research > urban > A Box in the Theatre of the World
Anthony Auerbach

‘A Box in the Theatre of the World: Television, Interior and Urban Experience’, paper presented by Anthony Auerbach at the conference Architecture and the Technological Unconscious, Ecole Nationale Superieure d'Architecture de Paris-La Villette, 13 November 2007

The title I had originally proposed for this paper was ‘Intersections: on the technique and experience of the screen’. My aim, to begin with, was to locate the crossing point where Benjamin’s thought — in particular, his conception of urban experience — intersects with the technology of television — that is, seeing at a distance.

It was not my aim to try to reconcile Benjamin with television phenomena that he neither saw nor imagined — the phenomena of the proliferation of television as a mass medium following the Second World War, with which we are so familiar and to which we owe so much. My question was whether some observations of Benjamin’s, or rather, on Benjamin’s thought, might furnish the distance necessary for observing the present.

I find, in the interior or the nineteenth century, the pre-vision of television, television almost without technology, and I trace something of its philosophical heritage. I enter that interior with Benjamin and exit with the flâneur, to whom the city opens up like a landscape even as it encloses him like a room, indeed, his private domain.

Thus the screen, the façade, the shop window and the television set reveal themselves as the intersections where one may interrogate the dialectic between exterior and interior, between media and architecture, the city and its phantasmagoria.

This paper has not yet been published. Only the opening paragraphs are reproduced here. Please contact me if you would like to see a full transcript of the paper I read at the symposium.

Although Walter Benjamin was much preoccupied with seeing and with the appearance of distance [note 1], to my knowledge, in his writings, he mentions television — that is, seeing at a distance — only once, and he does not reflect on it. In a brief article, ‘Moonlit Nights on the Rue La Boétie’, which was occasioned by the sale of collection of unusual, transparent paintings, Benjamin locates these back-lit, aquarium-like vistas alongside ‘a group of arts which is reckoned inferior [...] and which ranges from early techniques of the observer right down to the electronic television of our own day’ [note 2].

At the time of writing, in 1928, electronic television had, in fact, yet to be realised [note 3]. The devices demonstrated in the 1920s coupled various motor-driven optical components to the state of the art borrowed from the telephone, the cinema and the radio. The television contraptions of the day used aperture-, lens- and prism discs, or mirror drums, -wheels and -screws for dissecting and reassembling images. Vibrating mirrors and lamp-mosaics triggered by electrical commutators were also tried as well as the cathode ray devices which eventually made ‘the tube’ a household word.

The venues for these early demonstrations, when they emerged from the laboratories of their inventors, were not the fair grounds and arcades which had hosted the nineteenth-century ‘techniques of the observer’, but department stores, radio exhibitions and inner-city theatres. The early exhibits exerted a fascination which can hardly be attributed to the quality of the images, which then was just as poor as the content — certainly by comparison with the transparencies which enchanted Benjamin in the rue la Boétie. Nonetheless, television promised vision unimpeded by material or by distance; a view beyond the horizon which the telescope and camera obscura could not deliver, nor any Eiffel tower or mechanical aviation bring closer.

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  1. Digression on television compared with film. The discussion of ‘aura’ as the ‘unique appearance of distance’ is central to Benjamin’s thesis on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility’ (in Selected Writings 1935–1938, ed. by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 101–122). The promise of film as an art form unburdened by ‘aura’, of and for the ‘masses’ was thwarted by the canonisation of the ‘auteur’ film, which lends gravity to the lightest popular trash and invests even user-contributors to YouTube with the authority of ‘Directors’. The way Benjamin hailed film in his influential essay, is doubtless partly responsible for the recuperation of film as art by producers eager to inherit the mantle of the avant-garde. Television and video, however, have survived and prospered in the range of arts ‘reckoned inferior’ despite the professional sector. Television is perhaps just too prolific and indiscriminate. It does not lend itself to the closure of an art work. Whereas in film, ‘The End’ announces the rounded satisfaction of the audience like a curtain call, television is ‘to be continued’ or is ‘back after the break’, if it permits its stream to be interrupted at all. For all the dependency of the network-, cable- and satellite distributors on Hollywood products, an early hybrid of film and television discloses the dominant characteristics of the latter. In order to work around the lack of sensitivity of television cameras before the Emitron camera (1935), a continuous intermediate film process was tried (Fernseh AG, Germany, 1932) in which in a single apparatus, photographic emulsion was deposited on on a seventy-metre-long loop of film, hardened, dried, exposed in a cine camera, developed, fixed, scanned for transmission, then the emulsion and the image with it was removed again, the film washed and dried before a fresh emulsion was laid down. [back to text]
  2. Selected Writings 1927–1934, ed. by Michael Jennings et al., trans. by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 107–109. [Published in Die literarische Welt, March 1928, Gesammelte Schriften, IV, pp. 509–511.] [back to text]
  3. On 2 September 1928, six months after Benjamin’s article was published, Philo Taylor Farnsworth put on what is said to have been ‘the first public display anywhere in the world of an all-electronic television system’ (R. W. Burns, Television: an international history of the formative years, London: Institution of Electrical Engieers, 1998, p. 361). However, at this time, Farnsworth showed only silhouettes and images captured from film. A practicable electronic camera which could be used in tolerable studio conditions — Farnsworth’s image dissector camera required 94.4 kiloWatts of studio lighting — or outdoors in available light, was not developed until the mid-1930s. [back to text]