Film, image & the post-medium condition
SCREEN CULTURE IS EXPLODING AND MUTATING INTO NEW FORMS ALL AROUND US. IT’S HAPPENING IN PLACES AND FORMATS THAT ARE CHALLENGING THE VERY NATURE OF THE SCREEN AND THE BOUNDARIES OF MEDIA THAT MANY ARGUE HAVE BEEN CRUMBLING FOR DECADES. WHILE IT’S TRUE TO SAY THAT ART, CINEMA AND VIDEO HAVE CROSS-POLLINATED EACH OTHER SINCE THEIR INCEPTION, I WANT TO REFLECT ON THE POST-MEDIUM CONDITION IN WHICH WE FIND OURSELVES. THE SINGULARITY OF CINEMA (IF EVER THERE WAS SUCH A THING) HAS BEEN CONFRONTED BY THE EVOLUTION OF CAPTURE TECHNOLOGIES, MULTI-IMAGE LITERACIES, MULTI-PLATFORM DELIVERY AND NEW FORMS OF PRESENTATION YET TO BE INVENTED.
The idea of the medium as a physical substance for creating artistic forms is hard to maintain as the material conditions for this technical support are undergoing such massive transformation. These days it’s not uncommon for screens and projected images to appear on massive public displays, or on tiny 500-micron living tissues. Windows of office buildings may form the individual pixels for a giant image, or microscopic cells can be used for the purposes of “bio-cinema.” The night sky provides the canvas for orchestrated projections of light and sound. Portable domes and low cost sound/projection systems are becoming increasingly available for artists to work with. Enterprising designers are imagining car headlights as projectors that can beam these highly mobile images onto any available surface.
Even clouds, satellites and other celestial objects can now double as screens for the moving image. According to Scott Hessels (who reminds us of many of these things in the Summer issue of ANAT’s Filter magazine) “it is no longer so important what we are watching, but rather how we watch it.”
The Double Helix: Art and the Moving Image Symposium, held at the Samstag Museum as part of the Adelaide Film Festival, provided the impetus for stimulating insights into this question of how we watch and experience moving image culture. The two-day conference program also included a series of screenings, exhibitions and a selection of works from the DomeFest program (exhibited in a university planetarium). The relationships between visual artists, filmmakers and the plethora of new screen contexts lies at the centre of all these discussions. This article is not so much a review of this program as a reflection on the larger issues raised by this engaging international event.
For me the most challenging issue to come out of the Double Helix program is to do with the nature of the post-medium universe we work and play in these days. It makes little sense to talk about the media-specificity of cinema, for instance, in a moment where many films are made without the help of Kodak, the existence of sprocket-holes or a multiplex to play in. As Larry Kardish, Senior Curator of Film and Media from NewYork’s MoMA put it, cinema is no longer film, and films are made for contexts that can no longer be described as cinemas.
In this year’s Sundance Festival, for the first time in its history, more video was screened than celluloid. Nobody really seems to care any more about the ‘purity’ of film, and most of the directors shooting on HD and other digital formats continue to refer to themselves as filmmakers. As we head towards a massively networked ‘laptop cinema’ jacked in to LCD projectors configured for public and private viewings, it’s worth probing a little more into these and other forms related to the various screen cultures and practices that have emerged over the last couple of years.
The Double Helix conference presented plenty of opportunities for speakers and audience to reflect on the extent to which conventional rectilinear screen formats and cinema-style screening spaces predetermine and limit the potentialities of an expanded cinema. Gene Youngblood’s term (invented in the late 1960s) remains pertinent today as the possibilities for screen experiences outside conventional cinema proliferate significantly. Over the weekend there were plenty of talks referring to “cinema outside the cinema”, and plenty of opportunities to sample works barely recognisable as cinema in the ‘classic’ sense.
The DomeFest program clearly demonstrated the enormous possibilities being explored with ‘fulldome’ filmmaking and production techniques. Fulldome is a relatively new format (since around 1995) that provides immersive experiences via digital technologies presented on a hemispheric screen normally associated with planetariums. No longer constrained to imaging the night sky, fulldome is ‘exploding the frame’ of what planetarium domes might deliver. There are currently 500 fulldome facilities around the world, and the CGI-heavy short ‘films’ presented in the program clearly showed the potential for artists to push the boundaries. Scott Hessels’ extraordinary visualisation work Celestial Mechanics was made for fulldome, and reveals a digital universe that contains more than just stars. His patterns in the sky remind us of the mechanical constellations that invisibly encircle us in the form of satellites and all manner of human-made air traffic.
The questions that emerged from the symposium go to the heart of the dissolution and reformation of the screen. The work of Joyce Hinterding and David Haines (presented by way of an artists’ talk) is illustrative of this condition. Their work deals with fiction and phenomena, sensation, sound and the image plane in gallery and other spaces. It is a practice that is truly post-medium specific. (These ideas and others are explored in Haines’ blog, titled 21st Century Holograms, dealing with post-object art, aroma molecules, and post audio-video art practice””well worth a look.) Their work hints at an entirely different trajectory to cinema where, as Hinterding evocatively described their recent aroma works, “the image arrives directly to your brain in a powerful way” (see RT89, p27).
Another artist working in a similarly expanded practice is Mexican-Canadian Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (RT89, p22). While Australian audiences have had few opportunities to see his work, his keynote at the conference highlighted the extent to which the ‘cinematic’ can be transposed to techniques, viewing contexts and technological means that seem to have nothing to do with movies or filmmaking.
His large-scale public artworks and ‘interactive’ installations engage the public in playful and sometimes profound ways. He describes the work he presented (well documented on his website, www.lozano-hemmer.com) as a “dis-intermediation” of experience””a series of very public interventions into screen and public space. In many of his projects, the screen has nothing to do with a circumscribed surface. His projects play with the ability to skew, rotate, shift and map the image onto a variety of unexpected surfaces, and with playful, engaging and surprising results. He captures, re-presents and plays with the visualisation of data in complex and challenging ways.
As with many artists working at the limits of media specificity, his emphasis on “relational architecture” brings screen and sound technologies into dynamic relation with audience participants and the surfaces of projection. Many of Lozano-Hemmer’s works play with the absence of image and the heightened sense of real time interaction by way of the simplest of forms: public projections of light into the sky or onto public buildings at large scale. His work encourages audiences to participate in what he refers to as “a corporeality of shadows” that come to life in a self-organising fashion. In the words of the artist, these works “cast people’s presence onto the media.”
It’s an idea that many working with interactive media would want to claim, though it’s not always successfully achieved in screen-based forms that rely on the clicking of buttons and standardised navigation practices now highly codified in our everyday lives. How much has Flash and CSS shaped the way we click, drag and drop our way around the four-sided screens we work with these days?
Lynette Wallworth’s major show at the Samstag Museum, Duality of Light, brings together a number the artist’s major interactive works created in recent years. Her work demonstrates the kinds of potential for new screen-based experiences that ask for our bodily engagement and personal (inter)action with her images and sounds “”no clicking here.
The way we touch, walk, and navigate our way through these works brings them into existence. We may capture the projected images on a beautiful translucent bowl, or raise our hand against the glass wall she’s projected her video portraits against in order to commence the work. The artist asks us to quite literally make a connection with the work.
Intimate, social and communal, these works are light years from conventional narrative cinema, and yet they gesture towards the power of the image in sequence, in space and in relation to the body of the audience.
The lines of distinction between cinema, video, installation, architecture and data visualisation seem less and less convincing as each moment passes. As John Conomos put it during his presentation, “artists don’t think categorically, they think a-categorically about these things.”
In the post-medium situation we find ourselves in, the media that artists use are infinitely differentiated, composited together, emergent and interconnected. In short, these are the tools of a dynamic media beyond the cinema.
Adelaide Film Festival and Samstag Museum of Art, Double Helix: Art & Moving Image Symposium, Feb 27-March 1; Domefest Project, Feb 24-27; Lynette Wallworth, Duality of Light, Samstag Museum, Feb 19-April 24; www.unisa.edu.au/samstagmuseum