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24.05.2010 10:27
The Medium's Two Spaces
The cultural history of media unfolds along a two-fold spatiality: the space captured by media technology; and the space that this technology opens up in the realm of perception. Already in 1967, Michel Foucault described this doubling in his essay “Of Other Spaces”, in which he introduces the cinema as an exemplary heterotopia, in which the viewer is in two places at once.1 According to Foucault, the viewers are not only in the cinema, but also in the film.
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The Medium's Two Spaces

The cultural history of media unfolds along a two-fold spatiality: the space captured by media technology; and the space that this technology opens up in the realm of perception. Already in 1967, Michel Foucault described this doubling in his essay “Of Other Spaces”, in which he introduces the cinema as an exemplary heterotopia, in which the viewer is in two places at once.1 According to Foucault, the viewers are not only in the cinema, but also in the film.

Fig.: Cinema, Filmmuseum Potsdam

The differences between both overlapping topoi could not be greater: One place is dark, the other is light; one place is here, the other is there. Yet even if Foucault’s description speaks for itself, something different is at stake with his differentiation. According to Foucault, spatiality at the level of the filmic image is not constituted first and foremost by place, i.e. by the fact that that the viewer in the cinema is shown a real or fictional “there”, but rather, this spatiality consists in the fact that the viewer sees a continuous or sometimes discontinuous space: the space referred to as “diagetic space” by the French film theorist Eitenne Souriau already in 1951. Diagetic space is not identical to the depicted or represented place in the image.

While the filmic image helps to elucidate the difference between the spatiality of the medium (in the example of the cinema), and the spatiality of mediality, as one could refer to it,2 (in the example of camera perspective), this difference is already identifiable in earlier cultural technologies. In the case of the written word there also exists a difference between the space taken up by the medium as a carrier of information, and the space that is perceptible as its form of presentation, which is not identical to the content represented by the text.

The difference is readily apparent on stone tablets: While the carrier of the characters is, to a large extent, immobile, the form in which the characters are perceived is, in contrast, mobile. Through reading, a space is constituted which is different from the space occupied by the carrier. The mediating space of the written word runs in lines from left to right (or vice versa) and in lines from top to bottom, or in columns.3 The space of the text is, at least in its linear form, not entirely determined by the properties of the carrier; writing can be realized on stone just as it can be on papyrus or parchment.

Fig.: Papyrus scroll

The defining characteristic of the history of media is thus that with the advent of new media, old medial forms in no way become obsolete. Much more so, media forms and media can be combined differently as carriers in regards to spatiality, sometimes resulting in a step backwards or taking recourse to earlier technologies – usually in the context of archival efforts. A characteristic case is the practice in ancient Greek city states to use clay or wooden tablets, which were easier to move than stone tablets, to record laws. Up until the fifth century B.C., the space which they belonged to and in part constituted was actually a collection of places which were cyclically traversed.

In Athens, the keepers of laws, or Archons, kept the laws in their home for the duration of their tenure before bringing them to the next house.4 It was not until the laws were brought to the city hall for permanent storage, which later became the sole storage room of the laws, [Fig.: Agora with archive] in the fourth century BC that the more durable, but immobile, medium of stone was used. Thus arose what Jacques Derrida calls the “topo-nomology”5 of the archive: the power structure or legal power of this place that was diametrically opposed to the easterly lying public space of the Agora.

Fig.: Agora with archive (No. 7)

The example of the archive of antiquity demonstrates that a historic reconstruction of media history does not necessarily need adhere to a heuristics of increasing acceleration, such as Paul Virilio has espoused, proclaiming the extinction of space.6 Such a diagnosis fails to take into account not only the double spatiality of media, but also their particular use, such as the archive.

This is demonstrated by a project at the University of Basel, whose Imaging & Media Lab houses the “Permanent Visual Archive”.7 Using the old medium of microfilm to archive websites, the researchers save the websites’ code in a structure of binary information illegible to humans. What is special about this is not only that the researchers have harked back to an analogue medium to preserve digital information, but also that they have taken a step backwards on the level of mediality. The websites are thus not stored in a form legible to the human eye, but rather the mobility of the script is transcribed into a static condition: into a picture of code.


The medial form of storage thus gains a different spatiality than does the writing which is stored on it. Indeed images can also take on a linear spatiality on the level of mediality, as is the case with Egyptian murals that depict the course of a ceremony. Going further, an image can possess spatiality that evinces depth, as with depictions that utilize central perspective. What really expands this spectrum of the fixed image or raises it to another level is the filmic image, which, according to Foucault, exposes this double spatiality, or heterotopia. As previously mentioned, the reason for this is different from the one Foucault cites for the fact that the state of simultaneously being in the space in front of the image and in the space of the image already applies to static images. The space presented by the filmic image, regardless of the image’s content or the places it depicts, is much more a movement space.

The filmic image thus does not rely only on painting’s formal repertoire. Rather the filmic image’s interior and exterior – spaces which, in the genre of painting, are delineated simply by the painting’s frame – are an instance of the film’s pictorial space itself, and born by the perceptible movement of the image-phenomena. Not only the moving image-objects, but also the field of view of the whole can cross the border into off-screen space.8 There are still numerous overlapping phenomena which accompany this change of media: Crossing over to the off-screen space of image-phenomena can happen in a static image or painting, for example by alluding to a framed painting within the picture plane. And moving panoramas, which were in style in the first half of the 19th century, allowed for a scrolling presentation in which the pictorial space comes out of the “off” and into the “on,” only to then disappear again into the “off.”9 Zoetropes and praxinoscopes, on the other hand, anticipate the movements of the image-objects within a set field of view.10

Fig.: Moving panorama, 1855 (

A change that affects numerous media today – and that many have forecast to define a new epoch in cultural history – is the spatial mobilization of not only medial forms, but also the medium of the carrier itself, in particular as a portable computer. And yet data storage media have been mobile ever since papyrus scrolls and wood tablets, or more recently even parchment maps. Even moving images (such as rollable panoramas) have existed in the past as convenient, transportable formats. What is new, however, is not merely the mobility of image, text, and audio media, but rather that these have come together in one device, as with notebooks or cell phones.

These technologies do not bring about an immediate extinction of space, but rather a further diversification of space or spatial constellations. In this way, most information in mobile or desktop computers is no longer stored on the medium; instead it is located in an immobile storage place somewhere else that, compared with the archives of antiquity, is much easier to access. Web addresses provide only conditional insight into the location of the server: in terms of its usage, “submedial space”11 is just as absent as the medium that a user holds in his hand. In fact web addresses only exists within the topological mesh of a network, the nodes of which can represent a physical place. This physical place, however, is not identical to the place where the data are stored.

When using a portable computer, spatial movement can thus occur in two respects: first, as physical change of place or a change of place in the space of the medium; second, in the virtual realm or in the space of mediality. Here we encounter a new possibility of movement which we can describe as the original form of computers: the image simulation, as we know it primarily in computer games. In computer games, the movements of things that appear on the screen are not only perceptible, they can also be influenced by the viewer’s reception. By “using” a computer game on a mobile phone, the carrier becomes actively movable, but so too does the image phenomenon. This means that the users of the medium can change not only the position of the medium, but also the positions of the elements of the game on the display.12

Fig.: Layar – Mobile Augmented Reality Browser

When technologies that are pervasive allow outside space to be drawn into the simulation, we are met with a striking inversion of space. This is the case with Geocaching, where location data on a GPS device reveal the hiding places of objects in a real treasure-hunt. Augmented reality is a similar case, which involves the simulation image being transposed onto the representation of the space outside the image, so that site-specific information overlaps with the space outside depicted on a cell-phone’s display, and both spaces of the medium line up.13

1 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces (1967)”, English translation from French by Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16 (1986), 22-27 [1984]. [available online:].

2 Sybille Krämer, Medium, Bote, Übertragung. Kleine Metaphysik der Medialität, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 2008.

3 Jay David Bolter, Writing Space. Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, Mahwahn: Erlbaum 2001 (2nd Edition) [1991]. [available online:].

4 Knut Ebeling, “Die Asche des Archivs,” Georges Didi-Huberman and Knut Ebeling, Das Archiv brennt, Berlin: Kadmos 2007, 33-183 and 189-221.

5 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, English translation from French by Eric Prenowitz, Chicago: Johns Hopkins University Press, 3.

6 Paul Virilio, L’espace critique. Essai sur l’urbanisme et les nouvelles technologies, Paris: Bourgois 1984.

8 Noël Burch, “Nana, or the Two Kinds of Space,” Noël Burch, Theory of Film Practice, translated from French by Helen R. Lane, Princeton: Princeton University Press [1961], 17-31.

9 Bernard Comment, The Panorama, London: Reaktion Books 1999 [1993].

10 These two image forms manifest two different distinctive features of the film strip: The movement of the image-objects in a set field of view (praxinoscope), and the movement of the pictorial space within the frame (moving panorama). If one also considers the presentational possibility of the laterna magica, which existed already in the 17th century and allowed for cross fading, the change in attitude can thus be traced to a predecessor medium. (For more on these individual media see Ulrike Hick, Geschichte der optischen Medien, Munich: Fink 1999.).

11 Boris Groys, “Der submediale Raum,” Boris Groys, Unter Verdacht. Eine Phänomenologie der Medien, Munich/Vienna: Hanser 2000, 7-115.

12 For more on forms of the spatiality of computer games and associated media technologies, see Ulrike Gehring and Stephan Schwingeler, The Ludic Society. Zur Relevanz des Computerspiels, Marburg: Jonas 2009.

13 For a general media theory of spatial overlappings see also Georg Christoph Tholen, “Der Ort des Raums. Erkundigungen zum ‘offenen’ und ‘geschlossenen’ Raum,” 2000,

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