Friday, September 13, 2019

The electric eye torpedo.

In 1934, Vladimir K. Zworykin, the inventor of the Iconoscope video camera tube, stared into the sun and imagined... explosive laden Japanese fighter planes, manned by fanatical suicidal pilots, crashing down onto US military assets in an imminent war. 

In a flash of inspiration he decided his device should be used to counter this threat; that it should be housed in to noses of an unmanned military aircraft to become a 'flying torpedo with an electronic eye'. Its signal would be transmitted to a remote operator who would use the cameras vision to guide the aircraft, also laden with explosives, into a enemy targets.

This highly classified project that would become known as Block was responsible for multiple breakthroughs in television imaging and transmission, radically reducing the equipment's size and weight while developing image resolution and contrast level that matched the transmission limitations against the quality of image required to identify and guide the projectiles towards a chosen target.¹

The system was used during WWII , though apparently infrequently, with many over produced Iconoscope cameras later finding their way into the post-war army surplus market² Project Block nonetheless remains a little known footnote in the history of video, overshadowed by the medium's post war boom years, rapid technological improvements and commercial broadcast television's entry into so many aspects of Western culture.

The concept would have to wait some fifty years until advances provided increased accuracy and lethality, and a means to record higher definition images that could be disseminated to millions of television viewers before Zworykin's idea would have genuine military and cultural impact.
In the 80s, Paul Virilio draws attention to early era film makers who wanted to cast their cameras through the air from Vertov's kino-eye to Abel Gance's desire for cameras thrown like snowballs. In War and Cinema he quotes Nam June Paik as proposing the root meaning of video as being not 'I see' but 'I fly'.

But the provenance of the electronic eye torpedo evades him, the idea of a missile guided by television seems startlingly new. 

Virilio: ''with the advent of electronic warfare.. projectiles have awakened and opened their many eyes: .... warheads fitted with video-cameras that can relay what they see to pilots and to ground controllers sitting at their consoles. The fusion is complete, the confusion perfect: nothing now distinguishes the functions of the weapon and the eye''³ 

During the Gulf War the POV of a television guided missile became a familiar sight on television and inspired thinkers and commentators. The idea of a 'clean war', a conflict fought only on television seemed to be, for commentators like Baudrillard, entirely a reflection of the contemporary technological state of the art. In 1993 Lev Manovich seems startled that he had 'witnessed what was "seen" by a machine, a bomb, or a missile'  

The electric eye torpedo became posited as a facet of the end game of electronic visual media, rather than it's beginning. 

While Project Block may appear to have been forgotten it's legacy endures though not where we might first look for it.

In the years prior to Project Block being developed, representatives of science, business, the entertainment industry and state were wondering what this new technology, electronic moving pictures should be used for; in which direction should it be taken.

After the second world war ended, television began to position itself as the dominant media platform until, by the end of the twentieth century continuous advances in miniaturization, image quality, stability and cost reduction delivered accessible video cameras first to state, then industry and community before the home and later, towards the present, they were to be found in every into every pocket in the developed world. 

Low cost, low power consumption, miniaturization, means they can now be anywhere, everywhere, to perform any task.

This moment of ubiquity, of universality may prompt questions similar to those asked in the 1930s. 

Where should we go with this now?

And from this position, privileged by the multitude of potentials for new direction that went with it emerged, among many others, an answer: the action cam. 


The construction and outward appearance of the action cam, like its great, great grandparent, the Block 1 is marked by the plainness of it's housing and an apparent lack of design flair. An entirely uniform and utilitarian unit, aesthetically, little more than a box with a lens. It's return to archetype may signal something significant. A mirror reflection of a beginning seems to invite its perception as an end. 

Yet there is difference to found as well as similarity.
Despite the absence of a viewfinder and it's non-ergonomic design, the action cam is very much designed to function as a body worn device; a device that is 'potentially multi sensory and may not feature visuality as the most important modality of camera engagement. The experience may be more immediately physical and tactile,'֩ Like the animated tripod in Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, it's place of mounting will direct it's gaze, share it's gaze. 

The Block was operated from a position and state of disembodiment, a the operator using a visual display, joystick and command functions in a manner prescient of multiple remote technologies.

And despite any external similarity, there is another difference indicated if not  outward appearance, then by it's external materiality. The action cam's body is designed to withstand impact; significant impact and trauma beyond any level built into a consumer level photographic products previously. It's exoskeleton must protect fragile inner components and optics not just from everyday use, but the strains of high velocity impact and extreme environmental conditions.

The Block, like the Japanese airmen that troubled Zworykin, and like so many assets during a time of war, was considered expendable. A successful mission would involve the delivery and detonation of high explosives mounted just a few feet from the camera body, tube and lens. It's rigid shell, was intended to protect the unit from extreme cold of high altitude, etc.; the rigors of it's single journey to it's target -- but not from it from it's final planned event.

And this is where similarity can be said to re-emerge for both cameras are expected to document high impact. The Block, imagined in the shock of the concept of suicidal dare devils and eighty years later - the action cam would appear to be designed to tolerate violent impact beyond that which it's operator's body could physically endure. Both cameras seem to ultimately share a purpose, to record (possibly fatal) impact and destruction.  

The video eye's first major deployment was as the ersatz eye of a suicide bomber; both cameras betray a desire to document the violent impact sustained of being thrust onto the photographic subject; a high velocity union where gaze is concertinaed, the focal plane and image are conjoined with the subject, possibly destroying it, or the operator, the camera or all three.  

As of 2018 Go Pro alone has sold in excess of 30 million action cams. Perhaps Mary Lucier was wrong. The purpose of the video camera was not to watch a rising star, but one that is falling. 


1. WWII Military Television Systems by Maurice Schechter was at the New Jersey Museum, InfoAge Science Center,

3. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema, Verso, 1989.

4. My Hero: A Media Archaeology of Tiny Viewfinderless Cameras as Technologies of Intra-Subjective Action, Lisa Cartwright and D. Andy Rice, 2016.

5. The Mapping of Space: Perspective, Radar, and 3-D Computer Graphics – Lev Manovich 1993


Friday, May 17, 2019

falling_star from scratch.utopia on Vimeo.
analogue traces

The sun descends over Berlin's Planterwald, May 2018. If it weren't for the haze, the Fernsehturm would be visible between the rectangular structure, part of the Treptowers complex and the electricity pylon. An 1970s artwork revisited using equipment roughly of that time and a little later; Hitachi CCTV FP71 camera, Sanyo VTC5000 Betacord VCR, using the VCR's 7 day timer and a mains timer switch for the camera. Video accelerated x64 with Windows Movie Maker and Blender.

Sometime around 1970 I became obsessed with the idea that video has been invented to satisfy an ancient longing: to allow the human eye to gaze directly at the sun without damage to the retina.

 Mary Lucier, Light and Death¹

In 1975 American artist, Mary Lucier pointed a video camera at the rising sun. In a piece titled Dawn Burn, a video camera captured dawn over the New York skyline; the sun's intensity leaving indelible traces on the fragile surface of the video tube as it crossed the frame.
For Lucier these marks were scars, 'trauma so deep it cannot be erased but, instead, accumulate on the image surface as a form of memory'
This process and Lucier's suggestion that her camera was able to absorb and retain what it had viewed, albeit as a form of wounding questions the fate of another video camera, a CCTV camera proposed by Bill Viola in Video Black – The Mortality of the Image², whose service of twenty years silently surveilling the same scene without ever being coupled to a recorder, comes to an end. Viola's camera is left with nothing to show for it's experience.
'Without a memory to give it a life, events flicker across its image surface with only a split second to linger as after images, disappearing forever without a trace. '
In The Autobiography of Video Ina Blom asserts 'changes can only be perceived if you are able to remember and compare. And memory, Viola tells us, is precisely what this camera does not have. You cannot expect it to tell history or to transfer accumulated knowledge. Its time is the present only, and the events that make up this present hardly seem to register at all, leaving only the briefest of traces.' ³
The 'after images' that Viola refers to, the 'traces' described by Blom are the video tube sensor's lag, a sort of electronic persistence of vision that would cause bright objects to appear to momentarily remain visible once removed from view or to stream ghosts as they move a screen. Described here as analogous to ultra short term memory; conspicuous enough to be visible yet too fleeting to have any mnemonic purpose, the phenomena is related to one of the factors that made the video tube's responding counterpart, the Cathode Ray Tube that employed much the same technology but for display rather than capture, suitable to be adapted for use in the first electronic Random-access Memory system.4
Video's potential for immediate feedback, that proved alluring to early counterparts of Viola and Lucier, allowed for an entire computer program to be displayed on screen in a series of dots and dashes to then be read by a sensor that would then write the displayed quantity back onto the screen. Manually, the operator could access any part of the 32 bit memory code, intervening in the loop to adjust the data.
The video tube's ability to produce live feedback could potentially be adapted into memory systems. What it lacks is storage. Momentary delay or lag displayed on screen was no use for storage, the formation of a body or archive; a recording.
Although a means of electronically writing, saving or storing the imagery captured by the video tube had been imagined as far back as the 1920s the electronic moving image existed without dedicated storage until the late 50s. Until then it relied on a film camera to reshoot it's images. Unlike video, the motion film recording substrate was developed simultaneously to the development of the apparatus. Unlike video, every film second is provided for by multiple sensors, 'footage' that judders past the gate to become film frames. A scratched or over exposed film frame is, gone within the blink of an eye. Not so for the video camera that only ever has one sensor, one eye.
And yet, Lucier proves the video camera uncoupled to a recording medium, the eye without a brain, can in fact have recourse to a variant of storage; a write once system where memory is etched with a blinding light process gradually causing irreversible damage. Burn. The term used for this effect would later be used to describe optically writing data for storage to Compact Disc and DVD.
As with Keraunography, the mythical process where lines and images are drawn onto a variety of media including human skin by energy and light descending from the sky or Optography, the phenomena of the retina retaining its last seen image beyond death; video burn provides primitive, use once image storage that simultaneously inflicts injury or destruction of the device that has gathered it.
Combining Lucier and Violas cameras for experiment: a static Vidicon camera pointing towards the setting sun. Over a period of days and weeks, as the earth moves about the sun, the fireball's glare will streak across the image in gradual increments, creating diagonal tracks across the screen that resembles those made by video heads onto tape during the helical scan recording process. Unlike the magnetized tracks set into the rewritable palimpsest of video tape those drawn upon sensitive photoconductive layer of the Vidicon's target sensor cannot be erased.
Over the passage a year, a writing over of the entire target sensor could occur. Over the twenty years proposed by Viola, it would be entirely burnt and blinded, yet as it was retired, it would take with it some material evidence of its service, some indexical proof of what it had seen. Video, the medium born without memory would blind itself to create one. Video Black – Viola's camera has remembered something after all.

1. Mary Lucier, Light and Death printed in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, Doug Hall, Sally Jo Fifer, Aperture, 1990.

2. Bill Viola, 1990. excerpt printed in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz,University of California Press, 1996.

3. Ina Blom, The Autobiography of Video: The Life and Times of a Memory Technology, Sternberg Press, 2016.

4. The Small Scale Experimental Machine or Manchester Baby, 1948.