Sights Unseen:

Michael Naimark's Virtual Travel

Merrill Falkenberg
Professor Lenoir
October 17, 1997

Media artist and technologist Michael Naimark is one of a growing number of artists investigating the aesthetic and theoretical implications of virtuality. By virtuality, I mean any computer-generated immersive environment that provides a multisensory experience of physical presence in an alternate cyberrealm. For the past twenty years, Naimark has been one of few artists-in-residence at seminal technology think tanks such as the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the Atari Research Center, the Apple Multimedia Lab and most currently Interval Research. From his early experiments with "moving movies" to his most recent BE HERE NOW video installation, Naimark's work resides in the liminal space between art and technology. Perhaps the voice of restraint among hyperbolic claims as to the unlimited potential of computers, Naimark attempts to bring actual and virtual environments together, grounding technology in the real as opposed to the virtual world, as he establishes a specific sense of place within the disembodied, nebulous realm of cyberspace. In spite of an eagerness to explore the latest technological advancements, Naimark's stereoscopic and panoramic installations recall visual phenomena of the nineteenth century, reflecting an undercurrent of fin-de-siecle nostalgia for a time when the novel visual effects of technology were first being felt. Linking Naimark's most recent interactive work to shifts in visual perception both in the nineteenth and twentieth century, we can trace the origins of an ambivalent response to technology that is still very much with us today.


Exploring the belief that Ua sense of groundedness, by definition, is the opposite of being virtual,") Naimark's two most recent installations question our physical and psychological relationship to geographic place, both through direct experience and mediated visual representation. His 1993 installation See Banff ! (figure 1) bears an intentional resemblance to turn-of-thecentury kinetoscopes and is an investigation into the interdependent relationship between landscape, tourism and growth. A self- contained, podium-sized wooden unit, See Banff! includes a single user viewer on top and a crank on the side which enables the participant to move through a dozen silent views of Banff and rural Alberta. Attempting to create a virtual environment through film as opposed to computer graphics, Naimark's interactive stereoscopic kinetoscope is based on footage taken from his Ufield recording studies" a series for which he mounted two 16mm cameras side by side in a low tech "super-jogger" baby carriage, each camera simultaneously filming a specific site, creating the doubling effect of stereographic 3D. Able to shoot only one frame at a time, the cameras were triggered either by an intervalometer set at certain time lapses or a motion-sensitive encoder placed on one of the carriage wheels. The wide-angle views and "stopframing" of the footage created a compression of space and time similar to the effect of virtual reality.

Naimark's 1996
"BE NOW HERE: Welcome to the Digital

1 Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, '`30 Cyber-Days in San Francisco,"


Neighborhood" a panoramic video installation exhibited at the San Francisco Yerba Buena Gardens, reflects Naimark's continuing investigation into the relationship between nineteenth century visual phenomena and contemporary computer-generated imagery. Filming four of eighteen endangered UNESCO world heritage sites- Angkor, Jerusalem, Dubrovnik and Timbuktu, Naimark creates an avatar of the global community, enabling participants who enter the ceremoniously black-curtained room with its huge screening wall and slowly rotating platform, to don 3-D glasses, click and point and feel as if, through both sight and sound, that they are suddenly in front of the Wailing Wall or an empty square in wartorn Dubrovnik. Unlike the Banff project, intended to represent ,"looking around," Be Now Here conveys "moving around" as Naimark's 35mm motion picture cameras run at sixty frames per second for unrivaled fidelity. As the camera captures the action on the street, the viewing platform in the museum slowly rotates in sync with the imagery creating a highly illusionistic effect of virtual immersion. A viewer can also switch among the locations (which also include footage of San Francisco) by pressing one of five buttons in the center of the room and will be instantly "transported"--Star Trek style--to another location.2

While See Banff! and Be Now Here both refer to two immensely popular nineteenth century visual devices--the panorama and the stereoscope--they differ strongly in the viewer's relationship to

Kroker. 1.


the landscape. Whereas the viewer of the See Banff! stereoscope can regulate the speed at which he or she looks at the views or rewind back to previous images, the spectators of Be Now Here are subjected to the illusion that it is the footage and not the ground that is moving before them. Despite the sense of being transported to realistic alternate environments, the viewer's control over what they see and for how long they see it is predetermined by the movement of the platform and the running of the film. Although Naimark's footage is obviously more realistic than the rudimentary photographs used in nineteenth century stereoscopes or the painted images of panoramas, for all the changes in technology, the role of the viewer/participant over the past hundred years has surprisingly changed very little.

Optical devices like the stereoscope and the panorama were invented and rose to popularity in the nineteenth century concurrently with the development of railroad travel, and numerous scholars have traced the relationship between railroads, photography and tourism. 3 Jaded as we may be today, this radically new form of travel revolutionized not only traditional notions of time and space but also conventional ways of viewing landscape, as a passenger's perceptions were suddenly dependent on the movement of the car. Jonathan Crary has argued that the immense popularity of the stereoscope (arguably a precursor to the Walt Disney

3 See for example, Martha Sandweiss, "Undecisive Moments: The Narrative Tradition in Western Photography," in Photography in America. New York Abrams, 1991 or Wolfgang Schivelbusch, 77ie Railway Jouney, New York: Urizen 1979.


Viewfinder) and panoramas (theatrical, often narrative 360 painting) in the mid-nineteenth century reflected a new industrial model of vision as well as a redefinition of what it meant to be an observer.4

Both of the stereoscope and the panorama conceptualize seeing as a form of spectacle and entertainment, accentuated by the Barnumesque exclamation point in See Banff! or the immediacy of phrases like BE NOW HERE. The enthusiasm for stereoscopes and panoramas mid-century was also connected to the rise of tourism, as seemingly tactile images of far-off landscapes contributed to the desire for travel while commodifying the views the tourists could expect to encounter on their journeys. Arriving in Milan for the first time, John Ruskin wrote that

I had been partly prepared for this view by the admirable presentiment of it on London, a year or two before, in an exhibition, of which the vanishing has been in later life a great loss to me--Buford's panorama in Leicester Square.5

In a way, stereoscopes and panorama can be understood as the precursors of Baudrillard's simulacra, as tourists see the landscape in reproduction before they see the real thing and it is these representations which form the viewer's expectations of what they will see. Like the concept of a digital global community illustrated in BE NOW HERE, stereoscopes and panoramas were

4 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1994).

5 Ralph Hyde, Panoramania!, (London: Barbican Art GaUery, 1988), 28.

paradoxically intended to bring the world closer while encouraging the desire to explore. Yet whereas period viewers were aware of the artifice of a small viewing box, the advent of increasingly realistic virtual representations which are practically indistinguishable from the real thing, raise the alternate question of why one would want to travel to see anything, when it can so realistically be brought to you.

Although Naimark's unattended cameras assume the position of a detached bystander, there is an inevitable touristic and voyeuristic aspect to his project, whether he is in the popular vacation spot of Banff or the remotest regions of Timbuktu. While filming in Canada, Naimark recalled the juxtaposition between the monumental and graceful sites of Banff and the endless stream of tourists, whose buses pull in and out of nowhere. "Cameras in hand, the tourists get off the bus for twenty minutes, take a picture and move on."6 While part of the message of See Bantf! lies in the juxtaposition between these two modes of looking, one could argue that the kinetoscope does not offer a prolonged experience of viewing rather spectators, caught up in the entertainment aspect of the kinetoscope wind it up, look in, and move on. While the uninterrupted footage of endangered sights enable us to view Bosnia from the safety of the museum, Naimark's trip reports intimately describing the evacuation of the Israeli plaza due to a bomb threat, or the Buddhist monks he met in Angkor underline the

6 Michael Naimark, "Field Recording Studies," Immersed in Technology, ed by Mary Ann Moser, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 299.

chasm between his direct experience of these places and ours. Although Naimark considers his work an investigation into the parameters of virtuality, it is significant to note that he abandoned computer technology for See Banff! retorting that

we were using the world's most powerful graphics computer and it kept choking. The industry, and art is built around making computer models from scratch rather than from cameras. The result has been a bias toward making fantasy worlds, imaginary places and scientific visualizations rather than representations based on the actual world, however abstract.7

Naimark's desire to make film appear virtual raises questions about whether 3D film can create a similar immersive environment to virtual reality. From film's inception, theorists like Christian Metz have distinguished the realistic effect of film from photography by arguing that it is the movement of the camera that conveys the most convincing impression of the reality for the spectator, creating a similar effect to computerized real time. Unlike photography where we are aware that the moment the photograph captures no longer exists but in representation, film evokes a sense of the present, as the film spectator is absorbed by a feeling of there is, as opposed to it has been there.B

As with the participants of virtual reality, cinema viewers subsist in an quasi-alternate realm for the two hours of the film, members of an imagined community observing another world unfolding

7 Naimark, 301.

8 Christian Metz, Film Language, 4.


on the screen. That cinematic realm produces a "space that is deep and textural, that can be materially inhabited." While scholars have distinguished the "spatially decentered, weakly temporalized and quasi-disembodied"9 space of the computer from that of film, it is also true that unlike movies, computers offer the potential for interaction, providing the physical realization of a desire to "escape the flatness and merge into the created system. n As Allucquere Rosanne Stone surmises, "it is the sense in which the spectator is more that a participant, but becomes both participant in and creator of the simulation." 10

While virtual reality hypothetically offers the opportunity to enter into an image, your path is ultimately determined by the creator of your site, so that our views of Banff or UNESCO world heritage sites are through Naimark's lens. This is arguably no different than any other form of representation except that films and photography never promise to bring you into the image rather they bring the image to you. Recalling Walter Benjamin, famous example from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction about the mountain in the distance whose aura is drawn from its "presence in space and time, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be, n we can identify a new type of

9 Sobchack, Vivian. "The Scene of the Screen: Toward a Phenomenology of Cinematic and Electronic
'Presence.' In H.V. Gumbrecht and L.K. pfeiffer (eds.), Materialitat des Kommunikation (GDR: Suhrkarp-Verlag,

10 Allucquere Rosanne Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? Boundary Stories About Visual Cultures" in Michael Benedikt, Cyberspace: First Steps, (Boston: MIT Press, 1991) 107.


representation that has no referent in the real world. Representation has become so much a part of our daily lives, our images of nature and culture have become so heavily mediated that we accept the representation as not only equal to but perhaps better than the real thing. Based in fantasies of a visually connected global network, virtual travel does not necessarily create a greater sense of connectedness to other cities and people around the world but rather contributes to feelings of dislocation and isolation as the spectator remains fixed and the tools of perception become increasingly removed from the very thing we are trying to see.