Medialogies : Micro-Essays on Visual Culture, 2008—
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes
A comparison of the eye and mouth locations of 1,280 'selfies' posted to Instagram in Moscow and Sao Paolo, December, 2013
From the dataset of SelfieCity. Sao Paolo summer selfies smile 38% more.
Chiseled on art schools and Frankenstein's laboratory:
Making is understanding!
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2011); as published in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Vol.39, No.3, November 2011.
Panoramic stills from PotterBelmar Lab's Thirteen Views in Arid Lands (2011).
Hollis Frampton, in the conclusion of his 1973 essay “Eadweard Muybridge: Fragments of a Tesseract,” posits a reason people have always been so fascinated with how film and photography can manipulate time. It is not a fascination with the machine, but, he argues, a fascination with ourselves and our own slippery paths through duration; in moments of overwhelming emotion or experience, “Time seems, sometimes, to stop, to be suspended in tableaux disjunct from change and flux.” I experience this suspension of time while watching the endless twitching panoramas of Potter-Belmar Labs’ Thirteen Views in Arid Lands. Playing on a loop, a long thin timelapse video shows scrolling 360° views of dry lonely Southwest American landscapes. These panoramas are not unlike Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies, but instead of single photographs, they are moving images made up of thousands of sequential photographs shot with a carefully rotating camera. Unlike cinema, these views are not synced to normal clock-time—they don't just transport my view into these desert vistas—but instead present some alternate time frame. Like the motion studies of which Frampton wrote, these images are a contradiction: time moving at a frenetic pace in lonely spots where time seems hardly to exist or matter. Thirteen Views evokes the temporal side of isolation; the way not only space, but also duration seem to close up in these imperfect cowboy horizons—you, the observer, are the only reference point in space and time.
Artists Leslie Raymond and Jason Jay Stevens, the collaborative team that is PotterBelmar Labs, are fascinated by tensions in time. Thirteen Views was inspired by the hand-cranked canvas panoramas popular in the nineteenth century and was first exhibited at Artpace Window Works in San Antonio, Texas, in the form of peephole cabinets like round Edison Kinetoscopes. The images were captured using digital cameras, time-lapse intervalometers, and robotic tripod heads built and programmed by the artists. Imagining the artists marching into these empty landscapes with their robotic gear in tow makes me think of an update to the wet-plate landscape photographers of the 1800s marching through the woods. What is culled from these eclectic references and the DIY process is a beneficial lack of digital perfection.
When Muybridge created his panoramas of San Francisco in 1877, he sold them in book form for eight dollars. Today, the perfectly stitched panorama is a feature in most digital cameras. This sort of parsing of image data—the mathematical assimilation of multiple overlapping viewpoints—is something computers do well. But Raymond and Stevens instead chose their own manual process for creating these panoramas. The projected video panoramas are stitched together from five separate views of the same single footage from their rotating camera (like a single spool of film running through five projectors at different points in the reel), organized and lined up so that they create a 360° view—but not a seamless one. We are conscious of the different time frames. The five views, shot over the course of a few hours, bear atmospheric markers of the time of day—lighting changes, movements of clouds, changing wind seen in the movement of the bushes, and in some cases distant figures of people—creating points of tension in the compositional mapping. It is a perfect spatial panorama but sliced into five different times. The jagged movement and stop-frame pace of the robotic camera creates a sort of vibration between the channels presented, as if they might break apart at any point. The artists are treating their panoramic process as a material for expression, like the treatment of film or video by artists such as Ken Jacobs or Abigail Child. These five channels of video are stitched together to create a 360° horizon, but time is the remainder of the equation and is left vibrating and expressive on screen, telling its own story.
Together with these searching panoramas, the artists have added selected text from the reports and journals of the US soldiers and Apache indians who were on opposite sides of the massive manhunt for Geronimo across the Southwestern United States in the 1880s. “We were forced to look for you,” the soldiers say, and continue their accounts of waiting, looking, and silence. Like these landscapes, they describe a suspension of time in an empty horizon. These snippets of accounts from the searching soldiers echo my own thoughts while viewing the images. The eventual capture of Geronimo in 1886 marked the end of an era; the last free Native American. It is like this camera is searching for something completely lost, irrevocably gone. Not just in space, but also in time. Not just their bodies, but moreover their images are lost in this landscape. Like Muybridge’s contemporaneous encyclopedic motion studies, these missing images of the last free Apaches sit just on the other side of the largest temporal border of our history— between that which was recorded (in motion), and that which will never be seen again.
Geoffrey Alan Rhodes is a media artist, filmmaker and an Assitant Professor of Visual Communication Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
1. Hollis Frampton, “Eadweard Muybridge: Fragments of a Tesseract,” in Hollis Frampton, Circles of Confusion: Film, Photograpy, Video Texts 1968–1980 (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop, 1983), 79.
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2011)
Either Side of an Empty Room (Horvath, 2002).
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 'applets' 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.
A few immediate observations:
These works strip the computer windows medium of its interactivity. Like the cinema projector: somewhere, back there, a machine is counting down to make all this happen at the right time-except here, it is somewhere 'in there' ...some clock in the machine. All the computational power of the computer has been reduced to little more than a clock with a projector- the same apparatus as the sync sound projector. What is fundamentally different is the 'camera' that has created this screen. We are quite aware of another level of expression for Horvath. A set of expressive tools we would connect with Design: placement and orientation of different images, composition of negative space in the black, representation of a 3rd dimension communicating what's on 'top' and 'underneath' (interesting: do we perceptually associate computer 'windows' with windows? Or with their other icons 'folders' and 'files', for overlapped literal windows reveal the same single image, whereas paper retains its image even when obscured). In addition to this, there is what we could term orchestration. Composition through time of multiple resonating elements. It is not a small thing to combine these two (I speak from experience). For design might provide rules for what guides the focal point of a layer- size, color, opacity, etc.- but adding orchestration is like playing with trump cards, because surely movement and manifestation draw attention beyond all static things. In addition there's the question of how classic in-frame montage interacts with these design elements, as well as the special durational metonymy of multichannel: these different images enduring alongside eachother. It is a baroque cinema, overflowing and over-complicated with modes of expression.
Within this mass there are some very particular expressions/gestures that he uses. The frames become strong signifying gestures: equality or difference of size and position-the 'on top' being the most current, the similarly framed being in relationship, simultaneity of appearance signifying correspondence. A favorite moment of mine is in an early piece, Either Side of an Empty Room. The windows making up most of the film appear on top of a large, screen-sized, black window- a sort of stage for the projections. Then at one point, the stage manifests itself as video too... a dark cloudy sky that not only envelops the other scenes pictorially, but also in the structures of signification and association... this window has acted as a base, like the physical cinema screen, and now that screen itself has transformed into part of the film. There is another level of appropriated signification. It is the use of the browser environment (something that makes us realize that these works will be significantly transformed in time as the browser, internet, and personal computer change). The control bars of the windows mark the individual filmic frames, but they also refer outside of the entire filmic apparatus to the interactive medium in which they are composed. You can still move, close, minimize these windows, though Horvath gives you no reason to. As well there is the Quicktime loading sign. A common sign- one of those fascinating signs of the computer, like the hourglass, progress bar, blinking cursor, that signifies 'I am on'. Though the computer is not ready to render the video for human eyes, it is perceiving. Within a narrative context these signs take on a role like a visual analogue to the music cue, like the sudden low strings that precede a shot of the monster: we are told, 'something is going to happen'. Except here it is not the director that is manifesting but the computer.
What I'd like to point out especially is that these two things- the base layer of the window and the computer sign of manifesting-are materializations of a medium unconscious. The Quicktime sign is just an inscription of what the screen black always means... the undifferentiated, the potential, the chaos from which a new frame will be cut.
Bergsonian Time and the Multiplied Image
Bergson talks of tea in sugar, one dissolving one transforming, both inter-related in his own duration. "I must wait for it to dissolve." I like Bergson very much. I remember him as the one that pointed out so emphatically that most problems of philosophy are problems of confusing qualitative issues with quantitative. This always made me think of problems like, "Is he better than me?" "Am I loved enough?""Am I late?" What he means is questions of space and time. Space measured, time qualitative succession... a constant manifestation of irreducible difference. So the tea and sugar and me will never be resolved in time, only transformed. I think it is this special philosophy of time that gives due respect to the significance of multiple channels in communication. What is the difference between classic cinematic montage and that juxtaposition of imagery: multiple screens? The former replaces images in space- the isomorphic space of the screen replaced in time... a chain of succession. The multichannel allows a co- existence of duration: a comparison between durations in praesentia. It evokes a metaphor-metonymy comparison. Montage is an effect of comparison of durations in abstentia; though strung together we can only compare the present shot to the 'shadow' of the last, all the denotative thunder passed away. Where a montaged chain forces relationships, the multichannel presents them.
Separating space from duration
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2010)
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.
Maybe it is that the film camera and the cameraman's deciding finger committed a subject to the abyss of mediation... threw him in to the unknown like Barthes' photographic 'click' ...murdered him. Instead now with ubiquitous televisualization we are all, already, always, dead.
But I get off track... Problems with defining the shot. As an example, let's compare 3 famous examples of the 'long take': a rhetorical subset of the shot, meaning a shot meant to function as a quasi-scene-unto- itself... to perform (or relinquish) the powers of montage within a continuous duration. I think you could say the former (perform) about early long takes-Welles, Bresson, Truffaut-and the latter about contemporary trends towards 'durational cinema' (Jia Zhang Ke, Chantel Akerman, Claire Denis). Hitchcock made "Rope" a feature film of one shot. Russian Arc, a long (too long) feature film contained the longest take in history. Children of Men contains one of the most elaborate action-sequence long takes ever seen. Each of these similar achievements mark changes in the available technology.Hitchcock-a master of tightly planning his footage of film-planned for a transitional frame at the beginning and end of every 1,000 feet of 35mm, the longest standard magazine he could load. So his camera strangely becomes fascinated with the wall every 20 minutes (a wonderful foreshadow of Antonioni who would become truly fascinated with the wall a decade later and in color). Change reels. Everyone have a smoke and use the bathroom and continue.
Russian Arc marked the new capacity to capture hours of HD video directly to portable harddrive. No more magazines and a take can go on until the drives are full. 3 hours straight through with the much lighter camera performing impressive choreography (let's make a footnote of Timecodes, a quadrilated screen of four longtakes which marked the entrance of mini-DV, running 2 hours to tape with a quarter resolution of the 35mm screen). For me, Russian Arc lacked the tension of Rope. I don't know if it is being a filmmaker who has known film, or if it's the inherent aura of mechanical reproduction which now seems like the rare 'original' in comparison to its electrical digital replacements (offspring), but I can see the money, the commitment, in the film of Rope. I can see 'the shot'-that finger clasped tight and sweaty for 20 minutes on the trigger. In Russian Arc it is just the best home video ever made. And then there's a new arrival in Children of Men... a long take that consciously or unconsciously amazes our sense for production value... a scene in a car, the camera moves fluidly through the tight-packed space, 5 people in a sedan, a car comes burning out of the forest blocking the road, followed by a gang of villains. The car is put in fast reverse, motorcycles chase, they shoot the passenger in the head, blood flies everywhere. The hero throws open the car door knocking over the gunman and his motorcycle. They pull the vehicle around and escape. 10 minutes all in one take. It trounces in achievement Welles famous opening to Touch of Evil. Though less people, the complexity of stunt, make-up, camera maneuver, performers in closeup... It is like the most amazing Youtube clip ever uploaded, capturing a terrible occurrence perfectly. But though it is in representation a long take, it has been stitched together from several shots with a little digital help. Here the CG is used to help the meta-construction (the camera man, the editor) instead of the profilmic (dinosaurs). It's not hard to imagine constructing a whole film this way (should we say, Avatar?). No longer would you need to shoot it all at once in order to represent it as if you had. That is, you don't have to continuously shoot a continuous shot.
But, 'Yes, yes, that's not so different from Hitchcock's Rope,' you might say. Let's take the digital long take to its extreme then; in the continuously expanding world of 3D animation, a whole film can be constructed without shots. A 3D world mapped across a timeline and then only at the last stage is a set of camera angles and moments chosen... capable of generating an infinite number of long take films.Which is, basically, what video games are. It is disappearing right down to the technological basis for the distinction 'shot': a capturing of regular 24ths of a second. It is now standard practice to capture more fps and throw some away. Music videos are performed for constantly running cameras, like video games, moments are not selected for mediation, they are selected from it. In a common example, with video that is fast to digitize filmmakers are now in the practice of capturing everything as one long clip with multiple cameras for doc. From this long take-more like guided surveillance than a shot-durational fragments are selected to act as the 'shots' in the film.Not so much chosen in the taking, but chosen from the taking. 'Well this is not so different than the accomplished film editor' you might say. But it is a question of degrees. As Manovich points towards, selecting from mediation has become the media process, from search engines to Reality TV.
So what does this mean for the shot?
As we move in to the perfection of representation in the digital, the 'camera' becomes a rhetorical construct. The camera, track, lens, grain, resolution... all the apparatus of 'film' are iconic rhetorical descriptors for render processes. In the 3D animation software Maya, an animator will select the 'camera position', 'movement' (yes, even movement is in essence rhetorical, instead what is being selected is 'desired representation of perspectival motion'), depth of field of the 'lens', and so on. At this stage, these elements frequently reference cinema apparatus-though there are also new and old aesthetic traditions, 'Superflat' derived from 2D animation, new combinations of 2D and 3D, and others-and through this correlate referentials to human perception (such things as the 50mm lens for 35mm film plane and the 1/50th second shutter being good approximations of the human perceptor apparatus). That is, the Maya constructed shot shows its true nature as a rhetorical apparatus of perspective. A simulate of how something is being seen- from where, through what. If we describe the frame as a delimiter of the perspectival mediation, then the shot is the durational correlate to the frame.
So what about the frame? Cinema, in its desire to commodify and regulate a process, simplified the perception of the frame. Like montage (or really more than 'like' because the frame is a necessary element of montage), the frame came on the scene as a totally new yet somehow intuitive mode of representation. Half art, half eye, the cinemas aligned the edges of the screens with the edges of the frames, with regulation of aspect and moveable curtains, creating a wonderful correlate between the real and the imaginary in the theater. The screen was a holistic analogue of the Film. What was inside the film was inside the screen and vice-versa (a regularity that Expanded Cinema and Intermedia Theater sought to break apart). Filmmakers played with windows, doorways, and mirrors in the pro-filmic to lightly give a self-reflexivity within the frame. But beginning with television, technology complicated the screen. The screen as a reflective object-more a part of this world than of the mediated-now seems quaint, like paper soon will. In television the screen became the end of a technological tube, in its primary state one end of a live circuit with a camera at the other. No longer an object the mediated is shown on to, the screen of the television is something that pushes the mediated on to you (I think of the anxious photos of tv-watching children glowing in the cathode-tube rays in the 70′s). And instead of embedded in an architecture and a process, television was embedded in an object, allowing for a multiplicity that has been greatly complicated again with the digital screen. As Lev Manovich states, the pixel-based screen is inherently broken up. The cinema apparatus may have lent itself to the singular frame or not, but it seems evident that the computer apparatus lends itself to the fractured frame. From the earliest GUIs, layers of windows have been used, and this seems to be further progressing in dimensions- the current movement is towards a development of the dimension of scale in the iPhone. As well, the borders, utility, and distinction of screens has heterogenized. We hardly think of LED and bitmap liquid crystal displays that give us readouts on cars, busses, calculators, watches, billboards, highway signs, as screens. Video is embedded in phones and computers, game consoles, home theaters, music players... People are becoming quite used to multiple screens simultaneously communicating from heterogeneous sources and contexts, and within these screens frequently multiple frames relating to the screen as master frame/context.
Take, for example, a comparison of traditional single-channel cinema and a multi-screen narrative work by Elisa-Lisa Ahtilla-one of the pre-eminent artists working in the area of cinematic video art. Consolation Service is designed for 3 screens. We could choose to describe the simultaneous content of the screens in terms of Eisensteinian montage but montage does not entirely fit. If we think of the classic examples of filmic montage, Kulishev's experiments intercutting images of different women's body parts to make a new whole, or intercutting the same shot of an actor's face with different objects to create human expression- these experiments don't really function in multichannel. If, instead of cut together they are assembled together on the screen in contiguous multichannel duration, there is no doubt that screens put up against eachother resonate-contaminate eachother with meaning-but they do not occupy the same frame, and could continue to not combine, become metaphor instead of simile, carry the momentum from the 'shadow' of the preceding shot... 'montage'. That is, they could continue to never resolve into a new woman or a new expression. It is the phenomenological difference between switching channels and multi-channel where switching channels is a 'dipping-in' to a conceived multiplicity and multi-channel is that multiplicity. Eisenstein's rhythmical montage might remain a rhythmical resonance. Intellectual montage, intellectual resonance, and Parallel montage the normal elemental state of the multichannel. If we look at Ahtilla's work, the most common organization of channels is this norm, parallel (what McCloud would call 'Aspect to Aspect' in comic books). It is something we are completely familiar with from video surveillance: multiple perspectives of the same figure or scene. But we do find as well multiple channels as the metaphoric, the illustrative, and the scene to scene (where one screen has as-if moved ahead of the others on to the next scene).
Deleuze analyzed the traditional cinema frame most eloquently in his analysis in terms of rational and irrational, open and closed sets. If we take the traditional cinema screen at any instant of the film, the screen delimits the closed set of the profilmic: that which is seen. This closed refers directly to the open whole of the film: the diegetic, the large context of the film which is infinite, yet doesn't include all things... the world in which the story takes place... what can possibly be cut to. This potential open whole can be discovered by the frame at moment- the camera might pan to reveal the other side of the room, or the shot might cut to reveal another scene of the film-yet regardless the frame will always only be a piece of this open whole, and in any finite duration of film will always be partial, quantifiable (every frame could be printed and analyzed), closed. So he describes the narrative of the film to happen in this world that is never completely seen, and we only perceive the open whole as the area of imagination and identification... the place inside the viewer's head that the film 'happens'. Outside of this set is the irrational- that which cannot be reconciled with the film world. There are common occurrences of this in standard cinema... the preview, the credits, to a lesser degree the soundtrack, as well as the more esoteric as put forward by Deleuze (the non-sequitur Time Image cut and so on).
But what about the multi-channel? It cannot be described as a simple multiplication. It is not simply any single sets at once. It is phenomenologically different. The multi-screen is inherently irrational-like cubism... like the cut... a constant cut... a selected juxtaposition imposed from the outside. There is some imagined frame entering these smaller frames- a set of these sets that is also contained by the film. The frames are never fully reconciled-the pieces taken from the whole in some ways arbitrary, in some ways overpowering its denotation... more resonance than can be contained.
This brings us to the rhetorical. Because what do these frames do- what do they signify? These things that began as mechanical necessities: shot, cut, frame are now revealed as just how we want to represent and especially interface with human perception. About our attention and perspective. What is watched, what is separated out. Our visual language.
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2009)
I am at the Midtown New York Public Library. I am reading the first chapter of D.N. Roddowick's Reading the Figural. His concept of a 'figural' seems to be one of those post-modern philosophy place-holder terms for everything and nothing... 'emergence' 'becoming' 'excess' 'the eternal return'... there are a lot of references to a new understanding of "visual culture," "death drive," dream theory, and a post- semiology framework (without frame or work, I suppose... Roddowick compares semiology to Newtonian physics failing to conceptualize relativistic thought). ...The book is light on examples. I find writers like this clearly intelligent and studious, but I am never entirely certain they aren't hacks. It is uncomfortable... either they aren't saying anything, or I am not understanding, both of which are a little insulting. But I really like all the same people... Lyotard, Barthes, even Deleuze sometimes... so I am still reading and looking.
Roddowick quoting Lyotard:
The figural is unrepresentable, beneath or behind representation, because it operates in an other space 'that does not give itself to be seen or thought; it is indicated in a literal fashion, fugitive at the heart of discourse and perception, as that which troubles them. It is the proper space of desire, the stakes in the struggle that painters and poets have ceaselessly launched against the return of the Ego and the text. [p8]
It is everything.
What I call the figural is not synonymous with a figure or even the figurative. It is no more proper to the plastic than to the linguistic arts. It is not governed by the opposition of word to image; spatially and temporally, it is not bound to the logic of binary oppositions. Ever permutable-a fractured, fracturing, or fractal space, ruled by time and difference-it knows nothing of the concept of identity. The figural is not an aesthetic concept, nor does it recognize a distinction between the forms of 'high' and 'low' culture. It describes the logic of mass culture itself; or rather a culture of the mass.
It is nothing.
But I am interested in the premise as given in the Preface: that in order to understand contemporary imagistic culture, we have to re-think the opposition of image to language... that we are long overdue for re-thinking Lessing's opposition of the simultaneous arts and the successive. With the rise of 'digital culture' we really really need to critically deal with cinema. Roddowick relates an epiphany, when he first witnessed early MTV broadcasting and how fluidly text was spatialized and space was textualized in the productions of early non-linear digital editing and effects . I am fairly certain that a host of previous examples can be found in animation, but I, too, remember the astonishment of the new form that was photographic, electric, and abstract.
Roddowick puts his 'figural' forward as the cornerstone of a visual studies [32-33]. I think of some more concrete tensions between text and image. Despite Eisenstein's 1929 demand to "blow up the Chinese wall" that antithesizes the language of logic and the language of images, Visual Studies departments still find it almost impossible to create curriculums that are not text based. How can you describe a 'methodology' of the visual without first textualizing it? And so it goes. It is like the comic book-the art of the caption that has never made it to high culture or academia (though Barthes has pointed the way in The Third Meaning and The Photographic Message).
Outside the library on a set of billboards are some popular culture examples of the figural-or at least I take them to be examples of the figural and enjoy the spurious role of making the heady concrete. The billboards are part of a new ad campaign created by the media company Mindshare for HSBC. It is a new variation of what was an omnipresent advertising series in airports that showed two matching diptyches. In the earlier campaign, a single image is repeated with contrasting captions, and then the set repeated with the captions switched (i.e., a picture of a young man in business suit is juxtaposed with a picture of someone in torn jeans and boots; the set is repeated with these captions switched: "leader" "follower"). It toys with the relationship of caption and image. As Barthes puts it in The Photographic Message, the caption rules the realm of connotation, which influences but cannot completely control the denotation of the photograph. These ads play on this and our ability to recognize sameness (we can imagine how different our reading would be if the images were of the same object but different variations... i.e. a suited man with blond hair is labeled "leader," but with brown hair is labeled "follower"). Recognizing the image as the same, we turn our attention to how the gestalt of our perception changes with the caption- the photograph still provides expressive force to a changed message (really discourse). Through repetition, the realm of desired reading is a meta-level: we are to be made conscious of the meaning caused by juxtaposition. It reminds me of Kulishev's famous montage experiment, where the same film-shot of an actors face is juxtaposed with different narrative objects (a gun, a sandwich) and the audience reads the expressive force of the face differently. We are unable to control our emotional reading though our minds recognize their manipulation.
In the new campaign, displayed on a set of four triptych billboards across 5th Avenue, a stock photo is repeated three times with three captions, each caption pointing towards a different 'reading' of the object based on varying ideologies (ideologies that seem resolutely not based on class or ethnicity).
Image: the back of a bald head repeated with three captions, STYLE / SOLDIER / SURVIVOR.
Image: a field of wind turbines repeated with the captions, NATURE / FUTURE / EYESORE
Image: a fat wallet left dropped on a public floor, MISFORTUNE / OBLIGATION / TEMPTATION
Image: a new shiny bridge against an urban night skyline, GLORIFIED / VILIFIED / GENTRIFIED
On all appears the tagline: "Different values make the world a richer place" or "Understanding what one customer values helps us better service another"
This new campaign again plays on the tension between a textual connotation and an imagistic denotation. The images are iconic without being recognizable (we know what they are in general but don't refer to a specific iteration) and the text is kept to a single word, working against any distinction between a 'simultaneous' imagistic and a 'successive' textual, instead forcing a meta-reading where I negotiate three image-text gestalts on the basis of a changing subjectivity... "where figure and text are engaged in a mutually deconstructive activity of a seeing that undoes saying" [Roddowick, 11].
It is worthy of a Barthes-like pause to note that the captions are super-imposed on the pictures, further titillating the disconnect between connotative text and denotative image.
Like the previous campaign it cutely acknowledges the manipulation of captioned advertising-imposed meanings we cannot escape. And again, forced in to a meta-reading, the set of text-images taken as a whole evoke a concept of multiple subjectivities (something you could maybe term 'diversity' taken in its current usage to both imply variation and a positive tolerant reaction to it). But in these new ads there is more- the tagline, "Different values make the world a richer place" or "Isn't it better to be open to other people's points of view?" or similar references to globalism and post-liberal moral relativism (capitalism is so fascinated with the fact that neo-liberals and corporations share these globalist ideals). The advertisers seem to be perfectly in tune with Lyotard's/Roddowick's analysis of post-modernity where the figural has permanently-even dominantly-imbricated itself into the cultural discourse. No longer in an age of the printing press, with absolute edicts, we are in the age of interconnected images, flattened, relative, global, networked... In these ads, it is the advertising image that is immutable yet changeable, and the text that must mutate towards an infinite digression to express every connotation (the dream of cultural studies).
These ads show the obscenity of the 'figural'.
This is relativism beyond 'tolerance'. There is the bold statement that multi-culturalism benefits all of society, and the spurious conclusion that heterogeneity helps HSBC conform its services. It is easy to poke holes in this. Most eloquent would be replacing the image of the bridge with the Twin Towers. This simple substitution (which still satisfies the denotative demands of the original photo, still signifying 'new urban') completely exceeds the desired denotative limits of the ad. Instead of remaining general yet iconic-really rather text-like-the image becomes extremely specific. And it is in the specific that utopian ideals fail. Though one might respect the general ideal of multiculturalism and all-inclusivity, it is in the specific decision to include or reject that the ideal is challenged. "... Oh, not those attitudes. They do not make the world 'richer.'" (though understanding the ideals of Islamic fundamentalism may very well make HSBC a more profitable bank). I can quickly extend the list of parody:
Image: an abortion in progress,
CHOICE / MURDER / MEDICINE
Image: the American flag,
FREEDOM / SATAN / TAXES
Both 'hot-button' issues. Issues where tolerance of other viewpoints is not considered the ideal.
It is easy to discover the line. These examples are obscene- inflammatory to all sides of common arguments... a refutation of multiculturalism. And it is specifically the equivalency implied in the repetition of the image that insults.
This is the curse and boon of imagistic advertising: the emotional charge of the image cannot be separated from its message. Images are highly associative, contagious, erotic in their juxtaposition. The new HSBC campaign claims to "confront people with choices that will enable them to address their own values and discover what drives and motivates them in their daily lives"- a slightly insulting sentiment, that their ads perform some Rorschach test social function- if they do successfully diagnose us, to what purpose? Is there a therapy session at the end of this test? A gift store? But this is insincere ad-company boilerplate. HSBC does not want to enlighten New Yorkers; they want their business. The clear purpose is to create a brand identity that is targeted at an audience... global, multicultural, tolerant, flexible... But this multicultural brand is in danger of being subverted by the power of the image-overpowered by an emotional excessive denotation. Only the most cowed images can be controlled by these captions and wrangled into the desired meta-reading. Advertising-the dominant realm of text-image hybrids-is not an arena of 'evocative' imagery, but of 'controlled' imagery. In my photoshopped examples, high-minded concepts cannot be cordoned off from all the emotional charge of the specific image- a fact known by every advertiser seeking out emblems of banality in their stock photos: the smiling couple devoid of specific racial markers, the urban center devoid of either conspicuous wealth or poverty. If HSBC uses an image of Hitler, regardless of their caption, the brand becomes Hitler.
This territory was explored in a more post-modern mode by Oliviero Toscani's ad campaign for United Colors of Benneton in the 90's where extremely charged images (a man dying of AIDS, a newborn baby, a water-fowl drowned in oil pollution) jumped from the pages with the irreconcilable caption, "United Colors of Benneton." Between these campaigns we've experience a complete ideological shift, where Toscani's ads seemed to deny the possibility of the caption and refute the banal stock-photo, the force of the caption, and the delimiting of a brand as meaning (instead pushing a sort-of brand as denotative excess). Instead, the Mindshare ads for HSBC trumpet the power of the textual caption to impose a subjective context, and that meta-reading becomes the brand-identity.
Image: Governor Mark Sanford,
ROMANTIC / LIAR / IDIOT
I could do these all day, like a contemporary parlor game. What is worthy of note in this process-and what is all too commonly forgotten in media analysis-is that imagistic thought is open, multivalent... and it is extremely so now. This adopted role-the manipulator of the image, the artist, prankster, ad maker- is quite empowering. I am in part laughing at myself, mining my own readings and associations for humor- but I am especially laughing at my audience who I imagine succumbing to their discomfiture at these juxtapositions of denotations. Another post-modern principle-one that is for me more comforting than the post-fascist multiculturalism expressed in the advertisements: composing these parodies, I rely on a similar evocative reading by the viewer- a certain empathy... a reliable quality in the expressiveness of the image. Isn't this the basis of all art? Composing according to my own reactions, I hope to approximate the reaction of my creation by its future viewers.
And a final question: is it the force of the caption shifting the realm of the advertisement signification to a meta-level where I negotiate multiple subjectivities that best encapsulates the "figural," or is it the excessive force of the image in my jests where I impose the power of the index into a discourse carefully avoiding it... "an Apollonian good form that the figural undermines as a Dionysian force or 'energetics indifferent to the unity of the whole'" .
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2009)
The new Star Trek is a prequel- it removes itself from the narrative stream of the original series; unlike the original films that took place 'after' (a natural choice considering the aging original cast), this film replaces everyone with dopplegangers, re-casting the roles by hair color, and takes place 'before'. The prequel creates a narrative problem. In the film-as-television-sequels there was a natural metamorphosis of characters-their episodic youth replaced by longer narrative form middle-age. The prequel must tell a story where the ending is known; it is a reverse story, where the ultimate status quo is already known and the dramatic tension is created by disjunctures which mark that-which-must-be-resolved... Kirk is not yet Captain, the Enterprise is not yet launched, the crew has not yet bonded... blah.
The problem with the remake is that the characters become static; their arcs already known, they exist in a state of fait accompli. All the characters' protestations, victories, tears seem little more than gross or comic gesture (certainly Spock comes across as a comedia dell'arte caricature, Zachary Quinto taking on the role of autodidactopath, the Harlequin of science fiction).
It is like Peter Jackson's King Kong. The characters began the film in their post narrative state- the monkey already human, lovable, and redeemed, the Fay Ray character already in love with it, Nature in every aspect already dominant, mysterious, and over-powering the greedy machos. In the first 15 minutes the film had already ended; the cast was left with two hours of comic gesticulations of performing-their-role through the film, like the amateur troupe performing in front of the screen at a Saturday night Rocky Horror Picture Show in the suburbs. "Twas beauty that killed the beast."
Star Trek takes a more interesting approach-maybe because of Director J.J. Abrams' tolerance of convolvement and of time-traveling fated narrative in Lost. The story begins with the characters being detached from their prequel. A time traveling villain (traveling back from a movie in the future... Star Trek 12 or such) has invaded this film to destabilize the prequel. Kirk's father died early and he is-in Anthony Lane's words-a dickhead. Spock seems to be completely un-Spock-like, always on the verge of tears, a constant source of irrationality on the bridge (running off to see his mama die, sending Kirk to his death, having sex in the elevator). The most Spock-like character seems to be Uhura who, in traditional Hollywood style, has been de-masculated, de-racialized, and subordinated to a pretty face that says "Don't go." The stakes are high. The imaginary Producers must be sweating bullets- what if the Enterprise never reaches the future franchise? Maybe all will not return to predictable equilibrium. The fans will be furious. ...Who will come to save the film?
A visitor from the future franchise, of course. If there is any human Star-Trek-constant beyond pseudoscience terms, special effects, and federation symbols it is Leonard Nemoy who arrives in the film as if stopping off on his way from ComicCon. "You must find the franchise," he tells Kirk-head. The characters must get in to role or the universe/film will fall apart. By the end of the film, everyone takes their correct chair on the bridge, literally in last minutes. "Places everyone? ...Action!"
Bärbel Neubauer's Morphs of Pegasus: The universe and data visualization (and the end of the abstract ...again)
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2008)
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 astronomical seeming clouds.
Digital Camouflage: Simulacrum and blood
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2008)
A swatch of standard digital camo.
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...
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2008)
Wheat, when not moving, looks like dog hair.
For some reason I find myself fascinated with political media coverage. Perhaps it is my own spiritual yearning, misdirected to political ends (there was an excellent article in the New Yorker questioning why we seek messiahs in our presidents, and when searching for it online, I find a surprising wealth of snarky attacks on Obama as messiah, the most complete, here). I find myself now squinting over a youTube of the Obamamercial-the half-hour spot produced for CBS last Wednesday. I try to listen to the streams of propaganda, as if a radio program, but I keep being distracted by the production choices.
Clearly expensive, this piece is a cut above infomercial but definitely lacking any media innovation. And it is another reminder-this one political-about the disconnect between art and society... the 'Change we can believe in' has no ramifications in the aesthetic product which is still reactionary like Obamas coat and tie (the only historical exception to this political fashion reactionary ideology is what we still love about news footage of the late 60′s... side-burns on the news commentator-a real art aesthetic going hand in hand with political movement). Instead here we have the soft-focus fascism... fields of wheat, flags, white- innocent faces... Americana alla 1945 still alive and well in the heartland. And then cut to Obama in those peculiar symbolic dens-do politicians really live in these, or are they fabricated on sound stages in D.C.? Here the furniture is definitely before Obama's time... instead of IKEA, his study is decorated by Norman Rockwell... a big flag clashing with everything in the room.
At home, circa 1968.
A few interesting production choices: it's clear that Barack has been living in an un-broadcast reality television fishbowl the past year... choice bits of footage from his meetings across the country are used in slow motion... the video moves to black and white photography for the end, trying to evoke a little of the new deal, combined with JFK and Time magazine... instant history you can vote for... black and white photo-stills remain the marker of History.
But these last images are striking... because of his race. What history could these be pictures from? They are such images of integration... there is nothing from photo documents of Reverend King that shows such simple integration (though the fashion has not changed a bit)... there is no sign of race division in these Black and White photographs. Instead, race has become a simple beneficial histogram of the photo, filling in the zones of contrast in the political system (Ansel Adams would jump on the mountain tops to see these political snapshots finally complete zones black to white!)
I am struck by them, despite myself. ...I suppose it is History. And it still expresses well in black and white.
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2008)
The New York Times published an article the day after NBC's broadcast of the Olympic opening ceremonies, "Tape Delay by NBC Is Facing End Run by Online Fans" (Aug.9'08) that quotes Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics stating: "we're not public television, for better or worse." What is interesting is this time it's for the worse. Zenkel was responding to the "end run" problem of internet users trying to see the Olympics. NBC, after paying almost a billion dollars to broadcast the Olympics in the US, put it in to its standard TV broadcast model, circa 1960... commercials galore, lots of commentators, selective live broadcast of certain American events with late night re-runs, and a lot of minutes of pre-recorded "interest" stories about the athletes, banal shallow histories of China.. and did I mention advertising?
One billion dollars of advertising to recoup is a lot of advertising. All of this without any acknowledgment of the 12 hour time difference, and, moreover, a global media which people have become accustomed to accessing without corporate controls. To prime its advertising revenue (basically to conform an all day event across the world into its age-old standard programming format of "prime time" and late-night slots) NBC decided to delay the broadcast of the opening ceremony-and much of the events-12 hours. Anyone who uses the internet for their news and sometimes media knows what happened. People figured out ways to view the events live, finding foreign feeds that had not been IP blocked as they should have been, forming ad-hoc blog and Twitter communities telling eachother how to hack the IP system or where to find unlicensed videos, which the NBC team of computer experts and lawyers chased after, sending out hundreds of thousands of take-down notices. Basically, once again, corporations made ad hoc communities of hackers out of their prime audience.
NBC are idiots.
We can only imagine the different paradigm of broadcasting that would have been given to us if Google were given the Olympics' contract. NBC's complete failure to understand the new paradigm is staggering. The live-ness of the broadcast is their only commodity. Recycling, delaying, copying, and commentating is something that everyone with a laptop can now do and access ubiquitously. But, for me, it having been years since I watched an Olympics broadcast, and having taken all my broadcast media from the internet the past few years, I was stunned by the antiquity of NBC's broadcast paradigm. They seemed to beg you at every moment to turn off the TV and go searching the internet. The cacophony of boring commentators, the real dearth of camera perspectives and contextual footage, and the constant manipulative delay of events to make room for advertising, as if I couldn't, with little effort, step around their broadcaster information dams and find out what I want... it was infuriating and reminiscent of watching my grandfather operate the remote control. What people want now is access to multiple perspectives, Live-ness, instantaneity, and a network of different commentators and communities.
It is worth noting that most of the European broadcasters-because the contractors were largely public television stations less committed to the broadcast advertising economic model-instead streamed the games live and then placed limits on this streaming so that only people in their own country (or international hackers) could access the video streams. It seems that large corporation broadcasting-like many corporate dinosaurs-may go extinct as a result of this digital change, but public broadcasting, with its open-access ideology, is well suited to survive.
by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (2008)
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.
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.
The opening ceremony of the games was similar, but molded on to a staged performance— really astonishing in its novelty… a special effects film production made to be performed live, not for an audience sitting in front watching a framed screen, but sitting above, hundreds of meters away. The fluid combination of media with performance showed the continuing trajectory of media art for the stage—a hugely expanded Blue Man Group, that has come so far from Laurie Anderson in spectacle to be almost unrecognizable as the same genre of performed media, combining the novelty of technology with illusionistic stage performance, reminiscent of late 1800s stage magic.
The show ostensibly provided a science-center like chronological tour through Chinese history, beginning with reference to the recently unearthed primitive Fou drums (and also a clear lift from one of the Blue Man Group’s epitomal pieces… drums as colored light), through Chinese early history, dynasty by dynasty: courtiers, courtesans, through to a naive expo-like future of people made of energy and floating astronauts. Curiously absent was the communist revolution, but perhaps, as the only piece of history not relegated to a symbolic life—in fact the political structure promoting and housing all other symbols—it need not be represented (looking again at the images of the ceremony, I am struck by China’s lack of inhibitions against potentially fascist imagery… in the west, such a maximal transformation of the human in to the mechanical would be immediately criticized, and would work against our delusions of humanism).
Can these symbols even be pulled apart? I wonder at the comparison to both the typical American half time show, a similar array of disconnected spectacle that seems to wish to iterate, ‘America Now!’… performance by a pop star, a marching band, a waving flag, fireworks display, some hip hop dancers, dancing girls… and to fascist pageantry: displaying a united national history as proud and linear and homogenous… a sort of techno-Riefenstahl). Certainly it points, in part, to China’s curious relationship with it’s own history… the of-empire history that was rebelled against now repackaged as the national identity of the people… it’s very Chinese. A presentation of history as linear and unifying instead of problematic would be considered severely naive now in the West— can you imagine anywhere in America but the smallest town, dressing up it’s performers in the costumes of Paul Revere and George Washington, Indians and Pilgrims, Fur Traders, and French Merchants to perform the identity of the American nation? And yet in China, as the underdog always proving its deserved importance to the world, this is a needed communication…
That is, this show was made for us, not for them.