The man sitting next to me is jabbing, thrusting and waving the remote around to no noticeable effect at all. I’m sharing a bench with two other people inside Swiss artist Alexander Hahn’s installation Luminous Point at the SFMoma.
For the last minute or so we and the people clustered around the entranceway have been staring at a static screen showing the interior of Hahn’s apartment: a beckoning doorway taunting us. He gives up and sets the remote down on the short podium and I snatch it up, perhaps a little impatiently. Hey, I grew up on video games while his generation was complaining about not being able to program their VCRs, right? He gives a little snort and wishes me luck. For a second I’m aware of the strange miniature drama playing out. His pride is obviously hurt a bit and would be mollified by the discovery that the thing was broken.
Visions of my roommates challenging each other to a game of Wii baseball last night pop into my head but I hold my arrogance in check and take the time to read the instructions on the podium. For all intents and purposes this is a regular DVD remote. I’m to arrow around the screen until a white flare appears indicating a selectable item or field. This is familiar if a little archaic. There was a time waaay back in the ’80s when the term “point and click” indicated a video game that was regarded by some as a step down in interface design and derogatively referred to as a “pixel hunt.” Nowadays it’s standard navigation for anyone who owns a DVD player.
But I spy a button that’s just what we need right now: “top menu.” The screen abruptly shudders and we’re now looking at a window. “How did you do that?” the man asks me and I tell him. When all else fails, hit “Escape.”
Now that I’m in control I have nothing but sympathy for him. This thing is hellishly unresponsive. The instructions note that it is slow to acknowledge your button presses and it’s becoming obvious that the man wasn’t stymied by being less than tech savvy. He was stymied for expecting the program to act like devices this is modeled after that we’re all familiar with. When a white blob, like the reflection of light on glass appears on the screen, seemingly of its own accord, I quickly press “Enter” and dutifully wait.
On the video we are zooming in on the window and in the darkened room there’s a curious sensation of weightlessness. Somewhere between the frame and beyond we’ve dissolved into an opaque screen through which typeface can be dimly perceived. The camera tilts and pulls back revealing a block of ice or salt block which had been magnifying the pages of an open book. We continue drifting back on an invisible dolly and then travel inches from the surface of the floor where the eye can take in every granule of crumbling plaster or concrete. A handful of what looks like doll hair or a shredded wig pass by and our gaze travels upward to the rocky shore of a lake. Wait- what? The transition is seamless and there is no time to replay it in the mind to determine where we segued from one to the other because we have already crossed the water and are travelling up a cliff face toward the sky. With Méliès-like bravura we’ve somehow become a seated passenger looking out the window of an airplane and as we cast our eyes around the cabin at the passing stewardess and the in-flight monitors the passengers have become cafegoers studying menus.
I’m aware of some of the tricks at play here: for example cutting a shot as the camera passes behind someone’s back. It’s classic Hitchcock stuff. But in other instances I find it hard to discern where apartment floor becomes seashore or when a cluster of trees gave way to rooftops and water towers. Hahn has an uncanny ability to spot the analogues in textures. Eventually we find our way back to the apartment, by way of a crowded subway car.
Most people are conversant with this mode of virtual travel. Many websites offer quicktime panoramas of movie sets or church interiors that can be spun about on a fixed axis to view 360 degrees of surrounding architecture. You have nowhere near that amount of freedom here. Attempting to arrow left or right to see what is on an adjoining wall is just as likely to activate a hot spot which propels you on another journey. Fans of First Person Shooter games like Bioshock, used to being able to travel about at ease in any direction, might feel a numbing lack of control. At times our familiarity with the conventions of such games is a liability. Often the scene will fade out, objects becoming fuzzy, which in modern video games is a queue that your persona is losing consciousness. It’s a disquieting sensation brought on by years of conditioning.
In fact what this reminds me of more than anything is a children’s game called The Manhole that was released in 1988. It was inspired in part by Alice in Wonderland, like so many other works of artists who appreciate the book’s convincing suggestions that there is a kind of logic to our dreaming states (Jan Svankmajer’s Alice and more recently The Matrix come to mind). In the game, clicking on an image will take you on a quick animated journey. But things do not always remain as they first appear. Beanstalks erupt through the manhole in the blink of an eye; objects enlarge and diminish at a click.
It is hard to resist clicking everything that catches the eye just to see what will happen next. It’s small wonder that the games creators went on to make their fortunes with the bestselling game Myst which is almost a spiritual sequel.
What The Manhole teaches the player is not to believe everything you see and also to hold one’s expectations in check. It has the opposite effect of the sensation of most video games in fact. To enjoy it, you needed to submit rather than assume control. Deferring an immediate pleasure for a greater future one, often one found in later contemplation, is a feature of much art and literature. In the latter, you forfeit the joys of a good page turner and force yourself to work at, say, more deliberate prose, in the hope of discovering an unexpected satisfaction.
This is very much the case with Luminous Point I think. In a way it’s probably a good thing that the remote is so dodgy, so counter to the basics of good design and so lacking in feedback. It teaches you to have the patience to accept its quirks. After a while I had no problems with it. If I found that I could not go where I willed, I settled for the first hot spot I could find and sat back and enjoyed the journey. Hahn’s jaunts are as close to a trip through a daydream as I’ve ever seen. One minute you’re staring out a window at home and the next you’re replaying a memory and without a break between them practicing a conversation you know you’ll have to have with a friend or boss. The scenes change without any fussing about with the props, without black clothed stage hands quietly tidying up. And all that time you’ve never left off staring out the window. Somehow you’re aware that it’s begun raining even though there is a movie playing simultaneously in your mind. Luminous Point reminds us that wherever we are, our imaginations enlarge that space to encompass anything we might be musing upon. There are kingdoms and landscapes and characters that can erupt within the tiny space of an apartment existing anywhere, nowhere. I remember reading once an interesting fact about dreaming. Neurologists studying the amygdala were surprised to discover that the dreaming state continued in an abated form throughout our waking hours. How much of our reasoning and perception involves dreaming it into understanding?
People have drifted in and out of the room and now it’s just me and another woman patient enough to watch the scenes play out. I’ve been pretty much running the show and as I get up she asks how to work the controller. I give her a quick primer on how I managed it warning her about how much lag time there was between selection and playback. Before I go I wish her luck.