Image bites back

December 2, 2006

Wow, please watch this AWESOME viral ad by Mr and Mrs Wheatley. Press play

Love it.

Art historian W.J.T. Mitchell has a wonderful book out called What Do Pictures Want? (In the above case it was pretty clear.) Mitchell probes our deep-seated and weird attitude toward images: why is it that we act as if images have power over us, why do we treat them as if they are alive? And at the same time, why do we deny this behavior? You probably wouldn’t put an image of your mother on a dartboard, but you might well put one up of your boss – that suggests some magical thinking. “The personified (or merely animated) object is, as we have seen, the occasion of deep anxiety and avowal in aesthetics. We want works of art to have ‘lives of their own,’ but we also want to contain and regulate that life, to avoid taking it literally, and to be sure that our own art objects are purified of the taint of superstition, animism, vitalism, anthropomorphism, and other premodern attitudes.” Aversion to superstition smacks of defensiveness.

The Wheatley’s viral ad also makes me think of Walter Benjamin’s classic line of thought that reproducing an image lessens its value, with the result being that the image loses its ‘aura.’ Of course, Benjamin was writing about mechanical reproduction, but I wonder how or even if this statement can be extended. The soldier in the game is a fixed avatar: a very contemporary form of reproduction, a virtual clone. The ad suggests that the image may well be capable of its own life regardless of virtual reproduction. Perhaps it is actually the soldier’s status as a virtual, animated reproduction that seems to lend it (him?) such uncanny power.

The crux of the Wheatley’s ad is the (unexpected) equation of game and reality. The ad starts with the players absorbed in the game, and then suddenly shifts as the game events become their reality. This seems to be exactly what we are seeing in alternate reality games, mixed or augmented reality, and flash mobs. This is the new space that Ze Frank and his viewers are beginning to explore with the collaborative games and challenges developed on his show and website (see the Earth Sandwich and Running Fool’s Trip). These are dazzling, new and rapidly developing forms that mix virtual and physical, extending the game into real life.

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