Surface Tension

Winston Churchill once said, “We make our buildings and afterwards they make us.” The same is true of technology. Linear perspective,1 the printing press,2 the camera,3 the computer;4 these technologies have changed irreversibly the way the world appears to us, how we relate to each other, and the way we see ourselves. Digital display technology is poised now to effect a similar transformation in the way that we see the world. Already ubiquitous on cellphone screens, digital images will become increasingly inseparable from physical reality with the spread of augmented and virtual reality technologies. In her show of digital installation art at the Stanford Art Gallery, artist Camille Utterback offers a critique of the digital screen and a hopeful exploration of the possibilities of an augmented reality which is deeply based in the physical world.

The digital screen aspires to be both universal and invisible, a transparent window onto the world. In the conference room and classroom, smooth white projection screens roll down from the ceiling; on laptops and cellphones, retina displays and anti-glare film and vanishing bezels suppress the material presence of the screen. Limited in its early days by low resolution and color depth, the contemporary screen claims to contain all images: pornography as well as piety, gore as well as graphs. Utterback’s glass projection sculptures in Sustaining Presence dismantle the false neutrality of the digital screen and expand the possible meanings of the digital image.

In fact, transparency has become (or always was) essential to the definition of the digital screen. Radiant Cache presents video footage of trees is projected into thick glass tablets - rectangular, like most screens the world over. The projected images are hazy and punctuated by ghostly bubbles and impurities beneath the surface of the glass. In one tablet, a charcoal-dark cloud inside the tablet nearly extinguishes the moving image. This dark blot reads clearly as an interruption of the screen. Other impurities are puddles of frosted white glass which focus and sharpen the projected video. The consistency of movement across the tablet indicates that the entire video is captured from the same scene. The folk wisdom that order gives way to disorder (but rarely the other way round) identifies the most precise patches of the image as those which are most faithful to the original scene. The fragments of frosted glass appear as the source of truth, the real window onto the subject of the image; in other words, the screen. The body of the tablet, conversely, is demoted to a mere backdrop, caught in limbo between screen and non-screen.

Light Field further undermines the transparency of the screen by highlighting the two-dimensionality of the projection surface. The title of this piece puns on the double meaning of “field” as both the flat, grassy habitat shown in the video footage, and, in physics, as a physical quantity present at all points in space (like the electromagnetic field, which gives rise to light). Visible from all sides, Light Field dissolves the illusion of the screen as a window. The slivered screens seem almost to offer slices of space and time carved out of another world and suspended in glass. Yet the video shows a head-on landscape view of the field, not a sectional cut through it. The rhythmic swaying of grass and wildflowers moving laterally across the screens traces the flat surface of the picture plane. In one glass orb, the projected footage follows the curving wisp of opaque glass through a smooth 180° turn. Paradoxically, the dramatic three-dimensionality of this screen heightens the apparent flatness of the projected image. Critic Clement Greenberg in 1961 framed a history of Modernist painting around the discovery of flatness as the defining quality of the medium.5 New media raise new questions. Today, the rapid proliferation of new kinds of illusionistic, three-dimensional depictions in augmented and virtual reality resurrect the question of flatness.

In Radiant Cache and Holding Water, the overlap between the visual forms of image and screen challenges the supposed universality of the screen. In Radiant Cache, footage of trees is projected into thick glass tablets - rectangular, like most screens the world over. But the projected images are hazy and punctuated by ghostly bubbles and impurities beneath the surface of the glass. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if regularities in the moving image come from the video, or the screen. In one tablet, charcoal-dark smudges in the glass which seem to extinguish the moving image masquerade as shadowed tree trunks. The videos appear clearly only in the small patches of each tablet where opaque frosted glass focuses the projected light. Closely-spaced stripes of opaque glass in one tablet seem to reveal the image of a palm leaf swaying in the wind. Yet, on close inspection, it’s hard to separate the fringe of the palm leaf in the video from the glass fringe under the surface of the screen. Video and screen blur and become entangled. Screen and video are uniquely suited to each other; separately, they would be diminished.

In Holding Water, oversize glass drinking vessels with frosted cups serve as screens for video footage of water projected from above. The functional associations of these drinking vessels reinforce the projected illusion of water, only to be undermined by the waterstriders and twigs skimming the surface. The videos fill the bottoms of the cups evenly, like real water, conjuring a “surface” where the projection ends. Between this imaginary riparian surface and the bottom of the cup is a space which could not exist on a classroom projection screen - the volume of the improbable virtual water itself. The piece offers yet another contradiction in the rightmost vessel, which is tilted so that the surface of the projected water hangs improbably at an angle, defying the physics which make the other projections so convincing. This pulling-apart reveals the latent tension between the presumed universality of the screen and the specificity of the image. This tension will find its resolution in augmented reality, where image and screen can fuse together in an inseparable media symbiosis.

Beyond the play of light and the movement of waves which constitute the illusion of water, the videos in Holding Water are dominated by shadows and reflected colors. The blue aura which recalls the glow of a computer screen in a dark room is surely that of the sky. In the tallest vessel, a yellowish-green gradient suggests trees leaning over the river, as do dark forms poking into the leftmost cup. The central goblet is filled with the trembling reflections of rushes swaying in the wind. The surface of the water is both a projected illusion in the gallery and, in nature, a screen for the reflected images of grass and trees. This duality is both a critique, and a comfort. Through the double distance of reflection and projection, Holding Water creates a self-conscious augmented reality which contains its own critique. Yet, in the analogy between natural reflection and artificial projection, Holding Water also reminds us that representational illusion long precedes augmented reality, and that it is a fundamental feature of the way we inhabit and interpret the world.

Marshall McLuhan writes that, “the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”6 Augmented reality is here to stay; projects like Hololens, Magic Leap, and Oculus Rift will make sure of that. It remains to be seen what change of pattern or scale augmented reality will bring. In the words of anthropologist Sherry Turkle: “what remains timely is finding ways to work with simulation yet be accountable to nature.”7 In Sustaining Presence, Utterback has given us a good start.

Thanks to Abby LaPier for a wonderfully productive conversation which suggested many of the ideas in this piece.

For further reading on these topics, see my full list of sources.


1. William Ivins, On the Rationalization of Sight (1938).

2. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979).

3. Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977).

4. Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984).

5. Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting (1960).

6. Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

7. Sherry Turkle, Simulation and Its Discontents (2009), 45.