Frames: Scopic Regimes

Georges Teyssot 

Excerpt from “Windows and Screens”, in A topology of everyday constellations Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 2013.
Selected and edited for this book by Paulo Providência and Georges Teyssot.

Human beings could be characterized as “animals with windows”, inasmuch as between world and subject there is always something that mediates – not so much a medium per se, but something that connects all outside things with us. In his seminal book Fenêtre (Window, 2004) Gérard Wajcman recalls that a “window” is not only a literary trope or metaphor, but also an actual mechanism, referring to the real window – an actual window with a set of frames and glass panes, often protected on the outside by shutters and on the inside by curtains. However, if one were to rip off the frame and mullions holding the glass panes, one would be left with just an aperture, bay, or gap in the wall that lets one look through. Such an opening would function as an apparatus of vision – as an eye. And if the window can be an “eye”, then the eye can be a window. In human history many things have been our windows: spectacles, paintings, cameras, videos – instruments that help us connect to the world in which we are constantly immersed.

Since Leon Battista Alberti’s famous treatise on painting, the metaphor for painting has been an “open window” (aperta finestra) through which the subject (historia) to be painted is seen. This comparison established the Western way of seeing the world as a picture; it also transformed the actual window, which at the time of Alberti was neither squared nor perfectly glazed or transparent.

[…] The world seen through the window as painting shows no continuity with the space where the observer stands – instead of a continuum, there is only distance, which is underlined by the frame.

Simmel had previously mapped reciprocal states of unity and exclusion in his 1902 essay “The Picture Frame: An Aesthetic Study,” a seminal investigation on the nature of framing an art-work. Here, the frame, by the very materiality of its border, is thought of as a device that helps the work of art to exclude anything exterior while offering a concentration on its interior. The frame guarantees the possibility of an autonomous existence for an artwork (ergon, “work” in Greek) by inscribing it in a place that will resist the continuous “exosmosis” and “endosmosis” that occur in a living cell. For Simmel, nothing should battle with the secondary position of the frame in relation to the painting; instead, everything (matter, color, form and shape) should maintain the frame as a parergon (subordinate work or accessory). […] Any attempt to weaken the essence of the framing – by opening up the encircling border, by transforming the frame into a piece of furniture, or by using the shape of architectural elements (such as pilasters or pediments) to build the frame – is condemned, inasmuch as it would abate its “parergonality”.

This happens because the frame, like the door, is situated in an unstable position, acting as an intermediary between the art-work and its surroundings – with which it is united; from which it is separated. For Simmel, the artwork’s frame is a metaphor for the border between social groups, thus showing that the true function of framing is “closing” the object “off against the surrounding world and holding it together.”