Arie Altena

Media Archaeology, Moving Panoramas And Vertical Cinema

Interview with Erkki Huhtamo, by Arie Altena


The second edition of the Sonic Acts research Series was about Vertical Cinema and featured an interview with media archeologist Erkki Huhtamo. The piece can be found in its original context at

In January 2014, Sonic Acts invited pioneering media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo to give a lecture at the Vertical Cinema event at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Huhtamo is a leading expert in forgotten 19th-century media such as the moving panorama and magic lantern shows. After ten years of work his book Illusions in Motion was finally published in 2013 by MIT Press, the perfect moment to ask him to talk about verticality in the history of the moving image. Prior to his lecture, Arie Altena interviewed him on behalf of Sonic Acts and asked him about his approach to media archaeology, his book Illusions in Motion, and about verticality in film.

Erkki Huhtamo’s lecture and interview provide many examples of the use of verticality in the history of the moving image, and suggest various entrances for further research. Film may have emphasised horizontality, but a rich counterculture of ‘vertical cinema’ seems to lie hidden within the history of cinema, awaiting discovery. Huhtamo also gave a humorous overview of the current interest in vertical smartphone movies and vertical screens, referring amongst others to the satirical YouTube hit ‘Vertical Video Syndrome’ (2012) and the ‘Vertical Cinema Manifesto’ (also on YouTube), which was made in reaction to it.

AA: At Sonic Acts we often use the term ‘expanded experiences’ to indicate the things we are interested in – be it experimental cinema, installations, light works, electronic and drone music, audiovisual composition and other types of works...

EH: I like the term ‘expanded experiences’. It ties in with the idea that when we study media we should not only look at the apparatuses, the technologies. It is important to speak about media use, reception and responses as well – and of course about the imaginary. How do we make sense of our media experiences, and how do we develop them into new experiences? For the line of media archaeology that I represent this is an essential issue. Media archaeology is not a uniform project where everybody shares the same set of ideas and approaches. It is really to other way around, and there is nothing wrong with that. For me the term ‘expanded experiences’ pushes the discursive side of culture – it emphasises how we make sense of our experiences, and how we imagine with and about media.

AA: What is the main issue at stake in your book Illusions in Motion?

EH: On one level, Illusions in Motion tries to be a ‘discours de la methode’. It attempts to demonstrate a particular way of doing media studies that I hope can be applied to very different subjects as well – and not just to historical subjects. But it is also a big book about one subject – the moving panorama – as a cultural phenomenon. The moving panorama was a long roll painting that was unscrolled in a kind of ‘window’ by means of a mechanical cranking system; it was accompanied by a lecture and music, as well as sound and light effects. I investigate it on three basic levels. The first is the painted panorama itself: the pigments on canvas that form figures, tell stories, and so on. Except for the painter, almost nobody saw moving panoramas at this stage, and not even the painter could see more than a small segment of the huge long painted roll at the time (some were hundreds of meters long). The second level is the performed panorama – the roll is activated in front of an audience. This aspect concerns the media apparatus: the combinations of all possible elements and effects that become part of the experience, including the temperature of the auditorium, the constitution of the audience, and incidents that may happen; it also includes the ways the panorama is presented, whether it is cranked fast or slow, or whether it is stopped from time to time, and so forth. Sound effects and the music also affect the ways the images are received by the audience. The moving panorama experience is a combination of such elements. The third level is what I call the discursive panorama. It concerns the discursive echoes of the panorama phenomenon, from discourses that are close to the spectacle itself – like promotional posters and leaflets – to ideas that can be found from texts that seemingly have nothing to do with that spectacle – I mean scientific, religious, political and philosophical texts where moving panoramas have left traces. It is important to understand this ‘transfigured’ aspect of the medium as well. Still, although there is no such thing as the total meaning of a medium in a certain period, analysing the interplay between these three levels, their very complex configurations, we can provide a certain understanding about how a medium functions within a cultural setting. In that sense the book demonstrates an integral way of researching media culture.

AA: Do you attempt a reconstruction of a moment in history in the book?

EH: We should never lapse into thinking that it would be possible to leave our position here and now to fully immerse ourselves into another historical moment, and truly see and understand the media culture with the eyes of the contemporaries. Attempting to do so is tempting – and it has been done within historical scholarship, particularly among the microhistorians – but if it is not done critically, it can lead to kind of mythmaking. That is what I learned from postmodern philosophical theory and the new historicism of the 1980s. Those theories emphasised that historical explanations have to be dialogical processes between, on the one hand, yourself and your ideological position, and, on the other, what you are finding out about another time and place from sources. There is no permanent truth beyond this continuous dialogue. Although I do indeed attempt to place moving panoramas within a broad cultural historical context, I do my best to keep track of my own position as an observer who cannot help becoming part of the narrative. My book project made me really concerned about the reliability of existing books on media history. The literature is full of mistakes and misunderstandings. Theoretical shallowness and over-reliance on previous scholars has led to erroneous things being repeated as ‘facts’. Working with thousands of archival sources made me almost paranoid at times. I had to double-check everything, even the smallest details. Media archaeology must fight against the mythologising of media history, but without lapsing into false neopositivism.

AA: Why did we become so interested in the prehistory of cinema?

EH: I would like to make an important precision here. The fact that the moving panorama was very widely known and popular in the nineteenth century definitely provided models for film culture. The paintings were moving, and elements of the apparatus, such as the audience sitting in front of a screen-like surface, and the combination of pictures, lecture and music, influenced later developments. In a way the success of film explains the disappearance of the moving panorama. There was no need for it anymore, because film learned to do – little by little, not immediately – everything that the moving panorama had done, and more. However, I am not really thinking about the moving panorama in terms of ‘pre-cinema’. The idea of pre-cinema is a bit dangerous, because it implies a deterministic approach, focusing on only those aspects of history that anticipated ‘important’ future developments. I am trying to get away from that, and other media archaeologists are doing so as well. I investigate the moving panorama as a phenomenon of its time in all its complexity. I spent a lot of time exploring its interconnections with other simultaneous phenomena. I am interested in making comparisons with other cultural moments, but not in terms of positing linear continuities pointing to a ‘future’.

AA: Why have artists developed an interest in early media technology?

EH: The media archaeological trend emerged in the 1980s, and in some cases even earlier. Some explanations are obvious, such the crisis of mainstream media we have been living through for some decades now. A huge reorganisation of media culture is taking place. Old forms like cinema, television and radio no longer dominate the media landscape, but no one is sure what the new configuration is going to be like. Is social media a long-term answer, or will it be replaced by something else? How will mobile media develop and how will it affect the earlier media? Will Google Glass be accepted or rejected? Both artists and researchers are looking for answers to such questions by peeking into the past for parallels. The concern with ruptures within audiovisual culture began in the 1960s. Filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Straub & Huillet, who were working within the cinema system, questioned filmic illusion and the film language used by the Hollywood dream factory to seduce the masses. Experimental films like Ken Jacobs’ Tom Tom, The Piper’s Son (1969), and Malcolm Le Grice’s Après Lumière (1974) dissected or re-enacted elements of early cinema, setting up dialogues between their own practices and those from a different moment in film history. In this sense film culture anticipated the interests that media artists later brought into play when exploring other media forms. The 1960s’ interest in found footage film and the materiality of film – as in George Landow’s films that show scratches and sprocket holes – anticipated related interests within film studies. Film scholars like Noël Burch, Tom Gunning, André Gaudreault and apparatus theorists like Jean-Louis Comolli began asking different questions than the previous generations of film historians. They considered early silent cinema as important in itself and within its own cultural context. It was not only a primitive beginning that evolved into the film language that became industrialised and standardised. These scholars tried to get rid of the idea that the Lumière brothers were only important because they had foreshadowed the established forms of later film culture. Rather, Lumière’s films and early screening practices could be linked with the so-called culture of attractions that had existed already earlier, and also with things that were not directly associated with moving images at all. All this prepared the ground for a media archaeological awareness that became more deeply theorised in later years.

There is no single explanation why media artists begin referring to media technologies of the past. I can think of several. Some artists are very interested in unrealised technologies; Paul deMarinis is a good example. He has done a lot of research on forgotten patents, trying to find out what those ideas were like and whether they can provide seeds for artworks. He has made amazing discoveries, resurrecting forgotten but perfectly functioning ideas. I call Paul a ‘thinkerer’. His many works constitute an alternative, partly speculative history of devices that exist in the shadows and corners of the ‘official’ history. Personal background can also play a role. Toshio Iwai’s motivation came from his childhood. His parents refused to buy him toys – that’s what he tells me – and pushed him to develop a do-it-yourself attitude, something he is now transmitting to his own children. He created notebook after notebook of inventions already as a child, and later applied this experience to understanding media history. He began building replicas of devices like the praxinoscope, learning their principles ‘from the inside’. He then modified those devices, and combined the past and the present, low tech and high tech. There are quite a few female artists, whose media archaeological explorations are ideologically motivated. Women’s history has parallels with media archaeology, because it explores things that have been neglected and excluded for ideological reasons. Artists like Lynn Hershman and Heidi Kumao, to mention just two examples, have developed ways of criticising the male appropriation of technology. Recently there has been discussion about ‘zombie media’ in connection with do-it-yourself aesthetics, mash ups and tinkering with technology. The idea, which has been put forward by artist Garnet Hertz and theorist Jussi Parikka, has ideological underpinnings, including the refusal to identify with the mainstream, ecological awareness, and the critique of built-in obsolescence.

AA: Let’s move on to verticality in cinema. In the history of film, horizontality has prevailed. The cinema screen is horizontally oriented. There are obvious reasons – our field of vision is horizontal rather than vertical...

EH: Yes, that’s the anthropomorphic perspective; we have two eyes, side by side ...

AA: … but there are interesting moments in the history of the moving image, when the image has been vertically oriented. There are vertical experimental films, there’s for instance an interesting essay by Eisenstein on vertical film, and there are the balloon panoramas you have written about...

EH: This issue is also connected with other vertical developments such as the vertical architecture of churches, and skyscrapers with their elevators...

AA: Maybe one could even develop a history of vertical set design and lighting...

EH: That is an interesting point I had not thought about. Obviously one element would be the deus ex machina. Ever since classical antiquity stage design included machines that were used to make characters ascend and descend; they operated not on a horizontal plane, but vertically. This had to do with layers of reality. The horizontal actions on stage were normally linked with forms of life on earth, with everyday reality. The vertical axis had to do with dreams, fantasies, the religious imagination, that sort of things.

AA: Would phantasmagoria – spooky projected images – fit in there as well?

EH: Phantasmagoria did not have so much to do with the vertical, although there were certainly angels and demons, figures going up and down, skeletons appearing from graves… Special vertical magic lantern slides were constructed to make such movements possible, and the ‘Fantascope’ lanterns they used were adapted for that purpose as well. I have to emphasise that the comments I am making about vertical media are preliminary. I spent much of my time during the past ten years thinking about a horizontal medium. How about the vertical dimension? This question poses really interesting challenges. Yes, the vertical dimension has been part of the world of spectacles for a very long time, but it seems to me that it has been subordinated to the horizontal. The only spectacle where the vertical dominates that comes to my mind right away are the firemen’s acrobatic new year’s shows that draw huge crowds in Japan. Spectacles like Cirque de Soleil should perhaps also be considered.

When we talk about vertical cinema there are two aspects to consider. The first one is the shape of the frame where the action happens, from theatrical prosceniums and picture frames to screens; the second one is the direction of the movements within that frame. One has to consider both aspects, although they are not necessarily always raised at the same time. Some of the reasons why the vertical has been subordinated to the horizontal are quite clear. Perceptually the human face emphasises the left-right axis rather than vertical motions up and down and back again. We could also say that many of the traditional environments where people used to live emphasised the horizontal. Most buildings were relatively low, and most activity took place along the surface of the earth, such as travelling. So the basic perceptual coordinates of life emphasised horizontality. When one looked up it probably meant looking at something unusual – rulers and gods and the structures that embodied their power (such as church towers) would be there, above you. Imagining unusual things would also take you high up or down below – for researching verticality should also cover the underground, descents into caves, dives into the sea, and so on, as Rosalind Williams demonstrated in her classic Notes on the Underground (2008).

Very basic changes in the human perceptual situation have occurred since the nineteenth century. They have to do with urbanism and transportation. Hot air balloons played an important role, maybe more important than the airplane later, because hot air balloons rose vertically up into the sky and that was something unprecedented. From early on they became linked with media developments. One example are the balloon panoramas that I write about in Illusions in Motion. They moved vertically rather than horizontally. Urban developments, like the skyscraper, emphasised the vertical too; beside new building techniques, it was the elevator that made it possible. It is little known that the very first passenger elevator in the world was installed in the 1820s in The Colosseum, a gigantic panorama building erected at Regent’s Park, London. This so-called ascending room, which was operated by a steam engine, made it possible for people to enjoy the circular panorama painting from above. But the ascending room itself was an enclosed tiny room, not a panoramic viewing device. It was just enabling technology. The evolution of vertical visuality has to do with the redefinition of the elevator itself as a viewing machine. This started happening in the late nineteenth century with glass-covered elevators, and finally with elevators installed outside buildings. Much later we come to the postmodern architectural paradigm. Scenic elevators are an essential feature of John Portman’s hotel designs like the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles. They are viewing devices that turn the hotel’s wide interior courtyard into a kinetic picture. The famous elevators (maybe partially designed by László Moholy-Nagy) in the science fiction film Things to Come (1936) by Alexander Korda and William Cameron Menzies, had already presented this idea as an element of future societies.

There would be many more things to say, but these were some of the important aspects. What is important is that when we think about vertical cinema, or vertical media in general, it is necessary to consider not just media technology and its applications, but also various other things, such as vertical means of transportation, and the fantasies and discursive constructs that ‘envelop’ such developments. If we managed to pull all these elements together, we might be able to achieve an understanding of verticality in culture. In fact, I believe it would be possible to write a speculative history of verticality in cinema. I have not seen such a book.

AA: Verticality has been hardly ever written about in film history or the history of spectacles. Yet when you pay attention to it, you notice that there are all kinds of vertical screens, vertical motions, and references to the vertical in films. From vertical advertising screens to the Ferris Wheel...

EH: Yes, the Ferris Wheel is part of it; it is a kind of elevator or people mover, although its movement is circular. The free fall devices in amusement parks are totally vertical. Such devices aim primarily at a bodily, visceral thrill, but they are vision based as well. When it comes to films, there are of course vertically themed catastrophe movies like The Towering Inferno, and the 9/11 attacks have understandably inspired a burst of such cultural production. There are also experimental films that investigate vertical motion. A great example is Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle (1991). Gehr creates links between vertical and diagonal filmic motions and those of a scenic elevator which he used as his ‘dolly’.

Another aspect that should be considered is early comic strips. I am thinking of Winsor McCay’s Dream of Rarebit Fiend (1904) and Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905 – 1911), which emphasised the vertical dimension very strongly. They are dream narratives about climbing skyscrapers, having wild rides down steep slopes, flying, and so on. McCay tried to come up with appropriate ways of depicting the verticality of those experiences. Interestingly, the same is not so evident in the animation films he made. That makes one wonder whether there is something in a certain medium that makes it either appropriate or unsuitable for verticality. Of course elevator crane shots were possible, but expensive and difficult to realise. There is a famous one in F. W. Murnau’s Der Letzte Man (1924) and another great example in the Buster Keaton film The Cameraman (1928). For such shots it was necessary to design open sets the camera could look at from the outside. I wonder if vertical cinema will become more common in the era of digital filmmaking, because it is so much easier to create vertical sequences? Virtual continuities can be easily created in the computer.

AA: Of course you can always turn the screen sideways, and the camera as well. On the other hand, software dictates to a large extent what one is ‘allowed’ to do. Jeremy Welsh told me he had to revert to an older version of an editing software to produce a remake of a work for a vertical screen, because the newer version did not allow him to use the format he wanted to use.

EH: You are right, there are constraints that push filmmaking, associating it with the horizontal. These may be technical, but also ideological. Shooting movies with mobile phones is an interesting example. Many people have chosen the vertical portrait mode for the movies they are making and uploading on the internet. There is a movement that claims that this is inherently wrong, and that mobile phone movies should always be in the landscape mode. They evoke the traditional cinema screen and the movie theatre as the model, but of course we know that smartphones and iPads no longer have such restrictions because the format can be changed by simply turning the device. What is at stake here is a conservative ideological position. A humorous but also thoughtful manifesto from a group of feminist theorists and videomakers from New Zealand has made an interesting intervention. In a tongue-in-cheek manifesto they have declared that the vertical mode should be claimed by female filmmakers as a way of resisting the male ideological tendency of turning everything horizontal. I find the debate very interesting because it is happening right now, but also touches upon the history of moving images.

There seem to be industrial interests in the vertical too, now that the most recent LED screen technology allows the fashioning of screens in many different shapes. A good example is the recently opened new Bradley International Terminal at the Los Angeles Airport (LAX). Everything is dominated by very large vertical screens, which leads to interesting questions. Is the use of the vertical only a gimmick, a way of attracting attention by evoking difference, because people are so used to horizontal screens? Could it be something else too, even the beginning of a new aesthetics of the audiovisual and the infographic? It was interesting to find out that media artists like Kurt Hentschläger, formerly of Granular Synthesis, has produced content for the screens at the Bradley Terminal. What will we see in the future?

AA: Now that Illusion in Motion has been published, what are you working on?

EH: I am working on three new book projects along parallel tracks. The first one I call tentatively ‘The Media Apparatus’. I am trying to investigate to what extent the old idea of the cinematic apparatus – discussed so much in the 1970s and 1980s – could be applied to media in a more general sense. Cinema has lost it dominance; now we watch moving images on all kinds of mobile screens. Could the idea of the cinematic apparatus be extended and revised to help us make sense of the variety of media experiences we deal with today? I will investigate this through a series of case studies of screen-based devices starting from the kaleidoscope in the early nineteenth century and continuing all the way to the debate about Google Glass. The second book is about a mechanical theatre that is in the collection of the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris. It toured for over one hundred years in Central Europe and by a lucky coincidence was preserved almost intact in an abandoned warehouse in Belgium. I am writing a media archaeology of it, touching on many media forms such panoramas, dioramas, and magic lantern presentations, which were all part of the show. Finally, I have been asked to turn my idea about media archeology as topos study into a little book – along the lines of Roland Barthes’ Elements of Semiology. I promise that none of these projects will take as long to realise as Illusions in Motion...


Sonic Acts’ Vertical Cinema: Website Book

Erkki Huhtamo: Website Bio Illusions in Motion (book) Artifacts of Media Archaeology: Inside Professor Erkki Huhtamo’s Office (video) Lost (and Found) in the Third Dimension: Stereoscopy and the Artistic Imagination (video, lecture) ‘Screen Tests: Why Do We Need an Archaeology of the Screen’, Cinema Journal 51:2, Winter 2012, In Focus: Screen Technologies, p. 144–148 (pdf, article)

Other takes on Vertical Cinema: Vertical Cinema: Aram Bartholl’s 2013 event where he showed the best vertical Youtube movies Vertical Cinema Syndrome, by Glove & Boots (video) Vertical Cinema: New Digital Possibilities, essay by Miriam Ross and Maddy Glen Vertical Cinema Manifesto (video)

Also check out: Moving panorama at Wikipedia (with good pointers for further research) Vertical Cinemascope – Jaroslav Fric Labyrinth Project at Expo 1967

Mentioned by Erkki Huhtamo: After Lumière – L’Arroseur Arrose (1974) (movie at Ubuweb) – Malcolm Le Grice Shape of Things to Come (1936) (movie) – Alexander Korda Side/Walk/Shuttle (1991) (movie at MUBI) – Ernie Gehr Notes on the Underground (book) – Rosalind Williams Interview with Rosalind Williams from Cabinet (2008) Fred Camper on Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa on Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle Interview with Ernie Gehr (2008) by Arie Altena & Martijn van Boven

Sonic Acts Research Series
The Sonic Acts Research Series is a series of online dossiers devoted to specific aspects of the research that Sonic Acts conducts for its activities. Commissioned texts, and interviews with featured artists and speakers are combined with videos and materials from previous Sonic Acts events.

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Arie Altena