Friday, November 23, 2007


Imagine three frames, each on a wall, with essentially the same view of a landscape through them. The first is a window in a house, the second is a painting, and the third is a window on a theatrical stage.

In the case of the real window, the world seen through the window is in fact three-dimensional, and one can assume that clues in this window to what lies beyond the line of sight of the person inside will be largely confirmed in fact: a view of downtown New York will not be replaced by a view of rural Vermont if you stick your head out and look off to the left.

In the case of the painting, one can assume there was a model for the painting: what one sees is a fiction based on visual documentation. But even as a work of fiction, the conventions of landscape painting imply that if one could stick one's head through the picture-plane as if it were a window, one would have the same effect as above: the fictional landscape seen in the picture continues past the "window," while the painting itself probably doesn't continue much past the edge of the frame.

In the third case, a scene seen through a window in a stage-set, the set designer is portraying something similar to the first instance, but the portrayal is only as good as it needs to be to fool the audience. Beyond the sightlines of the audience, the backdrop with landscape painted on it is left unpainted, such that an actor looking through the window could clearly see the edge of the artwork, even the edge of the surface the painting was made on. The character that actor plays, however, has fictionally the same experience as the first viewer.

This framing effect, implying a world past what we can see, is basic to "realistic" arts in all their forms. Characters arriving into a scene in a movie or play in mid-conversation imply there actually was a conversation before we heard it. An apartment in a novel or an interior decorator's plan is assumed to be part of a larger building. A person whose mug-shot we see is assumed to actually have a torso.

And territory mapped is assumed to continue past the edge of the map.

The set designer, the landscape painter, and the cartographer are very much aware that their work is creating an illusion of continuity past the picture-frame, while the user does not need to be aware of the falsity of this illusion and in fact needs to ignore it in order to use the picture/set/map as it is intended. I'm thinking this is a major (the major?) divide between creator and user. More on that divide next time.


Joe Banks said...

The other part to all three of these examples is that ultimately they are "sensed" in exactly the same way -- projected through a lens, onto a retina, and turned into electro-chemical signals .. after which we don't really know how they work.

That "framework" may be the most important one ... the one happening in our wetware. It's the one that lets us willingly suspend disbelief long enough to invent a back-story for the brief snippet of action being acted before us, to fill in the landscape beyond the frame, to remember what is just out of sight from where we're sitting at the window.

I wonder ... what is the architecture, the painting, the play that shows us the edges of the frame, not just the ones of canvas, scrim or whatnot -- the edges of our own frames ....

natcase said...

Hi Joe! good to have you on board. You are right that the "wetware" is what determines our understanding/response to each window.

Where I'm trying to head is an understanding of how the mental processes involved in successfully constructing each window relate to the mental processes in the audiences/viewers of the three windows.

I'm not sure where you are heading in the last 'graph. Could you explicate?

joe banks said...

Good to be buzzing in a harmonic frequency with you again, Nat! These things have been rolling around a lot in my head recently ...

... and in our heads are stories, diagrams, re-membered narratives, voices, rules, and a lot of other stuff that constitutes our mental framework. When we get new input (say, from light bouncing off a window, a painting, or a play set onto our retinas), we try to make relationships between what is being projected on our eyeballs and the mass of "stuff." The input contradicts, informs, shapes, adds to our "stuff," but more importantly it shapes and reshapes our mental frame.

Every now and again, we come up against something that shows us the "frame-ness" of the way we are considering something. Optical illusions. Kurt Goedell's theorum of incompleteness. A zen koan. A phone call from someone we thought was dead.

When this happens unexpectedly, the result is simply that we don't actually perceive what really happened. It's the reason that truely magickal acts are usually accompanied by nausea, fear, or simply amnesia -- to take them in seriously messes with our framework.

The result can also be a kind of polytheist range of frames -- like when early Christians came to preach to the people of Goa, and the people loved Jesus; put his picture right next to Shiva, and encorporated this new manifestation of God.

I know that not everyone wants to encounter the edges of their frame, and i wouldn't insist that the creations we've been talking about have to do that either. I love listening to Harry Potter, for instance, the most frame-ful narrative (for 21st Century America at least), listening to the Ramones, etc.

However, (with a nod to Edward Tufte), there is a certain sincerity, clarity and integrity to delineating not only what we can usefully show (or talk about, or ...) but also where the limits (edge of the frame) are of that medium.

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