The Art of Tamás Waliczky

Zentrum für Kunst und Medien digital arts edition 1. Karlsuhe: Zentrum für Kunst und Medien, 1988. (CD-ROM)

Tamás Waliczky: Focusing

Tamás Waliczky is among the few artists who have been working with and thinking about the computer for many years, long before it became fashionable, and this depth of involvement can be clearly seen in his works. In his new pieces — “Landscape,” “Sculpture,” “Focus,” the strategies that were already central to “The Garden” (1992), “The Forest” (1993) and “The Way” (1994) are further developed and new ones are being deployed; yet, taken together, these six works look like different experiments undertaken within a single research paradigm. That is to say, all of Waliczky’s works are the result of a single systematic aesthetic investigation.

The new media forces us to re-think every single one of our traditional aesthetic concepts, forms and techniques. What used to be a well-mapped territory is now an amorphous and ever-changing territory. Image and viewer, narrative and montage, illusion and representation, space and time — everything needs to be re-defined again. New media artist Tamás Waliczky systematically maps out a crucial part of post-computer aesthetic practices, creating new ways to structure the world and new ways to see it.

The interactions between the virtual camera and the virtual world form the main subject of Waliczky’s aesthetic research. Waliczky therefore is neither a virtual filmmaker who works only with images nor a virtual architect who works only with space. Rather, he can be described as a maker of virtual documentaries. In every one of his works, he creates a world structured in a unique way; and then he documents that world for us. In “Landscape,” time in this world has been frozen; in “Sculptures,” it consists of three-dimensional time-sculptures, while in “Focus,” we enter a world whose ontology is derived from the basic quality of a digital image, structured as a number of layers.

In his concern with ordering every world according to its own principle, Waliczky can be also compared to ancient cosmologists. Each of his worlds establishes a cosmology of its own, a unique logical system that governs all of its elements. In “The Forest” the world is like a mechanical clock or a system of planets, with all the elements continuously moving according to a complex set of rules, while in “Landscape” the world is immobile, fixed once and for all. Therefore, although all of Waliczky’s works are concerned with the same aesthetic problem, they are also fundamentally different from each other, because each world is structured in its own unique way.

One of the trajectories in the computerization of culture involves the gradual translation of the elements and techniques of cinematic perception and language into a decontextualized set of tools to be used as an interface to any data. For instance, in the last decade, the cinematic camera became as much of an interface convention as scrollable windows or cut-and-paste functions. A camera-like interface became an accepted way for interacting with any data represented in three dimensions — which, in computer culture, means literally everything: from the results of a physical simulation to architectural sites; the design of a new molecule; financial data; the structure of a computer network, and so on. As computer culture is gradually spatializing all representations, they become subjected to the camera’s particular grammar of data access: zoom, tilt, pan and track.(I develop this analysis in more detail in “Cinema as a Cultural Interface,” In Arresting Movements: From Pre-Cinema to DigitalCulture, edited by Jan Olsson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.)

In the process of this translation, cinematic perception is divorced from its original material embodiment (camera, film stock), as well as from the historical contexts of its formation. If in cinema the camera functioned as a material object, co-existing, spatially and temporally, with the world it was showing us, it has now become a set of abstract operations. Waliczky’s works, however, refuse this separation of cinematic vision from the material world. They reunite perception and material reality by treating the camera and the world as parts of a single system.

In Waliczky’s earlier films, rather than simply subjecting these virtual worlds to different types of perspectival projection, the artist modified the spatial structure of the worlds themselves. In “The Garden,” a child playing in a garden becomes the center of the world; as he moves around, the actual geometry of all the objects around him is transformed, with objects getting bigger as he gets close to them. To create “The Forest,” a number of cylinders were placed inside each other, each cylinder mapped with a picture of a tree, repeated a number of times. In the film, we see a camera moving through this endless static forest in a complex spatial trajectory — but this is an illusion. In reality, the camera does move, but the architecture of the world is constantly changing as well, because each cylinder is rotating at its own speed. As a result, the world and its perception are fused together.

In Waliczky’s more recent works, the camera and the world similarly function together to create a single gestalt. Even more distinctly than before, Waliczky’s virtual camera operates not only as a tool of perception but also as a tool of epistemology, putting its author within the modernist artistic traditions of filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. In fact, without the operations of the camera, the structure of Waliczky’s worlds would remain hidden for us. Thus, Waliczky’s cosmologies are distinctly post-cinematic: their structure can only be revealed by actions of a virtual camera. In “Landscape,” without the camera’s movement we would not be able to discover that when time is stopped, the result is not simply an interruption in the familiar structure of our world but a creation of a new distinctly different one. In “Sculptures,” the camera passes through time-sculptures at different speeds and angles, revealing new temporal and spatial relationships which otherwise would remain invisible. In “Focus,” we ourselves are given the camera’s controls (focus, aperture and zoom) to uncover a space whose topology corresponds to a network of human relations. In Waliczky’s aesthetic universe, the camera and the world cannot exist without each other, and their interactions always result in new and surprising discoveries.

“Focus”

“Focus” represents an important new development in Waliczky’s art: it is the first work designed from the ground up to be interactive.(Previously Waliczky adopted one of his computer films, “Forest” for a CD-ROM and also turned it into an interactive installation.) If before Waliczky scripted camera movements according to a world’s particular cosmology, gradually revealing its structure in a series of poetic moves, he now seems to give up the role of a filmmaker, satisfied with being an architect instead. And just as with real physical architecture which can only be understood by actively moving through its spaces, engaging with its volumes and textures, the virtual architecture of “Focus” can only be discovered through an act of exploration. (In this way, Waliczky gives an original interpretation to the always problematic concept of interactivity: a user’s interactions with a computer screen are equated with an exploration of an architectural space.)

Of course, Waliczky the filmmaker did not really disappear; in fact, he is present more than ever. The very interface of “Focus” is modeled after the camera, with focus, F-stop and zoom being three possible operations. Moreover, “Focus” painstakingly re-creates and in fact exaggerates the unique artifact of camera vision — its limited depth of field. And it is this artifact which allows us to uncover the structure of the world of “Focus.”

This world is a composite photograph which contains Waliczky’s friends and colleagues — his human network, so to speak. The people are framed by buildings on both sides (in this the composition of “Focus” is similar to the layout of Waliczky’s earlier computer film, “The Way”). By setting the F-stop control to the lowest number and clicking somewhere in the image, a single person comes into focus. Increase the F-stop and more people will come into focus, more of the network will become visible. Each group contains people which are related to each other, close friends or relatives.

As in his previous works, Waliczky again creates a distinct world in “Focus” with a unique ontology that can only be revealed through the operations of a camera. In this case, the network of human relations can only be uncovered by repeatedly re-focusing the camera and adjusting the F-stop. Getting rid of the camera interface will reveal the whole scene but will rob it of its meaning: the network of people becomes a random crowd. Paradoxically, in order to see the world better, to uncover its structure and meaning, we need not to increase but rather to dramatically limit the bandwidth of our perception; we need to learn how to focus on only a few things at a time. But has not that always been the lesson of art?

One of the remarkable qualities of Waliczky’s art is its systematic engagement with the fundamental assumptions and defaults of new media technologies. Waliczky’s works foreground these defaults, pointing at their larger ontological, epistemological and ideological meanings; while at the same time deriving their meanings and aesthetics from them. One of these defaults is a linear one-point perspective. In the early 1960’s the newly emerging field of computer graphics incorporated a linear one-point perspective in 3-D software, and later directly in hardware.(See my “Automation of Sight from Photography to Computer Vision.” In Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, edited by Timothy Druckery and Michael Sand. New York: Aperture, 1996.) As a result, linear perspective became the default mode of vision in digital culture, be it computer animation, computer games, visualization or virtual worlds. Waliczky openly refuses this way of seeing imposed by computer software. Each of his computer films, from “The Garden” to “The Forest” and “The Way” utilizes a particular perspectival system: a water-drop perspective in “The Garden;” a cylindrical perspective in “The Forest,” and a reverse perspective in “The Way.” Working with computer programmers, the artist created custom-made 3-D software to implement these perspectival systems. Each of the systems has a particular and integral relationship to the subject of the film in which it is used. In “The Garden,” its subject is the experience of a small child, for whom the world does not yet have an objective existence. In “The Forest,” the mental trauma of emigration is transformed into the endless roaming of a camera through the forest which is actually just a set of transparent cylinders. Finally, in the “The Way,” the self-sufficiency and isolation of a Western subject from his/her environment are conveyed by the use of reverse perspective. In “The Way,” Waliczky also foregrounds and gives meaning to another default of new media technologies: the typical sterility of 3-D computer animation, its familiar cold and non-human “computer look” becomes a perfect metaphor for the sterility and regularity of Western society.

“Focus” takes up another fundamental default of new media: the organization of an image as a number of layers. As defined by all computer software, regardless of whether it is made for consumer or professional markets; for the manipulation of digital photographs or synthetic 3-D renderings, or for dealing with still or moving images, a digital image consists of a number of separate layers, each layer containing particular visual elements. (Imagine a stack of glass plates, with different objects painted on each plate. If you look at the stack head on you will see a single image, composed from all these objects.) Throughout the production process, artists and designers manipulate each layer separately; they also delete layers and add new ones. Keeping each element as a separate layer allows the content and the composition of an image to be changed at any point: deleting a background, substituting one person for another, moving two people closer together, blurring an object, and so on. Thus, although digital images more often than not emulate images in traditional media — painting, photography, and film — ontologically they are quite different. Rather than being continuous, a digital image is fundamentally discrete, like a sentence which consists of separate words. (Thus, media technology has answered the long-standing semiotic question of whether images function as a language by turning them into one, for the sake of industrial efficiency.)

Waliczky uses the fundamental characteristic of digital imagery to generate the world of “Focus.” He created a single Photoshop image with ninety eight layers, each layer containing a photograph of a person or a building. But rather than eventually collapsing all the layers into a single image, the way it is done in commercial design, and thus disregarding the new ontology of a digital image, Waliczky preserved it all the way through. The discrete structure of a composite image became translated into the discrete space of “Focus,” where each person or building exist on a separate plane and thus can be separately selected, or, to use the interface metaphor of the work, “focused” on. In fact, whenever the user clicks on any object in the scene, the bottom slider adjusts to show which of the ninety eight levels is selected.

In “Focus,” the new ontology of a digital image gives rise to a new ontology of the world itself. This is the world there everybody exists on their own plane, in their own private universe, yet, and this is Waliczky’s intervention into the default discreteness of a digital world, these discrete selves do indeed form one human network, one image, one big composite photograph. But it takes the remarkable artistry of Tamás Waliczky to see and to capture this image.

Notes

1 I develop this analysis in more detail in “Cinema as a Cultural Interface,” In Arresting Movements: From Pre-Cinema to Digital Culture, edited by Jan Olsson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

2 Previously Waliczky adopted one of his computer films, “Forest” for a CD-ROM and also turned it into an interactive installation.

3 See my “Automation of Sight from Photography to Computer Vision.” In Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, edited by Timothy Druckery and Michael Sand. New York: Aperture, 1996.

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