements…that machine ensemble that interjected itself between the traveller and the landscape. The traveller perceived the landscape as it was filtered through the machine ensemble.”8

As it turns out, Schivelbusch’s research and methodological approach sits well with the study of new and emerging media. There is certainly a case to be made for direct historical and social connections between the railway and the new forms of roughly contemporaneous mass entertainments to be found at amusement parks, and nickelodeons. The cinema and other recent electronic media forms are part of a similar ensemble that orchestrates its own effects. In turn, the new global media profoundly influence our experience of post-industrial landscapes, banal or exoticised, televisual or concrete.

Rather than telling a chronological story of the railway’s technological emergence, he weaves a careful course through the adjacent fields that made it possible for the railway to operate so successfully. In order to do this he traces a vast array of literary, phenomenological, economic and social changes brought about by this form of mechanical transportation that was in turn shaping a modern spatiality.

Package Tours

As it’s often said, the railway was the first technology to package the traveller as a kind of mobile spectator whose “visual perception is diminished by velocity”9. In fact the new landscape that is framed by the moving train window breaks with the earlier continuity between the traveller and travelled space. Foreground becomes impossible to apprehend, and the consistency of the traversed landscape is broken by disruptive intrusions of the newly created railway geography. The view out the window is animated by the trajectory of a fast moving train. Disconnected from the immediate landscape by speed, travellers began to consider themselves as packaged projectiles. Schivelbusch again:

“The train was experienced as a projectile, and travelling on it, as being shot through the landscape thus losing control of one’s senses…Thus the rails, cuttings, and tunnels appeared as the barrel through which the projectile of the train passes.”10

Depending on your point of view, this new vortex of ‘projectile travel’ was either dull and boring or exciting and enriching. Those who wanted to hold onto the old perceptual apparatus (including the likes of Ruskin and Flaubert) invariably found the train monotonous and aesthetically displeasing. The discontinuous atomised view was stripped of all its human dimension and contemplative value. Even worse, it invaded and scarred a natural landscape that was so sacred for this group of Romantics. But for others, such as French newspaper writer Benjamin Gastineau, the railroad choreographed the landscape into a living panorama unified by what he called “the synthetic philosophy of the glance”. This was of course the kind of vision that was to animate early appreciations of photography by Impressionism. It was also the realisation of an illusion that was orchestrated by the railway.

It also marks the origins of a new point-of-view for the traveller-as-spectator. As trains packaged travel (this moment is also the birth of the idea of the package tour), so new media package these same effects. Much has been written on the influence of these technological changes on the visualarts. Julie Wosk’s Breaking Frame is perhaps the best of these studies, drawing together a vast range of examples of how artists began to respond to the railway in particular. Popular arts, entertainment and design of the time “established a coherent framework for a world still in the midst of fragmenting, disruptive change, a world that would become even more intensely engaged with explosively exciting, and explosively dangerous, new technologies.”12

However, as her study is limited to the nineteenth century, she makes no comment upon the impact that psychological and social factors had upon the newly forming institutions of cinema.

From my perspective, one of the most important aspects of the railway was that it made possible: in entirely new point-of-view that broke with traditional modes that presumed a stationary subject. From the front and side of the moving train comes a mobile perspective that does not necessarily obey classical laws. It is in a sense, the perspective of a mechanical projectile, hurtling through space and annihilating a stable geography. The sexual and militaristic overtones of this imagery are blatantly obvious. It should also be obvious that this is the same spectacular point-of view that has been endlessly simulated in commercial cinema and amusement park attractions for decades. The heightened kinaesthetic effect offered by these amusements dramatised the fears and anxieties associated with the advent of incredible technological change. When it comes to today’s new digital forms, little has changed.

Kinetic Cinema

The kinetic point-of-view structure is quite different to the kind that is mostly described in classic film theory. There is still much to be done in thinking through the consequences of the illusion of motion in contemporary media. Drive, and the ideas that surround it, is a small contribution to this particular area.

Most film theorists have overlooked the importance of the new motionbased perspective that orchestrates the imaginary landscape of cinema. They are more concerned with the evolution of a narrative system that stitches the audience into the fabric of story and psychological characters. A number of exceptions come immediately to mind such as Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, and Vivian Sobchak (whose Address of the Eye is crucial to any understanding of such studies of spectatorship). However, their main focus is on the history of cinema, and they are not so concerned with the relations between experimental film and the development of electronic media. I suspect that there are a number of salutary lessons here for those of us interested in making connections between so-called old and new media. I think there is a certain anachronism in much of the discussion about the meaning and development of multimedia and interactive entertainments because of an over-reliance on narrative approaches. So for example, we often hear from producers and distributors of new media work that it’s only a matter of time before computer games and CD-ROM titles will become like interactive narrative movies. Storytelling and identifiable characters will supposedly appear shortly and save the day. To me, this is a misreading of media history, or at least a misunderstanding of the notion that emerging media are replaying the history of cinema. According to such views, the first 20 years of cinema were spent developing from the crude peep shows, amusement parks and nickelodeons into respectable middle class entertainment. Narrative won the day, and, so many say, storytelling will win the day now.

Personally I’m not so sure. In my opinion there is another kind of history that animates a different future one that looks more at the ways in which forms of participation and presence are orchestrated by very different forces. As we can see from the example of railways, new media are as much about the development of new perceptual and experiential effects as they are about anything else. The Drive series is an attempt to work through a different way of negotiating these changes. The videos combine lateral and forward motion through space with first person narration and occasional scrolling texts superimposed over the images. The ‘motion landscape’ becomes the scene for a personal travelogue that reanimates the passing places and surrounding histories.

To return to the example of cinema, we could easily argue that the successful incorporation of new technologies into the mainstream film industry has always been dependent upon the spectacular inclusion of a new technique into an old form. Examples of a heightened cinema of effects that suposedly transport the audience into the film are endless, from the use of colour, sound and music, through to the adoption of film gauges and aspect ratios in film production and exhibition.

Of course, the filmic environments that presented dramatic large-scale views of the world were an extension of early 19th cetury attractions such as panoramas and diaramas. Here, in the new cinematic form, the audience did not actually move (as they did in the pre-cinematic panoramas of travel landscapes). Instead, they participated in the grand spectacle of entertainment that immersed them in a wraparound filmic space. This fascination with large screen immersive cinema has continued through the history of World Fairs and other location based entertainment centres (which are found today lastly in theme park attractions).

This Is Cinerama was the first film made in 1952 for the new extra widescreen format that challenged the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (which was the industry standard). Cinerama required three projectors and a panoramic screen (approximately three times as wide as normal screens) that wrapped round the sides of the audience. The spectacle of the new format was, not surprisingly, demonstrated by a thrilling ride shot from the fron seat of a roller-coaster. Such a perspective broke the space of the frame, engulfing the audience in a visceral rush towards a main diminishing point that created the impression of passing the picture plane. Belton gives a great description:

“As the roller coaster moved forward, so did the camera. Spectators in the theatre were suddenly plunged into one of the most visceral motion picture experiences ever created. The frame of the theatre proscenium seemed to disappear, and the audience had the uncanny sensation of entering into the events…Cinerama put the audience in the front car of the roller coaster and surrounded them with eye-filling peripheral images which created an unprecedented illusion of depth…the music and sound effects spread from the centre to speakers in the rear of the auditorium.”14

The films made for Cinerama were profoundly non-narrative, and mark the shift away from plot towards the creation of what we might call the ‘participation effect’. This also coincided with the historical shift of audiences away from habitual moviegoing. Instead of going to films once a week, audiences became attracted in large numbers to new blockbuster, event style films. Even though Cinerama films were incredibly expensive to produce and exhibit (requiring a complex system of cameras, projectors, theatre layout and an army of exhibition personnel) the films still made a profit.

The first five Cinerama features were all travelogues shown in 22 specially equipped theatres, but still managed to gross $82 million. As visceral spectacles, these films were hardly seamless. But they managed to spectacularise the technology of presence and thrust audiences into a spiralling vortex of pseudo participation.

The audience participated in this orchestrated kinetic landscape, which was itself filtered through the technological ensemble. Like other participatory media, Cinerama was a form of immersive entertainment that drew upon and advanced a discourse of presence that can be discerned from the earliest film attractions. For obvious reasons, non-commercial filmmakers and artists never really got a chance to work in the medium; nor did they get the opportunity to push the language and form beyond its commercial origins. The same probably holds true today, although there are a small number of people and institutions trying to do non-commercial projects using large screen technologies, motion paltforms and computer graphics15.

This spectacularisation of the medium is part of the process of commodification and the reification of participation. It continues in the present fixation on interaction and immersion in new digital media. The front seat projectile point of view structure of trains and roller-coasters is part and parcel of today’s electro-mechanical entertainments. From the locationbased ride films on large film formats and motion control platforms, through to the most commonly available flight simulators, racers and other arcade style games, this particular effect of participation is maintained and heightened. How will independent film/video/multimedia-makers of the present and future respond to this version of ‘participation’? For my part, Drive is a very small start to thinking through different ways of placing the spectator in relation to action on the screen in everyday life and its representation through various media.

Widescreen The history of widescreen film formats provides a fitting example of such exclusions and incorporations. John Belton’s recent book Widescreen Cinema is an excellent overview of this mini-history. It is a particularly good example for me, because it underscores the importance of maintaining the illusion of participation in all mass media. More specifically, widescreen is also a major part of the story of ‘ride films’, which rely on exactly the same positioning of the audience quite literally. It is the ideology of ‘you are here’. This ideology is nothing more than an elaborate effect produced by what Tom Gunning has called (after Eisenstein of course) “a cinema of attractions”. I think it’s worth digressing a bit here, as this is a fascinating object lesson for anyone interested in the invention and marketing of new media technologies.

Although widescreen formats have been in existence since the invention of cinema (as indeed have sound, colour, 3-D and so on), it wasn’t until the 1950s that the super-widescreen formats found some acceptance in the film industry. The reasons for this are largely to do with the demise of the studio system, the advent of television, and a general disaffection of cinema-going audiences who found their thrills in other leisure-time amusements. According to Belton, “movies had to become more participatory; the movie theatre had to become the equivalent of an amusement park.”13 Cinerama (and after that Cinemascope, Todd AO, Vistavision and so on) marks the start of this evolution. The adoption of Cinemascope and stereo by the motion picture industry a year later was a direct response to the challenge of Cinerama.

The idea of Cinerama does indeed go back to the dubious pleasures of the fairground, and the more respectable World’s Fairs. The Paris Exposition of 1900 featured a display called Cineorama, which interlocked ten 70mm projectors to produce a 360degree image on a 300 x 30 foot screen. The films presented there (before the projection equipment exploded, causing the exhibit to be shut down) were typical of the phantom-ride films shown at the turn of the century. Like many of the travelogues and actuality films of the day, this particular film featured an ascending aerial view of Paris. In a nearby pavillion, the Lunieres also installed a giant 400 square metre screen, which presented 15 cinematographic views. These were spectacular versions the then typical travelogues and actuality films that presented exotic locations, or familiar places exotically. Enter a world you have never seen before. Sounds familiar.

Experience of Motion

Putting the so-called ‘experience industry’ into a broad historical perspective, which includes an account of the railway, artificial commercial environments, amusement attractions and Cinerama, and so on can only help in countering the current sensationalism that surrounds so much new media. Commercial immersive interactive entertainment propels the audience through a digitally orchestrated landscape, in much the same way as earlier mechanical amusements. Jean Baudrillard is quite correct when he claims that:

“people no longer project themselves into their objects, with their affects and their representations…[T]he psychological dimension has in a sense vanished…little by little a logic of ‘driving’ has replaced a very subjective logic of possession and projection…The vehicle now becomes a kind of capsule, its dashboard the brain, the surrounding landscape unfolding like a televised screen (instead of a live-in projectile as it was before).”16

Both the old and new forms encapsulate the fears, hopes and anxieties of a new technological era. The new media are as much a part of the industrial-entertainment complex as previous forms, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of this at least as often as we go on about the boundless new potentials. “Participation and presence were always illusory phenomena: they are now only illusions of earlier pseudo-authentic illusions, copies of copies”17. As is often the case, it’s up to independent producers of media to figure out new ways to present the landscapes of motion we encounter in contemporary life, in full knowledge of related histories and possible effects.


1. Indeed, there is surely a history waiting to be written on the relation between the car, the landscape and the cinema starting with mainstream road movies (such as Two Lane Blacktop, Mad Max, even Duel), avant-garde film and video projects (such as the Cantrills’ Passage, Ant Farm’s Media Bum, or Chip Lord’s Motorist) and the art of people like Ed Ruscha and Julian Opie. 2. Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, Pelican, England, 1973, p23. 3. Paul Virilio, “The Third Window”, in Cynthia Schneider and Brian Wallis (eds) Global Television, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1988, p188. 4. Each ‘script’ also exists in a ‘hypermedia’ form; which is to say that individual stories, places, characters and events can be electronically linked. As each ‘story’ develops and is added to the work, it also becomes part of an evolving network (or web) of text and digitised video, photos and sound. I hope to be able to make this expanding hypertext version of the project available via the World Wide Web service on the Internet. As with my previous videowork, the series will also be shown on multiple screens in the context of an installation/exhibition. 5. Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, p4. 6. Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast, Rapp and Whiting Ltd, London, 1970, p31. 7. Anne Friedberg, ibid, p3. 8. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialisation of Time and Space in the 19th Century, New York, Berg Publishers, 1986, p24. 9. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, ibid, p55. 10. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, ibid, p54. 11. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, ibid, p60. 12. Julie Wosk, Breaking Frame, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1992, p29. 13. John Belton, Widescreen Cinema, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1992, p84. 14. John Belton, ibid, p2. 15. Jeffrey Shaw’s work at ZKM, the Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, and Michael Naimark’s research and virtual voyaging projects (now with Interval Research) in California come immediately to mind. 16. Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication”, in Hal Foster (ed) Postmodern Culture, Pluto, London, 1985, p127. 17. John Belton, ibid, p210.