The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft
Author: Anne Friedberg
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: March 2008
I am particularly honored that RCCS has selected The Virtual Window for its March 2008 Book of the Month.
Christy Dena's review took an imaginative tour through the matrix-like weaves of my text and argument. The Virtual Window is a book about windows and screens and frames and the virtual and the metaphors that shape our everyday access to the world around us. It is about architectural space and virtual space and our movements through both; the materiality and immateriality of these spaces; our mobility and immobility as users of the screen interface. And as Dena's review suggests, it is a book symptomatic of a "growing move of academics to address complex subjects with complex discursive structures" where "the linear format of the book [is] an artificial brace." My brief comments here are less about the arguments made in the book than about the process of book writing and the nature of the book as a material object.
The Virtual Window has a broad argument -- an "argumentative spine" -- grounded in the valences of the metaphor that have dramatically shifted in the centuries between Alberti's Renaissance invocation of the window as a structuring frame for perspectival painting and Microsoft's trademarking of Windows™. Alberti's window implied a direct, veridical and transparent aperture, a positioned view for its viewer. The computer "window" fractures this positioned perspective; the visual field seen through a computer "window" is rarely direct, its representational function highly iconic. And although computer "windows" can be "open" at the same time, they rarely serve, as the art historical double slide projection did, as a means for comparative analysis. If there is a big argument underlacing the book, it is about the fracturing of the kind of subjectivity that was once singular and perspectivally located and is now both fractured and multiplied.
But even the skeletal argument of the book had MRI-like slices taken to it—as the loosely chronological chapters are interspersed with critical "lenses" that were designed to provide a range of "optics" to read refract on this broad argument in the book's multi-century historical scope. As an author, of course, I didn't know if this would work for the reader. Given the subject and argument of this book -- about the frame of the window and the frame of the screen, about the convergences of film, television and computer screens -- I was troubled by the limitations of print and the writing of a linear text. I was writing about the screen on a screen; I was writing a book about windows, their virtual substitutes, and the fractured multiplicity of the multiple "windowed" screen and I was writing while looking into a screen fractured into many windows -- overlapping and simultaneous applications, some hermetically-sealed, some wired to the outside. I knew that I would need to translate it to an environment that would allow me link its concepts in a non-linear, axiometric fashion. So the process of writing/thinking in the linear form of a book was a frustrating exercise: writing about/thinking about new media in the form of old media.
Dena comments that I mention the "codependency of the movie screen, TV screen, and computer screen" but that "this area is not addressed." The book was written and thought in the midst of the hyperspeed of technological change and I thought I was addressing these convergences as our computers began to act more like our TVs and our TVs began to look more like our computer interfaces. But clearly, in the years since the book was finished (in 2005), fact of this convergence and the artillery of examples requires another chapter, a post-postlogue. [For the past two years, I have been teaching a graduate seminar on "Medium Specificity and Convergence" dedicated to expanding on the discourse and fact of the buzzword "convergence."]
The Virtual Window Interactive is the book's translation/extension/re-invention, the book's digital "Other." It is more dynamic and mutable than a book locked in print but it also demonstrates the difficulties of how to make a linear argument, the kind that can be sustained and supported over the long haul and in the many pages of a book. The online, domain-claiming web project forms a tangent to the matrix of concepts in the book, supplying vivid examples of the still and moving images that have -- in the span of centuries -- filled the apertures of our windows, frames, and screens.
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