the work of the moving image in the age of its digital corruptibility

The Work of the Mov­ing Image in the Age of its Dig­i­tal Cor­rupt­ibil­i­ty: ”

by Daniel Rourke

The cin­e­ma can, with impuni­ty, bring us clos­er to things or take us away from them and revolve around them, it sup­press­es both the anchor­ing of the sub­ject and the hori­zon of the world… It is not the same as the oth­er arts, which aim rather at some­thing unre­al or a tale. With cin­e­ma, it is the world which becomes its own image, and not an image which becomes world.’

Giles Deleuze, Cin­e­ma 1: The Move­ment Image

Take 12 images and splice them end to end: a shad­ed length of acetate through which a bright white light is to be shone. This makes one sec­ond of film. The reel spools onwards, as the sec­onds tick by, and from these inde­pen­dent images (iso­la­tions of time sep­a­rat­ed in space) an illu­sion of coher­ence emerges.

Dur­ing a recent flur­ry of inter­net activ­i­ty I stum­bled across the work of Takeshi Mura­ta. His videos, hav­ing made their way, legit­i­mate­ly or oth­er­wise, into the mys­te­ri­ous Realm of YouTube, have achieved some­thing of a cult sta­tus. Among var­i­ous dig­i­tal edit­ing tech­niques Mura­ta is one of the most famous pur­vey­ors of the ‘Data­moshed’ video. A sub-genre of ‘glitch-art’, data­mosh­ing at first appears to be a mode of expres­sion fine-tuned for the com­put­er geek: a harm­less bit of tech­ni­cal fun with no artis­tic future. But as I watched Murata’s videos, from Mon­ster Movie (2005), through to Unti­tled (Pink Dot) (2007) I became more and more con­vinced that data­mosh­ing has some­thing pro­found to say about the sta­tus of the image in mod­ern soci­ety. Fur­ther­more, and at the risk of sound­ing Utopi­an, data­mosh­ing might just be to film what pho­tog­ra­phy was to painting.

Take a human sub­ject. Any will do. Have them sit sev­er­al metres from your pro­jec­tion, mak­ing sure to note that their visu­al appa­ra­tus is point­ing towards, and not away from, the result­ing cacoph­o­ny of images. There is no need to alert the sub­ject to your film. Humans, like most ani­mals, have a high­ly adapt­ed aware­ness of move­ment. Your illu­sion can­not help but catch their atten­tion. As soon as the reel begins to roll they will be hooked.

Cin­e­ma is all per­va­sive. Not just because we all watch (and love) movies, nor that the nar­ra­tives emerg­ing from cin­e­ma direct­ly struc­ture our mod­ern mythos. Rather it is through the lan­guage of cin­e­ma, whether we are sat in front of a screen or not, that much of the past hun­dred years of cul­tur­al change, of tech­no­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal upheaval can be under­stood. For Wal­ter Ben­jamin, whose writ­ings on media appeared almost as reg­u­lar­ly as the images flashed by a movie pro­jec­tor, the tech­nol­o­gy of film fed into and organ­ised the per­cep­tu­al appa­ra­tus of the mod­ern era.

Soon the sub­ject will tire of your film. This has noth­ing to do with their atten­tion span, nor is it an indi­ca­tion that your film itself is dull. Rather, in a very short time the human sub­ject will grow so accus­tomed to the cacoph­o­ny of images that they will begin to con­sid­er it as a nat­ur­al com­po­nent of their world. The solu­tion is sim­ple. Over the com­ing decades, as new tech­nolo­gies emerge, incor­po­rate them into your film. For instance, sound has long been impor­tant to humans. Why not use some? And while you are at it, throw in some colour, expand the size of your images, begin pro­ject­ing 24 images a sec­ond rather than 12… But I am get­ting ahead of myself. First you will need a good sto­ry, or bet­ter still, a polit­i­cal aspi­ra­tion you wish to impose upon your soli­tary view­er. Don’t hes­i­tate to let your imag­i­na­tion fly. It’s amaz­ing what can be expressed with 24 images a second.

Ben­jamin was talk­ing about mass pro­duc­tion, about tech­no­log­i­cal repro­ducibil­i­ty and the impact that it was hav­ing on our notion of iden­ti­ty. What did it mean to be sub­sumed by mate­r­i­al objects, each iden­ti­cal in kind to the last? The role of cin­e­ma in grasp­ing this change was, for Ben­jamin, cru­cial. Like the illu­sion which emerges from 24 images pro­ject­ed each sec­ond the frag­men­ta­tion of mod­ern soci­ety only increased as the cohe­sion it pro­mot­ed inten­si­fied. As the objects around us lose their unique­ness, being mere­ly repli­cas of one anoth­er, so the human sub­ject mis­takes the close­ness of per­cep­tion for the authen­tic­i­ty of the object. Film was, and per­haps still is, a kind of expul­sion from the present expe­ri­ence. In cin­e­ma real­i­ty becomes mul­ti­plied. Via con­tigu­ous images an expe­ri­ence of clar­i­ty works to sharp­en human per­cep­tion. Once a film ends this mode of see­ing car­ries onward into the world, push­ing the present deep­er and deep­er beneath the appa­ra­tus of soci­ety. For Ben­jamin film, and more direct­ly cin­e­ma, was the look­ing glass of our times. And as our times grew ever more com­plex in their appear­ance, so it was film which would stand as our totem:

Seri­ous­ness and play, rig­or and license, are min­gled in every work of art, though in very dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions… The pri­ma­ry social func­tion of art today is to rehearse the inter­play [between nature and human­i­ty]. This applies espe­cial­ly to film. The func­tion of film is to train human beings in the apper­cep­tion and reac­tions need­ed to deal with a vast appa­ra­tus whose role in their lives is expand­ing almost daily.’

Wal­ter Ben­jamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Tech­no­log­i­cal Reproducibility

Con­sid­er the frame of your film as a frame upon a world. With­in its bound­aries your human sub­ject will expe­ri­ence depths of motion, of emo­tion, that explode their cen­tered selves. Before long your sub­ject will begin to mis­take move­ment of the frame for move­ment with­in the frame, for is it not the case that as the movie cam­era fol­lows its actors it iso­lates them with­in the repeat­ed image? Watch as the horse gal­lops, each flick of the hooves mov­ing it onwards in space and time. The horse gal­lops in rela­tion to the mov­ing frame: an iso­lat­ed image of change for the sin­gle view­er to behold. Note how your human sub­ject mis­takes time for space, and space for time. Note how, before long, the horse’s gal­lop elic­its a know­ing yawn beneath the view­er’s lin­ger­ing gaze. Per­cep­tion has explod­ed, and the world will nev­er be the same again.

In cin­e­ma the image became mul­ti­plied, expand­ed and dis­trib­uted. Through the machine of the pro­jec­tor images spooled, one after anoth­er; through the machine of Hol­ly­wood film was expressed, dis­persed and made con­tigu­ous with the sub­stance of soci­ety. It appears that now, in the age of the dig­i­tal, video has replaced film as our noun of choice, and like the omnipresent images of the filmic event, it is now video itself which has become mul­ti­ple. YouTube is to video what cin­e­ma was to the image. Instead of direc­tors and edi­tors, we now have video mix-ups and inter­net memes. Instead of mon­tage we have ‘chan­nels’, instead of Grand Open­ing Nights and Red Car­pets we have ‘Share this on Face­book’ but­tons and vast com­ments sec­tions filled with debate, debase and debunk. In short Youtube, and dis­trib­u­tive sys­tems like it, have become the new frame with­in which the images of video, and their illu­sion­ary after-effects, are iso­lat­ed and re-expressed, in end­less repetition:

The cin­e­mato­graph­ic image is always divid­ual. This is because, in the final analy­sis, the screen, as the frame of frames, gives com­mon stan­dard of mea­sure­ment to things which do not have one — long shots of coun­try­side and close-ups of the face, an astro­nom­i­cal sys­tem and a sin­gle drop of water — parts which do not have the same denom­i­na­tor of dis­tance, relief or light. In all these sens­es the frame ensures a deter­ri­to­ri­al­i­sa­tion of the image.’

Giles Deleuze, Cin­e­ma 1: The Move­ment Image

By now your human sub­ject should not only under­stand the lan­guage of film, they should live it. Over 100 years have passed since you began your exper­i­ment, and in that time film, by becom­ing cin­e­ma, has grown to such pro­por­tions that no aspect of human per­cep­tion may escape from it. Like a stone-age baby brought up to be a chat­ter­ing homo-sapi­en, your sub­ject will, by now, be a walk­ing, talk­ing embod­i­ment of the cin­e­mat­ic. You may fear this com­ing of age, and quite right­ly, for rather than admir­ing from afar the pow­er of the cam­era, of the edit and the mon­tage, your sub­ject will believe that their world was always this con­tigu­ous. The copy has been copied, beyond its means to pro­duce unique moulds. Cin­e­ma has begun to sim­u­late itself. The last image rolls now, the last flick­er of light colours the reti­na. Today the great exper­i­ment has ended.

Dig­i­tal dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems like YouTube are only pos­si­ble because of a series of clever algo­rithms which com­press the infor­ma­tion con­tained with­in each video. Data com­pres­sion, in a nut­shell, turns 24 sep­a­rate images a sec­ond into the min­i­mal of infor­ma­tion required to cre­ate an approx­i­ma­tion of those same frames slid­ing into each oth­er. Why place every frame of a video online if with­in each frame, and shared amongst them, there exist aspects of the image which remain the same across con­tigu­ous moments? Com­pres­sion is like the reduc­tion of video into its com­po­nent DNA. By reduc­ing a video to the DNA required to com­pose each image half of the job of com­pres­sion is done. The sec­ond, and per­haps, clev­er­er part of video com­pres­sion is the addi­tion of anoth­er seg­ment of ‘DNA’ which tells video soft­ware how the move­ment between each image should be expressed. Data­mosh­ing plays with these ele­ments. It breaks the notion of sep­a­ra­tion between image and move­ment, indeed, it cre­ates a new merg­ing ref­er­ence between the two. In the data­moshed video image and move­ment are blend­ed, even inter­changed for one anoth­er. Each unique image in the data­moshed video becomes a token of move­ment with­in a frame that extends far beyond the isolated/compressed moment.

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In a data­moshed video an image from frame 10 of the video can leak, cor­rupt and inter­face with an image in frame 100. What’s more, the move­ment DNA exchanged between con­tigu­ous frames can jump ahead, can blend with a pre­vi­ous image or be removed com­plete­ly. To the data­mosh­er, time and image become a deli­cious paint pal­let express­ing in motion. To the data­mosh­er, a series of frames, or even a series of videos, can be tempt­ed to break their bound­aries and merge, forg­ing brand new steps in a whirling datamosh-dance.

As cin­e­mato­graph­ic sub­jects we have an inte­gral under­stand­ing of the lan­guage of film. Although we know that the frames of cin­e­ma are sep­a­rate, are mere instant images of a whole, we crave the illu­sion of move­ment they cre­ate. Takeshi Murata’s short film, Unti­tled (Pink Dot), cor­rupts this sep­a­ra­tion between image and move­ment, the view­er and the viewed. In an ear­ly frame we briefly notice Sylvester Stal­lone fire his gun, but as the result­ing explo­sion rips across the frame his image is trans­posed into the fire, leav­ing a rem­nant of his fig­ure to merge with the result­ing mias­ma. Through­out this inter­play, a puls­ing pink dot draws our atten­tion at the cen­tre of the frame. This dot, sure­ly a sym­bol of our view­ing, per­ceiv­ing cen­tre, is blend­ed, sym­bi­ot­i­cal­ly, with the data­moshed mias­ma. It is as if we, our view­ing cen­tres enrap­tured by the filmic event, have been con­sumed by its flow. Our cin­e­mat­ic instinct still per­ceives the fig­ure of Ram­bo, of the flash of the machine-gun pulse, but as the explo­sive fire tears through the pink dot it is as if our minds have been melt­ed through too.

What would have Wal­ter Ben­jamin and Giles Deleuze thought of data­mosh­ing? of YouTube videos dis­played on iPhones? of High Def­i­n­i­tion data files cor­rupt­ed by pink dots and com­pres­sion arte­facts? These new tech­nolo­gies and modes of dis­tri­b­u­tion play into our instincts in much the same way that film did 100 years ago. Real­i­ty has always been formed in feed­back with our tech­nolo­gies. As our art and cul­ture express time and space in ever greater mul­ti­ples so our minds are forced to com­plex­i­fy to catch up. The feed­back which fol­lows, through artis­tic expres­sion and cul­tur­al con­tem­pla­tion, drags the human sub­ject through their world at ever greater speeds. Accord­ing to media the­o­rist Lev Manovich, this con­tin­ued feed­back between tech­nol­o­gy and art deter­mines the bound­aries of our world:

Mod­erni­sa­tion is accom­pa­nied by a dis­rup­tion of phys­i­cal space and mat­ter, a process that priv­eleges inter­change­able and mobile signs over orig­i­nal objects and rela­tions… Before, dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal loca­tions met with­in a sin­gle mag­a­zine spread or film news­reel; now they meet with­in a sin­gle elec­tron­ic screen.’

Lev Manovich, The Lan­guage of New Media

Cin­e­ma evolved along­side the most expan­sive cen­tu­ry that mankind has ever seen. It allowed us, along with var­i­ous oth­er tech­nolo­gies, to iso­late the com­plex present in ways incon­ceiv­able before. I don’t wish to offer any branch­ing phi­los­o­phy here, nor talk at length on the per­cep­tu­al or cul­tur­al impor­tance of ‘com­pres­sion arte­facts’. Instead I ask you to gath­er up your per­cep­tive appa­ra­tus, and let it sift slow­ly through the var­i­ous videos dis­trib­uted through­out (and below) this arti­cle. In the realm of YouTube where every video can lead to every oth­er, where all mov­ing images can be re-appro­pri­at­ed, re-edit­ed and re-dis­trib­uted as pure data, in this realm, data­mosh­ing sym­bol­is­es the per­cep­tu­al sta­tus of our times. There is some­thing about the data­moshed video, in the way it takes advan­tage of the view­er’s cin­e­mat­ic instinct, that fas­ci­nates me. And when I look up from the data­moshed video, blink­ing hard to make real­i­ty fall back into focus, the world makes a lit­tle more sense to my view­ing, per­ceiv­ing cen­tre. To me real­i­ty feels more data­moshed every time I look up. To me the real world looks like it might have been data­moshed all along.

by Daniel Rourke

Videos fea­tured in this article:

Sil­ver by Takeshi Mura­ta
Mon­ster Movie by Takeshi Murata
Venet­ian Snares, Sza­mar Madar by David O’Reil­ly
• A back­wards ver­sion of Chair­lift, Evi­dent Uten­sil, by Ray Tin­tori, encod­ed back­wards by YouTube user Pronoia­cOrg
Mish­Mosh, by YouTube user data­mosh­er
Unti­tled (Pink Dot) by Takeshi Mura­ta
How to Data­mosh: Part 1, by YouTube user data­mosh­er


(Via 3quarksdaily.)


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