Superficial Thinking: Screen Practices and Screen Architectures

Giuliana Bruno,  Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media
Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media

Giuliana Bruno. Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 277 pp., 80 color ills., 6 b/w. $45, $36 e-book

Giuliana Bruno’s latest book is that rarest of gems: a patient and profound intellectual engagement, sweeping in scope, which is nonetheless a pleasure to read. It is this latter quality that first strikes the reader of Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. Although I will have cause to expand on this further, it is worth noting at the outset that Bruno’s work has consistently been marked by her characteristically intimate and mellifluous prose (she is remarkably attuned to etymological concerns and often weaves complex skeins of argument structured around wordplay). Streetwalking on a Ruined Map (Princeton University Press, 1992), which emerged from Bruno’s NYU dissertation, displayed her formidable grasp of the history and theory of moving images, architecture, and the visual arts. Moving smoothly across often-discontinuous terrain, she mapped out a cultural geography that focused on the work of Elvira Notari, a major yet (until then) marginalized Italian filmmaker.

In the years since, Bruno’s peculiar yet emphatically interdisciplinary touch has resulted in a collection of essays investigating the ongoing spatialization of art and the construction of a “public intimacy” across the fields of art and architecture (Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts, 2007), and a magisterial exploration of the history of the spatiovisual arts as they have developed into modernity (Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film, 2002). Atlas of Emotion saw Bruno developing some radical concepts that shift critical focus from optics to haptics. Linking the history of sight with its operations in space (site), and emphasizing the crucial importance of motion to the production of emotion, Bruno called for an unusual approach to visual studies. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed; Streetwalking on a Ruined Map received the 1993 Katherine Singer Kovács award for the best book in film studies, and Atlas of Emotion won the 2004 Kraszna-Krausz award for the “world’s best book on the moving image.”

We are clearly moving in illustrious circles here. The purpose of this opening sketch is twofold: on the one hand, I want to trace the general contours of Bruno’s highly idiosyncratic approach to visual studies (one that, as I’ll indicate later, holds significant promise for contemporary currents in the fields of film and visual studies and the history of art). On the other, it concerns me—given the daring scope and originality that has marked Bruno’s work—that there are hardly any critical reviews or sustained engagements with her evolving thought to be found today. In part, I’m convinced that this lack has something to do with the shackles of disciplinary specificity that tend to constrain our work. In this context, perhaps my own enthusiasm for Bruno’s work stems from my professional allegiance to the disciplines of both cinema and media studies and the history of art. The sheer breadth of knowledge that Bruno seems capable of bringing to bear—ranging across centuries of thought on vision and visuality, space, architecture, the body, cartography, museology, optics, haptics, and virtually every other relevant topic—can prove overwhelming to the reader accustomed to the specialization of most scholarship.

That is not to suggest that Bruno lacks precision or analytical depth. Not at all. Rather, Bruno delights in tracing a meandering narrative (she freely mingles critical acuity with a personal voice that is often effortlessly graceful) across a vast landscape, pausing occasionally to look closely at some interesting object or other. Building on concepts already articulated in her previous books, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media both deepens Bruno’s theoretical contributions and presents her definitive work to date.

Something of the ambition of Surface reveals itself when one peruses the acknowledgments section. Across four large-format pages (the book is large and lavishly illustrated), we encounter the names of scholars, critics, artists, and institutions representing architecture and the visual arts, cinema, and critical theory. Before delving into a work of such obvious scope, scrutinizing this section provides a map of sorts to Bruno’s enterprise. Introducing the book by quoting Lucretius’s words from De Rerum Natura (“There exist what we call images of things / Which as it were peeled off from the surfaces of objects / Fly this way and that through the air . . .”), Bruno begins with a gesture of defiance.

Her defiance here consists in arguing for “materiality in the virtual age, seeking to show how it manifests itself on the surface tension of media in our times” (2). As most of us are likely aware, the question of materiality—or the lack thereof under the pressures of “the digital”—has come under intense scrutiny in the past decade or two. For example, Bruno’s former colleague at Harvard’s department of visual and environmental studies, D. N. Rodowick, has written at length on the “desubstantiated image” and the virtual afterlife of film in the digital era. Against the grain of much contemporary denigration of materiality, Bruno sets out a claim for revising our notions of materiality such that it is “not a question of materials but rather . . . the substance of material relations.” Thus bypassing staid quarrels over medium-specificity, Bruno seeks to map the shifting terrain between the “rapidly changing materials and media” of our time, all the while remaining aware of the ways in which such a mapping may be established, distorted, or simply reconfigured. This book represents her investigation of “the space of those relations, questioning how they manifest themselves on the surface of different media” (2).

An obvious question at this point: why surface? Surely an alternate account of the persistence of materiality in our time is welcome, but why privilege the surface of media? Bruno responds by positing that we ought to understand materiality as, principally, a “surface condition,” that we should think of the surface “configured as an architecture.” Reorienting our understanding of surface and materiality thus, the surface becomes a “site of mediation and projection,” or a “material reconfiguration of the relation between subjects and with objects” (3). Thinking of the surface necessitates thinking widely, and over the course of the book we encounter objects from the realms of architecture, fashion, the visual arts, and of course cinema and media. In line with Bruno’s sustained move away from optical frameworks in favor of thinking haptically, her chief mode of encountering artworks here is “by way of . . . tangible, ‘superficial’ contact” which, as she writes, allows us to “apprehend the art object and the space of art, turning contact into the communicative interface of a public intimacy” (3). Surface, therefore, is here configured as a specific site where “forms of mediation, transfer, and transformation can take place” (3).

Surface does not unfold in linear fashion. This may be one of the book’s greatest strengths or its most frustrating aspect, depending on how willing one might be to indulge writing that strives to perform what it thinks through in theory. Bruno herself considers this an important point, noting toward the end of the introduction that her book’s “articulation is rather braided, interlaced, and layered,” that it moves “in forms of assemblage and clusters of thoughts” (9). Thus, chapters 3–6 comprise what might be taken as the central elements of Surface, with those before and after these chapters serving as extensions of, or specific instantiations of, the overarching arguments of the book. Such a fashioning of the book will be familiar to those who read Atlas of Emotion; given the sprawling nature of Bruno’s project both there and in the present book, I found this nonlinear strategy refreshing rather than cumbersome.

How is the surface theorized, then? Over the first two chapters, Bruno introduces (via Gilles Deleuze) the notion of the fold. Identifying an architecture of the fold across the visual arts, fashion (particularly in the work of Issey Miyake), and cinema (in the films of Wong Kar-wai), she develops ways in which mood and affect, motion and “e-motion” may be fashioned or “architected.” In a compelling synopsis, Bruno argues that the “fabrications of visual fabric, fashion, architecture, and film are home to an archive of mental imagings and affective residues” (32). She then links the concept of habitus (“mode of being”) to habitare (“dwelling”), which leads to the Italian abito (“dress” or “address”) and subsequently to the German Wand (“wall and screen”) and Gewand (“garment or clothing”). It’s a rhetorical dance typical of Bruno and is far more convincing when one follows the rhythms of her writing than when introduced via such a bald summary.

The second chapter focuses closely on the cinema of Wong Kar-wai, exploring how his films conceive of fashion as architecture and cities as fabric. Disentangling cinema’s historic affiliation with both fashion (the Lumières’ and Edison’s Serpentine Dance films) and a more literal labor of tailoring (cutting and splicing of celluloid), Bruno desires a different approach to theorizing fashion, “one that is able to account for the way fashion works as a fabric of the visual in a larger field of spatiovisual fabrications” (40). Sidestepping well-worn concerns with “spectacle and commodity,” she wants a “playful form of sartorial theorization” that is “connected more closely to the history of art and the design of space, and to their theorization” (40). The fold, as it unfolds over these two chapters, becomes for Bruno a potent (and very different) approach to viewing cinema and its fashioning, since it is ultimately “itself a moving image, for it is an image of thought . . . [it] finally represents the unfolding of experience” (41).

The screen becomes a central object of concern for chapters 3–6. Over these four chapters, Bruno takes aim at the “relationship between architecture and cinema as it is knit together on the modern screen” (55). Such an ambition takes her across the work of James Turrell, the early cinema of Edwin S. Porter, the installations of Carlos Garaicoa and Robert Irwin, the expanded cinema of Bill Viola and Anthony McCall, Kryzstof Wodiczko’s public projections, and works by Lázsló Moholy-Nagy, Tacita Dean, Diller Scofidio and Renfro, Bill Morrison, Christian Marclay, Peter Greenaway, Renzo Piano, and Olafur Eliasson—among others. It’s an exhilarating—and nearly exhausting—trek across disciplinary lines that nonetheless illuminates how artists with diverse creative and critical attitudes have been rethinking screen architecture in recent years. In Pipilotti Rist’s work, for example, Bruno discerns how “the fabric of the screen has endured but at the same time changed geometry” (102). Layers Mama Layers (2010) serves to illustrate “the ever-present environmental screen-effect within which we now live.” The screen surface, for Bruno, today “extends to an entire screen environment that itself becomes experienced as a surrounding membrane” (102).

Bruno isn’t the first to pay such close attention to matters of surface, of course. One recalls David Joselit’s influential article from 2000, “Notes on Surface: Toward a Genealogy of Flatness.”1 Bruno herself also alludes to David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi’s 2002 book, Surface Architecture. Bruno’s greatest contribution here lies in her sustained theorization of the screen, working in media-archaeological fashion to look both to the history of the screen and to its ongoing transformations today in order to advance our understanding of what screens might be tomorrow. As she asserts, the “shift to the digital” can become a “field of relations, engaging a flexibility that empowers the body” (93–94, channeling Mark B. N. Hansen). Thus does it constitute a “defining material cultural shift.” It is the surface, Bruno argues, that “is poised to be at the center of this process of rematerialization insofar as it is constituted, by its very nature, as an architectural partition. The surface is a form of dwelling that engages mediation between subjects and with objects . . . it can become a site of screening and projection. . . . [T]he material of surface becomes the site of expression of a new materiality as the surface is texturally reconfigured to hold different forms of material relation and convey their transformation” (94). This passage is perhaps the clearest formulation of the central stakes of her book.

Bruno also develops a notion of “surface tension” through these chapters, discovering it at work in Wodiczko’s projections and Gerhard Richter’s installations, as well as in Dean’s and Morrison’s celluloid works. Such tension makes itself felt on the surface of media (actual screens, walls, or the surface of film—the “film” of film) as a layering of time, space, and affective charge. More: surface tension brings to the fore a “geometry that engages glass, window, wall, canvas, and screen fabric, and fundamentally shifts the terms of the use of these mediums by conflating their qualities on the surface” (83; the tension at work here is in Richter’s 2003 installation, Six Gray Mirrors). In sum, surface tension appears akin to a kind of palimpsest effect, with different modalities of the “screen-membrane” engaged simultaneously.

One of the clearest pictures that builds through these chapters is that of the increasingly—and interestingly—confused relationship between screen, fabric, canvas, and (what was conventionally considered) architecture. Bruno points out, “As architecture rethinks the distinctions between structure and ornament, function and décor, form and façade, the surface . . . becomes an entity in itself. In contemporary times, surface turns into actual architecture” (93). Indeed, as she asserts later, the “mediatic configurations of art and architecture” are “converging in surface tension as they partake of common material ground. Art is melting into spatial construction and . . . architecture has become one of the most influential forms of imaging” (187). Although her numerous examples and analyses abundantly support such statements, I was perplexed to discover that she does not discuss the fairly recent phenomenon of architectural projection mapping at all. Given its recent prominence as a mode of public art or installation, perhaps Bruno was simply first to the market. Still, I cannot help thinking that much of what Bruno develops here would be served wonderfully by a sustained exploration of architectural projection mapping.

The final chapters of Surface (8–10) are a rich display of Bruno’s ability to blend her critical and personal voices. Focusing on the surface architecture and subjective landscape of projection as an art form, chapter 8 investigates how art and architecture can rely on projection as “mental, psychic processes exhibited in the material world in the form of space” (9). Einfühlung, which Bruno defines as a “feeling into” or an empathy with objects and spaces as much as with human subjects, receives close attention here. Chapters 9 and 10 are both highly personal reflections: the first unfolds as a travelogue, documenting the urban surfaces of Havana—a place evidently rich with significance for the author. Chapter 10 is constructed as a letter to Sally Potter, discussing her film Yes (2004). It is a skillful weaving-together of the concerns with surface, materiality, and media that have animated Bruno’s thinking throughout the book, and I was particularly struck by a section that takes up Peter Eisenman’s discussion of blurring as a process of becoming. Bruno develops this to highlight the traversals of surfaces and layers that are involved in reading or representing the action of blurring.

I have not attempted, in this review, to offer a comprehensive overview of Surface. It would in any case be a futile effort, considering the expansive nature of Bruno’s project and her particularly nonlinear unfolding of thought. Rather, I have tried to identify those elements which, I feel, are most conducive to advancing the emerging field of screen studies (or to borrow from Erkki Huhtamo, “screenology”). Screens matter now as they never have before. Bruno is obviously aware of this, since it is precisely around the concept of the screen—as well as its literal and figurative architectures—that she unfolds the central chapters of her book. Although the screen has received much attention recently (see, for example, the work of Huhtamo, Kate Mondloch, and Francesco Casetti), most of the attention has been in a historical vein. What is needed is rich description and theoretical work—and Surface is perhaps the first major effort to provide just that. Bruno’s meandering mode of scholarship and steadfast refusal to concede disciplinary limits certainly make her work challenging. But I think it is more productive to find here, not to mention in Public Intimacy and Atlas of Emotion, an enormously rich body of work that develops new concepts for new media. Taken together, these books give us a critical vocabulary for engaging with the growing conflation of screen practices and screen architectures. Paying close attention to the “expanded spectatorial relations” that are “activated, both physically and imaginatively mobilized” (7) as a consequence of our proliferating screens today, Surface sets the stage for further critical encounters with the screen—as surface and as architectural form.


Swagato Chakravorty is a PhD student in History of Art and Film and Media Studies (combined) at Yale University. He works at the interstices of screen practices, screen architectures, and embodied spectatorial experience. Related interests include aesthetics and the philosophy of art (especially modern and contemporary art), histories of film theory, visuality in the long nineteenth century, the history of science and technology, and contemporary media theory. In 2015–16 he will be a Mellon Museum Research Consortium Fellow in the department of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art.

  1. 1. David Joselit, “Notes on Surface,” Art History 23, no. 1 (March 2000): 19–34.