Design: PART OF THE FURNITURE

What happens when 'the box' becomes 'the wall'? Mark Irvine looks at the imminent arrival of the flat-panel television set tle. He'd
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The Independent Culture
The future of television happened in 1973. When Edward G Robinson lies down on the couch to die in the cult sci-fi film Soylent Green - a nightmare tale of a world plagued by food shortages, where oppressive governments secretly recycle their citizens for others to eat - he finds happiness in the ironic embrace of a digital field of sun-ripened corn created by wrap-around wall-length screens. We don't have the food shortages (yet), but judging by the recent launch of the wall-mounted, flat-panel television in Japan, film director Richard Fleischer's prophecy concerning the future impact of digital display could soon be fulfilled.

Philips, Sharp and Sony have joined forces to produce a 42-inch flat screen television based on plasma-assisted technology within the next two years. This technology dispenses with the bulky cathode ray tube on which all televisions presently depend and instead enables a plasma gas to electronically "switch on" each pixel of a giant liquid crystal display (or LCD). Watching one of these huge screens - at the project launch in July, tiny Japanese women were carefully positioned next to them so that they looked even bigger - is like being in the cinema: people are big, so is the action. The current asking price is huge, too: pounds 12,000 at the last count.

This state of the art television looks like a giant Etch-A-Sketch and the resolution isn't brilliant, but since it can be housed within a frame less than four inches deep, it spells the end for the traditional television set - probably the single most influential domestic object of the 20th century western home. More significantly, the translation from the three dimensional to the two dimensional heralds the cultural re-positioning of digital display in general and could result in the re-configuration of domestic life itself.

Having a cinema in your home isn't a new idea. Show-off millionaires have been doing it for decades, and home movie theatres are becoming the wine cellars of the 1990s among a privileged few. Sums in the region of $200,000 have been spent by some Americans desperate to recreate the whole cinema-going experience in a domestic setting. From a British perspective, this is even worse than admitting you've had a brand new Jacuzzi installed - of all the technological appliances in our homes, the television is the one about which we have been most ambivalent. We spend more time under its thrall then any other gadget with a plug on it, but the simple truth is that while showing off your new Dyson vacuum cleaner is considered acceptable, and you can be forgiven for fondling your Alessi kettle, professing a passion for your telly is just a bit naff. Maybe this is because while gadget-filled kitchens and swish bathrooms are supposedly functional, necessary spaces, the television set inhabits the part of our domestic space specifically given over to leisure, a concept particularly susceptible to phobias about class and social status. The power of television lies in its ability to touch upon that most powerful of human emotions: guilt. You're not doing something useful when you're a couch potato. In-telli- gent folk are not, it is supposed, telly addicts.

From the earliest days of television in the 1930s, we have tried to disguise televisions, entombing them in wooden temples of sherry cabinet chic, their milky screens an obscene presence amid the discreet satinwood. Sliding doors relieved us of the horror of looking at their pupil-less orbs. The most insidious of lodgers, television sets gradually changed the very way we lived, moving the focal point of the sitting room from the fireplace to the machine in the corner of the room, causing the harsh lines of our furniture to soften in sympathy with our fascination with the box.

Television became the glue of family life: in the late 1950s, the BBC's Family Viewing Policy served to structure the household's evening routine. Programmes like Coronation Street were deliberately scheduled to appeal to women viewers before 9pm, with detective series for the men afterwards. Along with passive leisure, television brought into the home pictures and sounds of faraway places that we then claimed a right to see firsthand at package holiday prices. Television watching acquired its own mythology: it is supposed to have caused the death of conversation in the household. Yet series such as Cheers, Friends and Absolutely Fabulous prove that it becomes the cause of conversation.

As the sets became larger and larger, growing a rash of chrome across their fronts, the visionary blue light of televisual life still encouraged people to adorn these domestic techno-parasites with the knick-knackery of the Catholic roadside shrine: dried flowers, photographs of loved ones and ceramic cherubs. Sometimes the TV broke free of such idolatry. In the 1960s and 70s, it became a symbol of space-race expansionism: Kercolor's Model B772 emulated the helmets of the Apollo astronauts, and JVC's Videosphere 324 OUK echoed the spiky shape of Sputnik itself.

It also found its refuge in the vocabulary of fine art: with its flush controls and covered screen, Richard Sapper and Marco Zanusso's Black Cube (1969) designed for the Italian manufacturers Brionvega, was more than a slick homage to the minimalist art of Donald Judd. It was a declaration of confidence in the very aesthetic of television itself. But something went wrong. In the performance-obsessed 1980s televisions became mean machines, assuming monstrous biomorphic forms with muscular curves and jutting pedestals. It was like having Mike Tyson squatting in your sitting room. Or they became ironic domestic objects. French designer Philippe Starck created sets with casings made out of reconstituted cardboard and a range in sickly pastel shades.

The future of television lies in its gradual disappearance as an object. In going from a box to a flat panel on the wall, the advertisers charged with promoting the new species are already playing on the plain's supposed similarity with those more traditional immobile, framed pictures called paintings. We feel obliged to use comfortable metaphors and equivalents to celebrate technological innovation. But while these equivalents are crude - there is of course no real comparison to be made between an original Joan Miro oil painting and a digitised image of a Miro painting - they do raise interesting questions about the potential impact of flat-panel technology on the practice of digital art.

The architectural implications of flat-panel technology are self-evident: our walls will become digital domains, planar surfaces which, as interactive television develops, will learn to work with us. Along with bricks and mortar, fibreoptic cables are fast becoming staple construction elements in the building of the modern home. Video installations play an increasing role in our experience of the contemporary art environment: but their celebration of the collaborative value of space and moving image has tended to be something which only large museums can accommodate. There are signs that this is changing.

Behind Mark Reed's kitchen cupboard comes the steady sound of someone breathing. If you open the cupboard door you find yourself staring straight into a television screen framing the head and shoulders of Bill Viola, a leading video installation artist. The head moves slightly as the lungs fill with breath. A loud speaker carries the rhythmic rise and fall of air across the room. Since the work - created in 1996 and entitled Incrementation - operates on a loop system, it's hard to say when it starts or finishes. Only the presence of a light-emitting diode counter - the sort found on calculators - placed beneath the screen, slowly counting the number of breaths exhaled during the video, indicates the passing of time. "I'm getting used to it" says Reed. "My mother came in and asked for it to be turned off. She said it was a constant reminder of death, which is the point." A quotation accompanies the work: "this breath of ours, by degrees, steals away our souls from the prison house of earth."

Channel Four's recent screening of artist Mona Hatoum's video work especially made for television could eventually be seen as a milestone in the christening of domestic space as some kind of sensorium, a digitally sensitive environment designed to tantalise our senses. But some video artists, such as Glaswegians Eddie Stewart and Stephanie Smith, decry the artistic potential of such flat-panel technology: "With our work, you find yourself in a room caught between the video equipment and the image we're projecting on the wall. You can't walk away from it, which you could do with a wall-mounted screen".

Since the wall length screen is a short - albeit sophisticated - step from the flat panel, there's no reason why, alongside their traditional function as purveyors of the evening news and the action thriller, wall- mounted televisions couldn't also provide the means to create a shifting ambient environment in the home. Imagine seeing a bird swooping through Constable's masterpiece The Haywain. With flat-panel technology, a digital camera, a VCR and all the gadgetry required to make a small film available on the high street, there's nothing stopping us transforming our homes into rich digital domains. Except,perhaps, imagination.

Smith/Stewart installations at Anthony D'Offay Gallery, Dering Street, London Wl until 27 November

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