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Visual Digital Culture: Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres

Author: Andrew Darley
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2000
Review Published: December 2001

 REVIEW 1: Sabrina DeTurk

As suggested by the title, the concepts of "surface play" and "spectacle" -- though not necessarily in that order -- form the basis for Andrew Darley's investigation of late 20th century forms of digital media, such as computer games, simulation rides, digital cinema, and music videos. Darley, a Senior Lecturer in Critical Studies at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design, makes effective use of these terms to provide a critical framework for a discussion of new media forms. These concepts, however, particularly the unfamiliar construction of "surface play," require some explication before Darley's argument for their significance can be fully investigated.

Chronologically, the idea of spectacle is the first to emerge in Darley's account of new media genres and their aesthetic significance. Part I of Visual Digital Culture recounts the history of those digital media that will form the focus of Darley's account and provides an historical account of the emergence of spectacular entertainments in the 19th century. Such pre-cinematic entertainments as the Phantasmagoria and the diorama represent for Darley distinct yet related trends in spectacular representation, the former concerned with creating convincing images of the supernatural and the latter with convincing representation of the natural (42). That dual desire for forms of spectacle which accurately reflect alternate worlds and for those which realistically present our own world back to us can be seen in contemporary modes of visual production -- such as cinema and television -- and the satisfaction of that desire is often achieved through digital means. In part, it is this idea of multiple forms of verisimilitude provided by visual spectacle that informs Darley's account of contemporary visual digital culture. However, a second key to his analysis of that contemporary culture is to be found in his investigation of the popularity -- at the turn of the 20th century -- of the early cinema and the amusement park as spectacular entertainments. The amusement park engages its audience in a sensory participation in the forms of spectacle provided for their pleasure. In early cinema, viewers were fascinated not just by the images presented on screen but by the technological marvels which produced such images -- "the cinematic apparatus itself is being wondered at" (45). That sensory stimulation (of the amusement park) and technological fascination (of early cinema) form key elements of the concept of spectacle which Darley is concerned to evoke for contemporary digital media.

An analysis of the subsequent development of the cinema leads Darley to the conclusion that the elements of spectacle inherent in pre-cinematic entertainments, early forms of cinema, and amusement parks were largely displaced, though not erased, by an insistence on the pre-eminence of narrative in popular cinema. The focus on plot and characterization forced the spectator's attention away from the joys of the spectacle -- and certainly away from a consideration of the apparatus by which that spectacle was produced -- and towards a viewing position in which "the cinema viewer . . . is 'taken' into the world of the story and through the story itself" (48). That break from the emphasis on the spectacle as part of cinematic and related forms of entertainment provides Darley with an opportunity to reflect, in Chapter 3, on the peculiarly contemporary context for the digital genres he analyzes. Despite an insistence on the connection of such genres to the spectacle forms of the late 19th century, Darley sees "these latter-day forms and expressions [as] highly distinctive" -- a distinction that rises, in part, from their status as genres which respond to and against the insistent force of narrative cinema.

Darley uses the work of critics such as Baudrillard, Jameson, and Eco to assist in constructing a framework for the investigation of contemporary visual culture -- a framework which rests on the use of terms such as "reproducibility and repetition, self-referentiality and intertextuality, simulation and pastiche, and superficiality and spectacle" (75). All of these terms can be used as formal and critical descriptors of a mode of visual production and display in which the emphasis is not on depth of narrative or meaning, but rather on the "surface play" that Darley claims as a hallmark of visual digital culture. In Part II of his text, Darley examines particular examples of contemporary digital production through the lens of the cultural framework just established.

It is in this second section of Visual Digital Culture -- Aesthetics -- that the reader who does not have a familiarity with the objects of Darley's critique will feel most adrift (a lack of familiarity with the theorists referenced in Chapter 3 could also be problematic, though Darley does acknowledge in a footnote that such familiarity is assumed, and he provides reading suggestions for further reference). That a text focusing on the aesthetics of visual media contains such a paucity of images was, for this reader, a serious drawback. Darley acknowledges at the outset that "[t]he intention was to include more illustrations than those that eventually made it into the following pages" (ix) and it is understandable that difficulties with obtaining permissions made the inclusion of those other images difficult. However, as understandable as the absence may be, the lack of visual examples makes it unnecessarily difficult to follow Darley's argument in this section.

Darley uses examples from contemporary cinema (Toy Story, Terminator 2, Titanic), advertising (Eagle Star insurance, Smirnoff), and music videos (Neneh Cherry, Michael Jackson) to link contemporary visual culture to an aesthetics of spectacle and of surface play reminiscent both of 19thcentury entertainments and of the contemporary framework established through the work of Baudrillard, et al. Most successfully, these links are established through an analysis of the compelling visual nature of the effects routinely employed in the genres described. In the case of films such as Terminator 2, for example, it is easy to see that viewers are absorbed less by the flimsy narrative structure than by a fascination with the digital effects used to create the cinematic spectacle -- a throwback to the technological fascination experienced by viewers of the early cinema. In Chapter 6, on the digital image, Darley moves to a consideration of the notion of surface play and ". . . the production of imagery that lacks traditional depth cues. Imagery that at the aesthetic level at least is only as deep as its quotations, star imagery, and dazzling special effects" (124). A discussion of the concepts of repetition, montage, authorship, and genre leads to the conclusion that much of contemporary visual digital culture is bound up in a context which privileges the seamless melding of effects borrowed from multiple sources, such that the visual thrill is found not in the production of something undeniably "new" but in the refashioning of the known to increasingly sophisticated and challenging effect. The high art distinctions of originality, authority, and definability cease to hold importance as ". . . genres themselves have been turned into historical signifiers . . . additions to the storehouse of styles and figures, or objects of pastiche and allusion: further elements for the surface play that constitutes contemporary visual culture" (144).

In Part III, Darley focuses on the experience of spectators for this visual digital culture. Here we return again to that 19th century moment, as the early cinema and the amusement park give way to the computer game and the simulation ride. Darley seems less at ease with this examination of spectatorship, acknowledging that ". . . it is frequently difficult when considering aesthetic form to determine where the boundaries between aesthetics and spectator experience begin and end" (147). Nonetheless, he raises some significant questions and begins to address them -- namely in considering the place of interactivity in spectatorial experience and in addressing the distinction between the public and private viewing experiences (between going to the cinema and playing a computer game at home, for example).

What Andrew Darley does best in Visual Digital Culture is to raise questions which might fruitfully be applied to other genres than those discussed here. He seems to take a dim view of the state of criticism on digital art and, indeed, the field was still nascent when much of the research for this book must have been undertaken. Nonetheless, art historians and critics have begun to raise some similar questions in regard to forms of digital art and Darley's text makes an interesting addition to the discourse from another area of visual culture. I am troubled by the neglect of the work of Lev Manovich, whose writings on digital cinema and its relation to traditional animation and 19th century pre-cinematic genres would seem to be pertinent to Darley's work. However, taken as Darley himself describes it -- a beginning exploration of a "distinctive aesthetic space" -- Visual Digital Culture is a worthwhile read for anyone concerned with the impact of new media on contemporary visual culture.

Sabrina DeTurk:
Sabrina DeTurk is the Director of the Art and Art History Program at La Salle University (Philadelphia, PA) and also teaches in the Digital Arts and Multimedia Design Program at La Salle. An art historian whose graduate studies focused on Italian Renaissance painting, her research interests have shifted to the field of digital art. She will be chairing a session, "From Brushstrokes to Bytes: Art Historical Approaches to Digital Art," at the 2002 College Art Association conference.  <deturk@lasalle.edu>

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