Heaven Can Wait

by Stephanie Ellis

Heaven Can Wait is an installation with no end. The artistic duo Bull.Miletic is ambitiously assembling filmed panoramas from revolving restaurants around the globe. After filming in Western Europe and North America, the two artists are presently seeking new grants to support future filming expeditions in Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and South America. In the contemplated realization of the project, visitors enter a large ring of at least thirty video screens individually suspended from the ceiling at about eye level or above. Each monitor delivers a different city skyline. Each city skyline has been filmed in two complete revolutions—one during the day, the other at night. The two turns are then compressed into five minutes, so that the passage from day to night can happen in seconds. The shift from light to dark is then synchronized between monitors to achieve a domino or wave effect around the circle.

Looped to repeat endlessly, the effect is both fascinating and boring. And that is the point. The mixed valence of the panorama is already evident in the title choice. On the one hand, Heaven Can Wait alludes to an abundance-at-hand that outdazzles any promised paradise—the glorious gift of a world that pirouettes for immediate perusal. On the other, the title suggests a delayed desire or stalled revolution—the frustration of changing channels only to miss a world on parade. The viewer is caught between the installation’s heaviness and lightness—between the weight of a totalizing agenda anchored to chronic lack and the vertigo of suspended projection released into endless spin.

A Vision of Greed

As the exhausting excess of Heaven Can Wait underscores, the panorama is a hyperbolic vision. Historically, this excessive visual practice, which dominated the West throughout the nineteenth century, followed the more modest practice of perspective so central to the preceding two centuries. The window of perspective offered a precise knowledge of scale and distance. This accuracy is a master’s tidy dream of proper place and, more radically, a “space according to reason.”1 The latter defined as a location of accountability and therefore vulnerability. Thus, perspective is pregnant with both a reductive space of policing and an inclusive space of self-reflection‹the desire to keep one’s possessions in order and the need to own a self outside the thrall of a divine destiny. The panoramic multiplied that fraught ambition by 360º. Between the 1830s and the 1870s, almost every major city in the West had a panoramic theater. These round theaters were constructed to hold an enormous painting, tens of feet high and hundreds of feet in circumference. The public entered through a covered tunnel and then climbed a covered spiral staircase leading to the elevated viewing platform at the center. Arriving at the top, visitors were startled and awed to see a vast horizon, a privileged vista hitherto unavailable to the general public. The first horizon of mass consumption was the cityscape of London shown in the city itself. In 1787, Robert Baker, the builder of this first panoramic theater, named his invention “nature à coup d’¦il”‹loosely translated as “all the world in a glance.” Obviously, such a claim is overreaching. Without eyes in the backs of our heads, any vision in the round is always an illusion of wholeness pieced together from partial views. Even from a spaceship, the dark side of a planet is out of sight. This failure of the panoramic promise of completeness is what the Heaven Can Wait installation demonstrates in spades. Despite a bigger and better delivery system, a visitor whirling from screen to screen as the edited video skips frame to frame never arrives at the sum.

While the illusion of a single masterful glance may be undercut in this installation, the visitor’s experience of the panoramic is hardly banal, even for those grown accustomed to such views. If one has not ever been to the top of a skyscraper or flown in a plane, then one has been there in the movies. Yet, instead of control and amplification, visitors to Heaven Can Wait might feel assaulted and trivialized. By multiplying and cloning the urban horizon, this installation brings home the impact that the early panoramic theaters had on their spectators. Many patrons of the early theaters described the sudden confrontation with an unfamiliar view of such great magnitude as overwhelming and unsettling. Reports of dizziness and nausea were common.

Provocatively, Heaven Can Wait works at cross-purposes: undercutting the horizon’s seduction of completeness and coherence while simultaneously making a horizon that demands reckoning rather than mere witnessing. The choices made by the artists of this installation point to the often forgotten radical nature of both the panoramic subject and the city skyline; the historical link between a new mobile subjectivity and a new image of the city.

To compensate for the vertigo, some early theaters scaled down the painted images and changed formats, offering seats before a smaller canvas that scrolled across a stage. Unlike the perspectival subject pinned to a “point” of view, the ambitious panoramic subject is ambulatory‹either the viewer or the image moves. Obviously, the nineteenth-century panoramic theaters were a pre-cinematic technology. However, in contemporary films, the spectacle of the skyline is conventionally reduced to a location shot for the narrative. In close-ups, the cities of today often look the same structurally (a freeway exit, a shopping district, a fancy club façade) and demographically (an ethnically diverse crowd). It is the urban horizon with its distinctive towers, needles, arches, and domes that efficiently orients the theater audience. By contrast, among the early panoramic productions-paintings from the 1600s, prints or prospects from the 1700s, and theaters from the 1800s‹a city skyline was the whole show. More than just a popular favorite, the cityscape was a new and radical form of representation.

These images of the urban horizon were key to a shift in the public imagination of early modernity. The influx of gold and resources from the colonies, and the concurrent demands for mass manufacturing and distribution changed the old cities of Europe and brought about the rise of new cities in the colonies. As aggregates of strangers unmoored from local or parochial conventions, every city, new and old, offered a potentially open horizon for the multiplication of unsettling perspectives. Modern urbanization offered a secular vision of a city free from the suffocating strata of Church and King. Images of early city horizons, often dismissed today as merely picturesque, were boastful and defiant inventories of civic pride. “Here are the steeples” became “Here are the warehouses, docks, ships, banks, museums, factories, universities, and parliaments.” Heaven can wait. Such a notion of the big picture was invaluable to the new discipline of geography, the new bureaucracies of nation states and colonial empires, the nomadic subjectivity of bourgeois tourists as well as the collective solidarity of displaced peasants or proletariat.

Of course, the real panoramic canvas was the city itself. Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, architects have been cleaning up and clearing out the medieval city labyrinth‹widening and straightening boulevards and forcing buildings into blocks on a grid. The ascendance of modern master planners and urban renewal in the middle of the twentieth century was a culmination of panoramic vision‹in the United States, anticipated by Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama at the 1939 New York City World’s Fair and “museumified” by Robert Moses’s Panorama at the 1964 New York City World’s Fair. Paradoxically, this heady actualization of panoramic ambition happened at the very moment when cities and their inhabitants became prime targets in totalizing warfare. The two world wars created a perverse panoramic opportunity‹the technology both to level and rebuild whole cities from ground zero.2

A Vision of Denial

The artists Synne Bull (Norway) and Dragan Miletic (Yugoslavia) have deliberately located their investigation of panoramic vision in a post-World War II phenomenon—the revolving restaurant. These novelty restaurants of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century are anachronistic both in form and content. Pre-cinematic and pre-narrative, they stake a claim on the future that is sincere, naïve, and finally dangerous.

These slowly turning feasts in the sky were cooked up in the mix of Cold War chill and American economic heat. Military supremacy was achieved by the United States without the horrific cost of homeland destruction that occurred on the European and Asian fronts. The post-war boom in the United States was unmarred by horizons of charred factories and business districts, bombed-out airports and train stations, collapsed schools and apartments. Graceful dining at the tip of a soaring tower while seated on a turning platter is best appreciated when the glow of a bright future is undimmed by a messy past.

The mother of all revolving restaurants is the Space Needle at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. An incarnation of what Tom Vanderbilt has aptly called “a gently turning symbol of optimism and progress.” Over 150 such restaurants have been constructed around the globe as icons of diversion and relief. While many of these restaurants in the West are aging and enjoy a kind of retro-popularity, newer versions in the Middle East and Asia still enjoy an aura of prosperity.3 Ideally, the patrons of these establishments, unlike the shocked visitors at the early panoramic theaters, have the expectation of control and, moreover, comfort. The ideal viewer of a totalizing horizon in the nineteenth century was a believer in manifest destiny. With the approach and turn of the millennium, comes the domesticated version of empire building. Four-star and wanna-be cities are brought to the table for easy digestion. Patrons are numbered among the privileged, an average meal is elevated to world-class status, and a city of marvelous complexity is flattened into ambiance and pressed for maximum exposure. This is a life above the fray, without heartburn, secrets, or noise from the street.

For the viewer of Heaven Can Wait, this massing of restaurant panoramas serves up a cynical sublime: the world as my oyster. Yet this command center of multiple rotating views from the top offers both a pinnacle of visual consumption and its parody. The multiplication and miniaturization of these skylines from around the globe reduces individual city auras to a vast spectacle of the same. Homogenizing the horizon in this way produces both banality and threat. Heaven Can Wait undercuts panoramic vision by showing it to be obsolete or “old hat,” even as it paradoxically acknowledges its residual power. No longer the dominant mode of looking that it was in early modernity, the panoramic still swells the belly of the present—globalization as a yet-to-be democratization or inclusion into the big picture as well as globalization as a grander (and more leaden) regime of ownership and control through oversight. The primal scene of modernity is revolution—a clean break from the past. Ironically, this notion of revolution as rupture is itself a suppression of the traditional or pre-modern notion of a revolution as a cycle. The linear and open-ended time of progress replaced the repetitive and apocalyptic time of tradition. This modern notion of progress, however, was in crisis from the beginning. Progress relies, among other illusions, on the myth that modern subjects have all agreed on where they are going. Such a fantasy of consensus depends on the elimination of struggle and messiness both on the road behind and ahead. Nostalgia and positivism, the idealization of the past and the future, are co-dependents of modernity.4 Denial stalls the utopic linear march of progress into a dystopic spin. The revolution of a clean break becomes its antithesis—a closed cycle of repeating sameness.

During the nineteenth century, as modernity became a naturalized force, especially in the cosmopolitan centers, the radical or potentially destabilizing moment of the city skyline passed. In response, panoramic theaters made one last pitch for the urban audience. Theaters offered ever more traumatic scenarios such as Lisbon destroyed by the Earthquake of 1755, The Battle of Gettysburg, The Crucifixion, and The Flood. These theaters of disaster, more pre-television now than pre-cinematic, were popular, accounting for a last spike in attendance during the 1870s. However, by the early twentieth century, the new mass media forms prevailed and the neglected panoramic theaters had disappeared from the cities of the world. Some fifty years later, the gently revolving ambiance of the skyline view restaurants, that moving feast of civic boosterism, reappeared just as the modern city morphed into the scenarios of natural catastrophe, war, and apocalypse that had been foreshadowed by the last gasp of panoramic theaters. Perspective frequently denies that one’s vanishing point is another’s viewpoint. In actuality, the window of perspective is contested not transparent. Multiply that. From the New York Marriott Marquis, the revolving restaurant in New York City’s Times Square, on the morning of September 11, 2001, one would have seen the “Windows on the World” on the 106th floor of the north Twin Tower of the World Trade Center falling, as some said, “like a stack of pancakes.” Reckoning with the horizon as another viewpoint could no longer be delayed.

The wall around the pre-modern city that often prevailed against weapons arriving by land and sea is useless against weapons arriving by air. The absence of a city wall around an urban center does not necessarily signify a safer horizon. The self-congratulatory circle of windows at the top—that iconic sign of modern vision—is also a monument to collective forgetting.

Actual witnesses as well as those at their televisions and computers frequently described seeing the fall of the Twin Towers “as if watching a movie.” And in a sense they were. As Paul Virilio wrote following the 1993 attack on the WTC, “The panorama of titanic battles is being reduced to the format of the small screen.”5 Or as Susan Buck-Morss wrote following the 2001 attack, “We would need to recognize in the terrorist action in New York City a restaging of military telepresence in the Middle East—the killing from a distance that was used by the US military to bomb Iraq in 1991.”6 The opening of the air war and the indefensibility of the city anticipated the opening of the media front. The battle on the screen between zero panoramas drew blanks in the skyline of Baghdad, then New York City, and then Baghdad again. The encircling wall of screens in Heaven Can Wait is both funny and scary. On the upside, the synchronized screens are a delightful galaxy-sized wave of greeting from star cities dressed up like giant meals-on-wheels. On the downside, the ambition of the panoramic gaze is not softened by nostalgia—a rupture with the messy struggles of the past nor—warmed by positivism—the glow of a certain and uncontested future. A cleaned-up past and a sparkling future is a horizon of purity that is unsustainable in the monstrous beauty of this installation that spins and breathes the dark with the light.

  1. Hubert Damish, The Origin of Perspective, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, pp. 39-40
  2. The city as target is astutely described in Tom Vanderbilt’s book Survival City, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. His chapter ‘Dead City’ is particularly pertinent.
  3. Tom Vanderbilt, ‘Talking About a Revolution,’ Metropolis, Vol.18, No.1, August/September 1998, pp. 72-75
  4. I am indebted to Svetlana Boym for her insightful history, The Future of Nostalgia, New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  5. Paul Virilio, A Landscape of Events, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000, p. 26. I also appreciate his argument for the co-production of visual and weapon technologies described in his book War and Cinema, New York: Verso, 1989.
  6. Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, New York: Verso, 2003, p. 73

From "Bull.Miletic: Slow Seeing," Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin, 2004. All rights reserved.