The Ideas of The Rennaissance Persist in Games, Simulations


First Published by David Cox in January 21, 2015 2:35 PM MST

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Pierro De La Francesca, the famed Renaissance painter and architect built arcane secrets into his pictures. Trained in the then very new technique of perspective painting, Pierro integrated systems of Euclidean geometry into the formal composition of his paintings. He even included ‘secret’ messages into the subject matter, such as five sided pentangles and so on which to those in the know at the time related to the presumed relationship between man, God and the universe. In some pictures, only recently developed techniques have enabled scholars to unlock some of the secret messages embedded in his paintings. The pictures were ciphers and cryptograms which referred back to the social conditions under which they were made in order to flatter those who could identify those codes. These conventions were considered part of what it meant to be an educated Renaissance artisan.

The cryptographic geometric and perspective-driven cosmologies integrated into his work and that of others around the same time ? Leonardo Da Vinci, and Giotto were those of high levels of mathematical abstraction, themselves at the time ‘redeemed’ from Greek antiquity. Using a system which would today be called ‘ray tracing’ and which would be done using 3D graphics software, Piero was able to calculate the appearance of objects in 3D space by numerically transposing positions of say parts of a human head tilted at an angle. The extraordinary feat was to be able to mathematically conceptualize the body as a fluid dynamic system whose spatial and positional appearance on the canvas could be represented by numbers. The numbers then could be used, quite separate from their real life referent to calculate the appearance of the same subject from any angle.

Just as computers now are used as much as cameras to deliver moving pictures to our screens, the common conceptual link between the two technologies is that of the abstract ‘plane’ upon which the perspective image is imagined to fall upon. One of Piero’s most famous images is that of a tilted head; a detail from his painting The Flagellation. The position of the head was one of many he could have settled on when he painted the picture, the subject of the picture was not present when it was painted. Rather the image of the subject had been abstractly transposed numerically by Piero first into his memory, then onto paper and from paper onto canvas. A computer graphics artist can choose to show a 3D model of a dinosaur or space ship from any angle and because the computer 3D graphics rely on the centrality of the first-person view of the universe, any graphic can be made to co-habit the orthographic domain of photography.

Film montage emerged from a certain vantage point, a peculiarly 20th Century vantage point. The idea of disjointed clashing meanings was in common circulation in Europe in the early 20th Century. The political payload which accompanied the aesthetics of montage was powerful indeed. The photo montage images of John Heartfield in Germany in the 1920s were culture jams in the extreme. The proliferation of photographs in print publishing enabled political satire to find expression through the surgical cuts of scalpel on the photograph and to cut and paste and rework still images had its parallel in the development of film editing in Russia. The Eisenstein technique was to make images clash up against each other and in colliding, give rise to combatant new images. This art of montage was the aesthetics of context migration. With film editing new meanings could be divined from the intersection where images collided in time. With photo montage the spatial field of the photograph itself rather was the terrain of a clash of opposites, where powerful hybrids of image with image could occur.

Linking these technologies was the idea that spaces could be traversed without effort, or that technology could mediate space. Photography and cinema have the aim of placing the viewer somewhere other than where they actually are ? transporting them in fact. Cinema and photography both employ spatial fields of view; the Euclidean geometric breakdown of space into geometric forms. Inside a camera, light falls on the film plane, is recorded photochemically, by means of a mechanical shutter.

Aircraft are similarly about the manipulation of forces, which in turn are therefore relatively simple to translate into code for the purposes of making a simulation. Variables like thrust, pitch, yaw, elevation, speed, flow represent the chaos of the movement of air over the wings, of the propeller through the air. Affording a view of the surroundings cartography mapping Empireâs make maps before invading. The British Empire’s first step prior to setting up India as a giant cheap manufacturing and supply colony was to divide the country up into triangle shaped segments, the better to map it. Conceptual ownership longitude.

The Space Race and the Cold War represented the fusing of political and technological imperatives toward a unified Imperial assertion of Superpower supremacy. The quest for space took on a religious overtone in both the USA and the USSR; both elevated space exploration as the pinnacle expression of modernist progress; to boldly go and get “go fever”. It is no accident that Tom Wolfe should valorize the extremes of 1960s expansionism on both the left and right.

The central view predominated in the 1960s much as it had done since the Renaissance. The privileged point of view of the Medici-funded artist was paralleled 400 years later by the NASA or USSR backed astronaut. The prize brought back to civilization from the Space Race was that of the unique view the space photograph of the earth, the moon panorama taken from space suit or Lunar Module cockpit. Neil Armstrong as Michealangelo’s David. Officialdom needs time and space measured, divided, controlled.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce (creator of the first fixed photo) was something of a photochemistry hacker as an experimenter using cameras, chemicals and surfaces. Exposure to light and the chemical fixing of the camera obscura’s image was the aim of the first photographers. The very first ‘fixed’ photo was of his own courtyard. Niepce needed to leave the camera somewhere where it could be left.

Babbage’s Difference Engine (though it did not work) had already been built when the first fixed photo was made. Computers have long been closely linked to the conceptualisation of space ? Charles Babbage’s famous unfinished prototype for a computer, the analytical engine developed in the 1830s was developed in response to a request from the British Government to generate better navigational charts for mercantile shipping. The Colossus computer developed in the UK to crack Nazi radio codes, found itself mainly decoding co-ordinate information of Atlantic submarine positions, and the like.

The miniaturization of electronic components which resulted in the development by counterculture hippies in the mid 1970s of the personal computer, was itself the result of the need by the military industrial complex for small parts for use in missile navigation and space travel. Mapping, architecture and urban planning also play a large role in the development of video games, whose elaborate labyrinths of play and dynamics in turn find eerie expression in the layout and appearance of the contemporary themed shopping precincts of our major cities.

Strategy and games both require abstractions of space, and the dynamics, which take place within them. The Situationist International’s project was that of reclaiming a rapidly modernizing Paris after its liberation in 1945 from the clutches of commercialization. Against sterile rationalist planning of inner city housing and retail areas they proposed radical alternative uses for cities, which emphasized a sense of free play, and which advocated a system of activities in art and architecture, film and writing which would ultimately render work and all forms of social control obsolete.

Early parlour toys dallied with sex and the licentious ? zoetropes and praxinoscopes and other visual tricks often were delivery mechanisms for lurid porn fantasies and devil images, rather like the proliferation of video recorders in the early 1980s. The boom in inititial VCR sales stemmed largely from the newly created home porn video market. The industrial revolution was starting to result in identifiable domestic scientific entertainment forms ? the home microscope ( a latter day home computer) offered views into other worlds ? the microscopic and the microphotographic. Microphotographs were tiny photos to be viewed through microscopes.

These images are ghostly, even phantasmagoric. At the Sony Center in San Francsico in 1999, before it became the Metreon center as it is now, my wife and I were able to have a moving white-light hologram made of us kissing embossed into a card about the size of a credit card. The image of us turning and kissing moves as one angles the card on which it is mounted from side to side under a light. To take the hologram, a video camera on a kind of four foot long conveyor belt scanned our faces over a period of five seconds as we kissed. The resultant frames were then processed in an adjacent lab, which converted the digital frames into the reflective white light hologram moving image the size of a large postage stamp. In a sense the technology of the space/time based arts like cinema and the space recording arts like photography have converged to enable moving holograms which record events, albeit short span ones, and to present those events in movie like images which can be seen in ordinary white light.

The old Sony version of the Metreon has long since given way to its more mundane shopping mall variant, but I often wonder what happened to the utopian impulse behind the while light hologram stand that was there when it first opened.

The Renaissance is still with us.

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