Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Robespierre's tears and other stories about the truth of images

W.J. Stillman, Picture of the Parthenon
 Athens, 1870. From Antiquity and Photography
Getty Digital Collection
I have spent the last weeks reading about representation of cultural heritage. I went a little bit into reception studies, touched art and photography history and took some dust off my semiotic background. As you can expect, the issues are many, complex and diverse. Especially when we talk about ancient cultural heritage. But there are a couple of points I want to highlight. 

The first one is that every representation (in any medium) is an interpretation. There is always something of the person that is producing it, the culture they belong to, and the tools that are using. This probably sounds redundant and definitely not new. Unless you are attending a 3D imaging conference. Then, you will probably hear concepts like «perfect copy» and «objective recording» more times that you are comfortable with. 
I thought academics had already agreed many years ago on the fact that photographies do lie, or, better, represent the author’s personal view of reality. Inexplicably, the concept doesn’t seem to apply to new imaging techniques such as photogrammetry or laser scanning. 

The second point is that cultural objects (well, probably all objects but let’s talk about cultural heritage) are not fixed in time. They change and evolve, like living things. It becomes even more apparent when we talk about buildings. They are planned, built, damaged, restored, altered, repurposed, abandoned.
So, actually, when we produce a visualisation of something we should always clarify which moment of the «life» of the object we are actually representing.

To deal with the chronological dimension, some 3D visualisation projects have introduced a timeline. For example, UCLA's Digital Roman Forum and Digital Karnak show how buildings have changed, as singles and in relationship with each other. In Digital Karnak, more specifically, it’s possible to pick a period and see which buildings have been built, modified or destroyed at the time.
I found this approach very informative. However, it kind of assumes that the only segment of the life of an object (or place) we’re interested in is from when it is produced to when it is abandoned or destroyed.
Fragonard, J., 1775 Travellers viewing a skeleton at
Pompeii. (Such "discoveries" were often staged
to please prestigious guests)
I think that what happens to cultural heritage when it is discovered, recorded, exhibited and disseminated is still an interesting matter. Objects keep changing, even after their uncovering. Even when they are closed in a glass cabinet. And I am not only talking about material changes, but also about how changes the way we look at them.

Let’s consider Pompeii. The circumstances of its destruction often make people think that it came out from the earth exactly as we see it now. That it emerged perfectly intact, as, to use Lazer's words, a sort of Sleeping Beauty castle. Which is rather far from the truth. A quick look at pictures of the excavations shows how much the place has been changing in the last 250 years: how much of it has been restored, adjusted, twitched, when not completely staged for the tourist’s gaze.

So, my point is, mainly, that all representations are partial and biased. And using cutting edge techniques doesn’t change it. They can be more or less accurate, but are always subjective. Which is not a bad thing per se, as long as there is a general awareness of the limits of the representation process, and, even more important, when we can compare different interpretations that enrich and complement each other. 
And I’m afraid we, somehow, ended up with multivocality and multi-authorship. Again.
To make up for this, I’m going to tell some (possibly funny) stories connected to representations and interpretations. Many, but not all of them, involving Pompeii. Starting with one of my favorite anecdote about the “truth of images” by father of cinema Sergej Eisenstein:

I cannot resist the pleasure of citing here one montage tour de force of this sort, executed by Boitler. One film bought from Germany was Danton, with Emil Jannings. As released on our screens, this scene was shown: Camille Desmoulins is condemned to the guillotine. Greatly agitated, Danton rushes to Robespierre, who turns aside and slowly wipes away a tear. The sub-title said, approximately, 'In the name of freedom, I had to sacrifice a friend...' Fine. 
But who could have guessed that in the German original, Danton, represented as an idler, a petticoat chaser, a splendid chap and the only positive figure in the midst of evil characters, that this Danton ran to the evil Robespierre and... spat in his face? And that it was his spit that Robespierre wiped from his face with a handkerchief? And that the title indicated Robespierre's hatred of Danton, a hate that in the end of the film motivates the condemnation of Jannings-Danton to the guillotine! 
Two tiny cuts had reversed the entire significance of the scene!
(Eisenstein, S. 1949. Film form: Essays in Film Theory)

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