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Excavating History: Giuliana Bruno and Media Archaeology

Media Archaeology
Professor Giuliana Bruno teaches VES 283: Screens, Media Archaeology and Visual Arts Seminar, among other classes.

Immersed in a seemingly unending sea of iPhones, laptops, and television sets, most people living in the 21st century consider the screen to be a truly contemporary medium. But for Visual and Environmental Studies professor Giuliana Bruno, the subject of screens stretches far beyond the realm of technology. “The architectural concept of the screen was a filter of light, something that created different zones, forms of intimacy, or zones of privacy,” Bruno says. In her latest course, “Screens: Media Archaeology and the Visual Arts,” Bruno and her students consider how screens act as junctions between individuals and the world around them. In particular, Bruno examines the screen through the lens of an emerging field––media archaeology. “Media archaeology is a relatively new term that defines excavating through the history of media,” she says. “It’s a way to understand where the history comes from and also how that history can be reinvented.”

Bruno’s graduate seminar, a foundational course in the Ph.D. program for film and visual studies, focuses on the history of the screen as a medium. “The screen acts not only as a place of transmission but also a face of mediation and transformation of the relationship between us and our surroundings,” she says. “It’s about looking at the present by way of its history.”

Throughout the semester, students use the ideas of media archaeology to chart the initial emergence of the screen and its steady transformation into its current state. However, Bruno stresses that her seminar, despite its thorough examination of the past, differs widely from a standard history course. “Media archaeology is not history work in the traditional sense; it’s not linear, not about origin,” she says. “It’s more about association, about montage, about putting together different ways, almost transversally, to view mediums in conjunction with other kinds of forms.”

These “other kinds of forms” span an impressive range of topics, including anthropology and, interestingly, science. “We look at the way screens emerged as a scientific invention, and how the worlds of art and science are connected,” Bruno says. “We’re looking at things like phantasmagoria, shadow play, optical toys—things invented to understand perception in a scientific context that artists use in their own ways of understanding perception and feeling.” Additionally, Bruno’s class investigates the medium’s transition from movie theatres to art galleries, where freestanding screens of varying scale function as architectural pieces. “What’s interesting is that contemporary artists today are becoming historians, even archivists,” Bruno says. “They’re going into obsolete forms, they’re reinventing what used to be called the art of projection, and they’re making it into new forms with new functions.”

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Having previously taught a course on visual fabrics within architecture and contemporary art, Bruno considers most of her seminars to be natural extensions of her own research. “Screens,” for example, emerged from her 2014 book “Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality and Media.” For Bruno, these seminars allow her to explore the larger questions surrounding her work through the distinct backgrounds of her students, including comparative literature and philosophy. “I consider the seminar to be a laboratory of ideas,” Bruno says. “I think the art of the moving image should be discussed in this interdisciplinary way, so I’m happy when students bring their different perspectives and share them collectively.”

For Bruno, among the most important aspects of media archaeology is the non-passive study of various mediums, specifically the consideration of history as a form of potentiality. “I’m looking at history not in terms of what happened—the facts—but what might have happened,” Bruno says. “What if we went in this direction instead of this other direction? … That’s where you get ideas.” In encouraging her students to think about potential narratives in addition to present and future ones, Bruno hopes to instill in them a passion for artistic innovation. “We’re obviously living in a world of mediums,” she says, “and to understand the contemporary world—and to change it—we need to know how we got to this place.”

—Staff writer Shaun V. Gohel can be reached at shaun.gohel@thecrimson.com.

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