Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

I Am a Screen

I Am a Screen
(with apologies to Christopher Isherwood and John Van Druten)

Imagine projection onto the human body. This future cinema screen would have two distinct types of audience: the subjective (viewing by the “projectee” themselves), and the objective (viewing by other people).

Viewing by the person being projected onto would seem, at first, to limit surfaces to those comfortably within their line of sight: the front or back of the hand or arm, the knee, or the top of the thigh. However, one can imagine a sort of miniaturized road-trip narrative that moves across the landscape of the body. Following the story from place to place would require gentle stretching or strenuous isometric holds, creating a new hybrid form of entertainment- exercise. “Yoganimation”, perhaps.

Viewing projection on another person’s body – or even on one’s own – immediately lends itself to erotica. At last the promise in the term “touchscreen” can be fully realized. But there is also the ancient art of the mask, wherein the face is caked and cloaked to incarnate as an animal or spirit or demon or god, and where the tilting of an inanimate piece of chiseled wood can create new angles and shadows that suggest changing expressions. A projected mask could prompt a new storytelling style that harks back to the Expressionist silent film, with dialogue replaced by facially-projected visuals that belie Duncan’s line in Macbeth, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Or it could throw us forward into a new dramatic form where text and subtext are superimposed, and the spectator learns to read both the projected face and the flesh-and-blood expressions underneath it, the way a foreign-film aficionado can listen to original dialogue and read subtitles simultaneously.

A parent and child might play an updated version of “Round and round the garden” or “This little piggy” projected on the child’s palm or toes. Bathtime characters could be chased all over the body by a soapy washcloth, or a barbershop quartet could pop up one by one to sing a song from newly-brushed teeth. Projection onto two hands at once could turn them into two puppets in dialogue with one another, and by tracking how the hands are turned toward or away from each other, brought closer together or further apart, a responsive system could change that dialogue from cordial to combative. A narrative could be told from two perspectives, so that the parent watches one playing out on the palm of their hand, and on its back, the child watches the other. Or for a single viewer, two storylines could be intertwined so that one can flip back and forth between them with the turn of a wrist.

Corporeal projection would obviously be ideal for any kind of biological documentary taking viewers inside the very body they’re using as a screen. But it could also lend itself to more sociological films about the experience of ageing or race as inscribed on the body. Imagine a “touch-screen” interactive documentary mapped to sites of domestic abuse, or a time-lapse of the various physical effects of long-term homelessness, which the viewer can sense unfolding closer to home than any separate screen could show.

Melanin, of course, is a key issue in any of the above scenarios. The darker the “screen”, the narrower the possible range of shades that can be projected onto it. Perhaps rather than projection from above the surface, we should be envisioning a thin, flexible screen that one could stick on like anti-blister moleskin, after cutting it to the desired shape. The classic Dick Tracy wrist-television and the new Apple iWatch, both squares strapped to a wrist, require the viewer to hold their arm at an unnatural angle. But the hand’s most comfortably visible surfaces are the web of skin between the thumb and index finger, and the palm. How might an animation on that thumb-finger web echo what a person is drawing with the pencil held in those same digits? What film subjects would lend themselves a triangular or concave-circular frame?

For the viewer/screen-wearer, the final question is interoceptive: how does it feel to place one’s body in the position requested by the screen? Watching a feature on a huge screen from the front row is unlike watching it on an iPhone in most ways: the former opens the chest and throat while one gazes up in awe at the gods, while the latter is a private, hunch-backed affair, though both will leave you with a crick in your neck. What emotion is evoked in the viewer even before a film begins by the action of cupping it in the palm of your hand like a baby bird? Might a teenage girl get a movie manicure for a night out clubbing, with four tiny screens that turn on automatically when she makes the universal gesture of boredom or pointed disregard: inspecting one’s nails. And how would it feel to listen to the soundtrack of a horror film that you cannot see, because your friends are watching it projected on your back – or worse, that you can only catch glimpses of where it creeps up over your shoulder?

— Alison Humphrey

Wed, September 23 2015 » future cinema 2015, screen technologies, student work