One thing I noticed in the concept drawing of the lab (HUMlab, second section of the main campus lab) I discussed in the first part of this series is that there is an angled screen there. I use ‘angled screen’ (or ‘screens’) to refer to two or more adjacent screens set at an angle (not a flat surface, but an angled one with a distinct break between screens). Essentially frames have an angle too unless they lie flat against the wall (built in) or you see them at a distance. This small, infrastructurally focused and exploratory piece is about screens, angles and infrastructure (and not primarily about people and specific projects enacted using the infrastructure).
The above setup was never implemented in this exact way because the university decided to make space for an emergency exit (which they told us at a late stage) that changed the size of the space and made us reconsider the setup (although most of the original concept was kept). Looking at the three-part configuration above, I am not quite sure that this concept makes sense in that the left-most screen (of the three) does not seem to be connected to the other two screens. This setup was partly determined by the pillar. The angle would make it difficult to see all three screens at the same time unless you were standing far back in the space.
The basic idea was to have a multiplex setup instead of a very large, single screen. Offsetting screens in this way creates two (or more) distinct, but closely integrated surfaces. They speak to each other (at least the two right-most screens in this example) and encourage different types of arguments to be made compared to having a single screen or two screens juxtaposed (e.g. on a single wall with space in between) without the angle. The angle accentuates the frame and the screens as separate entities.
And the whole screenscape depends on angles (also beyond the three-screen setup) and different lines of sight, as can be seen in the below rendering from the final implementation of the same space. Pillars and corners are used as angled spaces to create a screenscape that includes most of the space, but not all of it. Nooks were created through the positioning of the screens (and using the contours suggested by the placement of the pillars).
It is not necessary to set screens at an angle to create meaningful framing different from having a single screen. If you place several screens next to each other on the same flat wall they manifest a different set of opportunities compared to a single screen setup. The practice in art history to use two projectors and screens is not dependent on angling the two screens, but rather the separate juxtaposed frames create a contrastive effect and a different viewing pattern than having a large central screen with two windows with the “same” content. Putting two or many images on the same screen is not the same thing as deploying them in individual frames. Statements like the following (by Lev Manovich, from here) seem to put too little emphasis on the epistemic tradition and the function of the framing.
However, if 20th century technologies only allowed for a comparison between a small number of artifacts at the same time – for example, the standard lecturing method in art history was to use two slide projectors to show and discuss two images side by side – we can now compare multitudes of images by displaying them simultaneously on a computer screen.
It is true, however, that there is a qualitative difference between being able to juxtapose a couple of images on different screens and throwing up hundreds of them on the same single (large) screen. There are few infrastructures that allow simultaneous display of hundreds of individually framed images (albeit there might be art installations and crowd use of mobile devices that would do this).
Also, it is possible to create visual and material breaks through working with the orientation of screens and the way single screens are configured. In the below example from HUMlab, I wanted to play with the contrast between landscape and portrait modes, and also to the positioning of the screens on the wall. In this photo the screenscape was used for a conference on digital humanities.
The right-most screen shows a still shot (of Cathy Davidson) rather than a live feed. Already this simple example shows that that portrait and landscape give very different impressions in relation to bringing people in. I also wanted two or three projectors on the opposite wall to allow duplication of images, but also different kinds of experimental modalities (e.g. a shadow of someone, another view from the space, free data on the back wall and focused data views on the four screens). We ended up installing two short-range projects. .
I was lucky enough to work with a great group of people to make this happen, and also to help make another, far more complex HUMlab environment come true. This display environment invokes angles most clearly through the combination of the floor screen and the triptych screen. The triptych screen has an internal (angled although along the same wall) configuration which makes it different from a regular, rectangular screen. This was a way of creating a three-part configuration alongside a wall. Another, even more complex configuration would have been to let the side parts angle inwards/hang off the main panel (like some types of triptych altarpieces).
There is also a quality to the the triptych screen which I have always thought important – the fact that it stands out some from the wall five-six inches or so. It is not a part of the wall.
But even with this much screen estate, it can make sense to have have more screens. Screens are flat surfaces and for instance, we rarely give them depth through layering them materially (through putting post-its on them. Also the flatness of screens on a wall or facing us in front of takes away some expressive, spatial and narrative possibilities.
Bringing remote people in this way usually works well (in this case Lisa Parks and Todd Presner) and it is critical to have separate screens for them. I strongly believe in the power of letting those remote presences having their own screens and also not always being flat on the wall.
What is also important to think about (and is easily forgotten) is what information and sense of presence are given to the remote participants. Just using one webcam (to allow a view of the audience) is not good enough, particularly not if you have several remote people present at the same time.
Below is an example of having a group of remote participants be present at the same time. Here the roundedness of this part of the screenscape (the space discussed first in this piece) is really useful for bringing in people digitally.
The blank screen is a mobile screen brought in to allow one participant to show some slides. Curatorship is critical making something like this work (here done expertly by Molly Wright Steenson).
When planning HUMlab-X on the Arts Campus one of the first concrete ideas was a display studio (I talked to the Institute of Design about this at a very early stage in the planning). When moving ahead in the planning process, I made sure we had space for this function.
As can be seen above, a rectangular space was set aside for this function (top-right most part of the blueprint). When the lab was built we started doing work on the outside spaces and infrastructure mostly, and we left the display studio to a later stage. When starting to think about this again and seeing the space, I became more and more skeptical about the planned setup. I was sure it would be effective in some ways and with stereo projection, the space would be quite useful for certain kinds of visualization and certainly impressive, but it simply did not seem to be interesting enough conceptually. A large, rectangular screen is the default thing to do, and I also sensed that the space would become too much of a movie theater setup. It did not provide a conceptual and material challenge, and I was interested in a more active space and in something that related to the ideas about intellectual middleware we had started to explore more in depth.
I discussed these issues with Erica Robles-Anderson when I was in New York City on a business trip talking to people about space and infrastructure. In an evening meeting, Robles-Anderson and myself started to talk about angled screens and I drew this sketch on a napkin.
The basic idea was to rethink the space through providing angled two-screen setup, where the two screens would be in conversation with each other. This would enable a critical commentary on platforms and systems that normally exist only by themselves (notably 3D enactments, virtual reconstructions, games and to some degree websites). One of the screens was planned to be a high-resolution stereo projection screen and the other one a more traditional 2D screen placed at angle in relation to first screen. the way this concept eventually turned out almost fully reflect to angle represented in the napkin drawing.
We produced a number of digital sketches in the process (expertly made by Mattis Lindmark). Johan Von Boer, brilliant technologist, suggested implementing the tall right-hand screen through two tilted projectors. Below is one of the sketches produced in the process (running Rome Reborn at the same time as enacting a dynamic critical commentary on the right-hand side).
The idea was that differently shaped screens allow presenters to provide different vantages on the same information, with attention to the disjunctures between these visions. The display studio is still in its infancy, but provides a unique and exciting infrastructure to critically explore the single-framedness and insular platformness of much of current digital representations.
Below a simple example of early use of the display studio can be seen. The context was a graduate course in digital humanities where I did a session on the digital humanities. The focus was partly a discussion of the digital and the humanities parts of the digital humanities. The angle is all-important to make this point.
The next installation in this series of blog posts will deal with software systems used to produce content for alternative presentation environments.
One of the tools we produced in HUMlab can be seen above. This is an idea – based on humanistic research about presentations and space – that I was fortunate enough to implement with a group of first-rate technologists (Roger Mähler, Johan Von Boer and Mattis Lindmark) into a tool for generic use in the lab. It will be featured in the next post alongside a number of other tools and systems.
Images credits (unless specified): Patrik Svensson and HUMlab, Umeå University.
Some of the development of early HUMlab infrastructure is described in this piece.
Svensson, Patrik. 2015. “Presentation|Tech (III): Angled Screens”, Published on September 29, 2015. http://patriksv.net/2015/09/presentationtech-angled-screens-iii/.