The Myth of Smoothness
Smoothness obscures. The rendered images we make illuminate from our high definition screens—their smoothness drawing us in while we forget about its digital constructs. In the recent visualization competition Render of the Year 2021, hosted by Arch Out Loud, the brief describes their aim to “[seek] compelling images that tell stories of architecture, interiors, cities, and worlds that could be.” 1 Underlined for emphasis, “that could be” uncovers our discipline’s predilection towards the render, a representation technique aimed at immersing and bestowing suspensions of disbelief and wonder. Yet underlying this mode of seamless visualization are constructed biases distinguishing what is deemed worthy to be seen or not, between signal or noise. As the media critic Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues, software structures our choices by “[limiting] the visible and the invisible.” 2 Thus to understand the emergence of these operations, we must uncover the myths and precedents of smoothness that structures our discipline. Only through historical analysis could we propose an alternative aesthetic that reveals their digital essence: what about noise?
The myths of our imaging techniques continue to resonate in our present, underpinning our aesthetic judgment of signal and noise. In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, he recounted a curious pictorial contest in the 5th century BC between two rival painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. 3 To demonstrate his skills, Zeuxis painted grapes that were so natural that birds flew towards the painting. Gleaming with elation, Zeuxis demanded Parrhasius to remove the curtains to uncover his painting. To his surprise, the curtains were revealed to be painted, deceiving his eyes, leading him to humbly admit defeat. Implicit in this narrative is the material quality necessary to pull off this realistic deception, suggesting that indexes such as brush strokes are eliminated for the smooth depiction of the rendered object. The better the obscuration, the better the image was. Beyond literature, canonical works of art also contribute to the construction of such myths. Embodying smoothness as an explicit technique, the Renaissance artist Raphael exemplifies this artistic process in La Fornarina, a portrait of a nude woman with a transparent veil across her midriff. The art critic David Gervais argues that “[the] smooth picture-surface in a way [allows] us to think of La Fornarina as a credibly real woman as well as an ideal one.”Through dematerializing the painted image, both Pliny’s tale and La Fornarina entangle 4 The real with the ideal, immersing us within its constructed desire of the smooth.
Amplifying this desire, the removal of noise is ingrained in the operations of our digital milieu. Artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl makes this claim as well, noting the way smartphone camera technology automatically removes noise from its photographs.5 However, for the philosopher Michel Serres, noise is inseparable from communication systems; it has the ability to “[give] rise to a new system, an order that is more complex than the simple chain,” 6 even going so far as to claim that “in the beginning was the noise.” 7 Demonstrated par excellence is the contemporary imaging technique of Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), a machine learning algorithm that generates images literally from random noise. Through an opaque collaboration between artificial neural networks, generated imagery inevitably contains errors and artifacts. GANs blend the boundaries of perceptual signals and shift the role of noise from procedural to aesthetic. This aesthetic turn transforms our relationship with images, as Marshall Mcluhan argues through his distinction between ‘hot’ (high definition) and ‘cool’ (low definition) media: “hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.” 8 Noise, thus, ‘cools’ our renders, allowing us to participate and recognize the complex cultural, technical, and political forces that make up the image.
Rendere, the Latin root of render, uncovers an alternative reading of the word by suggesting the act of “giving back, returning, and restoring.” Beyond our conventional understanding of the render producing polished, immersive environments, they could instead restore the obscured processes of the digital medium. While noise begins to unravel the myth of smoothness, we need to be careful about fetishizing noise as a decorative element. Instead, we ought to utilize it to recraft the rendered image as an assemblage of interfaces, algorithms, formats, screens, computers, disciplinary conventions, myths, and more. As the architect and critic Ellie Abrons argues, we should “[overcome] this designed invisibility, opening the door to software’s back-of-house…shining a light on the particularities, biases, and propensities of our everyday interfaces.” 9 We must not be merely the users of the digital, instead, a conscious actor of the rendered image.
Timothy Wong is an M.Arch I candidate (‘22) at the Yale School of Architecture. He was an issue editor of Paprika! Vol. 06 Issue 01: “Default” and Vol. 06 Issue 09: “-ish,” and was a curator of the exhibition In-sync, De-sync, Re-sync at YSoA’s North Gallery.
- Arch Out Loud, “Render of the Year - Home,” Render of the Year, accessed April 10, 2022, https://www.renderoftheyear.com/. ↩︎
- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge,” Grey Room, no. 18 (January 1, 2005): 26–51, https://doi.org/10.1162/1526381043320741. ↩︎
- Pliny, Natural History, Volume IX: Books 33-35 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), 309-311. ↩︎
- David Gervais, “On Paint and the Paint Surface,” The Cambridge Quarterly 32, no. 1 (March 1, 2003), 49–60, https://doi.org/10.1093/camqtly/32.1.49. ↩︎
- Hito Steyerl, “Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise,” in Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (London: Verso, 2017), 31. ↩︎
- Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 14 ↩︎
- Ibid., 13. ↩︎
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), 22-23. ↩︎
- Ellie Abrons, Foreword to Digital Fabrications: Designer Stories for a Software-Based Planet, by Galo Carnizares (Novato: Applied Research + Design Publishing, 2019), 8. ↩︎