Moshe Ladanga

The Moving Image and Its Malcontents

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Light and Shadow:
The Moving Image and its Malcontents

A Discussion Paper
by Moshe Ladanga
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MADA 02
Camberwell College of Arts
University of the Arts London
February 26, 2008

Abstract

The moving image and its many incarnations present many issues regarding its production, consumption, perception and ultimately significance as a cultural artifact. In a Baudrillard age, where moving images shift seamlessly through different channels of media, one can argue that the territory has shifted as well; these simulations play and exploit the very nature of perception, the locus of meaning-making for the moving image. This paper will focus on the art practices of the cinematic avant-garde who still question and challenge these issues. I place my practice within this context, and with the examination of the works of Ernie Gehr and Peter Campus, the intentions and processes evident in my practice will bear a shared philosophy (or strategy, or even both) with the aforementioned artists.

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New Media and its Malcontents

Lev Manovich in his essay Abstraction and Complexity describes the nature of the current manifestations of the moving images as simulations; the power of the computer’s processes to reproduce not only the nature, but also the techniques.

The cumulative result of all these developments – 3D computer graphics, compositing, simulation of all media properties and interfaces in software – is that the images which surround us today are usually very beautiful and often very stylelized(sic). The perfect image is no longer something which is expected in particular areas of consumer culture – instead it is an entry requirement… the mixing of different representational styles which until a few decades ago was only found in modern art (think of Moholy-Nagy photograms or Rauschenberg’s prints from 1960) has become a norm in all areas of visual culture.

As outlined and discussed by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, the very medium that I use to make moving images has come about in an interesting way. Unlike the other traditions of art where the medium evolved from artisanal and craft-based practices, the technologies I create with come from the rapid industrial developments of the 20th Century. From the acquisition of footage to the composition of media elements, the nature of the machine is ever-present.

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*frame grabs from Final Cut Pro project of Progress,
video loop with sound, 2008

Inherent to the computer are both the artistic possibility and problematic nature of its power. Through its capability to simulate all old media and even remix its techniques, this power cannot be ignored as merely an aspect of a digital art practice; rather, in my practice, it is its consequences that I confront.

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Ernie Gehr: The Deconstruction of the Gaze

The seminal work Serene Velocity (pictured above) by Ernie Gehr is a critique of the apparatus of cinema and spectatorship, the center of the problematics of the moving image. The film at the start may seem just a play on the dynamics of perception, but as it progresses, the moving image reveals a different, even subversive nature.

Instead of using the representational power of film, he focused on a singular image and pulsed it by rhythmically by moving the focus plane of the lens. But the film is not in the least static.

The filmmaker positioned his tripod within the corridor and then proceeded to alter his zoom lens every four frames. At first the shifts are not dramatic. He alternates four frames at 50mm with four frames at 55mm. After a considerable period the differential increases: 45mm to 60mm. Thus, the film proceeds with increasing optical shocks. In this system, the zoom never “moves.” The illusion of movement comes about from the adjustment of the eye from one sixth of a second of a distant image to one sixth of a second of a nearer one. Although the absolute rhythm never changes, the film reaches a crescendo because of the extreme illusion of distance by the end. (P. Adams Sitney, as cited in Caroll.2006:p178)

The work’s minimalist aesthetic is not only to serve the construction of an image, but a meditation on the act of perception itself.

In representational films sometimes the image affirms its own presence as image, graphic entity, but most often it serves as vehicle to a photo-recorded event. Traditional and established avant garde film teaches film to be an image, a representing. But film is a real thing and as a real thing it is not imitation. It does not reflect on life, it embodies the life of the mind. It is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space. (Ernie Gehr, January 1971)

As described by Gehr, the moving image can be something of its own, and in the case of Serene Velocity, the image becomes the gaze itself; the corridor becomes the shape of the gaze, the moving image an active work of confrontation.

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Peter Campus: Concepts of Self

Unlike Ernie Gehr, Peter Campus’ work started with video. He was one of the pioneers of video art, exploring the unique properties of the medium (such as the double-channel, chroma-keying image above). His focus though was the self, a rigorous and diverse set of approaches to the concept of self expressed in the moving image.

In the video Three Transitions (frame grab above) and other works made in the 1970’s, he explores different acts of self-cognition (Laguiera.2006). For example in the installation Interface (1972) he turned the camera on the viewer, providing instances where one would see the self as both reflection (on a glass) and moving image (video projection).

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In these explorations, Peter Campus reveals the paradoxical nature of the image, even when it comes to the one we are most familiar with: the self. Having a background in psychology and the cognitive sciences, he criticizes the ever-growing postmodern concept of the self as merely a cognitive function, an essentially materialistic and dehumanizing view. Campus’ tool of analysis, his way in so to speak, is perception. A review by J. Laguiera of his work, specifically of his installations, puts it thus:

Perception is one of the routes explored in trying to answer this question, which philosophers and psychologists ponder continually, among others. Certain artists have also explored it by developing a dimension often deliberately dismissed by cognitive science theoreticians, which is none other than lived experience. Such experience is understood here as a unitary perception, a human experience that does not validate, even on a purely theoretical level, the duality of body and mind. Such a position has been criticized by a number of authors, such as proponents of psychophysical identity (the identity between mental states and neuronal states), eliminativism (psychological experience is eliminated for the benefit of a neurological explanation), or cognitivism (which notably separates cognition and consciousness).

As Laguiera explains in the quote above, this duality, and this conceptual separation of the body from the mind, can be critically examined by the act of perception. This paradoxical approach, shared by Ernie Gehr, reveals not only the qualities of the medium of the moving image, but also an insight into the postmodern condition. Manovich’s theories on simulation already illuminate its consequences: the image without meaning, the gaze bereft of understanding, the making of art without meaning-making.

So where are the possibilities?

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The Avant-Garde: Locating the Core

The avant-garde filmmakers of the 60’s and 70’s were working mostly on 8mm and 16mm. Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, The London Film Co-operative and numerous other experimental filmmakers were making films that sought to criticise, examine and deconstruct filmmaking itself. In the various historical and critical books and essays on these practices, the films were diverse; the sexual polemic of Andy Warhol, the materialist/structuralist experiments of the London Film Co-op, and even the Lacanian leaning of the Surrealists found itself in the films of Malcolm LeGrice (Hamlyn.2003). What united the avant-garde was its mode of creation.

The avant-garde is an ‘artisanal’ or ‘personal’ mode. Avant-garde films tend to be made by individuals or very small groups of collaborators, financed either by the filmmakers alone or in combination with private patronage and grants from arts institutions. (Murray Smith as cited in O’Pray.2003:p2.)

This independence is marked by a critical approach to the status quo, and thus creates a space to innovate outside the concerns of mainstream culture (Rees.1999).

This historical antecedent is actually quite similar to the emergence of video art, whereas the introduction of inexpensive technology created opportunities for artists like Nam Jun Paik, Peter Campus and Bill Viola to investigate issues outside the concerns of the status quo.

In this diversity of intentions, philosophies and agendas (political, artistic, etc) where can an avant-garde practice locate its engagement? Lev Manovich’s interesting theory is that new media’s precursor is film, and therefore the promise of film to be the Gesamtkunstwerk of all the arts can be found in even greater potentiality in New Media (Manovich.2001). But upon examining the precursor, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, it is the language of the machine that dominates, the endless transformations and permutations of the image, very much like a formula multiplying its algorithms so that it gains value, but not meaning.

Perhaps one can argue that the kino-eye is much like the apparatus of cinema, endlessly replicating representations of reality. New Media’s simulative capabilities, with its hybrids of representation and technique, will not offer any restitution or even an avenue for critical engagement in New Media.

Within my practice, I have chosen to locate my critical concerns in the space of perception. In Luis Bunuel’s Andalusian Dog, (image part of composite above) the eye is sliced open, inter-cut with the moon being obscured. This piece of surrealism is instructive in the sense that it is the literal cutting the eye open that becomes the act of engagement; to release the pre-conceived notions of the moving image, one has to slice into the process of perception itself.

The simulations offered by New Media in a digital art practice must be viewed critically, and even confronted by revealing the nature of the image itself.

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Collaboration

In this context, the collaboration work with Katrin Maria Escay evolved, reflecting the research we have done.
The current setup will now include video cameras placed atop each screen and captures the images from the other screen, creating a video feedback loop.

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The rationale behind using feedback loops instead of self-generated imagery as the main aspect of our work stem from our discussions about the things we’ve found on our individual research. Katrin’s focus is on the experiential quality of the work, while I wanted to incorporate the dimensions of the gaze, of perception.

The resulting image on each screen will be dependent on the presence of a viewer. Because of the video feedback loop, a seemingly endless corridor will be seen by the viewer, with the image of his/her back, similar to Magritte’s Reproduction Prohibited (1937).

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There will be infrared sensors mounted on each screen, providing the possibility of adding subtle details (through real time compositing and video feed manipulation- Puredata) to the virtual corridor and the image of viewer when gazed at for a certain amount of time.

The collaborative piece will be at times opaque, and at times ambiguous- these parameters will be triggered by the variation of viewer interactions.

The two monitors will also have distinct characteristics in terms of the digital reflections- the project is open to the mixing of elements from the two screens, and also techniques of video feed manipulation.

The proposed interactive work will turn the gaze of the viewer upon itself, like the experiments of Gehr and the installations of Campus, and yet also reflect a negated image of viewer, which can change over time. The corridors also simulate a sense of space, where meaning-making can be triggered by certain elements. But we will let the investigation and the experiment determine if there will be elements at all- it might be just the slight manipulations of the reflection that will form the more interesting parameters of the interaction.

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Bibliography

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Buchloh, B. ed. (2000), Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955-1975, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
Butler, J. (1987), Subjects of desire, Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France, New York: Columbia University Press
Danino, N. and Maziere, M. eds. (2003) The Undercut Reader:Critical Writings on Artists’ Film and Video, London: Wallflower Press
Deleuze, G. (1986) Cinema 1, London: Continuum
Foucault, M. (1990), The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality Volume 3, London: Penguin Books
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Fry, B. and Reas, C. (2007) Processing: A Processing Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, London: M.I.T. Press
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Gordon, C. ed. (1980), Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Essex: Pearson Education Limited
Grau, O. ed. (2007), MediaArtHistories, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
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Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media, Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press
O’Pray, M. (2003) AVANT-GARDE FILM:Forms, Themes and Passions, London: Wallflower Press
Reese, A.L. (!999) A History of Experimental Film and Video, London: British Film Institute
Watson, S. (2003) Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, New York: Pantheon Books

Carroll, N. (2006) Philosophizing Through the Moving Image: The Case of “Serene Velocity”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Internet Winter 2006), Vol 64 no. 1, p173-185. Available from: http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com/hww/results/getResults.jhtml?_DARGS=/hww/results/results_common.jhtml.7
Diaz, E. (2007) Peter Campus: Leslie Tonkonow Artworks+Projects, Modern Painters (Internet July/August 2007), Vol 19 no.6, p 80. Available from: http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com/hww/results/getResults.jhtml?_DARGS=/hww/results/results_common.jhtml.7 – record_2
Eamon, Christopher. Becoming Digital. Flash art (Internet March/April 2003) Issue 36, p80-83. Available from:
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