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Screenscapes Past Present Future

Chris Chesher, Peter Marks, Kathy Cleland

The proliferation of screens represents a signature feature of modern and contemporary life. Screens located on computer, cinema, television or mobile platforms offer possibilities for entertainment, communication, art, manipulation and monitoring, creating new forms of identity, community, expression and social control. These developments in turn have created a rich and rapidly changing set of research initiatives within and across academic fields. In late 2007 the University of Sydney held the Screenscapes Past Present Future conference to consider these issues and changes. Participants came from China, Germany, the United States, England, New Zealand and Australia, and the keynote speakers were Professors Lev Manovich (University of California at San Diego), Sean Cubitt (University of Melbourne) and David Trotter (University of Cambridge). The conference offered a space for examining the creation of screen communities and identities, the remediation of screen technology into other cultural forms, the history and future of screen technology, aesthetics, audiences, developments in mobile platforms, and the use of screens in visual and data surveillance. Most of the articles in this issue were presented as Screenscape papers before being expanded and refined for publication.

In For a History of Black Sean Cubitt investigates the physiological, technological and cultural problems associated with the (non-) colour black. As the complete absence of colour, black is an ideal that is never actualised, says Cubitt. The representation of black operates differently in different media. In many contexts, such as low-light cinema, early television and new media art, artists have made creative use of the limitations and artefacts of how production technologies handle black. Cubitt's detailed media history connects questions of aesthetics with the physiology of perception and industrial changes.

Teresa Rizzo’s YouTube: The New Cinema of Attractions draws parallels between the early history of cinema - specifically Tom Gunning’s description of the early ‘cinema of attractions’- and the emerging visual cultures and practices of YouTube. Rizzo argues that much of the user-generated content on the video-sharing website YouTube has features in common with the non-narrative forms of early cinema, in particular, a tendency towards exhibitionistic forms of display and self-promotion. In this new Web 2.0 realm of user-generated content, spectators become media-savvy creative producers and enter into dialogic relationships with each other through networks of feedback comments and video responses.

Contemporary screen culture is characterised by dramatic variations in screen scale: from portable devices such as the iPod and PSP, through larger and larger televisions to cinema screens in megaplexes and IMAX screens as big as a house. Alex Munt looks at the creative responses by filmmakers to these changes in screen size in S.M.L.XL: Feature Film Across the Screenscape. For example, the diversified contexts for displaying films have been exploited by the producers of the film Four Eyed Monsters, who posted the film to YouTube, and sold it for download. Munt shows that the shifting contexts of screen culture are apparent in the film itself, with an autobiographical narrative featuring relationships mediated through computers, mobile devices and pop culture references. Munt also explores how art house directors such as Soderbergh and Lars von Trier, as well as megaplex blockbusters such as Casino Royale and Mission Impossible III, have changed spectacle and narrative in the context of changing screen ecologies.

In Voice, Image, Television: Beckett’s Divided Screens Julian Murphet makes the case for a ‘modernist moment’ in 70s television culture, arguing for Samuel Beckett as its great (if somewhat surprising) exemplar. Murphet suggests that the persistence of black and white televisions in British and American living rooms in the 1960s and 1970s at the same time as colour television’s rise to dominance, maps on to a more generally accepted pattern for the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. Through a close of analysis of Beckett’s works for television, Murphet reveals that such pieces as Eh Joe illustrate a televisual modernism that has mostly gone unrecorded by critics. More specifically, in terms of the writer’s creative practice, Murphet examines how through his work for television Beckett methodically investigates the possibilities and limitations of the medium, and in doing so unclogs aesthetic blockages that had beset his own work.

Rod Taveira’s James Ellroy’s Cinematic Crime Writing: From “Stephanie” to My Dark Places refocuses attention to the cinema screen and its complex relationships with literature. Taveira explores how Ellroy’s constant use of the cinematic and criminal milieux of Hollywood and Los Angeles is informed by a parallel approach, that of the ‘Man Camera’ (The Big Nowhere, James Ellroy, 1988) in which the “detective’s eyes become lenses that use cinematic practices—zoom, freeze, scale—to recreate the crime scene,” or when what is ‘screened’ literally is the perpetrator’s viewpoint. Taveira tracks correspondences and contrasts across a series of Ellroy’s texts, noting, for example, the ‘predatory optic’ operating in “Stephanie”, as part of a more general argument that Ellroy’s work is the realisation of cinematic literature.

In Surveillance Screens and Screening in Code 46 Peter Marks uses Michael Winterbottom’s edgy film to explore the prospects of surveillance in the near future, and the various ways in which screens play their parts. He explains how utopias offer illuminating thought experiments through which current developments in surveillance can be tracked, extrapolated and critically analysed. CCTV and computer screens provide the aptly named monitors on and through which surveillance takes place, but Marks extends the idea of screens to include forms of filters, borders and barriers that demarcate spaces, allow and deny access, create hierarchies, and maintain power structures. Code 46 exemplifies the intersection of surveillance and medical advances, showing how discrimination now can take place below the surface of our bodies, placing our genes, our identity and our relationship with others under new and still largely unconsidered forms of scrutiny.

From Big to Little Screens: Recurring Images of Democratic Credibility and the Net by Mark Rolfe examines the recent political uses of the internet to evaluate the extent to which these can be considered meaningful innovations in democracy. He argues that more than fostering public participation, most politicians’ uses of social software, wikis, blogs and video sharing have served simply as displays of credibility. In this way, Rolfe sees the significance of recent technological developments as echoing earlier political uses of telegraph, radio and aeroplane. Rather than bringing revolutionary changes to deliberative democracy, he says, the internet is better considered as a change that has become part of the continuing conversations of discursive democracy.