Don’t be fooled by ‘bubble vision,’ says visiting artist Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl lecturing with a laptop and microphone
Filmmaker, writer, and visual artist Hito Steyerl gives a lecture at the Yale School of Art’s Edgewood Gallery. (Photo credit: Dho Yee Chung, MFA ’19)

Hito Steyerl, an internationally renowned filmmaker and writer, opened a Feb. 21 lecture at the Yale School of Art (YSA) with an image of “Salvator Mundi,” an oil painting of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that sold at auction in November for $450.3 million, a record sale price.

The painting shows Jesus giving a benediction with this right hand while holding a transparent crystal orb in his left.

Steyerl, a Hayden Distinguished Fellow at YSA, compared the orb to the spherical lenses in a virtual-reality headset. She noted that spheres feature prominently in virtual-reality: Clicking on a spherical icon often transports users into realistic virtual worlds.

I imagine one could click on the ‘Salvator Mundi’ sphere and then find oneself in this scene here,” she said, and presented a recent Facebook 360 video, a platform in which viewers experience a scene in 360 degrees. It featured an avatar of CEO Mark Zuckerburg ham-handedly touring hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.  

Steyerl, a professor for experimental film and video and the co-founder of the Research Center for Proxy Politics at the Berlin University of the Arts, noted how the Facebook 360 video, like other virtual-reality experiences, places the viewer at the center of a world while also disembodying them.

The viewer is absolutely central, but at the same time, he or she is missing from the scene,” she said, speaking to an overflow crowd at YSA’s 32 Edgewood Gallery.

She considered the isolating nature of the effect. She applied it to the rise of reality television and automation, referencing a vast mechanized Amazon warehouse where employees are treated as robots.

Is this ‘bubble vision’ — this 360-degree vision — a training scheme to adapt humans to a world from which they are increasingly missing because they have been replaced by invisible systems or automation or robot?” asked Steyerl, whose research focuses on media, technology and the distribution of images. “Are people rehearsing how to be their own ghosts?”

Steyerl is one of four internationally recognized artists and scholars who will visit campus this academic year through the YSA’s Hayden Distinguished Fellows Program. Funded by the Hayden Fund for Art and Ideas, the new fellowship program brings leaders in art and the academy to Yale to work with students as teachers, mentors, and critics, and to strengthen the link between YSA and the international artistic community. The fellows give public lectures, teach classes, and participate in studio visits and critiques. 

Hito Steyerl delivering a lecture with a slide of Leonardo’s painting ‘Salvator Mundi’
Steyerl returned to “Salvator Mundi” to conclude the lecture, pointing out that the crystal orb in Jesus’ hand is painted incorrectly. (Photo credit: Dho Yee Chung, MFA ’19)

Steyerl described a desire on the part of some artists to move away from the “algorithmic realism” of Facebook 360 and return to a realistic and authentic manner of observation. She cited a 15-hour documentary she had seen that was set in a sewing sweatshop in China. The documentary was exhibited in a manner that allowed viewers to come and go, so few sat for the entire 15 hours. People treated the film as a kind of tourism — a chance to catch glimpse of a seemingly authentic representation of the world, Steyerl said.  

She asked her audience to imagine a virtual-reality experience intended to demonstrate the conditions of an Amazon warehouse. She asserted that such an attempt would be similarly shallow, as it could not convey the discomfort or embarrassment that accompanies observing in person people toiling in difficult conditions. Virtual reality enables “voyeuristic observation” that creates an inauthentic sense of realism without provoking any sense of social responsibility, she said, calling it “identity tourism.”

Steyerl returned to “Salvator Mundi” to conclude the lecture, pointing out that the crystal orb in Jesus’ hand is painted incorrectly. Leonardo did not depict the distortion that occurs when looking through a solid glass ball. He painted the orb as if it were hollow glass. Leonardo had studied optics and surely knew better, she noted. There are several theories as to why he painted an unrealistic orb — perhaps he simply did not want to distract the viewer — but nobody knows for sure what inspired him, she said

Steyerl suggested that Leonardo’s orb provides a lesson, one that carries weight in an age of reality television, Internet memes, social media disinformation campaigns, and isolating virtual experiences: that which is fake can appear natural, while that which is genuine can appear fake.  

Do not be fooled by the naturalism of ‘bubble vision,’” she said.

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548