Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Weird skies and CGI golf courses

Most mornings on my way into work I bike past a golf course.* It's over now, but there was a period of a few weeks recently when the ~8:00 AM weather and light tended most mornings to transform the golf course into, oddly enough, a vision of almost otherworldly beauty: the sharply contrasting shadows cast by the low sun over the rolling green hills softened by the thin but pervasive mist rising off of the dewy grass, rays of light cutting through the air, all that expanse of open space revealing a transformation of distance into indistinctness, and so forth. I'd look at it as I went past (or really around, as the bike path encircles the golf course, and the changing angles were an important part of the effect created) struck by the beauty, and try to suppress the thought--or perhaps more accurately the feeling--that so often came unbidden: it looks like a CGI effect.

*Which, incidentally, is there any better symbol of the wasteful and destructive decadence of this culture than a golf course?

Having begun operation in 1982, my brain neatly straddles a great divide. During my brain's most radically formative years the world of the visual arts was still almost exclusively analog, but just as my brain was reaching what is usually called "maturity," whatever that means, the digital technologies that had been making inroads all along reached a critical mass and became dominant. Even leaving aside all the disturbing material questions this shift raises, just in terms of look the change was enormous.

I can remember in my childhood and early youth looking at the sky, particularly cloudy skies and sunset skies--eventful skies--and thinking "Wow, it looks like a painting!" Even when I was very young this thought would usually be followed by a lot of fretting (I was a fretful child): "No, the sky doesn't look like a painting, some paintings look like the sky, oh god, is it bad that I thought it the other way around, do other people think this too, probably not, oh god, I'm weird and stupid, but maybe it's not stupid, is it good or bad, how do I know," etc., hopelessly muddled. Now when I look at the sky, I often still have largely the same thought process*, except that instead of "a painting" it's usually "a special effect" that I think the sky resembles. And these of course are only the moments when this process, no doubt always ongoing, comes to consciousness.

*Though more complicated now, as I realize that the statements "the sky looks like a painting" and "a painting looks like the sky" have a much more complex relationship than simple opposition or reversal, and both have a much more complex relationship to "truth" and "falsity" than I'd imagined.

(A side note, probably an important one but one I'm not quite sure what to make of: I think it's interesting that my earlier point of comparison was paintings, where now it's mostly things I see on TV and in movies. It's not like I spent my childhood leaving the TV off and gallivanting to museums. My older brother has always been a visual artist, and I was somewhat exposed to painting through him but never really "got it" the way he did; and I certainly watched a lot of television and movies. I find this shift particularly worrisome--especially if it's not "just me"--because I suspect that the more comparable our surroundings are to the most commodified forms of art, the more commodifiable those surroundings become.* On the other hand perhaps it just has to do with what I mostly was watching as a child; after all, it's not like the bizarrely beautiful and totally unreal skies of original series Star Trek planets could ever be mistaken for something you might really see, looking up.)

*An observation I owe in large part to Lyn Hejinian's prose poem beginning "The lamb butts its head against the udder," in The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which I happened to read in the midst of writing this.

But, to return to the transition from analog to digital. I might be wrong, but I don't think I'm just being contrarian or nostalgic when I say that I don't find this a change for the better. I'm not very happy about the world's often looking to me like something James Cameron maybe mocapped. True, sometimes I'll see something (often, indeed, the sky, or that same golf course) and instead of thinking "this looks like CGI" I'll think "this looks like a VHS landscape," which in its way is actually quite an expansive and lovely experience, and yet I confess I still find it a bit disturbing.

Heidegger says, very roughly, that art does not "represent" a world but rather creates it, founds it. He also says that art might very well be dead, no longer capable of this founding. I find myself in mixed agreement and disagreement with both notions, to whatever extent I can say I understand them.* At the very least art, or whatever it is that we find at the multiplexes, powerfully mediates "between" our selves and whatever it is that we're referring to when we say "the world."** Before the advent of CGI it would have been impossible to say that the sky looked like CGI--not just because the acronym would have been merely a meaningless sequence of letters, but because the sky in fact did not yet look like it. And it is certainly fruitless to ask what the sky "really looks like" in the absence of prior artistic intervention, because it's not as though we can choose for art not to have already intervened.

*And to whatever extent one can be said to "agree" or "disagree" with them, whatever that might mean.
** I am deeply unhappy with this formulation, not least because I doubt there is any such "between" and because the question of "the world" remains unasked.

All this is why (or at least one very large reason why) art is so scary and important, and why I feel so strongly that we need to take it seriously, both as creators and as recipients. I've only discussed visual art here, even though that's not my usual field, because in the realm of vision these effects are particularly dramatic and immediate; at least on this extremely basic level they are fairly easy to talk about. But think about the impact of written art, as well! What, for example, is all this "narrative" doing to us? What has it done?*

*Of course television and movies usually combine narrative with the visual, which makes them particularly worrying along these lines.

Even the language itself needs to be considered suspect. What does it mean that "to understand" and "to grasp" can be synonyms? Do the meanings of unrelated words that sound similar leak into one another? Why is it so hard to talk about art without using terms like "value" and "use", "explore" and "pioneer", "aesthetics" and "expression"; and what do these words say about our relationship to art, to ourselves, to one another? Why do we usually tell stories in the past tense?; when we tell them in the present tense, why do we do that?; and why do other options seem so nearly impossible? Why, in English, is the verb almost always placed like a wall between "subject" and "object"?

We need to be careful and thoughtful about what we expose ourselves to, and in what manner; we need to be careful and thoughtful about how we understand what we expose ourselves to. If we thoughtlessly assume that "realism" can in fact give us the real, we will find our own experience of reality radically shrunken and dimmed. If we recognize the problems of realism but ignorantly and ahistorically misattribute them or glibly consider them solved easily (and only!) by our own little endeavor, the problem will be no better. And all the talk, so common in sf circles, of "new twists" and "subverted tropes" constitutes, as I see it, not an engagement with these problems but merely their entrenchment.

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