Mutek 2002, Part 3
The insights into the universes that can be found in a split-second digital hiccup is the subject that most of the videos in the Mutek_Vision series take as their starting point. Mutek_Vision is new to Mutek in 2002, and is specifically geared towards the exploration of sound/image relationships through digital technologies. Seeking points of intersection between sound and image often occurs on the commonalties of their glitches or imperfect natures, and this is certainly true of many of the films lovingly programmed by Nicole Gingras and Eric Mattson for this series. Mutek_Vision was divided into four programs, mildly organized around basic themes. The first program, which was to be the world premiere of a 60 minute DVD produced by Francisco López and Jorge Simonet, was unfortunately cancelled due to last minute technical difficulties with the production. The other three programs, entitled Austrian Abstracts, Fractures, and Hiatus, each had interesting things to offer.
Austrian Abstracts featured, as the title suggests, abstract work from Austria’s thriving experimental film/video scene. One that really stood out for me was .airE (2001) with visuals by Maia Gusberti and sound by Stefan Németh. The film’s five minutes take the viewer on a tour of a network of power lines, veering in and out of abstraction on numerous levels. It starts with a black vertical line wavering and bending slightly on a white background. My immediate impression was that of Norman McLaren’s vertical line studies. A few seconds pass and it is revealed that this wavering comes from the motion of the camera tracking unsteadily along the line. As power poles and transformers begin passing by we understand that the line is, in fact, a power line. The camera continues to track, but other variations appear. Networks of lines come into play, criss-crossing over one another, again harking back to McLaren’s dancing verticals. Then the picture starts to break up into large Atari-like pixels, sometimes one at a time. At given moments, a large rectangular pixel will appear to be travelling the length of the line as though it is an electrical impulse on its journey hither and thither through the grid.
The concepts that arise out of this simple aesthetic are many. The idea of the pixel as the basic unit of the image works well as an analogy for an electrical impulse, and the abstraction of the lines as the camera follows them along their network is a nice evocation of the abstract grid that the lines create through their interconnections. The fragmentation and continuity of the image work together to suggest the simultaneity of connection and isolation that technologies of communication, such as the telephone, embody. The foregrounding of the pixel in conjunction with the single line emphasizes the idea of the individual and its place in the network, the network of pixels that make up an image or the network of power lines that join a city together on the grid.
Sadly, the sound in this piece did not seem to bear any real connection to the work. As with most of the pieces in all three programs, the potential for sound/image relations is reduced to mild sonic equivalents of basic ideas about glitch texture and rhythm that are used to provide accompaniment to the all-important images. This is usually the case in cinema, just as the visuals at music performances take a back seat. The point of Mutek_Vision is to present new innovations in bridging the gap between the senses, but there is still a long way to go.
The Fractures program featured some more purified distillations of digital texture. There were three particularly intense voyages into the realm of signal degradation and sheer noise. Bas van Koolwijk’s TST.02 (2000) began with the familiar horizontal lines that make-up many varieties of television snow. Rainbow colours cycled through the lines until they gave way to a host of other renditions of signal interference. Mobile V (2000) by Renate Oblak and Michael Painter (aka reMI) began with a more stylized version of the horizontal television distortion. The lines here are jagged, and they rolled downwards in such a way as to force the eye to either follow individual lines or back off completely and absorb the motion from a less focused perspective. You can imagine the exercise as being akin to looking out your window on a snowy day; you can either take it all in at once or else latch onto single flakes as they move from sky to earth. The film then gives way to a startling array of more digitally oriented noise aesthetics, with pixels and other image building blocks abounding in a sea of the by-products of malfunctioning image generators. The sound here is infinitely appropriate, being a wide variety of noise scapes from the realms of the DX fisherman, those areas of sonic texture that exist between the stations on your radio, or between the circuits that should be connected on your motherboard.
To round out the interference trio came Steina and Woody Vasulka’s Noisefields (1974). Here the television snow is more of the speckled dots dancing all over the place variety, but is taken to new heights by the interplay of the noisefield with a large circle superimposed upon it. The sound is suitably noisy, growing in intensity as the image reached ever greater climaxes of sensory assault. The circle varies in colour between yellow and its purple complement, and fades in and out of sight while the snow sparkles and granulates.
The film is particularly interesting to me because it plays with the idea of what fundamental element of human understanding might lie at the heart of the things we pass off as unwanted distortions. The circle, that most common shape in the universe and within our collective consciousness on Earth, is a shape that we seek out in all kinds of circumstances. Noisefields begins by making the circle very apparent and bright, but as it shifts colours and levels of opacity we start to question whether or not it is still inherent in the image or if we see it simply because it was there a second ago. This effect is intensified by the appearance of afterimages caused by the intensity of the yellow followed by its sudden and complete disappearance. There are moments when the purple residue of the circle is inherent in the film, and other times it is our eye that puts it there. Often the only way to tell is by moving our eyes, and the film becomes a game where the viewer deliberately moves their eyes around to see if the circle is actually there or not. This calls attention to the fact that the viewer brings as much information to the image as the filmmaker. Attention is also called to the movements our eyes make in the act of reading the image.
I am reminded of Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale which is deliberately filmed so as to call attention to the way the eye passes across the image depending upon the camera movements. Snow inserted bright white Xs on black backgrounds at various intervals throughout the film which, when removed, leave their afterimages imposed on the following section. As our eyes move around, the X afterimages move with them, effectively showing us on screen how our eye movements are being manipulated by Snow’s moving camera. Such is the case with the circular afterimages in Noisefields, perhaps the clearest cinematic exploration of the expectation that exists when staring into a Magic Eye 3-D picture: amidst the chaos of the grain we hope to find something recognizable. The Mutek guide suggests that all the pieces in Fractures raise the question of “imminent disappearance”(1). This can certainly be said of Noisefields, whose concern with the presence and absence of the circle within the grain puts the viewer on the threshold of awareness for the film’s duration.
Another manifestation of video noise is explored in Kain Karawahn’s Magischer Schnittplatz. Here the noise comes from the filmmaker sawing the camera in half with an industrial power saw while recording the process from the camera being destroyed as well as from outside vantage points. The process is shown twice. The first time is strictly a victim POV shot. The blade is set up so that it cuts the camera in a cross section from lens through to the back. This set-up is not evident from the camera’s point of view, though, and the first time through the viewer really has no idea what is going on. The thin edge of the blade appears only to be a vertical line out of focus, and as it makes contact with the camera all manner of distortions enter the image from flying sparks, shocks to the camera’s mechanisms, and eventually cracking glass. After a couple minutes there is some brief flickering of television snow, and all goes black. The whole POV aesthetic is very abstract, being a collection of multicoloured dots and lines moving this way and that while a horrendous noise screeches through our skulls.
After a moment of black, the screen is suddenly divided into four equal parts, each containing a quarter of a circular saw blade. The blades begin to move, and the effect is interesting because although the four quarters of the blade give the impression of the whole, they are each the same quarter. When the motion begins, it is not the flowing circular motion that it would be if the image was of the entire blade. Instead there is a kaleidoscopic effect, each quarter mirroring the other. This brief section of the film is a bridge between the total abstraction of the POV shot to the next section where we get the objective view of an observer to the process – the “making of,” if you will. The four quarters of the blade are simultaneously recognizable and transformed. This simultaneous recognition and abstraction make the perfect connector between the strange and the familiar of the first and second sections.
In the second section the screen remains divided into four segments, with the quarter blade staying in the top left corner. The other three quarters now contain a side view of the blade/camera set-up, the begoggled face of the saw operator, and the POV shot that we saw in the first part of the film. It is nice to be able to compare in real-time the various stages of abstraction in the POV shot with the progression of the process as seen from outside. The whole exercise of the film is an interesting one, but is not something I would want to view repeatedly. The sound is very concrete, being simply the sound of the saw doing its job on the camera. In the second part there is a mildly interesting surround sound effect whereby the POV sound is heard from the full speaker array while the objective sound is heard only from the front right side. Should the music section of the Canada Council provide funding for the release of the official Magischer Schnittplatz soundtrack album? I believe there still exists a thriving industrial music scene somewhere amidst the keypads and LCD monitors that provide the operating systems for the big machinery these days…
Marek Goldowski’s Pictophonic 1 (1999) is one of the better examples of sound/image relationships in the Mutek_Vision series, and I can’t help but think that this is partly the result of both aspects having been created by the same person. Pictophonic 1 also clearly addresses the idea of micro/macrocosmic relationships. The films begins with a series of vertical lines holding together a dense but shifting grid accompanied by a suitably inorganic sound like synthetic silver sifted through a digital colander. The image rests here for a moment, and then abruptly zooms way into the space between one of the intersections in the grid. All of a sudden we are in a jungle of unidentified objects crawling all over the place to sounds that you might expect in an equatorial rainforest. The objects look like insects from time to time, until it becomes apparent that they are actually letters of the alphabet afloat and drifting in a sea of white. Here we sit for a few minutes. Then the sound of a phonographic needle stuck at the end of a record is heard. Its mechanical repetitions are the first reminder of the inorganic beginnings of the film. Then, bit by bit, layers of digital processing are added to the sound until, once again, we are abruptly zoomed back out the film’s starting point. The digital sound hovers for a moment, and then the image cuts to black with a corresponding cut back to the jungle sounds.
Pictophonic 1 is very interesting to me for several specific reasons. Firstly, its juxtaposition between organic and inorganic sound works well to illustrate (so to speak) the image’s content. But this illustration takes place on a metaphorical level. The alphabet jungle that exists deep within the digital grid suggests the “natural” element of human language vs. the “artificial” numeric language of the digital realm. The alphabet, however, can also be seen as the imposition of artificial organization on humanity’s more primal consciousness driven by the various senses. The Bible, of course, states that “in the beginning was the word,” a sentiment expressed in Pictophonic 1 by placing the building blocks of the word at the heart of the digital domain. Humans created digital technology, and so the metaphor is that humankind can be found at the heart of all its creations, just as God is said to be found at the heart of all Her creations. The equation of the alphabet with a jungle also emphasizes the chaos of unformed language, a direct analogy to the pre-linguistic consciousness of humankind.
Another element I find exciting in Pictophonic 1 is the use of the locked groove at the end of a record as a mediator between the organic and digital domains. The phonographic turntable occupies a special place in the midst of sound reproduction technology, being essentially mechanical in nature but also being the template for successive forms of signal processing, storage, and compression that are hallmarks of the digital age. The sound waves that are pressed into the grooves of the disc are the same that are digitally reconstructed in present-day sound software. The LP record even has a form of compression where the information-heavy bass end is removed from the sound wave, to be added by the phono stage of the amplifier through which the signal will pass upon playback. The disc shape is also the current standard for digital storage technologies, and even the groove followed by the stylus has its match in the laser tracking the digital flow of a CD or DVD. Finally, we shan’t forget that the turntable manipulations of hip-hop DJs have set the standard for so much of the new digital manipulations of the PowerBook generation.
The turntable, then, has been morphed over the years into more modern digital forms. It is this process of digitization that the sound of the record player in Pictophonic 1 undergoes, first with some digital delay being added and then further levels of processing until it has been adequately transformed to bring us back to the digital domain. Pictophonic 1 thus presents a little history lesson on the evolution of the phonograph and its presence at the heart of contemporary music, in the context of a more general journey from digital surface to human heart and back again. In an age when analog technology is seen as more human than digital, this is a poignant metaphor indeed.
For me, the highlight of the Fractures program was She Did See… (1999) by Pieter-Paul Mortier and Bob Van Langendonck. The film takes as its basic building blocks the following verse from cyberpunk guru William Gibson: She didn’t see that first bullet. But it must have hit a wire or something coming through, because the lights came on. She did see the second one, or at least the hole it blew….Something inside her stopped, learning this about bullets: that one second there isn’t any hole; the next second there is. Nothing in between. You see it happen, but you can’t watch it happening. The text appears line by line throughout the film’s 18 minutes, eerily fading in and out of view as part of the film’s sparse and very dark aesthetic.
She Did See… is composed mostly from thin strips of images, both vertical and horizontal, in which fragments of complete pictures appear, isolated amidst the blackness of the larger portion of the screen. The first image to appear is within a vertical strip, and is unrecognizable save for its resemblance to an oscilloscope display, an abstract line that shimmers and undulates like a sound wave. A few more strips appear, all just fragments of grainy images, glimpses of moments forever fleeting. What comes to the fore in the absence of familiar form is the thick and very fast moving grain, strips of intense motion in an otherwise desolate darkness.
At last a face appears in the form of a still image captured on a video monitor. The horizontal roll bar (resultant from the difference in synchronization between the monitor and the camera) moves across the image from the bottom up like some scanner reading the woman’s face for signs of life. Eventually the face does spring to life, released from the hold of recording technology’s dominion over linear time. As the film progresses various similar fragments and pieces of images, sometimes recognizable, appear on the screen in varying combinations of lines and squares that sometimes intersect and sometimes remain distinct. The text continues to appear slowly over the course of the film. Without any concrete correspondence between the words and the images, the mind seeks to fill in the gaps to make the connections.
The idea of the gap between elements we want to connect is the subject of She Did See… The visual aesthetic is literally composed of disparate elements separated by large empty spaces. Bob Van Langendonck’s sound is mostly just ambient counterpart to the film’s dark tone, but he does employ an important aesthetic in the context of the film’s subject matter. Langendonck begins and ends the film with pops and scratches characteristic of vinyl distortion echoing through a cavern of digital reverb. The effect of this treatment is reminiscent of Thomas Brinkmann’s album Klick, solely concerned with the creation of texture and rhythm by the repetition of vinyl scratches through mechanical looping and digital delay.
I am reminded of the idea in improvisational music whereby if an unintended note is struck once, it might sound like a mistake; if it is struck twice, it becomes a riff. Listen to the Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” on their album Eat a Peach. At 3:09, in the midst of a melodic guitar solo in E major, he slides awkwardly into an F natural which rings out as being quite off key for a band who’s chord change strategies are fairly conservative. The way the F natural is struck suggests error also. Upon re-listening, the character of the attack and sustain on the F sounds very much like he slid into it by mistake, hesitated a moment, but then decided it had rung out too loud and clear to go unnoticed. If he were to try and cover it up, the mistake would be confirmed. So, a couple seconds later, he repeats it. And then he repeats it again, riffs on the minor key for a moment, then slides back into the major and carries on. A little celebration of error. As has been established, such celebration is the core of much of the computer-based music presented at Mutek. However, the Allman Brothers example also brings up some interesting ideas in relation to the visual aesthetic and thematic underpinnings of She Did See….
When the “wrong” note is sounded in the “Mountain Jam” solo, there is a lingering moment where the listener is unsure as to whether or not the note was intentional. Upon repetition of the note, the moment evaporates through the resolution of confirmation. As I suggested, She Did See… is a film about moments between points of understanding, those wayward fleeting glimpses of life that aren’t always put together. Many such ignored fleeting moments are the “coincidences” and “mistakes” that occur all around us on a regular basis. People who go out of their way to find significance in the relationships between these throw-away moments are branded as paranoid or conspiratorially minded. But in repetition there is legitimacy, and eventually some things must be acknowledged. If we take a closer look at the Gibson verse that serves as the film’s base, Mortier’s project will become clearer.
Beginning with “She didn’t see that first bullet,” Gibson’s verse sets up the idea of repetition (through the use of the word “first”) and the invisibility of a single moment vs. the visibility of a repeated one. The idea of technological or electronic presence in relation to the perception of moments is also clear. Referring to the first bullet, the second line reads: “But it must have hit a wire or something coming through, because the lights came on.” The evocation of light in the context of not seeing brings to mind the idea of fleeting moments trying to call attention to themselves, if only we knew what to look for. Life is so often filled with a perception of consequences without an understanding of their sources. Western medicine is criticized for its treatment of symptoms. Frederic Jameson criticizes postmodern emphasis on surfaces for its lack of attention to historical context (2). Indeed, so much computer-based art is attacked for its emphasis on the effects of isolating and transforming existing elements without any attention paid to where the elements came from. However, as we have seen, a lot of this art goes out of its way to present its material such that there is an interplay between our recognition of the elements and the way they have been transformed, a way of making the familiar seem strange that is characteristic of the culture of the remix.
Gibson’s verse continues: “She did see the second one, or at least the hole it blew….” This line is interesting on two counts. Firstly, as with the first line, it underscores the importance of repetition in our ability to perceive. Even more interesting, though, is what it omits from the original verse which ends the sentence thusly: “or at least the hole it blew in the leather-grain plastic.” The complete form of the verse is presented at the end of the film, but “in the leather grain plastic” is omitted in the body of the film. No coincidence that this omission occurs right after a line that speaks of blowing a hole; the omission effectively blows a hole in the text which stalwart Gibson fans would surely recognize. Again the film sets out to explore the idea of source vs. recontextualization, and here the Gibson verse acts like a sample that has been altered such that its difference is as recognizable as its sameness.
The line about the second bullet also reinforces the concept of the lingering moment between moments, that middle ground between two events before they have been connected to form an understanding. As it is with the moment just following the Allman Brothers’ F natural, Gibson’s verse describes a situation where one bullet is fired and the protagonist is not aware of it. However, the lights come on, suggesting something strange is going on. No mistake is made about the second bullet, and its consequence is much more clearly understood than that of the first. The hole that is blown, thus, is not only in the leather-grain plastic; it represents the moment between the two bullets when a hole opens up in the woman’s consciousness about the immediate events. Mortier emphasizes that hole by leaving out the part of the text which explains where the hole was blown, leaving it open to the imagination of the viewer, effectively creating a hole in us that needs to be filled. This hole is the equivalent of the empty space he leaves around his images.
Gibson continues: “Something inside her stopped, learning this about bullets: one second there is no hole, the next second there is. Nothing in between.” Here the text emphasizes the incredibly small amount of time that a moment can occupy, and brings to mind the idea that an infinite universe can emerge from the “nothing” of a split second, and thus corresponds very well with the subject matter of many Mutek artists. The fact that “something inside her stops” upon realization of the incredible effect that a split second can have on life is also a manifestation of the film’s exploration of the “nothing” that lies in between moments, the freezing of time that can yield a new awareness of our surroundings. Mortier’s visual representation of this stopping of time comes well before the line of text appears, when the image of the woman’s face is seen frozen as a still image captured on television. The roll bar that scans her face is a technological manifestation of two competing microstructures of time: two systems of 30 frames per second operating out of synch, creating a visual byproduct as the frames between frames intersect. It is as though the woman is being examined by the very technology that has frozen her in time, taking her out of her own sphere of awareness and injecting her, albeit for but a moment, into a different time frame. The roll bar examines her as she examines her own thoughts, something inside her stopping as she learns about the existence of time between time. Matrix-style “bullet time” conveys this idea as well, but doesn’t leave nearly as much of a hole to be filled in the viewer’s imagination, and neglects the final line of the verse: “You can see it happen, but you can’t watch it happening.” The Matrix cashes in on allowing us to “watch it happening.” She Did See… takes that pleasure away, and fills it with microcosms of competing universes that we are left to piece together through the insights provided in Gibson’s verse.
The third program in the Mutek_Vision film series was entitled Hiatus, and also featured several interesting works, one of which I can honestly say is one of the most perfect and mind-blowing films I’ve ever seen. But you’ll have to read on to find out which one. The program began with 20.21 (1999) by the Russian Duo Galina Myznikova and Sergey Provorov. The sound was supplied by Ivan Pavlov (a.k.a. COH), taken from his contribution to the Raster Noton series 20’ to 2000, a group of 12 pieces, 20 minutes each, commissioned to represent the state of computer-based music going in to the 21st century. The series is very good, and also happens to feature a unique packaging strategy that makes it all the more necessary to own. Each CD, which are completely transparent save for the 20 minutes of data on each, are packaged in translucent shell-shaped cases, and are all joined together by specially designed magnets at the center of each one. The totality of the piece is very much a work of design art, and reflects the efforts of the music contained within to appeal to the gallery atmosphere of design as much as to any other community. It looks nice sitting atop my front right speaker. But I digress…
20.21 is made up of a series of images illustrating the themes of information and cataloguing, and it does so through an exploration of the tensions between stillness and motion. Recurring images include stacks of bundled newspapers, piles of books, and rows of card catalogues. A still image of a man resting his head on the edge of a card catalogue shelf bursts to life suddenly with a hyper speed rendition of him blazing through numerous cards in one of the drawers, and then freezes again in his original position. This particular juxtaposition leaves the impression that the man is defeated by the laborious task of searching through information cards, with only enough energy left for short bursts of scouring between long rests with spirit broken. The repetition of the sequence also calls attention to the mechanical nature of his task, like a robot artificially snapping in and out of impossibly fast action. The act also demonstrates the antiquated method by which he is carrying out his task in light of modern day computer databases.
Another theme in the film is decay vs. restoration, with images of various media in different states of decay. This calls attention to the issue of data storage in hard copy, and the durability of printed media in the electronic age. Of course, we have yet to see how long our digital storage materials will last, and 20.21’s conspicuously digital treatment of its printed subject matter illustrates the tension between these two worlds. This tension is heightened, in parts, by the imposition of pixel grids onto people’s faces, with some parts of their faces moving while others remain still. This is a very strange effect, and fits right in with other exploration of stillness vs. motion in the film. This particular manipulation also reminds me of some of the distortions that we are seeing on DVDs these days. If the compression is not carefully done, there is often an effect whereby certain parts of the image remain still while other parts move, and is most noticeable on close-ups of people’s faces. This is the result of the algorithm used to minimize redundancy by only recording those parts of any given frame that differ from the previous frame. This sounds good on paper, but the effect is often disorienting. Though there may not be movement in parts of an image, it is never exactly the same as the frame before it. The eye that grew up with analog video and film understands this inherently, and thus the compression strategy yields a very strange sense that something is wrong with the image even though we might not know exactly what. This problem is a direct result of the need to compress information to increase storage capacity, and although it is getting better with time, similar issues will undoubtedly arise as the need to cram more stuff into smaller spaces increases. 20.21 addresses some of these issues in interesting ways, though ultimately the video did not thrill me.
Tom Sherman’s Sub/Extros 3 (2001) also explores stillness, this time through static web-cam shots of people sitting at their computers. Bernhard Loibner’s soundscape is fittingly subtle, but the real sonic star of the piece is Sherman’s own voice-over. The film scared the hell out of me, to be honest. As we watch people sitting in the low-res gloom of their cyberspace emissions, Sherman delivers a monologue in the form of unanswered messages on a friend’s machine. With a sorrowful tone beneath which lies an intense hostility, Sherman’s voice looms over the unsuspecting computer junkies with a string of phrases that go something like this:
I hate talking to machines. I’m lonely, just looking for someone to hang out with. Please give me a call. I keep calling you but you never call me back. I don’t even know if this is still your number. For all I know I could be talking to a strange machine. It seems like I’m always the one trying to make contact. I don’t know why you don’t call me back, but I guess you’re busy. Anyway, I just wanted to see how you’re doing, see if you wanted to hang out. Give me a call.
The immense tension here is the product of several factors. Sherman’s tone is what you might expect a stalker to sound like while leaving seemingly innocent messages on their victim’s answering machine. The images correspond to the stalker mentality by their voyeuristic quality: we are watching people alone in their bedrooms, seemingly unaware of our gaze. However, there’s more to it than that.
The main theme here is that of connection. Sherman’s voice suggests the need to connect, and the frustration of being thrust up against a wall of technology preventing his ability to get through to humanity. The personal computer is one facet of this technological wall, whereby connection between people is facilitated to a great extent but only by removing the personal touch. The PC is a technology of isolation, designed for one user at a time, and has pushed people into dens and bedroom corners where the world lay at our fingertips while we are more alone than ever before.
The violence that lurks deep within Sherman’s voice seems to be part of the
escalating world tension that is accompanying increasing electronic globalization. The poker-faced drones that we see one after the other after the other could all be hapless victims, listening to Sherman’s messages come through in the other room, scared to answer because they don’t want to connect with this maniac. Or they could all be perpetrators of the great isolation that technologized societies are undergoing, cogs in the wheel that turns to fragment us all while making us think we’re more connected. Divide and conquer. The illusion of living in a global village could be the same that young Neo awoke from after swallowing the red pill; as long as we remain plugged in, we may never know.
Presence is another key issue in Sub/Extros 3. The idea that there is someone in your room, watching you, calling you on the phone from across the street, or monitoring your computer activities, is rich in Sherman’s work. The feeling of presence is heightened by the use of infrared images of the computer drones, whose essences are distilled to colours concentrated according to collections of heat. The grain of the web-cam images also conveys the idea of colour as essence. Their low-resolution and generation loss results in colour bleeding between pixels, and gives the feeling of something deeper in the image trying to break free and run amok. Sherman inserts infrared images at various points, suggesting the final collapse of the image’s resolving power into patterns of abstract texture, the ghostly presence that wants to break out of every captured image.
In Sub/Extros 3, the feeling is strong that the web-cam surveillance is sucking the very life out of its subjects, leaving the eerie glow of their monitors in its wake. The presence watching us from the network is our own soul staring back at us, wondering why it has become dislodged, unable to reconnect with our minds and bodies. This is why nobody is calling Tom back; we are dead to the world, our essences sucked out by the dark crystal that lies beneath every liquid pixel on our LCDs. Tom’s voice is our own, and we ignore it, afraid of the lack that lies at its heart.
The Hiatus program also featured Coda_+47 Degrees (2001) by the illustrious Jon Wozencroft, owner of the Touch record label and whose tirade against the “aesthetics of failure” you can read about at the end of Part Two of this report. Providing the sound are Ryoji Ikeda (whose award at the Arts Electronica festival provided the setting for Wozencroft’s soliloquy) and Christian Fennesz. Indeed, Wozencroft’s video is a celebration of a return to the organic by way of the digital. The work of Ikeda and Fennesz is wonderful in its own right, and also happens to provide half of one of the finer sound/image relationships found in the festival this year.
Coda_+47 Degrees begins with a close-up on the reflective surface of gently moving water. The sound is like shimmering glass. As the sound rings the light reflected on the water bends with the current, taking the form of a sound wave as seen on an oscilloscope. It is a beautiful audiovisual moment in its own right, but also has a lot to say about turning to nature to find reflections of our scientific understanding of the world. A sound wave is not something you can see, but as we turn to our machines for visual representations of natural phenomena, we begin to find patterns emerging that can be viewed in the organic world. Nothing has shown us this more than fractal geometry, where the visual representation of a mathematical formula has shown us the collective unconscious of humanity and the universe in unprecedented ways (3).
As the video progresses, Wozencroft continues to explore metaphorical relationships through the visible elements in and around bodies of water. The fine grains of sand gently shifting beneath a calm tide caressing the shoreline become signs of the myriad micro-units that make up the world, and how they can work together while remaining distinct, part of a whole and stable unit while being constantly in flux. Similarly, close-ups of points in a body of water where multiple currents are visible bring to mind the many layers of sound that flow over one another in the air of the everyday, layers which might look like waves in the air flowing through, over, and beneath one another as they go on their way. The crossing of sound waves is the essence of harmonic resonance, and Ikeda and Fennesz play with the harmonic potential of sustained tones to complement the metaphorical image.
The shifting sands also suggest the process of granular synthesis, a sound processing program that can take a single sound into a universe of shifting textures through gradual and infinite degradation, separating the grains that make up the sound and shifting them around to create ever new patterns and textures. Wozencroft explores this idea by taking the video gradually into increasingly digital domains while the soundtrack follows close behind. At one point, the myriad points of light created by a sunset reflecting off a stirring lake are taken gradually out of focus until they look remarkably like television snow. But the signal failure that this kind of interference indicates on a television screen will not dominate Wozencroft’s aesthetic, and he brings us back to the organic by ending with a series of shots of various objects resting calmly underwater: first large rocks, and then four tiles, the intersection of which makes a cross. This is the last image, and it prompts thoughts of humans crossing with nature, a crossing that is, in one way or another, the subject of almost every piece I deal with here.
The two pieces that followed Wozencroft’s video in the Hiatus program take the exploration of intersecting lines to greater heights. The first is aptly named Crossings (2002) by Hans Christian Gilje with music by Jazzkammer and Justin Bennett. Taking images of people crossing intersections at crosswalks, Gilje weaves a tapestry of intersecting lines within each of which the people can be seen. Layer upon layer of lines containing images of people crossing build up over the course of the film’s four minutes to create a nice visual metaphor for the act of making one’s way across the street. The closest aesthetic likeness I can think of, for those interested, can be found at the following site potatoland . Click on one of the square icons at the top and then drop the squares into the playing field using the left click function on your mouse (you’ll see what I mean when you get there). Build up dozens of layers of squares intersecting with each other, and then imagine the spaces between the intersections being filled with images of people crossing the street. There you have it.
As good as many of the films in all three programs were, nothing prepared me for the final film in the Hiatus line-up – and I mean nothing. Joost Rekveld’s #11 ( Marey<->Moiré) came out of seemingly nowhere. The only 35 mm print in the entire Mutek_Vision series, the masking opened up, the warmth of celluloid filled the screen, and the journey began into one of the most harrowingly complex, blissfully simple, and completely transcendent 21 minutes I have had the pleasure of enduring.
I’m almost scared to start writing about this thing. The film pretty much sums up the vast majority of concepts that Mutek puts forth and which have been dealt with here. The aesthetic is hard to describe, but you can get a sense of it from the images accompanying the text here. Basically, #11 explores the patterns resultant from the intersections of lines. The title Marey <-> Moiré is a tribute to moiré patterns as well as the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey, inventor of several devices considered to be the forerunners of cinema. According to Rekveld, “#11 is a film in which all images were generated by intermittently recording the movement of a line. It is a film about the discontinuity that lies at the heart of the film medium” (4). As such, #11 is a testimony to the power of exploring the fundamental faults of the medium. The illusion of motion that cinema presents is based on the human inability to read between its lines; if we could blink 24 times per second, we could see cinema for what it really is – a whole lotta nothin’. Or a whole lotta somthin’, depending upon when we choose to blink. Choosing to see into the light that lies beneath and between the reflected images of the cinema screen, Rekveld has gone way deep into the heart of negative space, the universe between the cracks. Mortier’s She Did See…, while charting similar conceptual territory, doesn’t hold a candle to this blazing ball of fire. Enough hyperbole? Okay okay.
#11 ( Marey<->Moiré)
The film begins with intermittent flickers of lines zipping across the screen. Gradually we are exposed to longer stretches of the lines, and then to the larger systems to which the lines belong. These systems are essentially circles that radiate straight lines outwards from their centers. At most points during the film, there are two discernible systems that move about in screen-saver fashion, that is to say that they move slowly every which way across the screen covering all points as they go. The two systems are independent, and the film’s spectacular displays are the result of the ways in which the competing lines of each system cross with one another. At various points in the film the viewer is positioned at different zoom lengths from the systems, sometimes able to see them in their entirety, other times restricted to just the outer limits of a few of their lines. This zooming in and out is also reminiscent of the infinite zooms and micro-universes opened up by fractal geometry (see endnote #3).
Rekveld constructed a machine to make his #11 experiments possible. With this machine he could control three movements: the movement of the film in the camera, the rotation of a shutter in front of the light source, and the movement of a line in front of the camera. The interferences made possible between these three motions are the building blocks used in constructing the film (5). Rekveld sees this process of filmmaking as being akin to the way French philosopher Henri Bergson sees human problem-solving processes: “our mind can only think in discrete concepts and flux is always seen as a transition between fixed states” (6). The mind establishes endless networks of connections between points, and it is the intersection between these points that creates the flow of thought, not unlike Deleuze and Guattari’s evocation of the Rhizome’s capacity for transcending linear progression (7).
#11 is a film about the transcendence of lines, and Edwin van der Heide’s soundtrack is in perfect synthesis with Rekveld’s linear confabulations. Van der Heide’s work here consists of a propeller-like sound that varies in intensity according to the complexity of the images. Just as the film’s images are designed to explore the intermittence between intersecting lines and the discontinuity of film itself, so too does the soundtrack emphasize continuity in the face of disruption. The propeller sound’s main characteristic is the distinct pulses that make up its continuous flow. The sound doesn’t stop; or, it stops so many times per second that the stoppage is almost imperceptible. This was the basis for Stockhausen’s great moment in Kontakte where a sustained tone is slowed down until it is reduced to a series of beats. The propeller sound is like a house track gone mad, pumping out so many beats per minute that it almost becomes a continuous tone, but not quite. And so #11 plunges us into a world where the spectacularity of existence is illustrated through the moments between moments that make up the bulk of our lives: that which we cannot watch happening, the flux between the fixed states that we usually identify with.
The most glorious element of #11 from my point of view is the shape that the two circle/line systems take, and what happens when they merge at their central points. These two systems look uncannily like phonographic discs – two giant records floating around in space, spinning their emanations forth and crossing with each other in the process. This is the most basic principle in the world of the DJ: two spinning discs and the points of intersection between each. Towards the middle of #11, there is a moment when the two discs join as one. Sufficient anticipation for this moment is built up as the two dance around each other in some divine cosmic ritual of courtship. When it finally happens, all hell breaks loose (or heaven, if you prefer). Blinding white light shoots forth from the center and the whole screen seems to reverberate with the shimmering conjunction. And low and behold, a third disc emerges. The parents eparate, and the three now roam around the screen in the heights of intensity matched perhaps by certain moments in Kubrick’s stargate sequence from 2001. The third mind has emerged, that system of thought that is the direct result of the intersection of two others, Eisenstein’s synthesis run rampant through the ecstasy of conceptual abstraction.
The DJ connection here is too tempting to ignore. One of the reasons I believe that the phonographic disc remains so popular today is because of its tangible visibility, its evocation of cosmic forces and emulation of our own physical processes. Many have explored the analogies that can be made between phonography and the natural processes of Earth and the universe. Friedrich Kittler notes instances of speculation on the possibilities of physically joining the human body with phonograph technology such that the seams found in the human skull could be played by a stylus as though they were phonographic grooves containing some predesigned information pertaining to the nature of life on Earth (8). Not surprisingly, Kittler also mentions how contemporary DJ interest in the materiality of turntable technology and its musical potential is very specifically related to humanist interest in the relationships between the physical body and phonography (9). In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas R. Hofstadter brings similar interest in phonography into discourses on modern genetics by, amidst other elaborate flights of humanistic imagination, producing a graph illustrating one to one relationships that can be made between phonographic processes and the processes of DNA replication (10).
Observation of the turntable’s mechanical processes suggests shared likenesses with physical processes beyond those of the human body as well. The spiral formation of a record’s groove, the spinning of the disc on its axis, the centrifugal predisposition of the needle constantly being drawn inward – all of these visible characteristics of the turntable’s inherent design invite comparisons with no less than the machinations of the very cosmos, the observable micro/macrocosmic relationships between phenomena that surround us at all times. The spiral on a snail’s shell or the arms of our galaxy, the inward flow of water in a whirlpool or the disappearance of light within a black hole, the sense of wonder and quest for knowledge that such comparisons have ignited in people from all walks of life illustrates the symbolic power of analogy that has driven many an artistic pursuit. This power of analogy is as alive within the turntable as it is anywhere else.
Joost Rekveld’s evocation of Henri Bergson in relation to his filmmaking processes and the workings of the human mind suggest that he is no stranger to entertaining techno/human analogy. It is no surprise to me that the form of the phonographic disc appears in #11, where its metaphorical power as it relates to the materiality of life, both organic and manufactured, is unleashed with a vengeance. It’s a damn good thing this was the last film in the program, because it wiped my memory of all previous events clean as a whistle. I emerged refreshed, enlightened, and with a joy that only the purest of audiovisual exploration can furnish in my heart.
Mutek 2002, Part 2: The Performances
Mutek 2002, Part 1: Panels and Critical Discourse
1 – Mutek festival guide 2002: 40.
2 – Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism or: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
3 – For a fascinating discussion of the relationships between fractal geometry and the universe at large, see Colors of Infinity (Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon, dir. A New Moon and Gordon Films Production, 1994).
4 – Rekveld, Joost. http://www.lumen.nu/rekveld/work/11textfr.html
5 – ibid
6 – ibid
7 – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987: xiii.
8 – Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, trans. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999: 43.
9 – Ibid: 50.
10 – Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, 1999:536.