On Resolution

“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” [1]

Prophetically, Borges described the progression towards complexity affecting the contemporary comprehension of the world as an insatiable craving for higher resolution, or the necessity to impose control by means of graphic detail. Higher the resolution is, tighter the control. In fact, it’s quite manifest that geographical societies, responsible for collecting and graphically editing data about unknown territories, emerged in the first half of the XIX century anticipating by few decades the latest colonial expansion, worked as an extension of imperial power[2]. Cartography in general, had borned has a military tool, to survey a territory before the occupation.

An historical footage recorded in 1916 during the First global conflict, framed some british generals discussing strategies while walking on a gigantic scale model of Central Europe; with a pointing stick, one of them circled around the warfield, indicating a section of the 700 km long trench dividing the Germans from the allied forces. It might have been fascinating and slightly dazing to step on a continent with their boots, observing a very detailed morphology from a supernatural position; they were high ranked generals indeed.

Lately, designing process has been highly affected by the same Borgesque paradox. Digital simulacra can provide a complete scansion of a building, a manual based on a multiscalar taxonomy of each bolt involved in structuring the project. Drawings nested in drawings nested in a drawing, describe not only physical elements, but also cost analyses, time schedules, post-occupancy projections, climate simulations. Anticipating the 1:1 final output, the BIM environment offers a fully immersive experience, much more involving than entering the physical space that it describes, one could argue. The relentless progression towards a quasi-infinite resolution often leads to the redefinition of human condition within the natural realm. Not by chance, the invention of the airplane, contributing in detaching man from the earth soil, dazed humankind in believing to have acquired supernatural power in describing and creating his own habitat. Consequently, resolution is the standard protocol through which experience is expanded out of the physical limitation of the human organs, the eye. The nominal unit, the pixel, is extra-human, being detected thanks to technological protheisis of the senses, and simultaneously human by product. In other words what is an ever-expanding set of human tools, is also generating super-human conventions[3]. While Sapiens learnt to transform and domesticate earth through technology, the latest is terraforming the human experience. As Hannah Arendt explained in her interpretation of the human condition, there is a dynamic tendency to escape from the confines of the earth, i.e the physical world, spurred by technology and modern science[4]. Thus, the collection of images of the world is the basic attempt to produce an alternative environment, the digital realm that is simultaneously describing and transforming nature. A brand new world regulated by brand new protocols; physical boundaries such as light, gravity, speed, temperature are replaced by pixel, color code, latency. Within the process of achieving the infinite resolution, the set of digitalization tools has reached the critical point of auto-generation: the digital realm is disanchored from reality and is now creating new realities, deeper and more detailed than reality itself. Is the 77 x 53 cm original Gioconda telling more about its iconography, its techniques and ultimately its state of conservation, than its 2,835 × 4,289 pixels digital simulation?

In 2016 the joint venture between Microsoft, Tu Delft and Ing presented the project “Next Rembrandt”, aiming to resurrect the art of the renaissance flemish master by means of Artificial Intelligence. In eighteen months a team composed by engineers, arts historian, computer scientist and art curators carefully collected 150 gigabytes of data on Rembrandt’s artworks; digital images, 3d scanning, heat map, historical records…everything had been involved in building a database in order to decipher the secrets behind the artist’s brushing. Once the digital image was complete a height mapping software coupled with a robotic brush started to create new masterpieces. The subjects of the portraits were generated interpolating the fisionomy of the figures depicted in the real paintings. Suddenly, an alternative dimension emerged from a past that never took place; new faces, new stories, a very detailed anthropography diverging from reality; an inflated aura so accurate to confuse the perception of reality[5].

Yet, the Virtual is a derivative dimension, the byproduct of the constant recording routines that write history. It’s still a static background, a very complex canvas. It’s registering reality, inflated by every single detail, positive or negative, visual description of the horror behind the agency of men, that inform the digital dimension. It’s interesting to notice how the lack of curatorial selection of details that occured within the introduction of mechanical reproduction can be subverted through a critical use of tools[6]. Some of the artwork produced by Gerhard Richter are exemplar.

One his blurred painting, Onkel Rudi (1965), portraits a smiling nazi soldier dressed with the grey uniform of the wehrmacht. Richter based the artwork on a photograph of one of his relatives; the blurred technique he used, effectively censored the embarrassing aura around the small nazi details informing about the raw cruelty behind the uniform of his uncle; no runic symbols or iron crosses are detectable in the picture as well as the skull conventionally ornating the uniform hat. Apparently it depicts just the image of a relative, a proud soldier. Nonetheless, the gray background, the stark facade behind the figure, the overall silhouette given by the uniform unconsciously recall the terror inoculated in the common sense by the nazist social experiment. Richter created an iconographical hierarchy starting from an higher resolution image and blurring according to his own sensibility[7]. His attitude demonstrated a much more mature use of technology in cutting out curatorial freedom from the appealing viscosity of details offered by the adoption of new tools. Technology can be hacked, downgraded, purged, systematically reduced, deteriorated, eroded, abased, decomposed,in something inefficient and yet full of beauty.

[1]Borges, Jorge Luis, and Andrew Hurley. The Aleph and Other Stories “On Exactitude of Science”. New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 2004.

[2]Morrissey, John. “The Imperial Present: Geography, Imperialism, and Its Continued Effects.” The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography, 2013, 494-507.

[3]Meshkani, Taraneh, and Ali Fard. Geographies of Information. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

[4]Arendt, Hannah, Danielle S. Allen, and Margaret Canovan. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

[5]“The Next Rembrandt.” The Next Rembrandt. Accessed August 27, 2018. https://www.nextrembrandt.com/.

[6]“We’re not here to capture an image” wrote Delillo in White Noise, “we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies”. Here the concept of Aura expressed by Walter Benjamin is overturned to its inverse.

[7]Richter, Gerhard, Christine Mehring, Jeanne Anne. Nugent, and Jon L. Seydl. Gerhard Richter: Early Work, 1951-1972. Los Angeles, Calif: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.