Either Side of an Empty Room (Horvath, 2002)

Either Side of an Empty Room (Horvath, 2002)

The Presence of Absence (Horvath, 2003)

The Presence of Absence (Horvath, 2003)

I want to look at some lesser known but very important multichannel video work by West Coast artist Peter Horvath. His work very elegantly challenges the boundaries and delineates concepts of the multiple frame and the out of frame, 2&1/2 dimensional space, and two dimensions of media unconscious– the filmic unconscious and the digital.

Horvath pioneered a connection between computer windows and multichannel video. Using computer language ‘aplets’ he created websites that worked like projectors– a single durational multichannel video is presented beginning to end using different-sized pop-up windows spaced through the screen and on top of eachother.

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What is the shot anymore?

RHETORICAL FRAMES, RHETORICAL SHOTS: Separating Space from Duration

Cinema has really stuck us with some tropes that no longer function. Teaching college students Intro to Film Production, at the beginning of the first quarter I have to define ‘jump cuts’, which means I have to define ‘shot’. I usually come up with something strangely technical and formal for such an intuitive temporal object. Something like: “The Shot, like its namesake of the gun, refers to a single pulling of the trigger… a single continuous series of frames separated only by 24th of a second of real time.” The first part sounds good– for me it evokes those Bond-gun like Super-8 cameras, where you would hold down the spring-loaded trigger, committing film (and therefore real money) second by second to what was in front of the camera. “Shooting it”… it really felt it. Much more gun-like and less surveillance than the video camera which feels more like a hose that you try to spray over everything like fertilizer or insecticide hoping for absolute ‘coverage’.

Even in film, the logical underpinnings of the shot were questionable. Shots popped in to existence either with the mechanical triggering of a set of shutters by horses’ hooves, or with the skilled regular hand-cranking of the early camera man. I think the latter. Muybridge made more of a bear-trap for time, using devices of thread and snapping boxes. It was only after having seen motion reproduced that the cameraman, and therefore The Shot, could exist. That strange process of imagining an absent (not yet found) representation while faced with its real referent… An imagination that television successfully mechanized, so now not just professional cameramen, but everyone has the experience of watching a live video mediation of an object in their video camera or cellphone screens… watching, waiting, and then committing to a recording… a ‘shot’— if you can call it that now. More like a video recording of a live mediation than a gun shot.

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Watching a segment of Bärbel Neubauer’s work-in-progress, Morphs of Pegasus tonight, I was struck by the critical reversal that had taken place in material film art– the same path that her career had itself transversed. Bärbel Neubauer’s work had existed as paint on film for years, but in the last decades had transferred to the digital realm using programs such as ArtMatic, that render animations of mathematical functions creating fractals, chaos theory shapes, and other serial animated forms. As the name implies, Morphs of Pegasus has a pan-galactic quality, frequently looking like a representation of the maximal mathematical imaginary, outer-space, animating what looks like gaseous clouds, spinning galaxies, twinkling stars, and on. It occurred to me that her work in the digital was perfect representation– unlike cinema computer-generated graphics made to look like dinosaurs, or aliens, or what-have-you, these animations were direct translations of computer mathematics– perfect representations of the code. It is what Pollock did for paint, with numbers.

one of the fractal animations from Morphs of Pegasus

one of the fractal animations from Morphs of Pegasus

[caption id="attachment_142" align="alignnone" width="205" caption="one of the astronomical seeming clouds"]one of the astronomical seeming clouds[/caption]

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a swatch of standard digital camo

a swatch of standard digital camo

This will be the first in a series of footnotes on visual culture. …Shorter than an editorial– just a single critical reference as a sidenote to the ongoing onslaught of all things peculiar that bombard us; ripe for comment, expansion, and forgetting.

I first noticed the change to digital bitmap camouflage in the pattern of military combat fatigues at an otherwise un-noteworthy exhibition of art & war at the Whitney (which at the time made me think how incapable post-modern art is of capturing anything like the spirit of revolution). Checking the tag, I saw it was a photo of deployed Canadian troops from the previous year– but now the bitmap camouflage is used by all major military. The purpose is obvious. Camouflage once functioned to blend the wearer in with the analogue information of light and dark of the human eye and its scopic enhancements. Now camouflage must mix the wearer in with other digital data, to avoid being recognized by computer algorithms, analyzing the streams of data from satellite and other surveillance, or to appear on the screen of the watching military as a possible bitmappy render error… to make the soldier look, not like debris, but literally like digital noise.

At first this seems another iteration of Baudrillard’s critique of Dessert Storm… a war of simulation like video games, where the soldiers and the public all experience the war as a mediated, flat phenomenon. But on second glance, this is something more sinister, more vital, and more true. We learn the truths of this new digital imaging age only as they force themselves upon us. This is no video game– it is the very real protection of life and blood of actual bodies competing in a video game. The bitmap patterns are there to trick the computer that holds the trigger. And it is a very real iteration of how our bodies and lives transformed through our growing efforts to extend them with machines become trapped within those devices we sought for empowerment. While seeking to reduce the world to readable code, our own bodies continue on in their vulnerable, binarily mortal coils, which we must wrap in a bitmap wrapper for their own survival.

digital and analogue

digital and analogue

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The company Tunecore recently announced a promotion that would facilitate distribution for the independent film community on iTunes – for a fee, of course. It’s not the commercial aspect of this situation that interests me, however, it’s the very idea of distributing big-screen films on mobile devices. In the midst of what’s obviously a fervent rush to claim money-making territory in the industry of new media cinematic content, it seems as though no one is considering the actual size and shape of the screen image. More importantly, no one is really discussing the opportunities that arise to create fresh content rather than just shrink commercial cinema into a smaller package. The prospect of creating content for the mobile device screen seems like a perfect chance for the film and video artist to once again re-imagine the moving image, experimenting with forms ranging from narrative to structural to abstract.

Looking broadly at the situation, one can see a general trend over the past decade toward making and marketing new media—and television—projects more “cinematic”. This is a bit problematic, as the established language of cinema (or narrative cinema) is structured on a scale of communication that is subverted, or at least weakened, by the smaller scale of the personal moving image screen. It seems careless to ignore the impact of scale on visual language when creating content for these mobile devices screens, even for laptop screens or regular televisions. If commercial film content for mobile devices is being produced within the visual parameters of most commercial “cinematic” projects, then it is probably following a language of big-screen movies that is built around compositional and stylistic motifs honed and ingrained over the past five decades as a recognizable method of communication. If existing films are simply being shrunk down to iPhone size, then they absolutely follow this bigger-than-life language. The problem in applying such a particular cinematic vernacular to the small screens of mobile devices is that its fundamental impact is built upon relationships of scale that assume a screen size akin to that of a commercial movie theater. A giant Death Star is not the same as a Death Star the size of my fingernail. An enormous close-up of Klaus Kinski’s face does not carry the same visceral impact as the action-figure sized version. Even watching something inherently not commercially “cinematic”, like a handmade Brakhage film, is completely different on a mobile screen.

Is this size dynamic the reason, besides some sort of drive for social status, that people have always wanted bigger and better televisions? Is there something inherently lacking in the impact of cinematic moving images when processed through the small television or laptop screen? If so, what can be done to create content specifically for the small screen explosion, for these mobile and personal devices, that actually plays TO the scale of the interface?

I would contend that a possible solution is not, as some would argue, about interactivity, but about creating content that work with a small scale and employs a symbology of the personal. The scale of traditional cinematic language is based on something more than a personal viewpoint – something embodied, but also bigger than life and universal. The ontology of the personal screen device calls out for another language of visual representation, something small, something intimate. A language that connects with and refers to a culture of personal media identities and image-based communications, and certainly a language that takes into account the subversion of established narrative forms and temporal storytelling. Does that just mean amateur video and diarist recordings? Not really—controlled, stylized, creative content for personal screen devices would still fill a role that YouTube-style videos cannot. It would continue in the tradition of experimental film and video as a testing ground for new forms of perception and visual communication; concepts with inherently limited growth space in the YouTube structure, as most of those videos are inherently rooted in superficiality and created to be seen by way of spectacle and social exposure.

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Having seen the last big budget film of Beijing filmmaker, Yimou Zhang (of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon fame), Red Cliff, I recognized the grammar-less fantastics of the Beijing Opening ceremony created with the advertised budget of 300 million USD (you have to wonder at this figure, the budget of Hollywood films are normally expanded and hyped to become part of the PR campaign itself, but in this case perhaps the figure represents real dollars spent). His films are characterized by the combination of astonishingly high production value (albeit strange value to American eyes, where you notice the fake beard in a scene with 5000 costumed extras), especially focusing on the maximal use of people with a looseness of narrative… both the motives between scenes and between the action cut loose… practically gibberish, in the sense that the scenes are clearly cut on the basis of pageantry, like a song-less musical, instead of narrative cause and effect. I watched his newest, Red Ridge, just a few weeks ago in Singapore, and the audience refreshingly laughed through the whole thing… a refreshing expression of cynicism in the repressive Singaporean culture, his films functioning as a sort of camp of money—a post-irony camp, un-moored from any retro reference, but simply maximal and consumerist and extremely Chinese.

This reminds me of Barthes. <br> Especially his analysis of film stills from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible ('The Third Meaning')

This reminds me of Barthes... particularly his affection for the fake beards in Ivan the Terrible

A desperate western interpretation.

A desperate western interpretation... Photoshop-Tricks of Humanism.

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The beginning of these thoughts came from Lev Manovich’s presentation on the last day of the International Symposium on Electronic Arts in Singapore. I find that Manovich frequently inspires thought and discussion: he offers himself up as a whipping dog, making the extreme statements that almost everyone has a problem with… 8 years ago it was “cinema is dead;” now it is “media criticism is dead.”

In short, Lev announced that he had finally broken in to the chests of the National Endowment for the Humanities and corporate sponsors to fund the study of media by returning media analysis to its sociological aspirations of the 70′s—though he didn’t put it in terms of the 70′s, instead it is a new concept that he has termed “Media Analytics” which is the new wave of criticism, he says. The brief of his argument is good: media criticism (in its more modern superficial modes… really pre-1970′s) is moored in the paradigm of broadcast media and has not updated itself, or critically dealt with the fact of the explosion of media—still treating media as a representation of culture as a sort of oligarchy, where it is assumed that a few big representations of culture are broadcast to major theaters or channels and criticism is done as example-based analysis of these few selections with at least the conceit that a survey of work has been completed. Whereas now, it is clear, that a survey of work is impossible… millions of videos, greater numbers of text publications, greater still numbers of images published— it is now impossible to claim to have viewed even a representative sample of culture’s media products. The way forward, says Lev, is to visualize the data, and basically to use algorithms and translations to look for patterns (though it seemed like many of his examples were more about creating novelty in data visualization).

My immediate critique, while listening, was obvious. First, it sounds like Media Philosopher playing at Sociology, which, in my mind, is like political demagogues playing at Sociology…. they tend to run fast and easy with the statistics and numerical sampling in favor of headlines… like Violent Video Games Cause Columbine and such. Basically I was suspicious of the newness of his new way. Second, there was a spuriousness to the conclusion about Cultural Analysis… his method seemed to assume the cultural importance of media from a broadcast model— flattening the difference between studying media and studying culture—but YouTube has not only changed the quantity of media, but its quality in relationship to culture… it is no longer so clear that studying media is the same as studying culture. Much of media no longer represents the work of an economics and an industry or group, nor does it become widely broadcast to influence a range of society.

But the most significant critique of Manovich’s talk came from an intelligent questioner at the end… a young man in the front asked, ‘Is visualization even necessary in an age when you have all the data… isn’t the perfect map a 1 to 1 representation?’ This is fundamental— a bombshell that I don’t think was recognized as a bombshell in that moment, but it pointed to the antiquity of the whole concept— the medieval quality of so much techno-utopianism in Manovich’s dream of data visualization, because isn’t his project, again, a Museo, an Encyclopedia, a representation of all data created in one unified whole for one person to interpret?

In his talk, Lev called the bulk of media criticism reactionary in its denial of the sociological methods of other social sciences and corporations… the data mining that has become the new (reverse engineering) empirical method. But what about Google Earth? A data set of everything, with no unified visualization (or any sort of translation of medium) but simply an interface of viewing any part of the dataset, anywhere, for anyone. Isn’t that the new paradigm of media? There is no more need of visualization of data, because we have all the data… instead the new need is interface to the data… the interface has replaced the visualization. I completely agree with Lev that Media Criticism has lazily abandoned its most important questions (like “does advertising work?”) in favor of using media as a stand-in for politics and theology; but the way ahead doesn’t lie with the old paradigms of the map and the Museo… because if we started building this great visualization of culture, as we modified and perfected it using every source of data available to us, we would find in its completion that we had, inch for inch, byte for byte, backed up the entire database to another harddrive.

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