Lily Melendez

Project #2: Attention as Media Collection

By Lily Melendez

Disney’s World of Color (2010); Walt Disney Creative Entertainment Team; Water fountains, mist screen, fire, lighting, fog; Anaheim, California

Since the early 20th century, Disney has reimagined the world of storytelling. With Disney’s World of Color, the team has created a whole new experience of entertainment by making the environment their screen. This environment includes over 1,200 jets of water that, when streamed together in harmony with music, produce a screen of collective mist in which vibrant colors can be projected upon. Designed by Steve Davison, this exhibit capitalizes on the illusion of the screen with water, color, and fire–shining light on past techniques of screen practice. Families who attend this spectacle can see familiar stories and characters in a way that is truly magical.

Montreal Botanical Garden: Mother Earth (2013); Mosaicultures Internationales de Montreal; Mountain, flower beds, grass, water; Quebec, Canada

Spanning 190 acres, the Montreal Botanical Garden cultivates massive, lifelike sculptures by using the environment as the clay and canvas. The garden is an open book of sorts, displaying animals, cultural heroes, fable stories, and history in a manner that attends to the senses of all who visit. Towering about 50 feet tall with over 60,000 plants intertwined, this three-dimensional sculpture, Mother Earth, serves to portray the indigenous stories of nature as well as the effects of American colonialism. With flowers blooming atop her hair and a rolling waterfall cascading through her hand, Mother Earth acts as a screen of time, conveying invisible histories visibly with canopies of bright flora.

Crevasse (2008); Edgar Mueller; Paint, 2700 sq ft; Dun Laoghaire, Ireland

Carrying along the techniques of depth and dimensionality from Renaissance times, street artists have modernized the art of illusion within a whole new medium–the sidewalk. Using vivid paint and grids, these artists manipulate the human eye and depict screens of hyperrealistic images on a completely flat environment. This artist in particular is German painter, Edgar Mueller who brought the ‘ice age’ to Ireland at the Festival of World Cultures. Backed by the Goethe Institution in Germany, the project integrates the use of angles, perspective, depth of perception, and rich colors, allowing the viewers to fall deeply into the cave of ice and the magic of the creation.

The Environment as The Screen

In the Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, film historian, Charles Musser denotes “screen practice” as a transformative process of technology and art in creating lifelike projections (Musser 1990, 18). Musser particularly attends to the idea of screen practice as ever-evolving, mirroring cultural developments of the time. The word ‘practice,’ then, does not give us a clear definition but rather allows us to understand the screen as an application of viewing not limited to artistic or technological formats nor inhibited by singular outlets. Within my media collection, I have assembled three outlets of screen practice that all bestow a sense of tangibility in viewing by introducing the evolving environment as the medium and screen. 

The three objects include Disney’s World of Color, the Montreal Botanical Garden, and Mueller’s 3D sidewalk art. It is vital to point out the concept of feigned depth or “immediate, apparent tangibility” as an idea that is carried through time from the practice of 16th to 17th century optical tools like the magic lantern as well as the Renaissance artistic birth of perspective (Robinson 2003, 124). In the case of this media collection, these exhibits both separately and collectively create a sense of tangible images, transforming senses of reality and illusion, visibility and invisibility, with the tactility of natural elements as the exploiters of the human eye. Despite the absence of a physical screen, the objects focus our attention on techniques of screen practice and the importance of visible and invisible assemblages. And, ultimately, the pieces capture the power of verisimilitude, an overwhelming truth that what the observer is seeing is apparent, multidimensional, and exciting. 

Considering each individually, we can comprehend the choices of specific formal elements as purposive efforts to communicate a revitalized screen practice as a conveyor of hidden, invisible contexts. In particular, Disney’s World of Color revolutionizes the technique of projection by taking away the blank screen altogether. With thousands of moving water jets, the device creates an invisible screen of mist in which multiple streams of light and color cultivate a visible storytelling of Disney’s beloved films and characters. Much like the kaleidoscope and catoptric lamp, the tool utilizes “tricks of mechanics, movement or light” to bridge the divide between flat pictures and moving works of art through distorting visibility (Robinson 2003, 30). For instance, the screen practice of the catoptric lamp attends to the observers’ sluggishness of the eye and ability to quickly fuse and blend images together with its different slides and light uses; whereas, Disney’s exhibit also manifests a similar sensation of movement and blending by pairing rapidly moving water and changing projections of color. Regarding the theme of visible and invisible assemblages, this piece attends to the invisible as on the surface the exhibit is merely a play of streaming water and light; yet, with the observers’ attentive connection to the images, the static elements of nature can emerge as alive, animatedly existing, and stimulating. 

In a similar way, Edgar Mueller’s street art also encompasses the multidimensionality granted by using nature as the canvas. As Disney’s water is directed in distinct lines of movement in relation to the projected streams of HD color and light, the depth-creating gridlines of Mueller’s work set atop a flat surface equally serve to emulate false mobility. Creating his work, Mueller uses lines of perspective to produce a subjective visual phenomena of reality, attending to the limits of the human eye. For example, depending on where the observer stands, he can either see a complete image like that of Mueller’s Crevasse piece in which the observer is meant to feel like he is falling down a hole of a broken glacier; or when seen in the unintended position, he may notice the false, oversized dimensions of the artwork needed to feign reality. This element of screen practice is equally looked upon in the creation of the phenakistoscope and is referred to as anamorphosis, in which “the location of an observer…to an intervening screen could exploit the durational properties of retinal afterimages” (Crary 1991, 106). To clarify, as the observer only notices depth and movement when looking through a specific slit on the phenakistoscope, he is also forced to focus his attention on his positioning of his own body when viewing the illusory street art in order to attain the goal of tangibility. The invisible understanding of this piece is the magic of its illusion as the observer feels a contrived, tangible sense of falling into a crevice of ice; while the true visual assemblage is one of a stagnant environment with little exciting meaning.

As both the World of Color and Crevasse rely on nature to depict arrangements of illusion, the Montreal Botanical Garden is similarly designed to give life to stationary visuals. The garden depicts stories and figures through shaping flowers and grass in a way that attends to the observers’ understanding of hidden meanings. Specifically, the garden’s 2013 exhibit of Mother Earth is distinct from other sculptures as it acts as more of a deeper, multifaceted piece of communicating a history to the public. Mother Earth is seen as an “intermediar[y] between [its] admirers and the world [it] represents…where the invisible meets the visible” (Pomian 1990, 24-34). Much like a movie on a screen or an artifact in a museum as described by philosopher, Krzysztof Pomian, having the artwork on display enables a dialogue between the past happenings and the current observer, making the “stuff of legend [a] reality” (Eco 2009, 201). The history of the indigenous symbol of Mother Nature with her extended arm holding a waterfall and deer is juxtaposed with the colonialism of American peoples as an eagle (a symbol of American government) is placed in her opposing hand. These symbols are the invisible meanings that we see as touchable visible assemblages. Altogether, the essence of all three objects use environmental means to convey invisible meanings: World of Color creates a screen and spaces of movement in which there are not, Mueller’s street art portrays fantasies of depth and palpability on a two dimensional surface, and the garden sculptures mediate the forgotten divides in history through massive displays of symbolic work. 

In order to fully examine the necessity to have these objects converged in a collection, we must understand the items all work together to direct our attention by means of the context in which they are each observed. The environment is as important as a substitute for a screen as it is an area for the observer to experience. This is due primarily to the environment allowing an atmosphere in which almost all five senses are engaged simultaneously. The observer can touch the water, the light, and the ground beneath them and feel as though they are an integral component of the observation. That is to say, by placing the observer in outside and familiar spaces, these objects emphasize the strength of subjective identification with the items’ invisible meanings. When viewing the beloved Disney characters dance about the water streams, the observer may become aware of his own familiarity with the visuals in a space that manifests nostalgia as a touchable sensation. The water and light can be felt when standing close to the exhibit, making the observer part of the experience, part of the story he has grown up with. 

Likewise, Mueller specifically draws his street art on sidewalks that are accessible to the public, encouraging a “collective viewing” that “liberate[s] screen practitioners from the elaborate setups” of past visual projection techniques like that of the magic lantern and stereoscope (Musser 1990, 19). The transition from private viewing to a group setting allows Mueller’s ‘screen’ of sidewalk art to function as a convergence of the mass audience in feeling visuals as more tangible interactions. The relationship between the observer and the piece becomes symbiotic in both World of Color and Mueller’s art as the viewer’s interaction with the environment is what is truly bringing vitality to the items. Finally, the Montreal Botanical sculptures attend to the sense there is no boundary or “border between the real and the imaginary” (Huhtamo 2001). The observers are meant to walk through meadows of greenery and flora before coming upon the massive sculptures; so, when the pieces are made known, the observers see them as both realistic projections of the ground and magical assortments of symbolic life. The sculptures engage the interplay of the observers’ minds in recognizing logical statues of flora as almost anthropomorphic living animals and beings. 

With this in mind, we can see how nature has become fundamental to the observers’ experience within this media collection. Nature gives life to the pieces just as the observer finds meaning where there is not explicit, animated meaning being given. If I were to add other objects to this collection, I would probably include Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty made in 1970 and the 17th century camera obscura as both involve nature in facilitating an image or pattern and focus attention on the observers’ tactile connection to the object itself. All things considered, with the combination of the physical environment and fluctuating screen practice techniques, this media collection notably transforms temporary wonders into fundamentally everlasting and unforgettable impressions for the observer.

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