4. Technologies of production and reproduction

The character of the production of these visualisations is dominated by the technology surrounding their creation and the social realms that mediate that technology. The ongoing struggle to counter technological obsolescence in these realms is mirrored by the subsequent move towards the use of increasingly accurate (in an empirical sense) techniques and equipment. This is reminiscent of Harley's (1988) analysis of maps. The attempt to create 'measurable' visualisations (particularly in three dimensions) of archaeological material, as opposed to more 'subjective' interpretative renderings, has distinct parallels with the traditionally accepted (although discounted by Harley) discontinuity between a 'decorative' phase of cartography and a 'scientific' phase. The decorative phase had been assumed to express more explicit symbolic power, through its blatant use of iconography, but the move to more accurate mapping, as Harley states, did not represent a shift towards greater objectivity on the part of the cartographers, "Far from being incompatible with symbolic power, more precise measurement intensified it. Accuracy became a new talisman for authority." (Harley 1988, 300) The cartographer's selection of data still represented the specific, intentioned values of the previous period, but the notion of accuracy imbued that selection with an even greater power, rendering the explicit display of symbols superfluous.

The parallels between these essentially technological representations are strong. Highly accurate three-dimensional visualisations, at the present time, (as Harley cites in the case of maps) 'desocialise' the territory they represent, fostering notions of socially empty space. Physical space can be seen to be physically populated, but this does not represent a social population of that space, the visualisation of a place in which people are living. The vistas created cannot, by their very nature, represent such places. The people are missing, even when their bodies are shown. This characteristic of these visualisations does not affect their worth - their usefulness in developing understandings of past places - but I would suggest that it does impact upon the ways in which we view and perceive them.

This impression of absence is also a distinct characteristic of the media of delivery of these visualisations. The nature of this dissemination, be it through online access or distributed CD-ROM, is as permeated by technology as is their mode of production, which has a distinct impact upon the perception of the visualisations themselves. In the current climate of mass access, through the Internet, questions have to be asked whether the established theories on the mass reproduction of art and images still hold true in this context. Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Benjamin 1970) is the crucial pivot in these theories. Through an exploration of the expanding print technologies and the nascent cinema industry of the time, he develops an understanding of how the nature and meaning of images is produced, mediated, and transformed through the mechanics of their reproduction.

Benjamin's work touches on two aspects pertinent to this discussion, the first being the nature of an image's reproduction and dissemination. One of the key characteristics that Benjamin identified in mechanically reproduced artwork was its ability to offer itself for 'simultaneous collective experience', as architecture has always done, oral performance has done in the past, and, specific to Benjamin's discussions, cinema does. The thrust of Benjamin's argument, strongly situated in his political and social context at the time, is that such an ability allows the public to 'organise' their reception of, and response to, the artwork. The contemplation of the work becomes explicitly social, as opposed to the introspective contemplation promoted when one stands before the unique (authentic) work of the painter.

The infinite reproduction afforded by the interactivity of visualisations, and/or their mechanism of delivery, offers extreme potential for simultaneous collective experience. This interactivity also has an extreme impact upon the nature of the 'originality' of the work. The mechanics of interactivity re-invest the criterion of authorship with the viewer. Decisions about what to view, from what angle, at what speed and so on, are increasingly transferred from the producer to the consumer. What we see are works that, through the nature of their dissemination, are becoming dislocated from the social realms of their production, and where the authenticity that those realms represent are being reinvested in the viewer, through the nature of the interactivity of the media. This transfer of authorship is, to a degree, promoted by the technological (mechanical) nature of the images' creation. It is comparable to Benjamin's consideration of the work of Dadaists, who sought to destroy the aura of authenticity that surrounded the work of art, branding them 'as reproductions with the very means of production' (Benjamin 1970, 240). Digital visualisations are both created within, and sit within, a world that is easily manipulated; in that context they too are branded as reproductions by the nature of their production.

The second character of these visualisations, one that makes Benjamin's essay particularly pertinent, is their distinctly filmic nature. He was particularly concerned with how the dynamic nature of film affected its reception. The presentation of many digital visualisations, through both the nature of their production and the media of their reproduction, assumes the character of moving film. Indeed it is their ability to tap into such accepted visual codes that makes them such alluring tools. The dynamism of these images considerably alters the perception of them, in relation to static visualisations. The changes of place and focus which the spectators are subjected to (or subject themselves to) mean that the viewer cannot assess the image with the introspective contemplation allowed to the painting 'No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed' (Benjamin 1970, 240). In Benjamin's view, the moving image has, in a very physical sense, a 'shock' effect, an assault on the visual reception that forces the viewer to assess the images in new ways.

The presentation of these images in filmic ways also reiterates the technological character of their production. The illusionary nature of film, its ability to create virtual realms that are notable by the visible absence of the equipment by which they were made, is the result of the very permeation of that technical equipment throughout the production (i.e. in its photography and its editing) (Benjamin 1970, 235). It is the illusionary character of filmic imagery that feeds into the nature of the visualisations discussed here. Such a characteristic enables the objectification of the archaeological material through the technologically mediated separation from its production.

'The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology' (Benjamin 1970, 235)

This is significant as it is an implicit desocialising of the context of production. The creation of convincing realities necessarily involves the removal of the traces of those who created them from the final product. This in effect reiterates the way in which these technologically derived images desocialise their subjects, as discussed above - creating socially empty space both within and, conceptually, around the images.


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Last updated: Fri Jun 23 2000