Airless Atmosphere

I was at notable art institution e-flux listening to Giuliana Bruno, a professor at Harvard University, speak about her latest book, Atmospheres of Projection: Environmentality in Art and Screen Media. She began by recounting an ancient myth by Pliny the Elder—his mere name a throwback to when aging was a symbol of immense wisdom rather than diminishing faculties, how chic!—about a Corinthian girl who, on the eve of her lover going off to fight in some unnamed war, notices the outline of his shadow in the light upon the wall and traces it into perpetuity. (The romance of time before the camera. How far we have fallen.) I feel for the Corinthian girl, and I wonder whether her lover ever returned to her, and I thank both God and the universe-at-large that there is no forced conscription under American law (if there were, though, I think my boyfriend and I would just run away).

This anecdote about the Corinthian girl is widely understood as a story symbolizing the birth of painting, but Bruno was up to something else. “When this woman in love transformed an architectural plane into a luminiferous screen, she switched on the very light of projection,” she said. “Pervasive screens,” she went on, “whose forms are constantly morphing into different surfaces and functions transform the spaces of the contemporary art gallery and the museum, as well as the environment of our daily lives.” That last bit, I assume, was Bruno’s way of implicating our collective infatuation with platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and X, and the screen time we allocate engaging with each of them.

Projection has been plagued with negative connotations in the popular culture, Bruno lamented, before citing the psychoanalytical understanding of the term, i.e., “the transference of anything unpleasant in ourselves onto another person.” The only way to escape its grasp, she suggested, is to isolate ourselves. I find this to be bad advice: I live in a state of omnipresent projection, one that is amplified especially when I’m alone in my room all by myself.

Speaking of rooms, the architect Robin Evans, in his book The Projective Cast, defined projection as “nothing other than the future of light,” Bruno informed the ample audience, as she traced the historicity of the term. Around 1550, a spatial valence was assigned to projection, which came to signify “the action of drawing a map or a plan of the surface of 3D objects.” It turned out that this detour was but one of the “paths” Bruno “forged in order to explore, and explode, the meaning of projection, and to do so in environmental terms.”

As the lecture progressed, my brain began to struggle to discern the meaning of the words being injected into it in rapid succession—words like sublimation, nebularity, transduction, and interobjective intersubjectivity. “Why is art writing like this,” I asked Google. I land on an Artsy article titled, “The Way We Talk about Art Shouldn’t Be Impossible to Understand.” I wonder how Bruno transmogrified the beautiful artworks projected onto the screen behind her—“artworks that have illustrated [her] theoretical musings”—into this hyper-abundance of words that flit noncommittally through my consciousness, leaving scarce, if any, imprint. “We’re in these bodies for such a short time,” reads the back of the sweater of the boy sitting in front of me.

Bruno seemed to intuit this herself. “Yes,” she said toward the end of her talk, “I think we all need a drink after this.”