The Art of Windows

person_pin The Art of Windows

by Diane Greco

Published in Issue No. 50 ~ July, 2001

My mother, a painter, once sketched me an eight-pane window looking
out on a garden. Just above her signature, she inscribed a dedication
along with a tag-line: “We get to do the windows.”

The sketch, which hung on my bedroom wall beside my actual window
throughout my adolescence, was a feminist inside joke and an emblem of
our relationship, expressing perennial mother-daughter border
confusions, looking-glass struggles that were hilarious and
ambivalent — usually at once.

How ironic, then, to realize that by making a professional home in
hypermedia, I’ve spent a good bit of my adult life worried about
— guess what? — windows. Not Microsoft Windows, or the
window near my desk through which I’m frequently tempted (and
occasionally encouraged) to take a flying leap, but windows on a
screen
, like the one you’re reading in now.

These unobtrusive windows are central to the felt experience of using
a computer. They focus attention and structure work, usually so
quietly no one notices them until they start moving or closing
unexpectedly — the stuff of Web art, hacks, and browser bugs. When
windows are working as they should, however, they organize work,
providing visual cues that differentiate this week’s to-do list from
yesterday’s chat transcript and this afternoon’s email. An interface
without windows is uncomfortable; we are reduced to command-lines and
hierarchies of lists. Remember DOS?

A screen window works a bit like a picture frame, which mediates
between what it contains and the surrounding environment. But while an
art historian might argue that a picture frame works best when least
noticed, playing with windows is part and parcel of making art for the
computer screen. In digital art, a window is a locus of fascination, a
place where old questions about form and content, container and
contained, erupt with renewed urgency.

This comes as no surprise, since Western culture has long understood
the power of framing, both real and metaphorical. Narcissus tumbled
famously into his own reflection, a superficial portrait impossible to
imagine without a frame to define it (pools without edges are mud
pits that don’t reflect anything.) Visual artists have long understood
how a well-defined edge can bring into play the potent opposition of
figure and ground, not to mention the lasting shock of Albertian
perspective — a keyhole opening onto a world organized along
gridlines vanishing to a point. Even Einstein’s theory of special
relativity used thought experiments involving multiple “frames of
reference” to articulate some troubling observations about presumably
absolute Newtonian space-time. Glasses, those framed windows through
which some of us, myself included, see the world, refract light to
improve focus. For good or ill, framing allows us to dwell on certain
aspects of a situation while others recede from view: we frame
problems in order to solve them; when someone is unjustly made
responsible for a crime, we say he or she was “framed.”

Two examples from contemporary digital art illustrate the persistence
of windows (and frames) as something more than functional containers,
generative of artistic response in themselves. For instance, the frame
of the computer screen animates a central concern of Talan Memmott’s
Lexia
to Perplexia
: the screen, as interface to a communications
device, is a permeable membrane, an engine for attachments both
intra- and inter-personal, which are always two-way, here and there,
local and remote. In Memmott’s words: “The self, already outside of
the self, a first lacquer of identity … a screen or shell, a construct
of how I imagine the body … scrims and mirrors, walls and portals
block and provide access to remote location(s) of desire.”

Memmott’s interrogation of the nature of identity under the sway of
computer-mediated communication is intriguing, even if his
Lacan-influenced idiom is not to your taste. The computer screen is
indeed uncannily fascinating; those malleable pixels change at every
moment, and sometimes, miraculously, in response to the actions of
someone who is not even there. Email arrives; a chat log scrolls, the
digital equivalent of social buzz; signals ping from place to place so
fast that “place” itself begins pixelating like an overpumped .jpg.
When I saw Memmott perform Lexia a year ago in Nottingham, I
was floored. “Every screen is an attachment,” he said, sketching
furiously on a whiteboard. “Every attachment is a screen.” Here was a
specifically 21st-century intimacy, the seduction of what William Gass
once called “data day and night,” couched in the lingua franca
of info-spacetime.

Windows do more than merely parcel up screen real estate; they subtly
structure temporal experience as well. Everyone knows that opening a
new browser window usually implies a desire to travel to a new URL
without allowing the point of departure to disappear into the oblivion
of the history list. (The relation of history and memory implied by
browser interfaces is worth another column entirely.) But how, beyond
banal expectations about how windows relate, to understand the
relation between one window and another?

Here, artist-critics like Lev Manovich and Adrian Miles take lessons
from cinema. For Miles, a self-described “video flaneur,” hypermedia
represents an opportunity to spatialize the frame-to-frame movement
that ordinarily occurs in films, where one frame seamlessly follows
another, creating the illusion of a continuous reality. Hypermedia, in
contrast, convert cinematic montage into collage; unlike the usual
continuity edit, which serves to move a story forward, a link may
privilege other kinds of relationships between “here” and “there.”
Instead of merely facilitating forward movement between windows,
nodes, or media segments, the link, according to Miles, “generates
force,” creating a “hermeneutically viable connection between
otherwise discrete discursive spaces.” Streaming media simultaneously
through multiple windows, or multiple frames, thus produces
differences between windows and frames, in addition to the
usual differences produced from shot to shot within a frame. While all
that streaming output might suggest ultimate incoherence, Miles’
project, VOG
demonstrates that numerous simultaneous media streams needn’t induce
cognitive overload. Arguably, Miles’ stable, consistent
framing — nine squares of video and audio, divided by simple black
lines and embedded in a single window — helps hold it all
together.

You could say that such windows hardly structure attention, at least
not in a way comparable to composing a memo in Microsoft Word. If the
task of reading (or looking) is to plow through material as rapidly as
possible in order to arrive at a one-sentence summary, then digital
art, with its cascade of perspectives, will not appeal. Such art is
easy to dismiss as just another instance of media-driven excess. Yet
it is worth remembering a lesson from high school chemistry: under the
right conditions, remarkable things can precipitate from
super-saturation. Whether the results are appealing or not depends, I
would imagine, on the ways that artists conceptualize their projects
and deploy the tools at their disposal. In this, I say, go back to
basics: begin with a window.


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After eight and a half years in Boston, Diane Greco has moved to Brooklyn. Her affection for the Red Sox is, however, undiminished.