4.3 Seeking to See

Because people rarely view movies or read for extended periods on line, their time is spent endlessly seeking information and items of interest, and among those items are pictures (and short movies) of unclothed people posing or performing sexual acts. These pictures may be viewed with a contemplative attitude, but this attitude is accompanied by sexual arousal and is generally engaged in while not observed by others. There must be a lot of this erotic contemplation going on, for in the aggregate, sex sites have a very sizeable part of Web traffic. It is hard to imagine that many artists would set their hands to representing people viewing porn in front of a monitor. But what they can do is engage us in the seeking of sexual sights and then in various ways to set impediments in the way of porn surfing and to parody the "choices" and machinery of banners, descriptive labels, and warnings that are unfailingly present in such sites. Here we will look at four sites that reflect back on the seeker of sexual sights.

One might suppose that such reflecting back, such seeing oneself excitedly pursuing views, would utterly shatter any illusion of immersion, of actually being there and seeing (and perhaps more than seeing). This I think is not the case. Full frontal disclosure as we have it in Courbet's Origin or the Playboy centerfold is too easy for the voyeur, who thrives on stolen glimpses and furtive views. There is even "voyeur porn" on line, complete (incomplete?) with keyholes, doors left ajar, incompletely closed blind—all of which continue the long tradition of voyeuristic photography 1, along with the great technological innovation of concealed videocam shots and clips. Choosing to view such pornography is choosing to take up the voyeur's furtive, guilty position outside the scene, and that position and pleasure already have some consciousness of oneself seeking and viewing what is not meant for one to see. So in a sense, these sites of teasing are themselves teasing. One does not get clear of the whole business by making fun of it.

Screen from Cyber*Babes

Figure 4.18
Screen from Lisa Hutton: Cyber*Babes

Lisa Hutton's Cyber*Babes

On line since 1996, Cyber*Babes is a classic of net.art. Th opening screen requires the viewer to declare her age and interest by clicking the "I am OVER 18 years of age and I am looking for Cyber*Babes" option or the " ...UNDER ..." one. If you choose UNDER you are taken to a page on toys for birds. Choosing OVER takes you to a page with one sentence containing two links: Is it too late to put a blue ribbon on my fig leaf? "Blue" takes you to the Blue Ribbon Campaign site, and "fig" takes you to another "I am eighteen" choice page, "I am over 18 and I don't feel like censorship." Choosing "over" takes you to the first cyberbabe hspace=6px image page, which contains an oddly morphed shemale figure and some text voicing the figure's concern about the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and then the instruction "Touch me". Touching either these words or the image itself takes you to yet another "over 18" page ("I am over 18 and I understand my environment") and so it goes, with more morphed shemale cyberbabes alternating with "over 18" pages and with links to various off-site places and to the text of the Telecommunications Act. In the course of this, the various restrictions on free speech the Act proposed are illustrated and the language of the statute quoted. Eventually it all terminates in "Squirties Nude Picture Archive" which is a dummy page someone put up to count the number of hits its lusty keyword list attracts.

Cyber*Babes puts it to us that we declare ourselves, our values and our interests each time we click and that our ability to find things that not everyone would approve of derives (in the USA) from the 1st Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing free of speech, which the Telecommunication Act was trying to restrict. So, if you never get to see the luscious cyberbabes you were looking for, blame the Telecommunication Act of 1996.

Screen capture from Teo Spiller's Cyberbrides

Figure 4.19
Screen from Teo Spiller's Cyberbride

Teo Spiller's Cyberbride

Cyberbride (1998) is another classic Web work. It parodies "dating service" and international match-maker questionnaires, whether on line or in the personal ads, with their reduction of a "bride" to a sexual partner and a sexual partner to a set of attributes selectable from a "remote". As the page opens, we have only the remote, but as we make selections, thumbnails appear for each choice made. At the left, the screen capture includes the thumbnails for the choices eyes:black, place:bedroom, she likes: anal, she talks:nice, and she wears:body (partly cut off in screen capture; no choices for hair, tits, drives, or listens to—a sample of the music chosen begins to play). The only problem is of course that the bride is not assembled into a single whole figure, but remains a scattered array of parts. But, so Spiller seems to be saying, is that not what we do when we make lists of attributes, whether our own or those of another person? The most we get is a sort of multimedia collage, not a picture of the cyberbride. Here the viewer is implicitly represented by the Remote and hence is cast in the role of consumer sitting before a Web-TV.

Figure 4.20
Screen capture from Voyeur Viewer

Voyeur Viewer

Voyeur Viewer is a bit of bricolage by the present writer using two Java applets to simulate the zone vision of peepholes, telescopes, and spotlights. The two applets different subtly in that one gives a very dim view of the entire image and its spotlight glides about automatically, though it can be influenced by the cursor as well. The other applet is dark except for the spotlight which moves only under the direction of the cursor, so the viewer must drag it about to see anything, and the complete image is never visible, even dimly. Obviously the Viewer places the viewer in the position of a classic voyeur, and allows or makes her take charge of peering about seeking the good stuff. The size of the spotlight is adjustable but preset; set very small, it fragments the image into glimpses that are hard to synthesize into a scene, especially with images that are cropped to close proximity, tight space, and incomplete bodies (e.g. with no heads or faces, often no arms or legs). (This device could be used as a Gestalt "good form" analyzer.) The text on the top page instructs the user to attend as she uses the Voyeur Viewer to her own choices and in that sense dragging the spotlight is very like focusing or directing the gaze. The site is so contrived that it is very difficult to download complete images and view them outside the Voyeur Viewer. Its aim is not to frustrate or deflect but to tantalize and to get the viewer to enact the hunger of the eye ("to see a little bit more, a little more clearly"). This hunger is not confined to the viewing of sexual scenes—it drives the astronomer as well. As a secondary aim, it poses the possibility that sexual scenes can become more erotic when they can be seen only in glimpses. (For other disrupted porn sites, see Barbara Pollock's "More Than One Way" and Alex [Davies] and Friends.)

Shu Lea Cheang's "Expand" carries the exploration of the limits of pornographic viewing in the direction of the porno movie clip with six strips of still shots that one might imagine to be frames in a brief clip. Each strip has 30 quite small "frames" which are displayed side-by-side and sliding over each other. The viewer is given some control over the sliding, but can trigger only local sequences of a few frames, not a smooth, or even gappy, narrative sequence. In this way, the program notes say, "an expandable narrative are recounted in shuffling mode." Each strip with its sliding panels is accompanied by a sound track of appropriate ambient noises, including panting, moans, and yips. (The work does not use Flash, by the way, but a custom-made Java applet.) This "expandable narrative in shuffling mode" does not completely destroy all erotic excitement, but keeps it contained to the pleasure of a peep hole in an unstable panel or a color webcam with very instable wiring. One is certainly aware of the pseudo-cinematic contrivance, but as long as one can fiddle with the vernier-like control to get the pieces to resolve better into a sequence, frustration is not total, although it mounts fairly high.

Alexei Shulgin's www.easylife/xxx

XXX is the mother of all porn parody pages. It too works by enticements such as banner ads and little animations, uninformative links ("Pic#1") and dirty-talking pointers ("Young SchoolGirls Fucking the MailMen"). Some banners are links to bona fide porn sites (if that term makes any sense), though of the disastrous unkillable proliferating kind. The dirty text pointers are almost all links to net.art sites by Shulgin or one of his friends and include such items the "The First International Form Art Competition," a quivering directory page with links to Shulgin pages, and also a list of "blah blah" pages (pages that just say "blah blah etc.") around the world. You cannot even tell where a link will take you by hovering over it, because the URL displayed in the status bar is frequently a fake with the true link being to a randomizing script that serves up one of the set of URLs ("Form Art" etc.). The only way to find what the link points to is to click it, and the effect is to make a carnivalesque collapse of the discourses of art and porn which are normally and carefully kept apart.

The site effects another collapse as well, namely that of image and text. XXX offers a "text only" version, which provides the images and layout in ascii art, as for example another, more explicit porno-pictorial image of a woman at the left. Every porno image on the site (though not those on other, linked sites) is also provided in ascii-art form. There are even some fine specimens of that rare art form, the ascii-art animation. That is quite an investment in ascii art and worth some further consideration.

A purist might say that most of what Shulgin provides is not really ascii art, taking that term to mean drawing by means of slashes, verticals, underscores, and various symbols as it was practiced in the very old days when computer displays were text-only consoles. Such images are basicly line drawings, and they continue to be made and shared on the Web to this day (search: ascii porn; Google in June of 2001 showed 13,000 sites). Shulgin's images,however, are made from grayscale photographs by a conversion program, probably gifscii or aalib, which has several outputs, among which are pure HTML and Netscapified HTML (has a "dim" gray value which considerably improves the resolution but does not emulate the old terminals). Shulgin's images in the text-only part of XXX are at least pure HTML and can be viewed on Lynx, the all-text browser, which has still a certain following as the pure content, no glitz, low bandwidth browser, and on any newsgroup reader. Nonetheless, ascii art purists would call what he does conversions and not ascii art.

Setting aside the issue of whether it is ascii art, we may address the larger question of whether it is art at all. Computer users have been making ascii drawings of curvaceous female forms for decades. There are a couple of ascii art newsgroups and quite a number of Web sites where people show their work, including the endlessly reinvented ascii pinup (www.spacebarcowboy.com/ascii/a-z). Similarly, Allen Mullen has rendered a good sample of works of the great master artists into ascii, including portions of Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon" and Manet's "Dejeuner". That of course does not make it art, any more than rendering the same scene in needle point (or yarn) embroidery would make needlepoint art. Mullen's site also has hundreds of ascii images of cartoon figures, Disney figures, college logos, and other familiar images of our time. Shirin Kouladjie (yes, the very same) has done a fine series of portraits, usually of movie stars in famous poses. For this vast body of work, the pleasure is in finding the familiar in the strange, very much as one solves a puzzle. It is not a medium through which you would want to see anything for the first time. For most of its practitioners, ascii art is a hobby—there are no prizes, exhibits, museums, or journals of ascii art.

Heath Bunting: Portrait of Natalie Bookchin

Figure 4.21
Heath Bunting: Portrait of Natalie Bookchin

Nonetheless, a number of net.artists and commentators have made an investment in ascii art as large as Shulgin's. Vuk Cosic, for one, has made a 55 minute ascii animation of the movie Deep Throat, and collected manifestos and theorizings of ascii art. The Dutch design group LUST weaves it in with typography, Shirin Kouladjie as noted has made a series of portraits, and Heath Bunting uses it repeatedly as well, as in his portrait of the Web artist and teacher Natalie Bookchin at the left. The links, which are to her pages, are live on line and are I think quite brilliant additions, since on the Web, you are your links. For Cosic and others, ascii images are the point of intersection of several themes that we address in this book: imagetext and textual image, the computer as medium, the digital v. the analogic, low and high culture.

Very well, but why does Shulgin return in XXX to that most marginal of ascii deployments, the use of letters and other ascii characters to represent sex and the body? I think that he is tantalizing us at a limit of perception after the fashion of the spotlight. Just as we may peer at a text to try to puzzle out a meaning, so we can peer at the images, try blurring our vision (as with photo-mosaics) , try a different monitor resolution, and sometimes just wait a bit hoping for a coherent image to emerge (as with SIRD stereograms). The image is inherently of extremely low resolution, stripping both detail and shading and interposing the distracting forms of letters. How much resolution do you need to satisfy the eye? But even more importantly, why, even if we succeed in making out the figures and what they are doing, does ascii porn fail to arouse? Why is an ascii porno pic ludicrous? Mostly, I think, because we cannot imagine ourselves in a scene of viewing. Even with the spotlight, it is easy to naturalize what we are seeing in circumstances which may arise from time to time (glancing in a partially closed door, a window with the blind not drawn, through a lens, etc.) but ascii art is in no way, shape, or form how humans see.

Furthermore, the scale of ascii art is such that most images are too big to be viewed in one screen (assuming a fixed width font setting of 12 pt. Courier); in order to size them down (which increases the resolution), Shulgin sets the font size for "1" —the smallest size available, usually about 8 pt. (as I did for the screen capture of the Bookchin portrait). (Sometimes what you see are GIF screen captures of displayed ascii art which are visually scaled down.) Such tactics have the effect of reducing the size of each character, sometimes beyond the point at which it can be distinguished and certainly beyond the point at which we process them as letters, numbers, and typographic symbols. But for ascii art to have its special effect, it must hover just at the point where its characters can both be read and be lost in a pattern of light and dark. At normal browser settings, ascii art is usually too big to be viewed in one screen, and having to scroll further disturbs any remaining sense of immediacy. Ascii porn is not erotic because we cannot imagine ourselves "there"—much too obviously, there is no there there.


In their recent survey of meaning in the visual media, Practices of Looking, Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright maintain that reflexivity about viewing and image making is a major thread in Modernism, defining reflexivity as "the practice of making viewers aware of the material and technical means of production by featuring them in the image or as the 'content' of a cultural production" (248). The "means of production" we have concentrated on are the viewer and the shooter of photographs, or, one might say more broadly, scenes of viewing taking place publicly in museums and galleries, and privately in bedrooms; and scenes of shooting in studios and in the street. Viewer and shooter, of course, are individuals making images and making sense of images through their own individual acts. A single, comprehensive viewing point is presupposed, indeed, essential, in interpreting these images. They are "what someone saw, or could see" in a certain circumstance, and the circumstance is part of what we can see.

Portrait of Natalie Bookchin in Newspaper Dots

Figure 4.22
Newspaper screened portrait of N. Bookchin

Many of the images in the active-seeking section, though representational, only represent the world in fragments that cannot be composed into a single scene or view, or can only under strict limitations. Here the awareness of medium and mediation is unavoidable. Moreover, they remind us that our viewing on the Web is driven by desire, by lusts of the eye and mind, and shaped by a consumerist pursuit of commodities even to the level of attributes and body parts. "Torsos without heads or faces, yes," you may say, "the point is obvious there, but what of the ascii portraits? Is there not, even with their odd neo-primitive choice of letters and numbers, a return to the portrait, that anchor of individualism, bourgeois and otherwise? And in fact, doesn't all ascii art lead us back to the comfortably familiar icons of media culture?" Ascii symbols are not merely clusters of dot patterns (such as the rendering on the left); rather, they are made up of symbols which, though they are meaningless individually, draw and command us to read them. When we blur them, deliberately attempting to cancel their individual identities as symbols, we empty them of meaning in order than another can emerge. Heath Bunting's portrait of Natalie adds another layer of complexity by allowing some of the symbols to combine into meaningful words and in fact hypertext links to parts of her home site page. That in turn suggests that one's virtual presence on the Web is entirely composed of contrivances: the self of Natalie Bookchin is not something behind and beyond her images and words; her very physical being as represented on the Web is a tissue of words and floating symbols—such stuff/As dreams are made on.

We began this chapter with Kress and van Leeuwen's claim that people represented in images as looking at the viewer (and secondarily as gesturing toward the viewer) engage the viewer in an imaginary relationship: they appear to be "addressing" us, saying "you" to us.

When represented participants look at the viewer, vectors, formed by participants eyes, connect the participant with the viewer. Contact is established, even if it is only on an imaginary level. (122)

This is certainly a structuralist or image-oriented description of what happens. The language makes it sound like it happens automatically with little or no awareness by the viewer of its operation. In contrast, I have been elaborating an account which treats viewing/representing/posing as parts of a dramatic scenario which can become the main theme in an image. Usually, to be sure, it is not, and we have scenes of what we might call normal viewing when the motives and intentions of the viewer, maker, and person depicted are more or less bracketed and we simply see what is depicted. This is naive viewing, which is usually rapid and efficient. But one can break that frame in various ways, some of which are described in this chapter. The capacity to recognize and read these frame-breakings and to activate awareness of acts and conditions of image making are two parts of modern and postmodern visual literacy.

But hold up on the postmodern, just a moment. Postmodern, a number of writers proclaimed during the 1990s, means postphotographic. Although some seemed to be thinking of digital modification of photographs, and others of completely synthesized ones which simulate photographs, there was considerable agreement that the classic scenario of the photographer gazing through the viewfinder to record the world did not hold for digital and digitally modified images. In particular, the photographer is obsolete. As David Tomas says,

The ecological absorption of the photograph and the obsolescence of the photographer precipitate the cultural dissolution of the photographic eye. A postphotographic culture has no need for a witness, a transcendent and discriminating eye, to testify to the significance of events by organizing and fixing them according to a chronological code of before and after. With postphotography there is no longer a point of view, but visual contexts; no longer an eye, but a continuous contextually interactive, visually educative process in which biological eyes reflexively commune with the fragments and possibilities of their cultures.(153)

Tomas seems to merge the role of documentarist witnessing with that of artistic finding of the decisive moment and angle, and joins the chorus of Mitchell, Nichols, Ritchie, and others in intoning to the Subject: "life as you have known it is over. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." Others have questioned this conclusion, noting, as Kevin Robins did, that the loss seems to be mainly of a privileged connection to truth or to reality, and says almost nothing of how it alters the way photographic images can stir our memories and feelings. Martin Lister similarly points out that the innocence of the "photographic eye" said to be lost was largely based on popular misunderstandings of how photography works.

Figure 4.23
Ray Caesar: Detail of "Companion"

For our purposes, the status of a photograph as evidence is not the principal concern. But we do need to question how the obsolescence argument affects viewers as they look upon a representational ray-tracing, or a montage that cannot be resolved into a single scene or a single act of viewing. The montage is perhaps a mixed case, since its component images most likely started out as photographs, so that we could look on them as single photographs "at one remove." This is how I view quite a few of the photomontaged figures of Chapter Two, e.g., the images of Catherine McIntyre. Synthesized images, such as Figure 4.23, do in fact have a single point of view (i.e., "camera" position), and with sufficient attention to details, blemishes, and textures, can seem very realistic indeed (Figure 4.23 should be viewed in color, for the flesh tones are extraordinarily well done). Of course, one might argue that this new image, like so much Special Effects (SFX), is made to look like old images (photographic, or Ingres, perhaps), and the success of that emulation in no way comments on the way we view a truly postphotographic image, say, that of a Mandelbrot Set. But we quite often zoom into Mandelbrot images to (or near) the limit of our computer's resources in an unnatural and exhilarating way, like Alice down the rabbit hole. And as far as the lust test goes, the Web has links to many (naked) Lara Croft sites, including an interactive one where you undress her—Lara, whose polygons and textures are scarcely photorealistic. It is probably true that for pornographic purposes, most people would choose a photograph over a simulation because of the "being there effect," though for pornographic purposes one must overlook many indications of simulation in photographs as well. The imagination, it seems, is not particular enough to be postphotographic.