Reconsideration of Space


Erwin Panofsky

"Thus the history of perspective may be understood with equal justice as a triumph of the distancing and objectifying sense of the real, and as a triumph of the distance-denying human struggle for control; it is as much a consolidation and systematisation of the external world as an extension of the domain of the self". [1]

In this short paper I want to establish the relationship between a perspectival spatial conditioning and the new as yet defined communication space. This is to be explored by examining perspectival conditioning, how this conditioning creates a socially disfunctional relationship to space. The basis for our understanding of space in art education has its roots in the tradition of perspective. The fundamentals of representation are based around this area in most art schools, this is what needs to be challenged.

I will also show through the screening of my CD-Rom 'Spatial Emergence' how this disfunctional relationship to space can be seen in the residual spaces between buildings and what cultural significance they have to the development of communication space.

Victor Burgin states


"Some two thousand years after Euclid, Brunelleschi conceives of this same cone (cone of vision) as intersected by a plane surface - the picture plane. By means of this model, something of the pre-modern world view passes into the Copernican universe - a universe which is no longer geocentric, but which is nevertheless homocentric and egocentric. A basic principle of Euclidean geometry is that space extends infinitely in three dimensions. The effect of monocular perspective, however, is to maintain the idea that this space does nevertheless have a centre - the observer. By degrees the sovereign gaze is transferred from god to Man". [2]

Burgin's view shows how the ‘gaze’ was transferred from God to man. The gaze seemed to place the viewer in a position of power, but it was only the gaze, the power remained at the unassailable vanishing point. 

Erwin Panofsky

"In a sense, perspective transforms psychophysiological space into mathmatical space. It negates the differences between front and back, between right and left, between bodies and intervening space ("empty" space), so that the sum of all the parts of space and all its contents are absorbed into a single "quantum continuum". It forgets that we see not with a single fixed eye but with two constantly moving eyes, resulting in spheroidal field of vision. It takes no account of the enormous difference between the psychologically conditioned "visual image" through which the visible world is brought to our consciousness, and the mechanically conditioned "retinal image" which paints itself upon our physical eye". [3]


This quote shows how during the Renaissance this transference was solved through the use of illusionistic techniques which have in the visual arts become part of our mass subjectivity. Brunelleschi, the first to publicise the possibility of perspective, constructed a device that when looked through created a realistic perspectival picture. This was achieved by producing a 'realistic' represenation of the exterior of San Giovanni in Florence, which he painted on a board. The board had a cone shaped peephole (like a woman's straw hat) placed strategically in the back of the painting at the central point of the view. Brunelleschi did not paint the background sky but used polished silver to fill in that area, which was intended to reflect the real sky. The painting was then placed in front of a mirror and the viewer was asked to look through the peephole. Brunelleschi's peepshow was placed in front of the church of San Giovanni from a designated position. What the viewer saw appeared to be identical to the real scene of the church. Thus Brunelleschi's biographer, Manetti stated 'The spectator felt he saw the actual scene when looking at the painting. I have had it in my hands and seen it many times'.

This device which Brunelleschi developed was based on the creation of a cone in the back of the painting with a hole in the surface of the painting no bigger than a lentil. But still what the viewer saw when looking through was not only the scene but at the centre of focus was their eye. The eye to see the whole of the painting reflected in the mirror had to scan and therefore created multiple viewpoints. 

This contradiction in the nature of the gaze as being God like makes the relationship between seerer and the seen as one that is fractured, in a constant state of change. It is therefore only the fixed gaze that can approximate a God like vision the eye scanning gives you multiple Gods.

In describing Brunelleschi's discovery Damisch states

As if this craftsman, this artisan, this constructor, had become conscious of the inversion, implicit in his invention, of practical interest into purely theoretical interest: an inversion by which - to paraphrase Husserl once more - an art founded on measure transforms itself, by way of idealisation, into a process of pure geometric thought: the art of perspective, like that, in its time, of measurement, prepared, in accordance with its own way and means, and in a repetition of the inaugural act of geometry, the appearance of projective geometry, itself linked to a new world of "pure limited shapes". [4]

In this way of describing the effects of Brunelleschi's invention, the notion of pure limited shapes which are created in perspective do not allow for the in between space to be anything but passive. Brunnelleschi space is the creation of an imposed theoretical stance, which is encapsulated, in the social development of perspective. This was the development of the isolated object in space, with its relationship to a constructed corporate autonomy of space.

These illusionistic devices to construct the world were to be placed in the hands of the bourgeoisie; the seer owning their own scene and therefore manipulating reality as much as was desired.

As Victor Burgin describes

"Modern space (inaugurated in the Renaissance) is Euclidean, horizontal, infinitely extensible, and therefore, in principle, boundless. In the early modern period it is the space of the humanist subject in its mercantile entrepreneurial incarnation. In the late modern period it is the space of industrial capitalism, the space of an exponentially increased pace of dispersal, displacement and dissemination, of people and things. In the 'postmodern' period it is the space of financial capitalism". [5]


The constructs that are initially mentioned by Panofsky show that perspective has had a commanding effect on the way that we perceive the world. The importance of objects observable relationship to one another in systematic perspective alienates the viewer from the objects but also the objects from one another. With the observer being in a supposed god like position, seeing themselves as the reflection in there interpretation of the objects around themselves. We form an understanding of how perspective not only separates the seer from the seen but also separates the relationship of object to the whole. This separation is made most strikingly visible through the in-between spaces of buildings.

"Space is conceived of as being transformed into 'lived experience' by a social 'subject'..." [6]

In this quote by Henri Levebvre the space as a lived experience is developed through the social subject. The social subject is a construct of the viewer and is relative to a form of social conditioning. A rupture needs to occur at the heart of seeing to be able to divert this conditioning. To form a lived experience that is not based upon arbitrary vanishing points but a reconsideration of the social environmental fabric.

This social environmental fabric could be the difference between historical perspectival space and a contemporary awareness of space. This means that social aspects of a perspectival awareness of space need to be reconsidered. This reconsideration of perspectival space is not something that can necessarily be put into a historical cultural context. What has transpired with modern technology demands we reconsider perspectival space. We need to shed some of the blinkered observations caused by this restricted form of viewing and decoding. This is not going to be easy as we are already polluted with this stigma but we must try and push beyond this form of social conditioning. The change will not come from the emergence of new technology but from a mediated resistance to it.

Paul Virlio

"What lies ahead is a disturbance in the perception of what reality is; it is a shock, a mental concussion. And this outcome ought to interest us. Why? Because never has any progress in a technique been achieved without addressing its specific negative aspects. The specific negative aspect of these information superhighways is precisely this loss of orientation regarding alterity (the other), this disturbance in the relationship with the other and with the world. It is obvious that this loss of orientation, this non-situation, is going to usher a deep crisis which will affect society and hence, democracy". [8]

The spatial relationship that will be part of our new mass subjectivity needs to be constructed through cultural concern for social interaction. This new spatial awareness is at the same time a communication space, a visual space, an intuitional space, a sensory space, the space we call imagination and the way we see things evolving.

Don Foresta states

"It will probably be at least another generation or two before we have consensus on the shape of that space, but if we are to believe what art and science have been saying, it is probable that that space will exist in time, be an interactive process and organised horizontally with a geometry quite different from the euclidian geometry of renaissance perspective"[9]


1 Erwin Panofsky Perspective as Symbolic Form. (Zone Books New York) 1991 .trans Christopher S Wood pg 67

2 Burgin Victor Psychoanalysis and Cultural Theory:Thresholds; ed Donald James (Macmillain Education 1991) pg 13

3 Erwin Panofsky Perspective as Symbolic Form. (Zone Books New York) 1991 .trans Christopher S Wood pg 31

4 Hurbert Damisch The Origin of Perspective (The MIT press 1994) trans John Goodman pg 164

Ibid pg 57

5 Victor Burgin Psychoanalysis and Cultural Theory:Thresholds; ed Donald James (Macmillain Education 1991) pg 15

6 Henri Lefebvre The Production of Space Blackwell uk 1994 p 192

7 Henri Lefebvre, 1991p 116

8 Paul Virilo

9 Don Foresta