On the Medium Specificity of the Digital

In my own goals, what I have become interested in is in the medium specificity of video and how it relates to the idea of the digital. Whereas before we could classify art based on differences in terms of actual media, with the digital we have one media which allows for multiple types of representation. The computer translates code into a sound, an image, a sequence of images, and so on so that the line between photography, video, painting, and music in the digital can be seen on a continuum rather than as distinct from one another, each being an iteration of the same. But the code does not appear as a factor of obviousness and so each of these arrives at itself as an artifice of the art form that it apes where the specificity of the medium was always already immediately apparent in the product.

The Error

With the digital, the common among all of these reproductions of older artforms is in the specificity that arrives on the margins of their representation. For instance, the digital error is always clearly digital, endemic to the modes of storage and transfer that digital art must be subjected to. The different sorts of compression artifacts and distortions as much as they are error have been used intentionally to produce a deformation of sound and image that is specific to the digital though acting as a sort of negative presence. This has been, for instance, in the Lossless series from Rebecca Baron & Doug Goodwin.

The Anti-Film

The image and the sound of the digital, while able to closely approximate the older analog forms is often perceived as being too realistic or “not as warm” as the various distinct analog representations. This allows another starting off point towards a medium specificity of the digital and we can see, for instance, in the work of Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment an embrace of video as a sort of anti-film where the uncinematic realism of the video image is emphasized along with various other cinematic negations. The story is decentered as all the characters appear as mockeries of themselves. The acting and make-up are garishly overdone in contrast to the subtle film actor. The compositing, rather than being done to ape reality or improve upon it, is instead done to create a disjunction from it and a disruption from an immersive narrative experience. The anti-acting, anti-makeup, anti-characters of this anti-narrative anti-film produce one method of thinking through a medium specificity of the video. However, this way still preserves the cohesiveness of the image itself and its basis in a reality. It preserves the human even if only as an object of play.

What is interesting between the embrace of the digital error and the embrace of the “too realistic” digital image is that though the former is always entropically working to destroy the latter, they both function as disjunctions from an immersive experience that we have come to associate with the cinematic image. Attempts to map the cinematic form onto video always appear as a wrestling with video’s ontology in order to force it into the celluloid box and so you have video cameras who shoot true 24 frame progressive scans when video was the form that brought interlacing into being via the 29.97 frame scan. The “too realistic” video image can be considered to be such due to its overabundance of information and in this light can also be seen as analogous to the historical moment of data overload. The problem has become how to control the compulsion towards infinity where the collection of data seems to be a never ending quest. With digital storage, the problem of the take and economy of the shot is destroyed as these cease to be needed with the potentially unlimited capacity of digital storage and its economy. As one example of this tendency, there is the movie Russian Ark which was shot using a single 96 minute shot. What would have been an impossibility to the mechanics and economy of film becomes possible with the digital.

The Fungible Image

Beyond the possibilities of the image itself as it appears to us, we have the infinite fungibility of its being provided by digital processes and enabled by software. What is the importance of the source when it is possible to distort it via processing so thoroughly? This fungibility of the digital image means that the necessity for a good camera or a camera at all falls out. The cheap camera can capture a digital image and then it may be distorted beyond recognition or found video can be sourced from the Internet and then decomposed and reorganzied.

This new fungibility of the digital also opens up a new realm of possibilities for individual artistic practice. As we have traditionally conceived of it, cinema has been a collaborative art form and, though making a film on your own has always been possible, what could be done with it has been limited. With video, the practice can be entirely individual and driven by what Rodowick terms the intra-image montage or the deformation and processing of the image sequence itself into a new product. This can be taken to its ultimate conclusion of total abstraction or be combined with the representation of the image to varying degrees where it can act obviously as a disjunction or subtly to enhance or change that reality as has been its use in cinema.

The subtle use of compositing and effects, however, is just another method of attempting to map the cinematic metaphor to video since it attempts to hide its process. We also see this same pattern in 3D films where what is attempted is an aping of reality. When you see a credit roll for a 3D film, you often see tons and tons of people who have been employed to work on nothing but lighting or textures, however, as the example of David O’Reilly has shown, 3D too has its own medium specificity which can be explored and thus has more to offer than an aping of reality. In his RGBXYZ film, O’Reilly makes the process of the 3D fully present and obvious through the use of simple shapes and artificial voices thus also pointing a way towards a practice in 3D that can be low budget and based on an individual artist. Within 3D, it seems one can either work towards aping reality or creating new realities.

The digital in video thus seems to open up several possibilities for artistic practice including the exploitation of its errors and artifacts, the embrace of its difference from film in terms of image representation, the making visible of digital manipulation processes (whether taking this to total abstraction or combining it with the reality represented), the exploitation of the possibilities of virtually endless data storage, and the ability to do this cheaply and on your own with third party sources or cheap equipment. In the 3D as well as in sound, we see similar possibilities. In 3D especially, we can emphasize the potential to make process present and to exploit the ability of making new realities for novelty or abstraction within an individual artistic practice while in sound, we have the same ability to work with the digital error, recomposition, and deformation of sources that may or may not be your own and to balance between maintaining the integrity of the original sound representation or going towards a completely processed product derived from it.

For all of these, there is also the potential of creation from the ether. The synthesis of sound or image and use of these as well. This is what the 3D amounts to inasmuch as it has no relation to a reality. It represents nothing except itself and so can be seen as having no source. With sound, there are processes that can synthesize sound that you can manipulate and so too with video though each one of these has their own limitations.