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The current explosion and transformation of screens paradoxically brings about the reappearance of these older meanings. New media expand the screen’s function beyond the optical. Surveillance cameras provide protection and defence, their very display functions defining differences between inside and outside, security and insecurity. In retrieving information, computers filter vast reservoirs of data by combining a user’s query with a search engine’s secretive algorithms. Hand-held devices enable users to create existential bubbles in which they can find intimacy and refuge in any range of situations. Global Positioning Systems parse territory and identify the right routes. Digital interfaces underline the separation between two worlds, and maintain control over the passages between them. Illuminated digital façades promise to make buildings more conspicuous and responsive, while also hiding and dissimulating their underlying structures from view. Screens have again become filters, shelters, divides, and means of camouflage. They remain surfaces that display images and data, yet their opticality has been deeply affected by their reference to, and connection with, and intervention into the various spaces they inhabit.

In the project and its forthcoming book, Screen Genealogies: From Optical Device to Environmental Media (Amsterdam University Press, 2019) a range of objects that we might not typically think of in terms of screens are theorized in these terms. These include such things as Casetti returning to Siegfried Kracauer’s description of the film screen as the polished shield of Athena. To conceive of the screen as a shield is to understand it as something that reflects the world but which also protects the hero from being destroyed by the deadly gaze of medusa, opening up the screen’s latent status as a site of spatial conflicts within film theory. It includes Yuriko Furuhata’s analysis of smoke screens in terms of past and contemporary geo-engineering, in particular the link between Nakaya Fujiko’s fog environments at the Pepsi pavilion at Osaka 70, and its relationship to efforts by her father to create artificial weather during wartime military research. It includes Buckley’s effort to outline a genealogy of the media façade, one which does not begin with new lighting technologies and advertisement in the 1970s, but with a much older dialectical conflict over the façade’s role as a facial media between inside and outside. It also includes recent work by Noam Elcott on the media archaeology of screen formats and by Nanna Verhoeff on the “spectatorial territories” created by recent interactive screen projects for public spaces.

To borrow a notion from the philosopher and historian of science Ian Hacking: screens today are not only devices of representation but also devices for intervening in the world. Such an approach aims to rediscover the history of screens in places where we don’t expect to find them; it also seeks to comprehend the ways in which an optical understanding of the screen came to dominate other historical possibilities.

To approach screens genealogically means that something other than looking back to the find “origins,” “precursors,” or “anticipations,” which has been the focus of much media archaeology to date. Rather it would insist that screens are never pre-existing objects nor are they the inventions of particular individuals or groups. What is essential is to highlight the processes and struggles where a set of technologies, spaces, spectators, and operations come together in order to become a screen. A surface becomes a screen through an arrangement of apparatuses and by virtue of the struggle between forces and practices. What is always at stake is an ensemble of elements—an assemblage—characterized by certain dispositions and sustaining certain types of operations. A genealogy of the screen would thus emphasize processes of transformation and emergence, rather than moments of invention or historical culmination.

Craig Buckley, Rüdiger Campe, and Francesco Casetti.

The book Screen Genealogies: From Optical Device to Environmental Media is published with Amsterdam University Press in 2019 and available online.

Marina Otero Verzier, Director of Research, Katía Truijen, Senior Researcher and Delany Boutkan, Researcher
Koos Breen and Jeannette Slütter
Koos Breen
Tanja Busking
Shay Kreuger