In the middle of the 17th Century, a trader in Amsterdam could charge, for a single tulip bulb, the equivalent of ten times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman. Tulips were new in Europe — exotic, fascinating, unlike and native species — and quickly became highly valued. Breeding enabled new and beautiful varieties, and the expanding market soon became subject to the introduction of a basic economic instrument that today we understand as futures. Traders could make contracts with growers to buy tulip bulbs early in the season, and soon a futures market emerged, allowing those contracts to be bought and sold. The market for futures contracts bought in speculators, and soon the price of tulips had skyrocketed in one of the first instances of a speculative bubble. In winter 1637 the bubble burst, destroying the Dutch tulip trade and wiping out the fortunes of many traders. It became an trick that capitalism would repeat, with increasing violence and calamity, from then on out.
The same period, and not by coincidence, saw a golden age of Dutch painting. With a socially mobile bourgeoisie looking to gain status, patronage allowed a new generation of artists to flourish. In her talk ‘Bubble Vision’ at the Marathon, artist and theorist Hito Steyerl refers to the trend towards the ‘vanitas’ painting in this period, which frequently featured mirrored orbs and glass bubbles, examples of both the artist's’ skill with perspective and form, but also a reminder of the temporality of this earthly plain, your own image reflected back to you — or not.
The use of perspective in European painting was a relatively recent development at this. There is some evidence and plenty of conjecture that artists like Vermeer were able to master perspective so convincingly by use of lenses, mirrors, and the camera lucida, a developing skilled scientific craft whose use was fueled by the growth of scientific experimentation in the Enlightenment. This hypothesis (known as the Hockney-Falco theory, thanks to David Hockney who helped develop it) suggests that it was the earlier work of Dutch artist Van Eyck that pioneered the process, but in the Dutch Golden Age it was the painter Johannes Vermeer who seemingly mastered the skill of perspective.
The theory is open to plenty of criticism, but does present a compelling case. But away from the technics of producing such accurate representations for perspective, what is the ideological change precipitated by perspective? John Berger argued that the convention of perspective marked a shift in the subjectivity of the Western viewer. No longer did representations offer a multi-perspective view, showing, for example, the city walls on all sides at the same time as a representation of the scale of the attacking army, and also a portrait of the King. Instead, perspective situated the viewer as the uni-ocular subject, the eye through which all imagery, and hence knowledge, could be processed and interpreted. Multiplicity was out; instead, the individual became master, often literally, of all he surveyed.
“The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art and which was first established in the early Renaissance, centres everything on the eye of the beholder. It is like a beam of light from a lighthouse — only instead of light travelling outwards, appearances travel in. The conventions called those appearances ‘reality’. Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing
The lens, later combined with photographic technologies, shifted the European male perspective in particular into a uni-ocular attitude towards the world. The combination of the power of perspective to present a possessive uni-ocular concept of the self, alongside the small scale depictions of middle-class life, produced at a time when the Dutch bourgeoisie was thriving and ruthlessly acquisitive: it’s not hard to see how Vermeer flourished. The little pearl orb dazzled on the girl’s lobe, a bubble of powerful value.
Steyerl suggests that new developments in the lens, and the post-production of images today, has created a new visual paradigm to understand contemporary subjects. In the past decade the processing speed of handheld devices and the decrease in the cost of producing high-quality lens for digital cameras has pioneered the “bubble”, of 360 degree representations of the world. We can see this development daily, on the panoramic camera phone shots of tourist sites, or the 360 video Periscopes from street protests. It’s also the new paradigm thanks to the development and popularisation of affordable high-quality virtual reality hardware such as Oculus. We are now comfortable with the ubiquity of the 360 bubble. But what is missing?
What is missing, suggests Steyerl, is us. In all these new visual technologies we stand still, and the world is reproduced around us. But the viewer, the person holding the camera, is elusive, replaced with a blind spot, or even a fabricated void, a representation of what have been there had the viewer, the streetview car, the camera operator been absent. Steyerl suggests this might relate to another traditional visionary orb; the crystal ball, a divination tool for mystics that shows the future of the seeker. In ‘bubble vision’, we see an image of the future, a future without us.
It’s a provocative argument, one which Steyerl ties to the collapse of the anthropocene (a period of human-centred geological activity) where the human will cease to be the metaphorical “centre” of the larger equation. She ties this to the 1610 “Orbis spike”, an unprecedented sharp dip in carbon dioxide levels worldwide. Researchers believe this dip is due to the genocide of tens of millions of native American peoples, murdered in the process of early colonisation and the collapse of pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas. The sudden destruction of these peoples lead to a massive dip in carbon dioxide production, and the growth of plants and forests on previously managed lands, pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is frequently marked as the starting point of the Anthropocene; it’s also contemporaneous with the flourishing of Dutch culture and commerce as a result of their aggressive colonial projects both in the Americas and in South-East Asia. The lens, the painting, the murder, the growth, the bubble: they’re all related.
Perhaps this is the new subjectivity which ‘bubble vision’ engenders. But there’s also the possibility that the shift it represents is also the decentralisation of perspective. Virtual Reality allows us to, momentarily and in a simple way, step into someone else’s shoes. And the absence inherent in the vision is fabricated in-camera; is the new subjectivity of the 360 optical gaze not related to that open fabrication of reality? Of leaving the viewer isolated, able only to observe, whilst the world rotates around her? And how do we square the rise of the 360 bubble with the (much larger) emergence of the selfie as a new arrangement of the viewer and the viewed?