In 2011, Hito Steyerl wrote an entry in E-Flux Journal titled In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, in which she discussed the advent of the science of linear perspective – a system of straight lines and vanishing points used to construct the illusion of 3-Dimensional space on a 2-Dimensional picture surface. After explaining that linear perspective is, in essence, an approximation of space – negating the curvature of the earth among other complications and acting as a ‘tool kit for enabling western dominance’ – she goes on to outline its demise, elaborating on her ideas of the artificial horizon having arisen from the need for early seafarers to have a stable ground for navigation.
‘The viewer is mirrored in the vanishing point, and thus constructed by it. The vanishing point gives the observer a body and a position. But on the other hand, the spectator’s importance is also undermined by the assumption that vision follows scientific laws. While empowering the subject by placing it at the centre of vision, linear perspective also undermines the viewer’s individuality by subjecting it to supposedly objective laws of representation.’ (Hito Steyerl, Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, 2011, E-Flux Journal #24)
By discussing the coinciding forces of the disintegration of humanity during the overseas slave trade, and the disintegrating horizon line as seen in J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship (indicating the beginning of a modernity in painting which would, for the next 200 years, routinely dismantle this prevailing perspective), Steyerl present to us the replacement for this long-established method of constructing 3D space: a world governed instead by multi-angled surveillance, where objects are mapped, placed, and defined by aerial views and scans which, according to Steyerl, present just as many problems in terms of subjectivity and stability as linear perspective.
A few years after this article was published, Oliver Miro, son of the art dealer and gallerist Victoria Miro, begun the development of Vortic Collect – an application in which gallery spaces and artworks are scanned photogrammetrically (photographed from all angles and reconstituted into a virtual 3D object) so that smoothly navigable online spaces (a slightly different method from Matterport) can be either recreated in the image of physical galleries or constructed entirely from scratch. After using this app on a friend’s phone (not available on android), I was given some new mutated subjectivity in which the phone was the picture plane, giving me access to replicas of galleries, entirely fabricated galleries, and the ability to view artworks on my own wall at home – in case circumstances were such that I might want to (or could) buy them.
Initially, it seemed that this method of viewing through the new picture plane of the phone or computer screen was a return to Hito Steyerl’s linear perspective which ‘created the illusion of a quasi-natural view to the “outside”, as if the image plane was a window opening onto the “real” world.’ However, on closer inspection, it started to reveal itself as modernity folding over on itself, rather than returning full circle to the 11th Century. The essence of a photogrammetrically scanned object is one of surveillance: the object is accessible from all angles; it can be rotated and moved around as though it were a concept in some product design software; and it can be pinched, squeezed, and viewed through impossibly wide photographic angles, causing it to warp and shift in ways that only an impossible object could. All these are functions of the rich history of a steadily disintegrating horizon line – from the multi-angled approach of early cubism to the apparent loss of all perspective or subjectivity in abstract expressionism, and with advances in photography and optics physically warping these straight lines and vanishing points. Our viewport has the hallmark of traditional perspective, but, when presented with the virtual gallery, we are in fact God – given unfettered access to every angle. I even found myself, as surely many did, testing my authority, or the authority of the space, by ‘breaking the game’ – going where physics would suggest I couldn’t.
The photogrammetric scan transfers physical materials briefly into a digital world – often in cases where those physical paintings actually informed the visual aesthetics of the digital space they inhabit. The entire situation is profoundly confusing, and it is ultimately no surprise to me that the first outing of Vortic was for a joint presentation of artists represented by Victoria Miro and David Zwirner for the cancelled art fair Art Basel: Hong Kong.
For those artist-led spaces who don’t have around £11,000 to have their spaces and works photogrammetrically scanned, or perhaps spaces whose artists’ work has less of an inclination to be pasted onto a collector’s wall in augmented reality, what have been some other solutions? Aside from galleries such as Lisson Gallery and the Tate, who have been providing consistently engaging online moving image screenings, and spaces such as Auto Italia, who have taken the approach of online texts and projects, one notable space (which appeared at the beginning of lockdown and has since gained modest attention) is Implied Gallery (@implied.gallery) – which I stumbled across when they hosted a virtual exhibition for the release of the EP Wicked City by London-based musical duo Jockstrap.
The important difference between Implied Gallery and Vortic is that with the former there is no photogrammetry. Rather than opting for the half-drawn, half-photographic approach, the space is entirely computer generated and the works, for the most part, are created digitally rather than scanned from physicals.
Now, it is undoubtable that the same confusion which I found present in Vortic is also present here, however under a slightly different guise. The driving force behind this artist-led virtual space is diametrically opposed to the driving force behind Vortic and possibly Matterport (that being, to put it simply, sales), and this is reflected in the medium. The up-front and immediately admitted intangibility of the objects in the ‘sculpture park’ (you can walk right through them) is a sign of a space with a strong sense of awareness of the complexities of its own task; the embrace of the impossible infinite space, with digital sculptures receding behind an artificial mist, is a further acceptance of that intangibility; and the non-complex rendering which harks to the early years of gaming (think GTA San Andreas) is 2020’s answer to the cheapness of ‘found object’ in the early 20th Century. Even Implied’s use of soundtracks in their exhibitions – sometimes binaurally mapped to the space (seeming to be coming from a specific location when headphones are used) – pushes the experience further and further from the physical gallery which we are used to – the one that Vortic and Matterport are trying to digitally recreate.
Both Vortic and Implied Gallery, aside from the implications of their respective methods of construction, have a game-like consistency. However, exploring Implied Gallery is a departure from the ubiquitous feeling that everything is now for sale – a feeling that has seemed present since lockdown begun. Moving around the virtual space of Implied Gallery using the ‘w’, ‘a’, ‘s’ and ‘d’ keys for arrows is a new and engaging system, and is certainly worthy of further discussion; it is the same kind of ‘videogame’ experience that Vortic presents, but it feels a bit less like your dad is playing.