On Narrativity and the Structure of the Temporal

I’ve been thinking about my relationship to the narrative and what that structure means for temporal art. Before this, I had been pretty exclusively concerned with the idea of the medium specific in the digital realm but this concern with medium specificity qua itself resolves only into a formalism. An empty formalism is something that must be avoided in a medium that requires a temporal movement. Often, the formalist experiment exists empty of any other content and so the problem arises of engagement through time. What I mean by this is that when film or video engages in formalist experiments, in a way, they condense the idea of the medium into an instant thus producing something analogous to a painting or a sculpture, that is, something that exists in a realm outside time through its presentation of a stasis. The problem in temporal art of doing this is that the audience usually expects the work to be in a state of change and flux and hence the need for its temporal movement. The formalist experiment is thus important inasmuch as it teases out the possibilities of a medium qua itself in a sort of purity but this is only a first step that will, of necessity, be difficult to produce in a way that has broad appeal or engagement outside of its conceptual or static element. Of course, the subverting of the expectation of a medium can be seen as its own project, however, in my case, I am interested in preserving the temporal movement.

These novel processes of the digital must be made subservient to a greater idea. As I’ve mentioned before, these processes can be seen in the light of ways in which they make the digital representation present or perform disjunctions from an idea of a cohesive reality. There are older methods taken from film theory as far as how the sound and image relate to one another and theories of montage which can serve as important tools as well towards a greater idea. The important factor is that these methods are used for the goal of eliciting the complexities of reality as opposed to being used towards their simplification or homogenization. The use of compositing as it is used in Hollywood for instance is usually towards the goal of obscuring its presence and through this producing a reified product attempting to hide its process of production and presence as much as possible.

The media one uses always has implications that underly its being. In the case of the digital, you have the ability of an infinitely fungible and distributed text as never before that may potentially exist in a non-hierarchal structure and you have the flattening of an aesthetic plane so that many different types of art can now be, in a way, simulated in the digital or re-produced but in a way that opens them up to difference which does not end. In a way, the digital cannot be divorced from the context of the Internet where its form may slip into or meld with and the fact that the object of art is now no longer real or necessary in the realm of the digital.

I’ve gotten a bit off topic here, but the previous is all to say that a formalism can nevertheless take up specific questions about the role of a medium in modernity and make implications about this so with the digital, you already have a medium that through its being has implications of non-hierarchal structures and cooperative engagement with a text and the subversion of ideas of private property and ownership.

But to return to the idea of how to structure art that moves through a temporal field, I suppose I have become obsessed with this question because of something that I cannot let go of. I do not yet wish to engage in interactive art, static formal experiments, or installation type art; I want to preserve a temporal movement that I can control. In this sense, it may be said that I wish to preserve the power of the author and the audience as passive recipient but I consider this more as a desire for the construction of a text that can show to another the thought process of myself or lead into an area that opens certain questions. The text is there not to act as a unitary voice or to instruct you as teacher or guide but rather to take you on a journey filled with openings and sutures.

How does all of this relate back to narrativity. It has seemed to me for a while that the narrative dramatic film has often worked towards reactionary ends by constructing and preserving complete subjects and meta-narratives of our place in society which serve the rulers or that they serve as petty distractions. This can be true I suppose, but the text of the narrative or the story in cinema is, especially through the implications provided by the camera angle, psychoanalytic par excellence as it produces the conflict among relationships and this is why you see Zizek usually analyzing popular films for it is in these that you have the representation of the Subject. The narrative, keeping this in mind, can thus be structured towards a goal of incohesiveness and disjunction by using the same tropes of the standard narrative and this is what many of the great films of art cinema have done. Construct narratives that open rather than clamp down upon questions and show the complexity of reality. In this register, the film still appears subservient to the story which is subservient to whatever it is you are hoping to show via this story and so technique that engages with the medium also functions a subservient role to the representation of subjectivity and so on.

I, however, am not a collaborator or a story-writer and so I do not see myself as going forward into any narrative organization of my work except inasmuch as it may function as a temporal alibi but is this the only option for a temporal alibi that serves to move someone through time? That is the question that I am interested in. What are alternate methods of moving others through time in the mode of the moving image? In the documentary form, you see an alternate mode of movement though this is often done with a grand narrative that assumes the voice of knowing in the film and thus often functions through the preservation of a hierarchy between artist and audience and functions didactically and simplistically, often able to prescribe action or solutions at some point. The documentary that ends in this way ends analogously to a fiction film with the happy ending by resolving tension when the tension, in fact, cannot be resolved (at least not so easily as can be shown in a film). A voice can contextualize images into cohesion or it can act as just one of many elements pulsating together. Considering that my interest lies more firmly in the political, I am more interested in alternate modes of producing documentary that opens up questions without attempting to simplify or answer them.

So this ends with no real solutions or answers to anything but just my questions about them and the general direction in which I am curious about going into. I suppose I need to return to reading theory and watch more films and videos as I only encountered all this to a limited extent in my undergraduate experience. From there, the time will come for formalist aesthetic experiments and experiments in alternate documentary practice and who knows what else. I must keep in mind Godard (from Weekend to Je Vous Salue Marie especially) and Dusan Makavejev as always.

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.