Kinaesthetic Screens

Tim Alves

In the development of screen-based art and its theory over the decades since the mid-twentieth century, there have been continual propositions made towards bodily and kinaesthetic sensibilities of the medium. However, the visual experience of screen artworks continually seems to reassert itself in this narrative. Screen-based art that circulates within the gallery exhibition context seems to inadvertently default to prioritise vision and visual experiences, even though kinaesthetic perception is ever engaged in screen-based art.

The visual sensory system has a certain prestige in comparison to other senses. This prestige of vision has recently been confirmed by research in the field of sensory integration psychology. When there are incongruences in the perceptual field, vision is the sense on which we rely. Our senses don’t work in isolation. Our brains combine multiple sensory stimuli to form coherent perceptions. We no longer describe perception in terms of the five well-known sense organs—eyes, ears, etc. Instead, we identify sensory receptors that are sensitive to light, temperature, pain, chemicals and movement. Various distinct sensory systems provide precepts from our body. The proprioceptive system, for instance, provides us with our own kinaesthetic self-awareness.

The word kinaesthetic literally means movement sense. Incidentally, the German word for a cinema is derived from the same etymology. There has been productive discussion on various somatosensory affect and experience in the development of screen art. Art historian Ursula Frohne has described a development of visceral experiences produced by screen-based art over the decades since the 1960s, outlining a development from video art displayed on television screens with sculptural material coherency in gallery spaces; to the use of closed-circuit videos and monitors provoking viewers to act; through to large screens, black boxes and immersive experiences. The thrust of this account is a progressive dissolve of the visual framing coordinates of screen-based art.

Another art historian, Kate Mondloch, describes a similar shift in relation to screen artist Michael Snow’s practice. This shift proceeds from video art that is framed within the diegetic space of the screen to hybrid media artwork combining screen and installation. For instance, Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story, made in the late 1960s, projects two views filmed in opposite directions from the same point on two sides of a thin screen. Spectators can only see one side at a time and need to walk around to view both. Two Sides to Every Story entails an ‘ambulatory’ experience of viewing, says Mondloch. From both Frohne and Mondloch’s accounts, the screen can be articulated in relation to a spectator’s body. But these ideas can be developed further in relation to a kinaesthetic approach.

These days, seminal experiments in screen-based art from mid last century are easily accessible on the web. One can watch important artworks by any number of significant artists (including Snow) any time. Films from the 1960s that operate within the screen diegesis could be suitable for the small computer screen—if one doesn’t mind poor image quality. However, screen-based artworks that engage spectators in time and in situ seem to need mediation by some secondary documentation. A second camera mediates an ambulatory experience as a kind of first-person perspective of a situation of watching film—a strange partial gesture. We are witnessing the return of the small screen of Frohne’s history in the form of Google Video Search. The computer screen may now entail a different type of movement sense. It may operate from a perspective similar to art historian David Joselit’s concept of the velocity of contemporary art. Velocity describes artworks’ capacities of cultural penetration, reproducibility and circulation. In this sense velocity supposes a kind of non-somatic kinaesthetic. Associations that can be made from this re-emphasis of the kinaesthetic could include a sense of the currency of art based in an ethos pertaining to movements and appearances.

Perhaps Giorgio Agamben’s 1992 essay “Notes on Gesture” is relevant here. Agamben describes an ambulatory gate as a gesture in motion. This gesture extends an aesthetic binary of making and acting beyond inherent means and ends. Gesture defines a type of purposeful act that is neither a productive process nor intended towards end results. “The gesture”, Agamben says, “opens the sphere of the ethos.” Here, the kinaesthetic sense of his argument can be emphasised. Walking is an embodied gesture but Agamben describes images as gestures as well. Artworks may be film stills or parts of a larger cinematic dynamics. In his example even Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas could be a fragment or gesture from a mythic film that if seen would explain the painting’s full significance. As an aside, it is interesting that Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno used the collection of the Museo Nacional del Prado as the storyboard for their highly kinaesthetic film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. The film observes the movements of the captain of the French soccer team Zinedine Zidane for an entire match. Zidane can be enjoyed via Google Video Search.

This thought returns back to the diegetic small screen. Screen-based art on this web-based platform might present kinaesthetic subject matter but it returns to a visual sensibility in spectators’ engagements. Rudolf Arnheim, though, argued that vision is predicated on prior experience based in kinaesthetic stimulus. In the 1960s, Arnheim reminded us that vision lacks any actual depth: the pupils of our eyes focus light onto photoreceptors that convert it into electrochemical signals, so, by its nature, vision is constrained to two dimensions only. One cannot comprehend a sphere through vision alone. However, kinaesthetic experiences interpret this two-dimensional stimulus to provide a conceptual experience of the three-dimensional world.

Movement is the key. Mid-twentieth century theories of perception that accounted for movement in time include concepts of optical flows. Psychologist James Gibson once wrote “the field is everywhere alive with motion when the observer moves.” We subjectively frame sequences of patterns from instant to instant, providing movement-based spatial precepts. Visual perception of movement continually reorganise our subjective spatial experiences. Among the various optical flows, radial flow describes a visual experience of straightforward movement towards a vanishing point whereas laminar flow describes a movement like shaking one’s head.

In the 1970s, theorist and video artist Malcolm Le Grice was attentive to the spatial implications of camera movement in his commentary on Snow’s film Back and Forth. The entire film shows inside a room while the camera makes rapid partial semi-circular rotations on its axis. The effect is a giddying abstract space that blurs and compresses. Schemas of linear perspective lose consistency as the camera’s picture is stripped of identifiable aspects. The linear perspective-like model of vision seems redundant when considering the spatial coordinates of kinaesthetic perception and the aesthetics of velocity. Recently, artist Hito Steyerl has also observed a decrease in the importance of linear perspective to vision. She claims that we are in a state of transition toward other visual paradigms. The perspective-based portrayal of our visual sense of the world is paradigmatically changing. However, without perspective one lacks access the conceptual bearing that guides even our sense of self.

For instance, there is a flight instruction video on YouTube that advises aviators to be aware of vestibular illusions. The vestibular sensory system, in our inner ear, gives us our sense of balance and movement. Aviators risk misinterpreting various dynamics of orientation. For instance, he or she may confuse changes in acceleration with changes in aircraft pitch. By compensating for mere illusion they can fly an aircraft off course. As anyone who has experienced flying through clouds knows, the conditions of flying can impede visual perception. Vestibular perception works in conjunction with vision. It orients vision. It stabilises our eyes when we move our head. However, in contexts where vision is compromised, interpreting vestibular perceptions proves hazardous.

It is the screen-based artworks that manage to disorient the spectator simply with the gestures on the screen—such as Snow’s fast repetition of side-to-side motion—that best indicate the importance of out kinaesthetic engagement. Spinning, vrooming and headache-causing artworks seem to extricate our bodies from our visual engagement, rendering void the stimuli they provide. They highlight the partiality of vision through presenting forms that are difficult to recognise.

Tim Alves is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Art and Design at Monash University, and a curator at Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.