Surface Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media
by Giuliana Bruno
University of Chicago Press, 2014
Cloth: 978-0-226-10494-2 | Paper: 978-0-226-43463-6 | Electronic: 978-0-226-11483-5
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.001.0001


What is the place of materiality—the expression or condition of physical substance—in our visual age of rapidly changing materials and media? How is it fashioned in the arts or manifested in virtual forms? In Surface, cultural critic and theorist Giuliana Bruno deftly explores these questions, seeking to understand materiality in the contemporary world.
Arguing that materiality is not a question of the materials themselves but rather the substance of material relations, Bruno investigates the space of those relations, examining how they appear on the surface of different media—on film and video screens, in gallery installations, or on the skins of buildings and people. The object of visual studies, she contends, goes well beyond the image and engages the surface as a place of contact between people and art objects. As Bruno threads through these surface encounters, she unveils the fabrics of the visual—the textural qualities of works of art, whether manifested on canvas, wall, or screen. Illuminating the modern surface condition, she notes how façades are becoming virtual screens and the art of projection is reinvented on gallery walls. She traverses the light spaces of artists Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Tacita Dean, and Anthony McCall; touches on the textured surfaces of Isaac Julien’s and Wong Kar-wai’s filmic screens; and travels across the surface materiality in the architectural practices of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Herzog & de Meuron to the art of Doris Salcedo and Rachel Whiteread, where the surface tension of media becomes concrete. In performing these critical operations on the surface, she articulates it as a site in which different forms of mediation, memory, and transformation can take place.
Surveying object relations across art, architecture, fashion, design, film, and new media, Surface is a magisterial account of contemporary visual culture.


Giuliana Bruno is the Emmet Blakeney Gleason Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. Her books include Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts;Streetwalking on a Ruined Map; and Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film.


“This is a unique book, in both form and content. Ranging from essay to diary to the epistolary, and from the work of Wong Kar-Wai to Walead Beshty, architects Herzog & de Meuron, Sally Potter, and Issey Miyake, Bruno traces a cultural about-face regarding our tendency to denigrate surfaces as superficial. Surfaces here are instead meeting-places, zones of encounter and admixture—the precise site that painting, cinema, architecture, fashion, or even the body all share, and where increasingly today they are transformed.”
— George Baker, University of California, Los Angeles

“In this finely crafted and evocative book, Bruno weaves a deep archaeology of the screen. Architecture, art, fashion, film, and philosophy find themselves embedded in the folds of a single sensuous fabric. Vision itself becomes tactile, and we begin to grasp the digital.”
— Beatriz Colomina, Princeton University

“Screen theory—the use of screens specifically in technology-rich applications such as personal computing—has been the primary domain of new media scholars. Bruno extends and enriches the discourse by both carefully considering the material qualities of digital manifestations of the screen and integrating discussion of nondigital equivalents.”
— Choice

"Weaving together intricate material relations between art and architecture, film and fashion, design and new media rendered
within contemporary visual culture, Bruno constructs a surface equally adept at providing space for leaping from or, for that matter, diving deeper within."
— art4d

“Beautiful and complex. . . . The readings in the book become a way of revealing hidden relationships between different forms of media, relationships that currently shift and that negotiate the question of the dividing line between work, world and viewer in ways that prompt us to re-consider the nature of those very divisions. . . . Hugely impressive.”
— Architectural Histories

“Bruno’s latest book is that rarest of gems: a patient and profound intellectual engagement, sweeping in scope, which is nonetheless a pleasure to read. . . . Give[s] us a critical vocabulary for engaging with the growing conflation of screen practices and screen architectures.”
— Art Journal

“An enthralling enquiry into materiality and the image in the virtual age.”
— Journal of Visual Culture

"Material ways of understanding visual culture through synesthetic embodiment, the modalities of movement that relate to philosophical ways of elaborating spectatorship, and the sort of post-phenomenological vocabulary that was visible in how for example some of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy entered academic debates in the 1990s. In Atlas of Emotion, this is visible in notions such as texturology that also reappears and becomes more central years later in Bruno’s later book Surface. Textures—including architextures—are part of both the artistic materiality of collections, museums, maps, but also fashion/textiles where cinema finds itself articulated before and after its 'birth.'" 
— Leonardo

"The resulting argument is a tour de force of aesthetic interpretation that is honed to a distinctly theoretical end . . . Simply by compelling us to contemplate what we would want from an aesthetic materialism worthy of the name—and doing so by mounting a virtuosic performance of her own deeply aesthetic response to that problem—Bruno has done a tremendous amount to reframe the matter of materialism today."
— Critical Inquiry




Fabrics of the Visual

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0001
[Sartorial, Patterns, Fabric, Texture, Mariano Fortuny, Issey Miyake, Bernard Rudofsky, Maya Deren]
This chapter introduces the book's sartorial aspect, which theorizes patterns of tailoring, screening, and surfacing in media like architecture, fashion, and on the screen of visual art. Bruno presents surface as an enveloping fabric and explores the manifold senses in which surface as such becomes an extensive form of textural contact: a transmission that connects different elements, a membrane that tangibly transforms the fabrication of inner and outer space. By addressing the redressing of surface materiality in this way, the chapter launches an investigation into how, in this dual sense of haptic mediation and emotional connection, surface acts as a fabric closely related to medium, and to screen. To do this work, Bruno discusses designers like Mariano Fortuny and Issey Miyake, architect Bernard Rudofsky, and filmmaker Maya Deren. (pages 13 - 34)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0002
[Filmic Screen, Wong Kar-wai, Sartorial filmic aesthetic, Tailoring, Gottfried Semper, Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin]
In this chapter on Wong-Kar-wai, Bruno theorizes the filmmaker's sartorial filmic aesthetic, and how it shares a fashioning of surface with painting and architecture. Performing surface analyses of Wong's films In the Mood for Love, 2046, and Ashes of Time, Bruno explains how his fashioned world permits viewers to experience the material of the screen in surface tension. As in art and architecture, the filmic screen becomes no longer a window, but a canvas in which distinctions between inside and outside temporally dissolve into the depths of surface. To make this argument, Bruno interrogates early film editing technique as a kind of tailoring, various sartorial philosophies, and the writings of Gottfried Semper, Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin, among others. (pages 35 - 52)

Surfaces of Light

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0003
[Screen-surface, Screen Architecture, Siegfried Kracauer, Carlos Garaicoa, Projection, Hiroshi Sugimoto, James Turrell, Anthony McCall]
This chapter probes the relationship between architecture and cinema as it is knit together on the modern screen. Architectural theory has demonstrated that the history of modern architecture is, in many ways, bound to surface. Bruno argues that this also holds true in the emergence of cinema; film literally comes to life as light dancing on a surface-screen. This chapter builds upon the art of projection to highlight how architecture and film are linked on the "screen-surface" of the modern age. Rather than study the figures projected on the screen, Bruno looks at the screen outside the figural and proposes to consider it as an architecture--the form in which film emerges and comes into being. Topics include, Siegfried Kracauer on surface splendour, light shows and early film, the art of Carlos Garaicoa, film theatre architecture, Hiroshi Sugimoto, James Turrell's light chambers, and Anthony McCall's light sculptures. (pages 55 - 72)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0004
[Robert Irwin, Screen as surface, Screen as architecture, Membrane-screen, Herzog & de Meuron, Pae White, Tara Donovan, Pipilotti Rist]
Using Robert Irwin's Excursus: Homage to the Square (1998) as a jumping off point, this chapter reflects on the presence and configuration of the screen as a cultural fabric. Bruno hypothesizes that a fundamental intersection between the forms of canvas, wall, and screen, has reconfigured the screen--though much film theory has imagined the screen as a window or a mirror, it is better understood as a type of canvas, a sheet, or a curtain. As partition, shelter, and veil, the screen is a permeable architectural envelope, which Bruno terms the membrane-screen This chapter's meditation on surface, and on the layers of depth that it can hold, unfolds through discussions of Krzysztof Wodiczko, Herzog & de Meuron, SANAA, Gerhard Richter, Sophie Tottie's glowing canvases, Luisa Lambri and Luis Barragan, Rudolph Stingel, Anni Albers, Petra Blaisse, Pae White, Tara Donovan, and Pipilotti Rist. (pages 73 - 106)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0005
[Archaeology of media, Screens of light, Hybridity, Depth of surface, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Tacita Dean, Lorna Simpson, Chantal Akerman, Jean Epstein, Environmental projection, Janet Cardiff]
As architects increasingly turn the facades of their buildings into screens, making them into translucent surfaces as permeable and layered as skins, and artists reinvent the art of projection, Bruno proposes that visual theorists can contribute concrete reflection to these intersecting architectures. In this chapter she continues to lay the ground for this future archaeology of media, advancing the theoretical exploration of the hybrid, luminous surface of the screen proposed in prior chapters. Here Bruno advances the connection of surface to texture and weave by exploring another dimension--screens of light. Bruno argues that the hybridity and depth of surface we see today are also expressions of the hybrid, tensile, layered historicity that characterized the emergence of the screen at the turn of the 20th century and forged its experimental history. To narrate this geneology, this chapter discusses: early film theory and experimental practice, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Poly-Cinema, Tacita Dean's Kodak, the weathering of film, Chantal Akerman, Lorna Simpson, Jean Epstein, environmental projections, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Janet Cardiff (pages 107 - 140)

Screens of Projection

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0006
[Spectatorship, Public Intimacy, Museal Sensibility, Christian Marclay, Interart interfaces, Olafur Eliasson, Projection]
Today, as moving images are entering into museum collections and exhibitions, Bruno observes a fundamental renewal of the relationship between film and the theatrical architecture of spectatorship. This chapter thus poses a reflection on the connection between cinema and the museum as sites of exhibition and archival fabrication. Bruno shows that a particularly porous museal sensibility--a sense of public intimacy--has developed as a modern, hybrid phenomenon out of the interaction among different sites of mobility, cultural memory, and public exhibition. In a series of museal promenades, including reflections on Christian Marclay's The Clock, the interface of interarts, and Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project, Bruno retraces the itineraries that the museum and the cinema imaginatively share in light of the ways in which these mobile architectures of public intimacy offer us, and transform, the experience of projection. (pages 143 - 164)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0007
[Projection, Isaac Julien, Vagabondia, Sir. Jon Soane's Museum, Double-screen, Interarts, Collection, Display]
In this chapter Bruno continues to reflect on the art of projection through a focused study of artist Isaac Julien's Vagabondia (2000). This double-screen moving image installation was shown in Sir John Soane's house and takes the museum setting as the core of the work. Bruno's text thus wanders around the London house museum, mining it for clues about which to read Vagabondia. Retracing the steps of an artwork that will unfold, ultimately, as an intimate double screen, Bruno understands Julien's piece as a work of material projection that travels the space of interarts, redressing the surface-level pleasure of collection and display. (pages 165 - 184)

Matters of the Imagination

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0008
[Architectural imaginary, Empathy, Aesthetic pleasure, Urban identity, Subjectivity, Imagination, Michael Borremans]
In this chapter Bruno introduces the idea of the "architectural imaginary." In order to define this concept and how it is fabricated, she weaves together reflections on the mental life of the city, material mental maps, and theories of empathy and aesthetic pleasure, with accounts of work by contemporary artists including Michael Borremans, Sarah Oppenheimer and Katrin Sigurdardottir, Rachel Whiteread, and Matthew Buckingham. She argues that visual art and architecture are becoming ever more intertwined, such that a virtual version of architecture is increasingly produced in visual form. We can witness creative architectural constructs and inventive ways of spatial thinking take shape on gallery walls, floors, and screens. Caught up with our sense of space, urban identity, and experience, the architectural imaginary has become a site for the building of our subjectivity and the dwelling of our imagination. (pages 187 - 210)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0009
[Havana, Urban imaginary, Psychic landscape, Decay, Failed utopia, Modernist architecture, Doris Salcedo]
In this chapter on Havana, Bruno offers a diaristic account of the Cuban city's complex web of faded utopian texture, decayed urban fabric, and transformative metropolitan energy. She advances the idea of the "architectural imaginary" introduced in Chapter 8 through a more specific notion of the "urban imaginary." Described as a mental landscape that accumulates a collection of resonant atmospheres, Bruno's urban imaginary of Havana winds through the city's air, its psychic and ruinous landscape, the texture of decay, failed utopian visions, Cuban-style Modernist architecture, the city's museums, wearable art, and Doris Salcedo and the art of things left behind. (pages 211 - 230)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114835.003.0010
[Sally Potter, Film analysis, Public discourse, Cinematic writing, Language]
This final chapter offers a meditation on the way surface functions as a form of contact that enables intimacy in Sally Potter's film Yes (2004). Bruno stages her reflections as a virtual letter to the filmmaker. What results is a palimpsest of filmic analysis and personal narrative in which Bruno describes the experience of participating in a public discourse on the movie. This writerly strategy, she argues, is evocative of the film's own palimpsestic approach: its cinematic form of writing carries several viewpoints, threads of meaning, and forms of address in the thickness of its surface. The composition reveals overlapping visual layers and moves across different types of registers, even linguistic ones. And as the film aspires to negotiate gender, cultural, political, and religious difference, it attempts to find a common language of dialogue within that divergence. Weaving back and forth between her own story and methodology and those of the film, Bruno muses, finally, on the larger stakes of surface and how it matters. (pages 231 - 247)