White Out

I’ve been reading Christopher P. Heuer’s book Into the White. It looks at how the landscape and climate of the far North—the Arctic—threw the European imagination into a bit of a tailspin, presenting a kind of non-configurable problem that shut the operating system down, often leaving ship-bound humans bereft of words and struggling to create comprehensible images.

Early on in the book, Heuer describes journeys of Arctic exploration as “a confrontation with conditions that simply did not fit into European schemes of pictorial composition, space, selfhood, and communication.” Indeed, what Europeans saw there could not even be described in terms of similar landscapes back home—because there were none, Heuer writes: “being like nothing else, the Arctic regions confounded literary strategies of analogy.”

Frigid seas with no permanent land forms; drifting icebergs without clear shape or scale, constantly fragmenting into smaller masses and thus resisting the most basic concepts of counting and quantification; vast snow fields in places like Greenland and Canada where techniques of mapping and surveying broke down, and where—lacking visual features beyond sheer, endless whiteness—the burgeoning art of perspectival representation became impossible. Fathomless expanses of open water where alien hulks of ice, obscured by fog, drift through.

[Image: “The Sea of Ice” (1823-1824), Caspar David Friedrich.]

Often unable to sketch, describe, or explain what they saw there, European crews often left these bizarre and frightening experiences undocumented—as if an experience or situation can be so otherworldly, you cannot even describe it. No coordinate points, no baselines, no solid ground. (Of interest here would also be the work of expeditionary art historian William L. Fox, who has suggested that the Antarctic is equally challenging to human representational practices to the point of resisting human cognition itself.)

One of the most provocative aspects of the whole book for me is its implication that interstellar navigation, beyond planetary bodies, will pose similar—though certainly far more intense—challenges to human cognition, mapping, language, and measurement. This difficulty would presumably not be limited to the European imagination, of course, but to the terrestrial one. (Although it does raise the strange prospect that humans from Arctic regions could be the savviest interstellar navigators.)

In any case, Heuer’s book also points out that European expansion into vast new terrestrial regions, such as the Arctic and the South Atlantic, not just for scientific documentation but for “corporate resource exploitation,” as Heuer describes it, began just as perspectival representation was being developed in Renaissance Italy. That is, just as Europeans were attempting to conquer the infinite void of abstract architectural space through a series of mathematical grids and vanishing points, other Europeans were sailing off into novel terrestrial environments that resisted those same techniques, where the concept of scale itself broke down.

Hidden within this is perhaps a comment on art and commerce as equally concerned, in their own very different ways, with describing quantities beyond calculation—sheer plenty, limitless reserve, infinite exchange.

This leads to another of Heuer’s historical points—albeit one that, to me, reads more like coincidence than causation, but is nevertheless stunning in its visual power.

[Image: “Interior of Saint Bavo, Haarlem” (1631), Pieter Jansz, Saenredam; courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

Heuer writes, at some length, about how iconoclasm was surging through Western European churches at the time, with the effect that the same nations that were sending mariners out to map and exploit distant environments were also convulsing at home with the widespread destruction of religious imagery. He draws a wonderfully surreal comparison here between white-washed church interiors, denuded of their statues and ornamentation by iconoclasts, and the huge, featureless super-objects of the Arctic, the vaulted spans of icebergs loose on the waves, the looming glacial cliffs of Greenland, the apparently empty wastes of northeastern Canada.

This seems to suggest that iconoclasts painting church interiors white were psychologically of a pair with distant ships’ crews landing in all-white lands, sailing into all-white fog banks, gazing fearfully upon all-white ice, as if the interiors of European churches had become their own sort of Arctic but also that the Arctic had taken on the terrible, sublime dimensions of a religious experience, a theological encounter with the iconoclastic void. A fathomless void, an immeasurable drift.

So, contrary to Heuer’s own claim of Arctic landscapes “being like nothing else,” they were, in fact, like iconoclastic church interiors.

Nevertheless, again, this seems more like a historical coincidence to me—albeit a highly provocative one—than anything like cause and effect.

In fact, it might be fruitful to reimagine Heuer’s observation as the basis of a novel—or, for that matter, as the structure of a Terrence Malick film. A father, consumed with rage against the church, rallies with his compatriots to raid the interiors of cathedrals, stripping them of anything that represents the divine, decapitating statues, shattering windows, painting frescos white, endless white, everything white; even as his son, a mercantilist, perhaps angry with the world itself, on a quest for life-affirming capitalist novelty, sets sail into the Arctic, discovering—instead of abundance and plenty—a world exactly like that created, in acts of rage, by his father. Endless white, lacking in features, silenced of music. A void.

We are left, as our story comes to an end, staring into an expanse that suggests almost no visual difference between cataracts of ice looming over the son’s ship, lost in the Arctic, doomed, and the eerie, seemingly immeasurable interior of a church brutally whitewashed by a God-obsessed father.

Of course, these characters should probably be reversed: it is the parent who is mercantilist, looking for a life of material improvement and capitalist profit, setting sail in the name of imperial, corporate exploitation, while the child stays at home, consumed with new fundamentalisms, painting over images of the past out of a mistaken belief that negation itself is enough for societal rebirth and personal self-discovery.

Either way, both characters are left not cataloging new forms of significance or abundance, but in a world devastatingly whitewashed of meaning.

Anyway, Heuer’s book is interesting and worth a read. It has also achieved the seemingly impossible, which is that it has made me genuinely excited to read Erwin Panofksy again.

Perspectival Objects

[Image: A perspectival representation of the “ideal city,” artist unknown].

There’s an interesting throwaway line in The Verge‘s write-up of yesterday’s Amazon phone launch, where blogger David Pierce remarks that the much-hyped public unveiling of Amazon’s so-called Fire Phone was “oddly focused on art history and perspective.”

As another post at the site points out, “Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likened it to the move from flat artwork to artwork with geometric perspective which began in the 14th century.”

These are passing comments, sure, and, from Amazon’s side, it’s more marketing hype than anything like rigorous phenomenological theorizing. Yet there’s something strangely compelling in the idea that a seemingly gratuitous new consumer product—just another smartphone—might actually owe its allegiance to a different technical lineage, one less connected to the telecommunications industry and more from the world of architectural representation.

[Image: Jeff Bezos as perspectival historian. Courtesy of The Verge].

It would be a smartphone that takes us back to, say, Albrecht Dürer and his gridded drawing machines, making the Fire Phone a kind of perspectival object that deserves a place, however weird, in architectural history. Erwin Panofksy, we might say, would have used a Fire Phone—or at least he would have written a blog post about it.

In this context, the amazing image of billionaire Jeff Bezos standing on stage, giving a kind of off-the-cuff history of perspectival rendering surely belongs in future works of architectural history. Smiling and schoolteacher-like, Bezos gestures in front of an infinite grid ghosted-in over this seminal work of urban scenography, in one moment aiming to fit his product within a very particular, highly Western tradition of representing the built environment.

[Image: Courtesy of The Verge].

The launch of the Fire Phone did indeed give perspectival representation its due, showing how a three-dimensionally or relationally accurate perception of geometric space can change quite dramatically with only a small move of the viewer’s own head.

The phone’s “dynamic perspective,” engineered to correct this, seems a little rickety at best, but it is meant as way to account for otherwise inconsequential movements of the viewer through the landscape, whether it’s a crowded city street or the vast interiors of a hotel. To do so requires an almost comical amount of technical hand-waving. From The Verge:

The key to making dynamic perspective work is knowing exactly where the user’s head is at all times, in real time, many times per second, Bezos said. It’s something that the company has been working on for four years, and [the] best way to do it is with computer vision, he went on to note. The single, standard front-facing camera wasn’t sufficient because its field of view was too narrow—so Amazon included four additional cameras with a much wider field of view to continuously capture a user’s head. At the end of the day, it features four specialized front-facing cameras in addition to the standard front-facing camera found near the earpiece, two of which can be used in case the other cameras were covered; it uses the best two at any given time. Lastly, Amazon included infrared lights in each camera to allow the phone to work in the dark.

Five hundred years ago, we’d instead be reading about some fabulous new system of mirrors, lens, prisms, and strings, all tied back to or operated by way of complexly engineered works of geared furniture. Unfolding tables and adjustable chairs, with operable flaps and windows.

[Image: One of several perspectival objects—contraptions for producing spatially accurate drawings—by Albrecht Dürer].

These precursors of the Fire Phone, after seemingly endless acts of fine-tuning, would then, and only then, allow their users to see the scene before them with three-dimensional accuracy.

Now, replace those prisms and mirrors with multiple forward-facing cameras and infrared sensors, and market the resulting object to billions of potential users in front of gridded scenes of Western urbanism, and you’ve got the strange moment that happened yesterday, where a smartphone aimed to collapse all of Western art history into a single technical artifact, a perspectival object many of us will soon be carrying in our bags and pockets.

[Image: Another “ideal city,” artist unknown].

More interestingly, though, with its odd focus “on art history and perspective,” Amazon’s event raises the question of how electronic mediation of the built environment might be affecting how our cities are designed in the first place—how we see buildings, streets, and cities through the dynamic lens of automatic perspective correction and other visual algorithms.

Put another way, is there a type of architecture—Classical, Romanesque—particularly well-suited for perspectival objects like the Fire Phone, and, conversely, are there types of built space that throw these devices off altogether? Further, could artificial environments that exceed the rendering capacity of smartphones and other digital cameras be deliberately designed—and, if so, what would they “look like” to those sensors and objects?

Recall that, at one point in his demonstration, Bezos explained how Amazon’s new interface “uses different layers to hide and show information on the map like Yelp reviews,” effectively tagging works of architecture with digital metadata in a kind of Augmented Reality Lite.

But what this suggests, together with Bezos’s use of “ideal city” imagery, is that smartphone urbanism will have its own peculiar stylistic needs. Perhaps, if visually defined, that will mean that phones will require cities to be gridded and legible, with clear spatial differentiation between buildings and objects in order to function most accurately—in order to line up with the clouds of virtual tags we will soon be placing all over the structures around us. Perhaps, if more GPS-defined, that will mean overlapping buildings and spaces are just fine, but they nonetheless must allow unblocked access to satellite signals above so that things don’t get confused down at street level—a kind of celestial perspectivism where, from the phone’s point of view, the roof is the new facade, the actual “front” of the building through which vital navigational signals must travel.

Either way, the possibility that there is a particular type of space, or a particular type of urbanism, most suited to the perspectival needs of new smartphones is totally fascinating. Perhaps in retrospect, this photograph of Jeff Bezos, grinning at the world in front of a gigantic image of Western perspective, will become a canonical architectural image of where digital objects and urban design intersect.