Parallax scrolling

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Parallax scrolling describes the production of the illusion of movement and depth within a constructed reality, and appropriately enough each of the two words that make up this term have parallel uses. The micro and macro coexist in the application of ‘parallax’ - the triangulation of distance that humans use to see in three dimensions - in science to measure the distance of stars from the earth, and in animation to replicate the appearance of three dimensions on a flat screen. 'Scrolling' is a relatively new verb, birthed by the computer age but stemming from the religious and historical action of reading as movement, of the eyes across an object, and of the body in relation to the object (the scroll). In combination, ‘parallax scrolling’ describes the computer-generated action of discrete pieces of content that move at different paces depending on their ‘depth’ within the screen. Most video games incorporated parallax scrolling from the 1980s onwards, with WhatsApp and the Apple website more recent, subtle examples of the process.

The short films, animations and clips presented in this screening employ varying degrees of parallax scrolling: practically (in Yuri Norstein’s 1969 stop-frame animation Seasons, which uses layers of material to create a landscape); conceptually (in a scene from Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon of 1966, where we view two halves of a conversation not from the point of view of the other human, but as though we were a bottle on the bar); or where the camera becomes a monocular stand-in for our body (in the opening travelling shot of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, 1961). David Blandy’s short Tutorial: How to make a short video about ideas (2016) employs animated parallax to produce the effect of movement through deep space, and segues from a ‘how-to’ for animators to a rumination on attempts to connect ‘real’ bodies via the medium of virtual reality. The programme as a whole questions which plane is the foreground and which is the background, and whether we observe moving images and objects or whether we are being observed by them. This confusion is key to the connections between the work of Jackson Sprague, Nicholas Hatfull and Lauren Keeley, which will be installed in the gallery immediately following the screening. The film clips have been almost exclusively selected by them, and reveal a fascination for the psychological and physical touching points between an individual and an object.

As the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty remarked, ‘to see the object is to plunge into it… objects form a system in which one object cannot appear without concealing others.’[1] In other words, it is impossible to consider an object without imagining oneself as that object, in its position and with its volume. These three artists deal, at least in part, with a common sensitivity to the tangled relationship between viewer and object and space. Hatfull’s video notes (included in the screening programme) provide an insight into the way that he approaches the things and people that become the subject matter of his drawings and paintings; they are encounters in space, as his camera circles, bypasses or revisits forms on the street that most pedestrians would filter out. Keeley’s precise compositions of flat layers of colour and material produce a literal depth of a few centimetres and, simultaneously, an illusion of depth that extends far beyond the surface of the gallery walls. Sprague’s sculptural forms play on the different ways we perceive familiar things in relation to our bodies, particularly those that have a function that can be either practical or emotional.

None of them work with moving image (apart perhaps from Hatfull, who described his recordings as ‘video sketches I refer to in the studio, not so much a work but maybe the beginnings of one’). However, each recognises and exploits the relationship between the moving body and the static object. As Sprague has observed, ‘I'm interested in the screening also portraying movement in the sense of a body mobilised, physically and psychologically, by the object under scrutiny.’ Keeley noted, in producing the cover image for the screening and exhibition, that for her ‘landscapes in real life are often visible in distinct layers…I have separated the elements so they look like planes sliding across each other, there is no fixed frame so they look mobile…And then it felt important to feel like the image was from a person’s viewpoint, that you the viewer are navigating this landscape, hence the arm and compass.’[2]

The viewpoint, as mentioned before, implicates the viewer not just in a space that is in front of an object or image, but in relation to it. To return again to Merleau-Ponty:

Of all the dimensions, depth is, so to speak, the most ‘existential’, because…it is not indicated upon the object itself, it clearly belongs to perspective and not to things. It can, then, neither be extracted from the perspective, nor even placed there by consciousness. It announces a certain indissoluble link between the things and me by which I am situated in front of them.[3]

The specific element of depth must be understood, according to Merleau-Ponty, ‘as the possibility of an engaged subject.’[4] In the three dimensions of the world outside of the computer game or projected image, depth happens as we move through, towards or away from an environment, and the perception of objects happens as we circle them. The engaged subject is one that is actively sought by all of the films in the screening programme and all of the works that will be installed immediately afterwards. Parallax scrolling thus begins on screen, in virtual space, with the viewer becoming static during their observation of an illusion of depth, and ends in real space, with the mobile viewer encountering a static object and moving around it.

Initiating a group exhibition, such as Breese Little have done, is to propose a network of relationships. This screening was prompted by the possibility of adding a network of images that can act as precursors and parallels to the exhibition, perhaps surviving in ghostly form in the minds of those who visit both. Relationships between viewer and object that thread through the screening and which the artists draw our attention to during the course of the exhibition, test the bounds of the methods we use to navigate real and virtual spaces.

Rebecca Lewin, January 2017

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Routledge, Oxford, 2012), p.70.

[2] Remarks by Hatfull, Keeley and Sprague made in conversation with the author.

[3] M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p.267.

[4] Ibid., p.279.