21 August 2005

Give me a Hard Copy Right There: Other Cinema and Video Art

Shaun Wilson (2007)
Exhibition Catalogue Essay: 'Post Cinema'
Project Space/Spare Room

[Deckard's apartment]
Enhance 224 to 176. Enhance, stop. Move in, stop. Pull out, track right, stop. Center in, pull back. Stop. Track 45 right. Stop. Center and stop. Enhance 34 to 36. Pan right and pull back. Stop. Enhance 34 to 46. Pull back. Wait a minute, go right, stop. Enhance 57 to 19. Track 45 left. Stop. Enhance 15 to 23. Give me a hard copy right there.[1]

In a scene from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Deckard sits in front of his Esper Machine enhancing a digital still image. After the first and second augment, we realise that something is wrong. The image ceases to become a still image and in turn becomes a digital reproduction of something else; not quite photography but nor is it video – perhaps an ‘other’ photograph - we can see around corners, behind walls and navigate through spaces that bend and morph. In 1983, this concept was Science Fiction, yet in 2007, its reality. While this ‘other’ photographic technology changes narrative structures within the film itself (said in terms of how the characters experience and interactive with the image), recent video art has also established an ‘other’ of itself by way of alterations to narrative configuration. And it is in context to post-cinema located in an ‘after 9/11’ world, that we see emergences of new, more widely accessible digital technologies changing the way artists produce, articulate and exchange video art to what media arts historian Michael Rush describes as ‘a hybrid stage, combining all manner of digital technologies in the creation of what is likely to be a new medium.’ [2] Moreover, narrative in video art is, as never before, subject to the burdening weight of history; a reoccurring meta-narrative governed by the political, the geographic and the mnemonic.

Sentiments of this ‘other’ are reflected in exclamations such as ‘Film is dead!’ claimed by American cinematographer Brian Taylor in a 2005 interview with the influential US website HD for Indies who further remarked ‘And by the way, so is video’.[3] Yes, these changes are more centred towards the entertainment empires view as to the universal crossovers from film to digital cinema, but it undeniably has evidenced in the process a wider debate on what quantifies ‘cinema’, both as medium, language, and methodology, hotly contested in theoretical and industry-driven communities. If Taylor’s claim holds any truth, then the traditional bastion (and hierarchy) of first cinema as ‘film’ versus second (and often delineated as second rate) cinema as ‘video’ has certainly dissolved into something else which, of course, holds a cultural implication for narrative disclosures in the moving image and undoubtedly, recent video art.

None withstanding, visual mythologies of post-9/11 and the internet have played their part in determining what I argue to be the conceptual reduction of first cinema, thus conceiving its ‘filmic other’ to influence not only issues of security, place and identity but also the reductive dualism of narrative and its subsequent visual image – reality TV meets Hans Christian Anderson on ice. One only has to look at video database driven websites such as YouTube to understand that when sifting through the immense weight of video junk (ranging from the tragic Mentos and Diet Coke vomit screen grabs to DIY supermarket light sabre battles with Chad Vader) that video art has developed current languages falling back on its ‘other’, to merge the distinctly documentary styled home movies, mobile phone reality video, multimedia mash-ups, and the mimicking of cinematicness created with video, to elude towards, or emulate the aesthetic and conceptual structure of cinema together as a singular base. In doing so, the distribution of such images no longer needs the pathway of traditional-based venues such as galleries, museums, or guerrilla projections – after all, who said video art couldn’t be a podcast? – which makes postcinema all the more relevant to contemporary strains of ‘other’ video. Further, if Postcinema is indeed a strain of the moving image which concerns itself with the democratision of filmic narrative then ‘other cinema’ holds ground to reinvent Post-cinema as a primordial structure and more so, its after-millennial catalyst for Post-postmodernist video art.

British video artist Steven Ball gives us a glimpse of such in Nowaystreet (2005) which ‘arose out of the experience of being all but trapped in Central London during the 7th July 2005 bombings and negotiating the cityscape in the days and weeks immediately following.’[4] As the artist is clear to point out that this artwork is in no ways means a remark on a ‘dystopian’ urban condition, a commentary on terrorism, the activity of the police, or some kind of psycho-geographic dérive’[5] he does nevertheless establish a literacy within his visual narratives that provide a dualistic connection between an awareness (for the viewer) of the political documentary, however disconnected from its original intent it may be, and the engagement of space within the subject as a direct result of external factors governing its ensuing navigation. Sure, we are aware that police crossing tape is a symbolic juncture for those off-limit spaces, perhaps even best described as ‘non-spaces’, but what of its implied restrictions on narrative, what then? Ball further states on this piece that ‘it is a constructed articulation of particular spatial experiences, using formal processes with changes in frequency in the repetition of multiple image loops’[6] but placed in terms of what postcinema video art aligns with the process of storytelling, then I suggest Nowaystreet is much more than this; a bridge between how narrative can be ruptured through a meta-historical exterior and its resultant constraints on spatial manifestation. We the viewer are no longer witnessing looped images of police tapes that just so happen to be filmed during and after a terrorist incident but instead, ingest an experience from a ménage of images that redefine boundaries playing out a wider significance for negotiating spaces within the video frame.

Of course, any visual mention of a terrorist act since 9/11, as Ball’s artwork demonstrates, can reveal a deep, ingrained uncomfortableness, even a paranoid fear of public spaces that when translated to video – and remembering that most of the original 9/11 footage was captured with low-quality video cameras, hence the concept ‘video equals reality’ – reveals a truth encapsulated within third cinema that is, by its very nature, narrative driven. What happens when this narrative is stacked with other weighted meanings to change its direction, allude to something that is just about to happen otherwise has just occurred, or from a greater phenomenological perspective, include the past as a silent narrator?

British video artist Louise K Wilson gives us a clue with the same kind of non-places to which Nowaystreet demonstrates, however, where Ball uses lived-in spaces to manoeuvre between, Wilson seeks out disused spaces found in decommissioned military installations that chaotically use the past as a means to come to terms with spatial narrative thus translated through video. In One Thousand Year Trial (2005), the artist filmed a choir singer performing inside a centrifusion chamber located in an ex-British military nuclear facility. One might be forgiven for becoming rather tranquillised by the somewhat mediative performance until it becomes apparent of the significance and potentiality of its location and the prompted Cold War scenarios dredged up in its surrounding antiquity. Wilson becomes the master of storytelling. If those centrifusion walls could talk, would they prefer instead to sing? After all, the dualism of One Thousand Year Trial rests in its somewhat complicated layering of cinematic narratives – on the one hand mediative and exquisitely character driven yet on the other hand, a pervasive intervention of place loaded with intersecting meta-history.

As part of a larger body of work to which One Thousand Year Trial is placed within, Wilson frequently visits non-places, to which most recently have included excursions to the Woomera test ranges, that no doubt gives her audience a sophisticated response to restricted spaces that are reinvented/reclaimed from the past and whose narration of silence is, to me, as loud and specific as the interventions of choir voices who create a dualistic visual inhabitancy.

Australian video artist Brendan Lee takes a different approach to the past but at the same time deals with the image in similar ways to that of One Thousand Year Trial. In Out of the Blue I, Lee reconstructs filmic locations used in the Australian film Dogs in Space (1987) fused together with the (then) current narratives of the Cronulla Riots in Sydney 2006. The artist’s attention to cinematicness is apparent and distinctly Hitchcock-esque so much so that third cinema abruptly envelops this remixing of locational significance with that of his own filmic memory to establish a coupled narrative. At the same time that Lee constructs a multi-layered reclamation of the past, the consequential relationship forged out of this action becomes interwoven with meta-history. Almost abandoning any visual references with the Cronulla footage, mostly filmed with hand held, jerky, live news reporting style cinematography, Lee in turns reverts to a postcinema context to bring a narrative seemingly embedded with mnemonic references into question by using the traditional forms of cinema - the pan, the tracking shot, the chase scene, and the zoom in close up shot – as a means to highlight the role of filmic memory in a meta-history context. What delineates Out of the Blue I from that of video art as video art simply ‘remaking’ a motion picture as a type of mash up is a consistent attention to questioning the values and understanding of ‘cinema as history’ through locational memory that, in addition are affected by, and from this, allude to the structural narrative embodiment of third cinema.

American digital theorist and media artist Lev Manovich uses software databases to access video narratives in his work Soft Cinema (2002). ‘Each video clip used in Soft Cinema is assigned certain keywords that describe both the "content" of a clip (geographical location, presence of people in the scene, etc.), and to its "formal" properties (i.e., dominant color, dominant line orientation, contrast, camera movement).’[7] While the artist describes this works as being a ‘multiple’ video track that, ‘rather than beginning with a script and then creating media elements which visualise it, I investigate a different paradigm: starting with a large database and then generating narratives from it.’[8] In effect, Soft Cinema gives rise to third cinema interacting through generational structures whereby the nature of narrative within his video work becomes a type of meta-history in itself – as the various combinations of video play out different scenarios for his depicted characters and locations, the imbeddedness of memory can influence the experience of witnessing such a work just as Lee’s filmic database of collective filmic memories also stages a kind of mnemonic theatre: different sets, same characters. We might recall witnessing a collection of video images set in different combination that act as a reminder we have seen this image before, yet the way Soft Cinema randomly nominates narrative as a causal selection, it becomes clear that this type of changing narrative format renders the temporal nature of first and second cinema obsolete.

Questioning similar notions of the still image is American born, Melbourne-based artist Dan Torre who plays with the same kind of narrative interventions in PropPlane (2007). His examination into how narratives found in the still image can hold interventions through the moving image are not unlike the conceptual frameworks of the ‘other photograph’ generated in Deckard’s Esper Machine in that both use stillness as a means of exploring spatial manipulation. Deckard navigates his image enlargement POV behind walls to reveal hidden characters lurking in an embedded sub plot inasmuch as Torre’s photographs uncover the same kind of emergences buried through layers of mnemonic tensions employed by the use of motion and tracking. As film theorist Godfrey Chesire claims that ‘if video images sacrifice the photograph’s contemplative stance toward reality, CGI dispenses with reality all together’[9], Torre dispenses the singularities of the still image through a process of CG manipulation to what he calls ‘De-stilling’ the still image through video. PropPlane demonstrates an attention to redirect narratives located in an original family photograph by using motion as a catalyst. Torre states that ‘this involves the continually searching for other images (frames) before and after as a means of providing the difference in order to suggest time and motion. But since there is none present, a strange, book-ending of uncanny motion manifests.’[10] In doing so, motion becomes central in how the artist changes narrative; the image ceases to be a captured point in time and thus reconfigures a far more advanced visual synthesis capable of changing story and time through its phenomenological base. If third cinema is, in actual fact, a launch vehicle as such for generative alterations then PropPlane comes as no surprise to be a part of these traditions and modes of practice.

In sum, through these works and others, it becomes clear that postcinema has played a significant role in the democratisation of narrative in the moving image throughout the later half of the twentieth century. However, in a twenty-first century context and moreover, since the days of 9/11, video art has arguably produced an ‘other’ to which narrative, and its subsequent role, has held a distinct relationship with postcinema, not so much as ‘video mimicking film’ but rather, the conceptual linkage between image, narrative and meta-history. If anything, this ‘other’ will become more distinct, its role clearer, as an ongoing evolution unfolds. But then again, you probably wont find it lurking in the halls of public art galleries just yet; it will most likely be on a MySpace site or locked away on YouTube, in-between that crazy kid with a light sabre and the fountain celebrations of Mentos and Coke.

[1] From the production draft script of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982.
[2] Michale Rush, Video Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003, p. 210
[3] Interview with Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine as found in [last accessed August 10, 2007].
[4] Artist’s notes, Steven Ball in an email conversation on August 15, 2007.
[5] Ibid.
[6] ibid.
[7] Lev Manovich, Soft Cinema, extended catalogue description, (last accessed August 12, 2007).
[8] Ibid.
[9] Godfrey Cheshire, ‘The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema’, New York Press, Vol.12, No. 34 (August 26, 1998). (last accessed August 12, 2007)
[10] Artist’s notes, Dan Torre in an email conversation on August 10, 2007.