CIHA London 2000.
Thirtieth International Congress of the History of Art
Art History for the Millenium: Time.
Section 23
Digital Art History Time
London, 3-8 September 2000

 Karin Wagner <>, doktorand, Konstvetenskapliga institutionen, Göteborgs universitet.


Postadress: Box 200, 405 30 Göteborg.
Besöksadress: Dicksonsgatan 2 031-7732781. Fax nr. 031-7732790.


Beyond the surface?
Art and QuickTime VR.

 © each author has full responsibility in owning copyright on the texts and on the images they publish on this website


The purpose of my demonstrations is to discuss how a virtual reality technology like QuickTime VR can be used to create and make us experience artworks. I have chosen two examples to analyse, both are published on www. The first example is John Singleton Copley´s Watson and the Shark and I will analyse the way it is featured by National Gallery of Art, Washington, on their web site. As a contrast I will examine Room, an artwork made by Synnöve Almer when she was a student at "Internet as a means for artistic expression", a summer course given in 1998 at Valand School of Fine Arts in Göteborg.


What is QuickTime VR?

It is one of several technologies for making and showing panorama images that can be viewed on a common personal computer. VR stands for virtual reality, which means that the viewer is immersed in a 3D-image environment. (The panoramic image and immersive environments were not invented in our digital time. These are old phenomena that have a long history dating back to the renaissance. Read more about it in Dr. Oliver Grau contribution to the conference. Looking at an image on a computer screen does not allow the viewer to be immersed in the image in the proper sense of the word, but can nevertheless offer some of the features of virtual reality. A QuickTime VR panorama image is made of several stills that are stitched together and adjusted to create a cylindrical space in which the viewer can move around 360 degrees with the help of the cursor. You can also zoom in and out of the picture by pressing keys on the keyboard. But whatever you do, you cannot move away from the point of departure, the point where the camera tripod was placed. You stand riveted onto the floor. Even if I zoom in I have the experience of just leaning forward, not actually moving further into the image. It's like moving on rails, the rhythm of walking isn't there. The picture turns around, but you are not physically surrounded by the image.


John Singleton Copley´s Watson and the Shark

How has this technology been used to explore a 1800th- century painting? John Singleton Copley started his career as a portrait painter in Boston and then moved to London, where he turned to history painting and was elected a member of the Royal Academy. Watson and the Shark, painted in 1778, is one of his most famous paintings. Watson is attacked by a shark and rescued by sailors on a boat. The painting depicts the most dramatic moment of the episode, when Watson is in the water and the shark is threatening to make his final attack. Man's struggle against nature was one of the favourite themes of artists during romanticism.

On the web site of National Gallery of Art in Washington, the painting is featured in a comprehensive pedagogical presentation. There are four main topics, the story, the artist, the painting and the sources. The story section is illustrated by representations of the painting in full and by details of it. The painting section is illustrated by a big view of the painting where a compositional analysis is indicated by the means of white arrows. They show the direction of the movement of the different participants of the drama. In order to enhance our understanding of the painting, the next web page contains a QuickTime VR image. The image is made up of three sections, the painting, a detail of the painting and a label stating the usual inventory information (the name of the painting and the artist, museum, fund, inventory number).

Why has this technique been used? I quote a part from the above web page:

"Copley captures the scene's turbulent action, successfully orchestrating disparate elements to convey a powerful impression of impending impact. Eighteenth-century viewers were awed by the scene's immediacy as well as its violent theme. With the aid of modern technology, we can, perhaps, share their sense of novelty with a "virtual reality" experience ... "

Does this really happen? No, I don't think so. This is partly due to the fact that the image contains three different parts, with the label as a disturbing part in the middle. The inclusion of the label does not add to the illusion. Partly it is due to the character of the painting, whith its emphasis on action and its movements in different direction. I think the impression you get from this VR image is to be captured inside a cylinder, to which a reproduction of the painting has been glued. You never get inside the painting, instead you keep sliding off the surface of the cylinder. You don't feel the thrust of the boat hook, or any of the other action in the painting. You don't experience depth, on the contrary, you feel like you can never get through the surface. In my opinion the use of QuickTime VR doesn't heighten the experience of the painting.

This is not to say I don't think any digital imaging technology would work with this painting. Perhaps a 3-D animation would have been better suited to exploit the dynamic features of the painting.


My second example is Room by Synnöve Almer.

The entrance screen is black with a small irregular blue spot with some unreadable text on it. It's a kind of hole through which you could enter. When you click on the spot a new window appears in your web browser. The picture surface now consists of two layers, the one at the back is a photograph of a root system with a bluish tone. The front layer consists of unreadable text that forms a grid pattern over the image. The spot from the entrance page now stands out, pulsating like a heart and when you move the cursor over the image, you realise that this is the only link so far. When you click on that link, two cells change. A cell with a QuickTime VR image appears, it's like a room with wallpaper with text. This time it's possible to read some of the text, one of the sentences reads: "I feel it's hard to get hold of that information". The other changed cell contains an animation with doodles moving in and out of a textured surface. As you go along clicking on active cells new cells appear. Some changes are slight, like changes in colour, some changes are significant, like when cells change from being passive to active, from stills to QuickTime VR images or animations (Shockwave applications).

In Room there is a constant play with depth and surfaces, in which we as spectators have to take part. It's like opening the doors in an Advent calendar. The cells with a white background appear to be floating above the surface of the whole image, which as a whole is usually rather dark. When the white background cell is a QuickTime VR image, it also leads you beneath the surface of the work when you start moving the cursor and explore the room inside. I think in this case the QuickTime VR technology has been used to make a two dimensional picture open up into a space beneath or behind the surface. With the help of colour, parts of the surface are also raised above the picture surface, which also enhances the experience of depth.

I have compared to different items, a representation of a painting made long before the invention of digital computers, and an artwork made explicitly for the www. The focus has been on the way they have made use of the possibilities offered by technologies such as QuickTime VR. The lesson to be learnt from this is perhaps that it's easier to use new technologies when they are part of the project from the beginning, and that the sense of novelty is difficult to convey over a distance of two centuries.




Beyond the surface? Art and QuickTime VR.

2.The aims and objectives of the proposed paper

To discuss how a virtual reality application like QuickTime VR can be used to create and make us experience artworks. I will analyse a contemporary work of art made with QuickTime VR (and other applications) for display on the www, and I will analyse a QuickTimeVR-presentation on the www of an eighteenth century painting.

3.A summary description of the primary material to be discussed in the proposed paper

After a short introduction of how QuickTime VR works, I will show and analyse my two examples. Room is an artwork made by Synnöve Almer when she was a student at "Internet as a means for artistic expression", a summer course given in 1998 at Valand School of Fine Arts in Göteborg. The work consists of a number of adjacent squares with a background photo and superimposed text. As you click on the a square that is a link, two squares will change, and sometime a square will reveal a QuickTime VR panorama and you can navigate within the space created in that particular square. The reason why I have chosen this work is that I think it is a good example of that the fascination with new technology does not alway has to be the end product, but that new technology can be an integral part of and a meaningful tool for creating interesting artworks. I will analyse the work with a phenomenological approach. Special attention will be paid to the concept of space.

The other artwork I am going to show is John Singleton Copley´s Watson and the Shark, 1778, and I will analyse the way it is featured by National Gallery of Art, Washington, on their web pages. "Eighteenth-century viewers were awed by the scene's immediacy as well as its violent theme. With the aid of modern technology, we can, perhaps share their sense of novelty with a 'virtual reality' experience" we learn from the museums web page. This statement raises interesting questions about the relation between history, art and new technology. Can today's technology really make us share the sense of novelty with eighteenth-century viewers? Are the qualities of this picture possible to convey with the help of QuickTime VR. Would Copley have used this technology if this had been possible in his time? Although it is hard to answer these questions categorically, I am rather sceptical about the way the panoramic possibilities of QuickTime VR are put to use in the display of Watson and the Shark. I don not think it helps us go beyond the surface of the painting.

4.The central argument or arguments of the proposed paper

QuickTime VR can be used successfully to create an artwork dealing with the concept of space. However, new technology like QuickTime VR, when (loosely) attached to an existing artwork, does not necessarily add anything to the experience of that artwork.

5.How the proposal paper will relate to the main themes of the preferred section.

My paper will be an example of an art-historical analysis of imagery created in digital media, and an analysis of the use museums make of digital technology for presenting their collections.




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