Screens of Navigation: From Taking a Ride to Making the Ride – Nanna Verhoeff

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At moments of transition, when new media emerge, it is a much-encountered practice within the artifacts produced by those media to reflect upon the nature of the new medium itself. A dominant trope in modern visual culture, emerging or transforming screen media often self-reflect on the virtual mobility that the medium enables for its users. More specifically, in the following I will argue that today’s media self-reflections insist that navigation is effectively the primary paradigm driving digital screen media. This primacy of navigation entails more fundamental positions regarding the relations between our culture’s predominant modes of address: narrative and spectacle. To bring these implications out I compare contemporary digital media with the first years of cinema. This comparison will show how the intimate, inextricable relationship between narrative and spectacular tendencies manifests itself, especially in navigation. I will demonstrate how media present these twin tendencies as converging in a trope of virtual mobility. This melding together of spectacle and narrative is most clearly visible in screen visions of navigation. These visions establish what I will call screenspace: the simultaneous on-screen construction and representation of navigation.

Points of Self-Reflection

Fantasies about virtual mobility have fueled our imagination and colored our conceptions of how visual media work. Technologies of transportation have been used, literally, as models for the possibilities of technologies of vision. Yet, where the train stood as model for cinema, and auto-mobility has been regarded as homologous to television, applications of digital technologies seem to lack such a literal model of vehicular transportation. Instead, digital mobility is visualized in other forms of mobility, as the images below show. Sometimes, it is presented as weightless mobility, as we can see in present-day commercials with, for example, mobile phones floating through the air, or under water. In other instances, digital mobility is conceptualized as a mobility that dispenses with such propelling machines, one where the body appears to suffice; a kind of pedestrian mobility. Unlike trains and cars that are spatially bound to tracks and roads, as well as temporally tied to time-tables, stop signs and traffic jams, digital pedestrians can make space their own, on their own, in their own time. They compose their own, individual trajectories, which demonstrate liberation from the spatial and temporal constraints of vehicular mobility. In line with this fantasy of freedom, surfing, skating, or (snow- or skate-) boarding, figure as metaphors for the fluidity of digital mobility. More flexible, faster, more swiftly, and more anarchistic than walkers, these boarders can truly construct new spaces. In short, a great variety of figures of mobility rival for attention, in the absence of a key trope comparable to the train or the automobile.

Commercials deploying the metaphors of freedom of movement (Toshiba), of a fleeting community of pedestrians (KPN), of weightlessness (O2), and individual spaces (Sony Ericsson).

It is precisely because of this variety that I wish to seek a more profoundly anchored, single trope. These visions of mobility have in common that they all point self-reflexively to navigation as characterizing new screen media. The fantasies I am exploring concern less simultaneity or immediacy, based on the conflation of time and space – a trope in emerging media that has been pointed out by others – than navigation. Navigation is so central because it embodies the unification of time, space, and agency. The appeal of navigation is based on the desired power over one’s own mobility. As figures that metaphorically stand for the possibilities of digital media in commercials, the surfer, skateboarder, or pedestrian do have that power.1What are the self-reflexive metaphors for virtual travel through navigation that we can distill from presentations of digital screen technologies, and what do they specify regarding navigation? As I have argued elsewhere, the answer to this question harbors a view of cultural history and its methodology as I see it. (Verhoeff 2006) I contend that the self-representation of media reflects the ways their screens give us access to space; indeed, determine our relationship to space. In this sense the media always precede and thus, pre-write (not to say pre-scribe) the way scholars and users later come to understand them. The object pre-formats how we can study it.2

Of course, I am not alone in considering contemporary media, or I should say, media in transition, as acutely self-reflective. For example, as David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins have pointed out, “the introduction of a new technology always seems to provoke thoughtfulness, reflection, and self-examination in the culture seeking to absorb it.” (2003: 4) The terms of these self-reflections are grounded in a strong bond (positive or negative) between the old and new media. A reassessment of old media is sometimes even more apparent than an examination of new media. For this reason, I will make my case through the examination of media behavior at two, not one, moments of transition, one hundred years apart: the first years of cinema, and present-day digital screens.  Both moments are marked by a self-reflexive foregrounding of the possibilities of the new screen to navigate virtual space. However, with the advent of postmodernism, perceiving self-reflexivity is becoming a bit of a platitude, and is only helpful for our understanding of media culture if we specify what the self-reflection puts on the table. For, referencing each other, pointing out their own mediated status, media texts can have very different agendas, different degrees and directions, even destinations, of self-reflexivity. To give some examples, they may be self-satisfied or critical of themselves or of the media they have the ambition to replace, of social and cultural situations, related or not to the emerging media, of the consequences of their popularity. As a result, reflection on this reflexivity harbors insights of both a methodological nature, concerning the ways we study and write cultural history, as well as of a philosophical nature, concerning the self-critical perspective of a culture.

In line with this differentiation of self-reflexivity, I offer the following double contention – theoretical and historical. Medial self-reflection – here understood as the phenomenon that an artifact in a particular medium probes that medium’s features and impact – is not a mere issue of aesthetics, nor of commercial self-promotion. Theoretically speaking I contend that self-reflection is an inevitable cultural mode pervasively present in all media artifacts. This is so because cultural existence implies the desire to understand how things work, and for such an understanding to pass without fuss, self-reflection is just second nature to cultural expression. Specifically, these artifacts are self-reflexive in that they inform us about the historical position of their newness, including its future, as well as, consequently, our own. This can easily be assessed in a comparative analysis of media use in the two moments of increasing and accelerated development of new media, 1900 and 2000. Whether we consider these moments as ruptures or as modifications does not matter. This double contention has a systematic and a historical side to it. I will elaborate both through an analysis of different modes and levels of self-reflexivity in a range of disparate cases. Each of these cases address in their own way changing relationships between user and (urban) space. They do this through, on, and by means of the screen. They address, that is, the meaning of the screen.

The Meaning of the Screen

Phantom rides were a typical attraction in early cinema that proved to have a staying screen presence. I position this genre in confrontation with other screens of navigation as the typical dispositif that, I submit, constitutes the contemporary visual regime. The features of the mobile screen exemplify new technologies and practices that influence the relationship between the screen’s user/spectator, or perhaps best called the screen’s engager and the urban environment. GPS technology and personal, hand-held navigation systems are mobile technologies that provide access to urban space through virtual “tours.” First, the train was a medium, for it transported vision. Now the medium is our vehicle for it visually transports, because they accompany, guide, and represent movement of the screen.3

The phantom ride and the mobile screen have in common that they not only display but also constitute an experience of travel. Simply put: the medium is the message. They deploy the imagery of travel to underscore the (new) medium’s capacity as a virtual travel machine. The dynamic of travel as topic-trope-metaphor results in a mirror image, or what narrative theorists call a mise en abyme, when media in the image comes to stand for the mobility of the image. This shift from thematic to metaphoric reflection of mobility is visible throughout the history of media. I am referring to the moments when physical mobility was first used to create and demonstrate the virtual mobility of media. In early cinema, phantom rides are exemplary for this mobility model. But we can see how this developed, or split, into a new trend in which the situation has become partly reversed, so that mediated mobility is used to convey physical mobility. In the case of phantom rides, the screen is the tool for movement through vision – the result of captured mobility refers back to the mobility-in-motion (the moment of shooting) and enables the spectator to travel back in time to the moment of this mobility; the hand-held screen conflates the moments of mobility and capture, resulting in a highlighting of simultaneous temporality; touch screen technology shifts the activity to “before” mobility. There, agency and physical activity and contact on part of the engager/spectator redefine the screen not so much as tool, but as site for mobility – the construction of timespace.

Central in the construction of media as a travel machine is, then, the screen. The screen, even if it can represent a temporal mediation, is always also a spatial object, a tool for, but also part of spatial transgression. And this transgression is the desired object for the media user. The screen makes both the time of experience and diegetic time, spatial – indeed, it is the locus of that transformation. The screen is where it all happens: at once a technological device, a metaphor for mediation, for vision, a frame for representation, and a site of innovation – the screen has many meanings.

In the course of the history of visual representation, the screen has been understood as mirror, as magnifying glass, window, lens, but also as veil, even as the walls of a cave, or, today, as interface. This multiplying of metaphors through which the screen is conceptualized is significant in its highlighting of specific manifestations of the screen. In these metaphorical comparisons, the screen is positioned at once as tool – for determining the conditions of perception – and result – of mediation. What is on-screen, is aired, or is entered, is the result, the product of the medium. But once the image hits the screen, this image as product becomes a producer, of experience, hence, the medium itself. A film becomes a film when it is screened, a television show becomes television when it’s aired, and a game is a game when it is entered – as in: both accessed, and activated by the “enter” key. And once in progress, the process of screening can be captured. (Friedberg 2006) These terms may seem to be just different words for the same thing – an argument Lev Manovich puts forward when he states that in the end “[w]e still have not left the era of the screen.” (2001: 115). This may be true, since there is undeniably a certain continuity. But within that continuity of mediatic ambition in which the screen is the key, the differences in screen concepts point to fundamentally different constructions of spectatorial engagement or agency. Differences that range from encapsulated bodies (Hutamo 1995), tele-present viewers (Uricchio 2004), to my focus here: digital navigators.

Spatial Attraction

Let me point out how narrative and visuality are tied together in travel imagery of cinema to produce a space of mobility. My interest in mobility, hence, in the unbreakable bond of spacetime as a trope of early and late moving images stems from the insight that (virtual) travel and transport are, precisely and intensely, both visual and narrative in their appeal, so much so that these two aspects can no longer be disentangled. Transport is an experience consisting of a temporal sequence of micro-events; of movement through space and of (resulting) encounters: a series of movements in time that appeal to the spectator’s desire for immersion in space. It allows for “new ways of seeing”.4 It is a temporally structured, at times immersive experience of visual engagement with new phenomena, environments, and people, all set, importantly, in space. The spatiotemporal imagery of travel thus establishes narrative as twin or partner, not oppositional “other”, of visual spectacle.

The primary aspect of narrativity is to be found in the aspect of time, or chronicity, according to André Gaudreault. He makes a distinction between two levels of narration in moving images, micro- and macro-narratives, between the level of the single shot and the narrativity that is created between shots, by means of montage. (Gaudreault 1990) The single shot – as micro-narrative – is the barest form of narration because it shows the passing of time within the image. Spectacle, or attraction, can be regarded as things happening; things that have an awesome effect on the spectator, drawing primary attention to themselves, in temporal terms: happenings punctuating the moment. In this view it makes sense to consider spectacles, attractions, as narrative, yet in a different timeframe than the (longer) narratives that surround them. At first sight, narrative is the account of the passing of time (and its results) outside the world of the spectator, whereas spectacle draws the engager/spectator into that world; from a grammatical third person account to a first-second person interaction, as if by synchronizing watches: not in some other time, or what I have called elsewhen, but right now. Nevertheless, as concepts, narrative and spectacle are derived from different logics. Narrativity is constructed by means of interpretation, whereas spectacle is often conceptualized as an “effect,” a forceful one that takes the spectator out of an immersive diegesis, breaking right through the narrative barrier.

Although this conception of narrative and spectacle as opposing forces seems to be clear-cut, disentangling their relationship is still on the agenda of media studies, whether as debate in the study of narration in moving images, in film history, or in the study of (digital) special effects. Clearly, this oppositional conception is problematic because it blinds us to the intricate connections between the two. These connections become prominent in mobility. When mobility predominates, the distinction between temporal and spatial constructions is no longer meaningful. The concept of cinema of attraction makes this clear. Tom Gunning (1990) initiated a rehabilitation of visual attractions as belonging to a register different from but equal to narrative, in order to appreciate and understand a mode of address that did not fit with (classical) narrative models. Identification, suspense, and laughter are typical responses to narrative that demonstrate the mechanism of what I like to call heteropathic immersion. The “pathos” of such immersion is “hetero-,” based on a distinction between the off-screen world of the spectator and that of the on-screen events s/he engages with.5

In my argument, heteropathic means that the immersion takes place, so to speak, on the terrain of the diegesis, into which the spectator/engager enters. Gunning drew attention to a different set of responses, such as a primary spectatorial confrontation, aesthetic fascination, and an appreciation for the novelty of “direct” cinematic imagery. This he set off against the diegetic absorption that results from narration, the unfolding of a story. The kind of immersion involved, here, lies with the spectator, who takes in the spectacle. Unfortunately, the tendency to insert new concepts into old binary oppositions has recuperated Gunning’s productive idea and locked it into an opposition between narrativity and visuality.6 We can even consider his description of “direct” attractions versus “longer” narrative development, as fitting right in with Gaudreault’s levels of micro- and macro-narratives. Following the ideas concerning attraction, I suggest that these moments of direct address, of “pure” spectacle, of a paradoxical “transparent hypermediacy”, (Bolter and Grusin 2000) are punctuations of macro-narratives by micro-narrativity.7

However, the persistence on an oppositional conception of spectacle and narrative is particularly clear in analyses of contemporary special effects in cinema where the concept is used to underscore the breaks in the longer narrative of the film – assuming there is one dominant narrative. There the logic runs as follows. If cinematic images appeal to the pleasure of looking and the thrill of seeing unknown things or spaces – or recognizing known ones – then they must be something altogether different from, even opposed to immersing oneself in a story that unfolds before our eyes.8 Gunning considers the phantom ride as the key example of the cinema of attractions, and proposes that the chase film is the “original truly narrative genre.” I would underscore that as an exemplary motive in moving images, phantom rides constitute a arche-genre – let’s call it a paradigm – that precedes and predicts, and is continuous with contemporary screen-based ways of constituting ever-changing (media)spaces. As such, movement, especially that of the traveling camera of the phantom ride, establishes a synthesis between narrative and spectacle. When we consider the micro-narratives of shots that show movement, as proposed by Gaudreault, who uses the example of the single-shot arriving train film Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (Lumière, 1895), I propose a typology of train films as a way of thinking about contemporary screen-based relations to space. I distinguish four types of such films. Together, these types show how movement, as cinematic form, self-reflexively shows that narrative and attractions are essentially tied together – inextricably.

Screen Captures

Foregrounding the intricacies of what scholars have, perhaps, tried too hard to disentangle, different types of train films function as visual motives, both attraction and narrative can be discerned. The first form is that of the arriving train.

Train arriving at Ciotat in Lumière’s 1895 film: the spectator watches the train approaching from a distance. MoMa collection.

Shot with a camera positioned on the platform, a train arrives and people step off while others board the train. The spectator is positioned at the entrance of the city and “intervenes” at the entering moment. Arrival and departure, similarly, is an often-used framing element of action sequences in contemporary cinema, or even in digital games that involve cars, or other vehicles, to explore digital spaces. A more dynamic variant is, second, the approaching, then passing train film: the train moves towards the spectator, but passes on one side.

Frames from Fast Mail, Northern Pacific Railroad (Edison, 1897), available at

The train approaches, then passes.In some cases the camera pans, showing the train ride towards the distance. This produces the sensation of seeing something hurled at you, and the subsequent relief of seeing it miss you as the target.  This is a stock element in today’s special effects, and enlarged in Imax movies.
Third, the phantom ride film shows a first-person perspective, tracking the perceptual field as seen from a moving train, without showing the train itself. This has become the standard way of showing movement. The spectator “lives” the moving perception, so that the phantom ride has become the measurement of dynamic timespace.

A true phantom ride, going through a tunnel in Station and Panorama of Conway Castle (American Mutoscope & Biograph, 1899). Courtesy of the Filmmuseum, The Netherlands.

Fourth, the double ride is a combination of the second and third variant. It shows phantom-ride footage shot from a moving train, following another moving train, either from behind the train or on parallel tracks.

Irish Mail (American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1898). Courtesy of the Filmmseum, the Netherlands. A double ride: a phantom ride following a second train on parrallel tracks.

Today’s cinema has plenty of examples, as it is the conventional way of shooting car chases. Also, racing games deploy this form consistently. The game player rides as a chasing phantom along the racetrack, while also chasing the other cars on that track.

Screenshot from Need For Speed Most Wanted for the Nintendo DS. Courtesy of EA Games (2007). The double sceens of the Nintendo DS show simultaneously a double ride on the upper screen, and a map-view of the racetrack on the bottom screen.

These four kinds of train films each exemplify a different relationship between the screen and its engager/spectator as s/he experiences space as dynamic: ranging from static beholder to virtual passenger. These categories of attractions, based on mobility, time, and the perception of spatial consequences of this mobility are irreducibly self-reflexive. As such, they show on screen how we are to relate to the screen, in a troping of the train. They are not only to be considered as micro-narratives, but, as a commercial for a JVC video camera demonstrate, can become entire “macro-narratives” in and of themselves.9

This commercial is an element in the appropriately called Ride the Wild Side lifestyle campaign. It shows a complex, integrated elaboration of these forms. This JVC skateboarder is a close relative of the four types of train spotters, but here the mobility of the screen itself doubles up the mobility that the phantom ride already demonstrated.

JVC commercial showing shots of a skateboarder alternated with the footage he captures with his camera. The last shot in the commercial zooms in on the camera with on its screen some footage of the ride.

This short film borrows from the phantom ride model the mobility of vision; the spectator joins the ride. It then mixes the train-ride formula with a second layer of movement in the image. For, while he is riding, the skater is recording the ride, creating an image of movement within the image of movement. This is a mise-en-abyme in motion, so to speak. The skateboarder is our exemplary pedestrian. Moving over car roofs, staircases, ignoring traffic lights, leaping over benches, he embodies the weightlessness, the fluidity, the anarchistic freedom, and the speed of contemporary culture. Thereby this commercial borrows the tropes of screen mobility to sell cameras that are desirable for precisely those features. We see movement of the character-boarder who is navigating while looking through the camera lens, and we see him simultaneously recording his movements. The film triples the movement through the city: it follows his movement (1), we see movement in the image (2), and we see, implied in this image, the future of the movement he is creating-recording (3). Even if we do not see the full result (the phantom ride he is making), we see the creation of the ride: the process is proof of the result. At the end we even get to see a glimpse of it. The temporal layers in this film are thus extremely complex, but nevertheless clearly focused on the conflation of physical mobility and medium mobility, both constructed as spatial transgressions. The small LCD screen on his camera fulfills the double function of capturing, showing and constructing the navigation. 11

Navigating the Screen

This double function of the screen as both site and result of navigation leads to what I call screenspace. Screenspace in this sense lays at the heart of the Nintendo DS game console: a hybrid portable medium with double screens, wireless connectivity and voice control and a touch screen. The advertisement for this product spells out the special features of the touch screen. In addition to the visual continuity of moving screens we have just witnessed, the touch-screen proposes a haptic continuity. As Nintendo announces, with the double screens, different screen functions can be combined:

The possibilities are endless. In racing games, you can see your own vehicle’s perspective on one screen and an overall track view on the other. In adventure titles, vertically-scrolling levels redefine the way you interact with the game. In the future, games could be created allowing you to play games on one screen while text messaging on other DS users on the other.

This advertisement hints at the combination of rides I have proposed in my typology by pointing out the combination vehicular perspective and overall track view. Moreover, the double screen allows for different interactions and a multiplicity of screen uses in different screen spaces. The phantom rides discussed above already pre-figure these new possibilities. These are further extended as a result of the specific technology of the touch screen.
The advertisement continues:

[t]he lower screen of the Nintendo DS offers something never before provided by any dedicated game device: touch-screen capabilities. You no longer have to rely on just buttons to move your character or shift perspectives. Navigate menus or access inventory items simply by touching the screen with a stylus or fingertip. […] The possibilities are limited only by developers’ imaginations.

Where the phantom ride proposes the spectator to move through the screen, using the screen but making it invisible at the same time, the touch-screen flattens the surface. The screen, here, becomes a thin, but essential (and visible!) membrane. Its materiality has become quite literally the surface we need, the surface we touch, trace, and imprint. The screen becomes our map.13 This is why the term screenspace is called for. Let’s consider in this context simultaneous on- and off-screen navigation. The screens of navigation devices, both in cars and on mobile phones, help scores of people move through the city. Some devices include ways of memorizing itineraries; it is a map, a camera, a photo album, and a “racing game” at once. As in the advertisement for mobile navigation devices from Navman that use so-called geo-tagged photographic images called NavPix™, the photographic record of any vista seen on the road can be selected, clicked, and then you can go – but the kilometers / miles remain to be traversed.

“Meet NavPix™ and Change the Way You Navigate Forever.” From the Navman website: (accessed 16/07/07).

These devices by Navman combine touch-screen technology with digital photography. This principle of navigation by images (NavPix™) is founded on principle of traditional photographic representation, but extends – or rather: reinstates – the indexical nature of the photographic image by attaching (invisible) geographical coordinates to the visual image, thus enabling navigation in a spatial simulation. This environment functions as an interactive remediation of the traditionally flat, limited and fixed map.

Geotagging images, as visualized in the promotional video on

This simulation-map, as I call it, is represented on the screen of the navigation device, structuring, or constructing, real, physical and geographical mobility. What is doubled here is mobility before and after the interaction with the screen: the arrow on the map represents the simultaneous movement of the navigator. It enables the user to map future movements, as it shows the options of where the user-navigator may go. But the navigator suggests and determines the destination. Content is constantly updated as the navigator changes his path, producing the fluid screenspace. Moreover, photographs, like footprints, of previous sights along the road become travel destinations of the future – inroads into the hitherto unknown corners of the city. What is stored and used as source for retrieval are not the sights that are displayed in the photographs, but the sites from where these vistas were recorded. Geographical “points of view” (formerly, in navigation jargon, POI or “points of interest”) become destinations for future travel. The mobility is thus still a fantasy, “in the air,” or into the “future.” For this mobility the constantly evolving technology offers ever-more appealing forms. In the phantom rides it is by looking at movement that the spectator or user moves along. The JVC commercial proposes the possibility to make your own phantom ride. The Nintendo commercial suggests the power of the touch that makes the doubling of the screen redundant. The navigation-by-pictures depends on physical mobility of the media user for its on-screen representation of this mobility, while simultaneously routing future movement. This conception of screenspace leads to a new way of experiencing urban space.

There are clear differences between these cases in the way the activity of the engager/spectator relates to the vitality of the image as put forward by the screen. The train ride is dependent on the stillness of the body, and the transferred mobility of the eyes of the spectator. The screens, here, offer only a suggestion of mobility. The means of transport invoked and used, the train, still rides on pre-established tracks. In the second case of the hand-held camera, the mobility is a prerequisite: you have to move to capture movement. In both the phantom ride and the JVC commercial the screen fixates the relationship between on-screen and off-screen space. The screen has become mobile, but according to the commercial for the JVC hand-held camera, media navigation only promises an ideal of simultaneous agency, and movement of screen and image: here viewing happens during and in the space of shooting.

The touch-screen according to Nintendo, on the other hand, allows for direct image manipulation. Here, the moment of shooting is eliminated. At first sight, the user makes the image, directly, with his finger, but seen from the opposite perspective, he can no longer make anything: he can only conjure up what is there, on the other side of the screen. The screen does not show the result of navigation, but is the navigation. This is even more apparent in the NavPix™ hybrid of touch-screen technology and moving maps.

With mobile screens, the ideal of ubiquity seems close at hand. You can look everywhere, and connect anywhere. Navigation suggests that this ubiquity comes with a total, or at least a fundamental agency. But as soon as the navigation occurs not at sea or in cars but on screen, this agency is yet again subjected to those limitations inherent in the screen as tool for mediation. Simultaneity, ubiquity, and control have been added to the mix, but the screen remains the surface through which we cannot go. The regimes of viewing may be changing but the question is: is viewing still what is at stake? Perhaps the touch-screen metaphor in its self-reflexive guise helps us realize that development and chronology, technological or otherwise, also bites itself in the tail. The thrill of the phantom ride spectators felt in their bodies when watching the dizzying images rush by has, perhaps, not been enhanced but eliminated when the agency over the movement was given over to the engager/spectator. Looking ceased to be looking-only. Perhaps with this agency spectators lost their touch, so to speak, of looking.


This brings us back to the time-space dichotomy implied in the opposition between narrative and visual attraction. Above I insisted that time necessarily includes movement through space; indeed, that movement itself evidences the untenability of the distinction, since time becomes space. The other side of this argument comes to the fore on the basis of the examples discussed. In this doubling of virtual movement we can see how space, in fact, becomes time; stories are spatial in the sense of set (or embedded) in, evoked by, space, but more than that, they construct visible space; here the two are collapsed. Given its near-dogmatic status in discussions of media, I now zoom in this opposition.

Space: it has always been opposed to time, as the support of visuality versus time as the backbone of narrative. The moving image already defeats that opposition, and that may well be its primary attraction. For, whatever the attraction that holds the gaze, the image unfolds in time, dictating, in fact, the temporal involvement of the spectator who is subjected to the film’s pace. Symmetrically, as Henry Jenkins has argued, even the most stable of spatial arrangements, such as architecture, have a temporal dimension as well, so much so that Jenkins speaks of narrative architecture. (2004) By this provocative term Jenkins accounts for the particular form of narrative that can be discerned in exploration games, making it possible to investigate a new kind of constructing space: that of player navigation.

In an earlier article he co-authored with Mary Fuller Jenkins compares exploration games to “old” travel narratives. (1995) They find inspiration in Michel de Certeau’s who makes the claim that “every story is a travel story – a spatial practice.” I turn this claim around, and propose that every space contains potential travel narratives. For his logic de Certeau makes a distinction between place and space: “space is a practiced place.” (1984: 116)  In short, every place can be turned into space, by narrative. Jenkins and Fuller sum up de Certeau’s view foregrounding precisely the point I am making concerning screenspace:

The place-space distinction is closely linked to De Certeau’s discussion of the differences between "maps" and "tours" as means of representing real-world geographies. Maps are abstracted accounts of spatial relations ("the girl’s room is next to the kitchen"), whereas tours are told from the point of view of the traveler/narrator ("You turn right and come into the living room"). (1995: np)

The authors sum up the distinction with the words: “Maps document places; tours describe movements through spaces.” They then compare the rhetoric of the tour and the way this rhetoric produces attention to the effects of the tour, including its “ethics” expressed in terms of obligation, the other side of gaining control over narrative spaces. Jenkins and Fuller signal the narrative aspect of touring which involves “a constant transformation of unfamiliar places into familiar spaces.” Spatial control needs to be reaffirmed as the tour/narrative continues. We could summarize this as follows: moving through space is a narrative appropriation of place, which involves an inherent struggle for control.

The interactive possibilities of (some) digital media are crucial for the narrative potential of mediated spaces. Navigation of the player of digital games, for example, enables, not just an active reading of space, but rather more fundamentally, a construction of place into space.15 Janet Murray (2001) considers navigation as a form of agency – interactivity in which actions are autonomous, selected from choices and determine the course of the game. In line of this somewhat optimistic view we can state that navigation is a active and narrative practice, even if this type of narrativity is different from the classical model of characters or actors that experience events while the spectator (passively) witnesses these. The narrative of navigation is creating a narrative of space by reading place as space. Instead of being an external focalizer who espouses or not, the diegetic focalization of the characters, the navigator is a narrator, focalizer and actor in one. Moreover, when the player is the navigator, or more precisely – and this distinction is important! – when s/he navigates the diegetically-bound avatar, the borders between playing and seeing are blurred.16

Bernadette Flynn takes up Jenkins’ notion of embedded narratives. Flynn emphasizes the difference between such embedded narratives and classical narrative, in the following terms: “adventure games […] are not narrative spaces and operate outside of the narrative causality structure.” (2003) I assume Jenkins can agree with this, but the formulation begs the question of causality’s role in narrative. For, Jenkins has demonstrated, precisely, that narrativity can operate outside a dominant narrative causality, and that the navigational, “ludic and aesthetic pleasures” that Flynn argues to be “unrelated to narrative,” can, in fact, be understood as having a narrative core – namely, a development or outcome. This can perhaps be reversed. In light of the centrality I am claiming for navigation for the construction of screenspace, it is possible to argue that, more than just having a sense of narrativity about it, navigation is at the core of narrative in general. This is the case if, as I contend, we need the navigator to explore places and turn them into spaces. It makes all the sense in the world, then, that the navigator fulfills the triple narrative role of narrator, focalizer, and actor. This is why it is necessary to come to an understanding of narrative that is different from the traditional sense that opposes it to spectacle. The nature of the tour, ride, or navigation involves events in some kind of coherent sequence, and thus is narrative, even if it also functions on the basis of attraction. Navigation, thus, binds narrative and spectacle inextricably and crucially in screenspace.


When we look back from these two poles where intense visuality meets narrative – cinema of attraction (phantom rides) and digital screens (navigation) – it is possible to argue that even still images such as photographs and paintings have a temporal, hence, a potentially narrative dimension. They are narrative to the extent that they require a certain amount of time to be processed. Less dictatorial in time-management than film, a photograph requires that someone stops, looks, thinks and responds, moves on – a series of small events liable to become a micro-narrative. Similarly, urban spaces of architecture – houses, public buildings, department stores – once they are visible and visually displayed and processed, entices the engagement of the people entering it, moving in it, and exiting, into the small stories of everyday life. These spaces attract because– not in spite of the fact that – they can be entered and navigated in a narrative.

I have noticed that movement is thematically in the forefront when it comes to flaunting the visuality of screen media. This thematic centrality can be taken as a pointer to the self-reflexivity that has methodological and philosophical consequences. As we have seen, in early cinema the phantom ride and its relatives that exploited mobility make virtual mobility envisionable; hence, possible. Digital mobility, in turn, multiplies modes of mobility even further. Multiple tropes of mobility, then, are at work in both media in transition: the cinematic form itself, but also a mobilization of the (inter)active navigator in cyberspace. Mobility is a topic and trope in media, so that self-reflexivity becomes prominent. Self-reflexively, new media spaces come to stand for new mobilities.

Indeed, in the current inquiry of moments of media transition, concepts such as attractions, ludology, navigation, and narrative architecture or spatial narrativity have infused our theoretical vocabulary. These terms have in common that they are deployed to conceptualize the changing relationship between the user, spectator, or engager, and screen media as essentially different from classical notions of reading strategies, textuality, and distinctions and hierarchies between spectator, performer, and character that inform classical modes of identification in narrative even in the broadest sense.  Screens of navigation show us that in our present visual culture viewing and making collapse. Moreover, the spatial boundaries between screen and physical space become blurred. In screenspace, we are simultaneously narrator, focalizer, spectator, player, and, perhaps most fundamentally: navigator.


Bal, Mieke. 1997 Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press.

Bolter Jay and Richard Grusin. 2000. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bukatman, Scott. 1999. “The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime.” In Alien Zone II. Edited by Annette Kuhn. New York: Verso: 249-275.

De Certeau, Michel. 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life.

Flynn, Bernadette. 2003. “Languages Of Navigation Within Computer Games.” Paper presented at the 5th International Digital Arts and Culture Conference, RMIT, Melbourne. Also available at (accessed 16/07/07).

Fuller, Mary and Henry Jenkins. 1995. “Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue.” In Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Edited by Steven G. Jones. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications: 57-72.

Gaudreault, André. 1990. “Film, Narrative, Narration: The Cinema of the Lumière Brothers.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Edited by Thomas Elsaesser and
Adam Barker. London: BFI Publishing: 114-122.

Gunning, Tom. 1990. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Edited by Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker. London: BFI Publishing: 56-62.

Huhtamo, Erkki.1995. "Encapsulated Bodies in Motion: Simulators and the Quest for Total Immersion." In Critical Issues in Electronic Media. Edited by Simon Penny. Albany: SUNY Press 1995: 159-186.

Jenkins, Henry. 2004. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Edited by Pat Harrington and Noah Frup-Waldrop. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 118-130.

Landon, Brooks. 1992. The Aesthetics of Ambivalence: Rethinking Science Fiction Film in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Manovich, Lev.  2001.  The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Murray, Janet. 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Silverman, Kaja. 1996.The Threshold of the Visible World, New York: Routledge.

Thornburn, David and Henry Jenkins. 2003. “Introduction: Toward an Aesthetic of Transition.” In Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Edited by Thornburn and Jenkins Cambridge: MIT Press: 1-16.

Strauven, Wanda (ed.) 2006. The Cinema of Attractions Relaoded. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

Uricchio, William. 2004 “Storage, Simultaneity, and the Media Technologies of Modernity.” In Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital. Edited by John Fullerton and Jan Olsson. Eastleigh: John Libbey Press: 123-138.

Verhoeff, Nanna and Eva Warth, 2002. “Rhetoric of Space: Cityscape/Landscape.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 22, 3: 245-251.



About simultaneity, see, the William Uricchio’s argument about the wish for simultaneous tele-vision that predates the invention of cinema as storage medium. (Uricchio 2004)

As I have argued in my book The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning (2006) on emerging cinema and the depiction of the American West, particularly as frontier, the popularization of travel is not only cotemporaneous with the advent of cinema; it is also structurally congruent with cinema. At the heart of both “new,” modern culture and the “new” medium are the hot topics of movement, vicarious displacement, and both spatial and perceptual expansion. Therefore, the recurrence of the theme of travel in the popular deployment of the moving image in both historical moments – around 1900 and around 2000 – is no coincidence.

Thanks to Karin van Es for suggesting the term screen engager to conceptualize the active and dialogic relationship between the screen and its user or spectator. In the absence of a single, precise-enough term, I will use the term spectator, engager/spectator, or navigator when appropriate.

Brooks Landon (1992: 94). Scott Bukatman (1999: 254) quotes Landon, when he summarizes his argument concerning the affects of special effects in science fiction cinema that go beyond narrative.

For the link between cinema of attraction and contemporary screen culture, see (Strauven, ed. 2006). I borrow the qualifier “heteropathic” – but not its specific meaning – from (Silverman 1996).

Gunning himself is not very clear about this in his essay, because he does not develop precisely how we can see beyond opposition. In his explanation of what attractions are, we can distil an oppositional view. For example, when he says that “[t]heatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe.” (59)

Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s vision of remediation is that media tend to put forward a paradoxical logic of transparent immediacy (the medium is invisible) and hypermediacy, “a style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium.” (2000: 272)

See, for example, Scott Bukatman’s otherwise excellent essay. (1999: 249-275) He points out the relationship between late-nineteenth century sublime paintings and special effects cinema. His focus on the “emotive” aspect of effects is highly interesting, but his assumptions about the non-narrativity, or even counter-narrativity of these visual effects are a bit underdeveloped.

For more about the visual rhetoric of urban space, particularly in early train films, see (Nanna Verhoeff and Eva Warth 2002).

About this JVC campaign, see (accessed 16/07/07). Watch the commercial here:

We can think of the wired screen in a similar vein – interconnected screens such as we use in multi-player games – as that makes tele-presence or televisual simultaneity more interactive. Both users have the same screen content, and they can interact in/on the same screen, regardless of the distance between them, as long they are in the same timeframe.

For science-fiction buffs of total immersion, instead of being on the Holodeck, which amounts to the disappearance of the screen, we are yet again in front of a screen.

With “reinstates” I refer to the ontological loss of indexicality with digital photography, where the photograph no longer functions as visual evidence of the literal imprint of reality (i.e. the rays of light on a sensitive surface).

In “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” Jenkins discerns four different ways in which spatial narratives can result in immersive experiences of media spaces: “[S]patial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene; or they provide resources for emergent narratives.”

For the narratological terms used here, see Bal (1997)

Nanna Verhoeff is Associate Professor at the Department for Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Author of The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning (2006) she is currently working on a comparative study of screen media and spatial practices, ranging from Painted Panorama’s to mobile game consoles and navigation devices. Email: