Friday, 21 December 2007

Full Definition Reality

There is a move in the contemporary zeitgeist which is allowing the notion of 'reality' to come under discussion. The Levehulme Foundation in fact includes this title in its guide for new applications - as if reality needs re-definition due to movements in contemporary technology: biological, digital and manufacture - nanotechnology, cad cam and the rest.

But I'm not sure that all we need to be insightful about the human condition still exists in prior technology and prior cultural forms, that the investigations we have to make about the way the world is now is not also present in the cultural forms that were previously dominant. Over the last three weeks I've become involved in lighting a play at a theatre and it's come home to me that the stage space is a place where images are made, high definition images with a depth and realism that 3 D cinema can only dream about.

The theatre world is a different world than the one I'm used to and though I've been there before, maybe 15 years ago lighting a play for the Edinburgh Festival, by now I'd forgotten the terms theatre people use: the use of terms for the equipment and the notation used to delineate the placement of lamps (lanterns as they call them) on a lighting grid. I worked through the experience in my usual male fashion: I can do this even if I know nothing of the form because I can use my natural intelligence to formulate theories as I go along about the space and place I am working in and tat these theories on a practical level will find the contemporary bar. Also, because I travel from another discipline I can bring something new to the form. I do not see this as a n arrogant position, in fact I see it as a necessary way to re-invigorate different forms and practices. The course I studied on for my BA was called communication design and was based upon the ideas of Stafford Beer, Edmund Carpenter, Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan - all of which understood the notion of enriching the soil when it has become exhausted, The necessary nutrients were the insights and understandings gained within different disciplines.

There's also the issue of process where you take what you know into this different form and that act alone challenges the what's known and formulates it into something that distinguishes what you produce from the general practices prevalent in the form you are entering. This process often involves antagonism from those that work in the form seeing the incomer as threatening what is valuable and needs protecting against invading hordes who may dilute if not destroy the already realised form with new and inappropriate ideas. Ever the same old story. My own recent experience had elements of sabotage in it and nearly scuppered my plan which was me imagining what might work if given the chance. FUnnily enough even though resources were withheld I still pulled it off and on the first performance, of all the elements that go together to make a piece of theatre, an audience member was overheard by the assistant director as being imaginative. Therefore mission accomplished (I hope imaginative also meant appropriate to the story). On this particular production a particularly imaginative collaborator was Forkbeard Fantasy, internationally renowned for their crazy kind of theatre and they were responsible for a series of projections and puppets that had projections form inside their bodies onto their faces (yes they were big).

The lighting people from what ever discipline who might be reading this know that you need to do something special to not wash out the projections and that alone added a complication when cover light is a standard in theatrical form. Necessarily I didn't use any of that. I did use a lot of what I would call a 'special' - meaning something particular to light a specific thing. Bu the particular form of sabotage I encountered (be it unconscious or conscious) deprived my of a quarter of the circuits in the lighting board. Simply put this means that by the time I had got to the front bar of the lighting grid I couldn't put in what I\d planned to make the whole show work!

Usually on a film production I make a plan and by the night before the shoot I gather the courage to throw away the plan so that I might function on the shoot in the full knowledge that there is a plan if I need it but I have empowered myself to listen to my intuition at each moment and try to be truly creative on set because on set everything is different from what one imagines anyway when reading the script !. In this recent case the simple exigencies of the lack or resources meant that I ad to wrok with less than I'd planned - and that everything was in the wrong place now because of what was missing. Therefore I had to be imaginative about what I had placed and focused and use it for different reasons than it had been placed on the grid. This meant that lighting surprises (surprise for the artist being a principle artistic technique) were coming thick and fast and we entered an interesting lighting space immediately !

The definition I had intended was partially there, but also definitions of form and shape and colour came that I hadn't 'intended'.

Definition and intention - these go hand in hand in contemporary re-definitions of the zeitgeist. There's a sense in which intention was formed in a previous age and that previous intentions don't fit with the new digital world - simply because they're anachronistic. ANd definition is about bringing ideas into focus but of course in a world where the idea of reality is being investigated we have technologies offering higher definition but an attendant question of what it is that is needed to bring into focus.

So I may be arguing that we don't throw the baby out with the bath water here - that the previous has all the seeds of what is to come if we can decode it and release it from past associations.

Imagine a future High definition 3D theatre: It would be a world into which we look and see three dimensional images and CGI landscapes. One thing I am coming to know is that if you create too much description and detail then the experience of looking into that over described world is neutered - as contemporary games designers have told me - the game loses out to the high definition landscapes that have to be created and the game function is defeated. Could it be that theatre is the height of 3 Dimensional HD form already ?

Monday, 26 November 2007

In Other People's Skins

Terry Flaxton is the British Arts and Humanities Research Council Creative Research Fellow in High Resolution Imaging at Bristol University. After a varied career as a Director of Photography encountering HD early in the game, shooting 4 Features as well as promos, tv dramas, cinema shorts, live shows and documentaries, he has taken three years out to look into the issues, both technical and aesthetic, around high resolution imaging.

One strand of Flaxton’s work is to compile a series of interviews with people who are shaping the HD world. This archive of over 30 interviews will be lodged at various institutions for use by future researchers. Flaxton points out that the history of film from 1890 to 1920 has very few verbatim accounts by the practitioners themselves and that this should not happen with HD. The Verbatim History of HD Aesthetics and Technologies will be that record.

The second strand of Flaxton’s work is a series of installations and tests made with High Definition technology over the three years of the Fellowship. This includes In Other People’s Skins, an interactive installation which will tour to 7 cathedrals from February to June 2008. It will be seen at Winchester, Worcester, Gloucester, Bristol, Wells and Southwark Cathedrals and finish its run at Bath Abbey in June 2008.


A few years ago I made a small digital installation piece called The Dinner Party. Visitors enter a room: a table is set for dinner; there are 8 unoccupied chairs. A dinner party is taking place, but there are no guests - just the images of their hands, food, wine, projected from above onto the white tablecloth and plates. I initially made this piece very informally, inviting some friends to have dinner, and suspending a PD170 camera directly overhead. The dinner table was of exactly 16 x 9 proportions – for obvious reasons. The footage was edited, looped and projected back on to the same table, now empty except for 8 plates, which act as little screens to catch the virtual food if positioned carefully. The chairs invite the audience to sit and touch, (unlike a lot of modern art, this art is for touching) - but with the irony that contents are virtual and so untouchable. The candles are a gesture towards the medium of light. There is enough of the real on this virtual table to allow the casual viewer to suspend disbelief.

This installation even in its Standard Definition form, enjoyed a terrific response wherever it was exhibited and I found myself wanting to stretch the form a little, to discover if there were more to be had. But I was really excited as well about the possibilities for this kind of work if I took it into the realm of High Definition, where there seems to be the possibility of further suspending the audience on the threshold between belief and disbelief.

Perhaps I could start with a metaphor: At dusk, sometimes you can see that the brake lights of the car in front seem brighter than usual. Also, the traffic lights seem too bright and too colourful. This is said to be due to the rods and cones in your eyes transferring duties from one to the other. The brain is switching from one more refined and developed technology that is used to dealing with colour and a certain level of luminosity, to an earlier technology that developed in relation to movement and low light. So, take this idea, this fluttering and switching between technologies and shift this idea into definition: what if the brain needs to switch between levels of definition?

I had a conversation recently with an engineer who described a High Definition practical joke someone played - he boarded up a window in the office and then projected back onto that board an HD image of that same window, hoping to confuse his fellow boffins. And as with trompe l’oeuil paintings of the 18th century, there is a moment when illusion works. The Dinner Party works like this, in that I use an image that overlays a solid object. It seemed very clear that a higher definition image would produce a more believable effect - or, more easily encourage the suspension of disbelief that we are familiar with in the cinema.

So last year I happened to be at an art event at the Bishops Palace at Wells Cathedral for the opening of a show and someone asked what I do – I told them that I earn my money on camera and I throw it away by making art. They wanted to know what kind of art so I told them about the table and that what I really want to do is take it a stage further. They told me to hold that thought and looking around they spotted a man who they dragged me up to - the Bishop. I told him that I wanted to do a digital version of the Last Supper and he thought that a very good idea. I discovered that he wasn’t the only person who liked the sound of it, as the exhibition tour grew to take in 6 abbeys and a cathedral, the Arts Council funded the project, and business sponsors came on board.

So a new work was born: In Other People’s Skins, is inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. It consists of a larger table covered in a white cloth and surrounded by chairs. Projected from above onto the white surface will be the images of the hands and arms of 12 people as they take food, break the bread, drink the wine. Visitors to the installation will be free to sit down at one of the 12 chairs and interact with the virtual guests – and to inhabit Other People’s Skins. Initially the virtual diners will be taking a simple 1st century meal of bread, wine and fruit. After a short time, the content of the images will change. Suddenly we see an Indian family, a Chinese family, a Nigerian family or a modern English family taking a meal. The food on the table, the plates and dishes, the colour of the hands and arms, the clothing and jewellery, all will be transformed so that the visitor finds themselves in a different century, a different world.

The act of eating together, sharing food, is a universal human experience, which crosses all cultural and religious boundaries, and the dinner table is the site where so much human communication takes place. The intention is not to create a piece based in any particular religion – on the contrary, the idea is to transcend religious divides and seek that which unites us.

In discussion with Alison Sterling of Ignition Films, the producer and production company behind In Other People’s Skins, I had to decide just where I would go with my image capture after simple standard definition. The Dinner Party had been shown off DVD, which damaged the definition of the images even more, and I was keen to maintain as much resolution as I possibly could with this new project.

I decided in the end, that In Other People’s Skins should be part of a journey through the various forms of HD that currently exist, all the way through to full scale and proper HD. Therefore I decided to work in the newish P2 system at this stage, and that during 2008 I aim to make a series of installations with work originating on the HD Cam and Varicam formats, and latterly toward the end of 2008 I will use a camera like the F23 for the artwork.

The reason for the choice for what some would regard as hardly an HD format (and I had ruled out HDV on motion issues) is that I have been staring at HD for a long time now and I really want to know it in its material form. When I look at an image I want to see it up close and personal and at a large screen level - I want to see what all of those pixels are actually doing and I want to know just how different pathways of posting the captured medium changes the way the image displays. Exporting through different codices was part of my post production research process, as I explored a number of possibilities for playing out the finished footage. We will most likely run off computer in a DVC Pro HD Codec (because it will run off 7200 rpm drives) though we did also explore the possibility of exporting via HD DVD, but this has been more or less ruled out because of further encoding and deterioration of resolution. There were also prosaic issues of budget and practicality (ie small runs of HD DVDs and BluRay are simply uneconomic).

Pre-production and production took just under a month: we sought out various communities - Gujeratis, Nigerians and pan-Asian – and asked them to join us in creating these meals. We wanted to find a range of continents, skin colour, and food culture, including the simple question of what implements were used in each culture – the knife and fork, chopsticks, spoons or just hands. In consultation with our production designer Charlotte Humpston, we made choices of colour for each of the meals so that the skin tones, the colour of the table, the dishes and the food itself would be complimentary, both within each meal but also in contrast to the other meals. We also enlisted the support of a number of Bristol restaurants who generously agreed to provide the food (Nigerian food from Kalabash; Gujerati food from Myristica; pan-Asian food from Teoh’s; European food from Bordeaux Quay) and also The Pier who loaned all the tableware.

Shooting took place at the Wickham Theatre at the University of Bristol Drama Department. We built two scaff towers and set up with a walkway in between so that I could get at the camera without moving it. The Ps was suspended above the table (and I did in fact use a little HDV Z1 as backup). Lighting was simple – with The Dinner Party I’d wanted no shadows, so I used soft cover lighting from directly above with the light bounced directly off umbrellas. This time I wanted all the glasses to zing, so instead I set up four poly foam core boards to bounce the light in from the four corners: this gave soft shadows which disappeared when hitting a dark tablecloth (Nigerian and Gujerati) or wood (pan-Asian), but in the Western meal with its crisp white tablecloth and the elaborate place settings with three glasses and three sets of cutlery at each place, then the articulation gathered from cross shadows and cross illumination actually made the image sing. Funny how sometimes you do what you know you shouldn’t and yet it works just fine….

So we started the week of production and I elected to data wrangle on to a Firestore which behaved without fault and recorded everything. At each point I immediately downloaded everything on to an Octo Core Mac with 7 gig of ram and about 1500 Gb of internal RAID which runs at a fairly high read and write rate (I could also have brought my other kit which has 480 MB/s read and write rates) but for the P2 system 7200 rpm is fast. And as soon as the data was downloaded I could show my guests what they had done. During the shoot I had a widescreen monitor on the set to allow everyone to see what was being gathered and demonstrate the issues around not putting their heads into shot.

The week was successful and people had a lot of fun in the shoot - it was, after all, a friendly, homely meal. I was pleased with the P2 image - albeit only some 960 pixels wide - but it did articulate a lot of what I wanted to see and in the HD game you have to spend an awful lot more for quite small increases in quality. So basically the little P2 camera do a good job for the money.

The next challenge has been how to display these images without too much further degradation, and there is the usual balancing act to perform between cost, resolution (ie number of pixels) and levels of luminance. To display through a full HD projector would be not only be prohibitively expensive (£35,000 upward) but the kit itself is too big to be a realistic choice for a touring show – especially as it involves being suspended vertically some 12 feet in the air. The smaller domestic home cinema projectors, which say they display full 1920x1080 do not have sufficient brightness as they are geared towards an environment where light can be completely excluded – sadly not the case in a cathedral. We are currently looking at a Panasonic PT DW5100 at around 5000 lumens. It isn’t full HD but has great intensity of image and colour quality.

The tour kicks off in Winchester on 7th February and then tours to Worcester Cathedral (4 – 16 March), Gloucester Cathedral (17 – 30 March), Bristol Cathedral (31 March – 13 April), Wells Cathedral (14 – 27 April), Southwark Cathedral (6 – 18 May), Bath Abbey (2 – 20 June)

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Eye Watering Experiments in Low D

I've been offline for a bit through extreme business - all self-generated. Amazing how if one is in charge of one's life one can still create stress. In this case I've been putting on a show and through this act investigating upscaling and downscaling of HD images. There is only one conclusion though and I'll say this now: There is only a High Definition image if you maintain the purity of pathways in dealing with the signal.

If you engage in wanton and ignorant channelling of the information - if you neglect to understand where the signal goes and what it goes through, then the claim that you are exhibiting HD images will be false.

As a Director of Photography who has always in some way been involved in post production, the new emphasis of exhibition is bringing an interesting overview of the entire HD process. I hear so many people say they are shooting HD when in fact they are shooting some small format that is a falsification of the term. For instance as far as I'm now concerned an Mpg based HD format is a nonsense. Any format that doesn't actually record 1920 x 1080 (the minimum) is a nonsense. Any format that doesn't record 4 4 4 is a nonsense.

A purists stance? Yes. But what else is truth but pure?

So - outside of this one has to deal with pragmatic truths - the blemished kind - and, because I've been putting on a show where I've been trying to raise the bar in terms of presentation of images - and given the lack of good cheap exhibition equipment - I have plunged mightily into the compromises available.

It isn't just exhibition, I found myself forced through budget to use the 960 pixel P2 Panasonic system to shoot on which like a lot of low HD is a smoke and mirrors exercise. But worse, in the passage through various bits of kit: editing, then outputting into a codec which is compliant with what is to follow - then play off computer, with it's hard drive read and write speeds (as a RAID was out of the question for a month and anyway the projector wasn't good enough to warrant this element) and the computers graphics card and its limitations, or via an HD DVD player (and all the Mpg stuff in terms of the authoring programme before that and it's level of encoding) then through the HD DVD players' own upscaling/downscaling system, then through a projector with it's pixel limitations and its own upscaling/downscaling problems or through an 'HD Ready' TV set with it's upscaling system - it's a wonder one can see anything with looking at after all of the mashing the signal gets - and after all of this to find that actually the best image I found though this awful pathway was a PAL Quicktime file played off computer - I really mean that - I also played a DVC Pro HD file and by the time it had been processed it didn't look as good as the PAL version.

Oh woe.

Anyway - the point is that there's a pragmatism that has to come into play after the pure thoughts and then, due to the earliness of the systems we have available we have to chose something that will in the end work.

All of this latest show is a test for February when I have to find the best option to tour an installation around the country - so it's been good to go through the mill so that I know what I'm going to do - but it's been tough on the eye.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Happy Confusion

Megapixel is not the first conference concerned with HD – there have been a few before, but more industry based; the Megapixel at Anglia Ruskin University tried to include academics and artists to further discuss what HD might be, beyond the simple propaganda of the corporations with technology to sell.

A community that was involved for the first time was the Games industry and the contribution this sector made was a slightly neurotic occupation with photorealism – neurotic because underlying the simple fact that games had to get more photorealistic to satisfy a desire which the designers themselves originally encouraged. Beneath this was the real concern that though the spectacle had grown, the games play itself had diminished. Photorealism is simply a product of remediation and being so new, HD has to go through this stage before it finds it’s own aesthetic.

This concern also highlighted and revealed to me the unease throughout all sectors about HD. My own paper centred on the HD terrain, what it is, when there are so many differing identities, when the communities involved have no fixed definition. Also, what are the potential aesthetics of the medium? Malcom Le Grice proposed that the advent of digitality itself was the essential paradigm shift and HD was simply a refinement of certain tendencies that were evident within the 'operations', as Lev Manovich had termed them. Manovich himself called off at the last minute and Peter Swinson was drafted in to give the keynote speech. Swinson on his own admission is an unreconstructed film lover and so Megapixel, named within the popularist idiom, began with a paean to past technologies, which depending on your perspective is either appropriate or ironic.

Grahame Weinbren showed his self created HD system which he termed High Resolution – his most important discovery was the proposition of real colour information being equal to resolution information – previous systems of HD throw away a lot of the colour definition. His own art, as he himself admitted, dealt with the beautiful – this was, he said a result of age. Gone were the days of the more punk fascination for non-beauty.

On the whole the entire event was beset by modernist project issues and a deal of remediation which if one were unkind could be seen as gauche. But the High Definition content itself was fairly good looking given that to some extent an early conclusion one could make about HD is that its clean, clear surface is a sign of its 'transparency'. This ‘surface’ may just shake the tree a little and many artists who have survived on being true to materials may find little purchase here. Instead a deeper question will be posed by the advent of HD: Should the definition of what a medium is be changed, because in terms of the digital there is no tactile material to deal with, only a set of processes. If we redefine a medium only in terms of its processes - then the digital realm can come under McLuhan's law. For my own part I believe that this redefinition is necessary – the young understand this intuitively – we just have too wait for the oldies to come around - and 'oldie' now means anyone as young as 30.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Remembering Intent

Shooting of In Other People's Skins began yesterday. It was very intense on a technical level. I spent the whole of the previous day helping construct a set of twin towers to span a walkway between them so that I could then set up two cameras above the table. I say helping construct, however, I mean giving moral support as I was in my own private hell sorting out import and export functions with systems I wasn't familiar with. Then on to rigging links between cameras, vision mixer, computers, monitors, setting up sound, lighting - the paraphernalia of a shoot.

Then yesterday morning came and having woken at 4am and making copious notes about what was still to do, I started the day with a list of technical goals which by 5pm I had begun to win through. A reception outside the studio ensued and various people with glasses of wine and the bonhomie born of having finished their day of staff meetings (and wine was the best way to dispense the tensions gathered in that sort of human occupation). However, there I was with my team finishing off the technicalities and beginning to sort out the art of it all.

The Team: Charlotte Humpston, Production Designer, Jennie Norman Art Director, Prashant Roy and Yuan Li shooting 'the making of', Rod Terry, construction and Holly Foulds construction and also helping on the shot (sort of stage management), Phoebe Beedell People Wrangler and Alison Sterling overall Producer.

I haven't yet written about the art direction choices, suffice it to say that one reaches into one's cultural knowledge gained from living in the world and doing some research to find out what you can and can't do and then sourcing as close as one can what fits the descriptions made to oneself. Then instructions to the team and off they go to see what can be sourced, then coming back together to present to me and me making choices and all the time Alison warning against stereotyping and cultural imperialism.

By 7.45 we have another production meeting to make sure everything is together and then off the cars go to pick up our 15 Gujerati friends. A moment of quiet (and going through the elements - one last recording to make sure it works, checking camera positions) then, before long, the cars come back.

I speak for 15 minutes introducing the people to the theatre space we are in, show the table and describe how the installation will work then try to relax everyone. I make sure I serve everyone a glass of water so that I tell them through that gesture that I am as they are and without them there would be nothing. I hope this communicates through the simple act of going from person to person asking if they want water. I'm the director and artist and it is important to me they understand that I am simply inhabiting an archetype for the event.

We rehearse laying the table and giving people places to sit, all the time trying to let the 'Ma' of the community take control. She does so and wonderfully organises the other women (prompted by Charlotte's interventions from her experience on many high level shoots). The Hindu priest is a delight - Mr Vyas organised everyone to come - and agrees to say prayers after the plates are laid and just after our Ma lights the candles.

Eventually the food arrives from Myristica (we have organised a series of restaurants to supply the food which will be good publicity for them when the installation goes on tat the local cathedral). We go to it and because of the rehearsal the meal/soot goes off without a hitch. At the end I transfer all the data to computer as the people are ferried home.

I expect each day to go like this and shall write further with some insights garnered from hanging a camera above a group, of people who give their time to this piece of art. In 20 minutes I again journey to the studio to shoot the 1st century meal and some pack shots of bread being broken in detail so that I might drop these in to the overall shot of the 5 meals - so that people are for a moment looking at a screen and not at the virtual simulation of a dinner party for 12. I want people to both believe and question the deception before them as well as examine the issue around placing their hands in Other People's Skins.

I have to keep reminding myself what we are really doing here - the art of it all - the intent to transfer insight to an audience. The insight though must not be articulated - if it is, then it evaporates and becomes mere intellectualism.

Later tonight we shoot footage for the pan Asian region.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Size Matters

Last night I went to a Hindu Temple to talk to the priest. The reason being that to make a work which involves a community, as the work I'm currently shooting In Other People's Skins does you have to make peace with that community and you have to be allowed by that community to take something from them, their image, even if you're going to give something back. I hope this work does in fact do that.

Loosely, In Other People's Skins is an extension of The Dinner Party, my standard def version of a group of people eating a meal, shooting from above, then projecting the virtual diners back down on to a table of the same size, putting some real chairs around it and some real plates to serve up the virtual food to the viewer.

I have shot many documentaries as a simple camera person, been in many communities and situations that I wouldn't have been in if it were not for the work I was doing and somehow, having stopped that work a while ago, the act of art is bringing in this rather wonderful exposure to the multiplicity of cultures on the planet. And of course, In Other People's Skins is about placing one's hands in another persons hands and clothing oneself, albeit virtually, in their skin. Later I shall work on The Laying on of Hands which is another extension of tables and hands which also involves the act of healing, by those that take part, and by those that view the work - it's all so bound together.

You can't make art or technology without it having an effect - in this case the effect was on me as I stood watching the priest giving prayers and leading the community in speaking to their version of God - in this case the many faces of God in the form of Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Ganesh, Kali et al. That was humbling because I couldn't help but be appreciative of how people are always inclined to help the cause of Art, somehow seeing below consciousness that it is a force for goo in some way.

Technology is not necessarily in the same league, but it can be harnessed in the cause of art and that is what I'm currently exploring.

I've recently been looking at people's hands - in fact I've always been looking at people's hands since seeing at an early age the pictures of the masters of Western European painting who gave to the Judaeo-Christian son of God such wonderful mudras and gestures to occupy his hands in their paintings.

But this recent project is focussed on the hands and in fact whilst setting up the shoot for this project I conceived another one to be shot at the same time. It was influenced or inspired by seeing an acquaintances hands. This is Peter Copely a 92 year old actor. My piece will be called Peter's Hands and will look at the act of greeting another - by holding their hand.

So in all of this I shall be looking in extreme detail at the hand and therefore I need High Resolution, or definition, to show to others what I have seen and imagined. So in this case, as in so many cases, bigger is better - bigger in the sense of more pixels, more detail, more resolution and hopefully more resonance happening in the mind of the viewer as she or he witnesses what it is that I, in this case the artist, tries to convey.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Making Art Make Art

Difficult subject this. I've always been an early adopter, this grew from a means of escaping a working class background into a full blown life commitment, with the making of art the central and overwhelming thrust of all that I do. When young, I used to tell myself that I simply had a creative urge, that I had to make marks in whatever medium was at hand, later, on the discovery of image making with other than a brush or pencil enraptured me, then that focussed down to the sheer excitement of moving images. I say excitement but that doesn't quite touch the meaning I have in mind. It's an imperative and there's a joy in the knowledge that I've found the means to realise the imperative.

A little while ago, Daniel Chandler of Aberystwyth University noted the individual use of early websites to make a statement about an individual's likes and dislikes. Prior to Utube and Myspace, people were making websites saying things like - "this is my cat, cherry, I like Vivaldi, Bon Jovi, or Kasabian, this is how you make flapjacks" - or whatever else it was that enthused them that they used to present a version of themselves to the world. Myspace systematised the tendency and people could simply list who they are. A consumer fetishistic approach to the self. Of course, my art tendency is just a more sophisticated and early adopter version of a humanity that knows that there's soon going to be about twenty times the current number of hominids in the world.

How does one define oneself in the midst of ubiquity ? When the most ordinary consumer can consume green and blacks, travel to canada for extreme biking, or choose any place on the planet, any act to 'define' themselves ? And, in 100 years time, when web3 has addressed and solved starving humanity's problems - where are we amidst the onward thrust ?

If you read Ray Bradbury, J.G Ballard, or especially Nigel Kneale (Quatrermass) one proposition is that the solving of problems generates psychosis which eventually destroys us. If you read Blake or his inspirer, Swedenborg, then you'll see a heavenly future wrapping us in it's war pink rosy glow. Popular entertainers like Lucas in the last Star Wars showed a ind of art that is in fact made from gingerbread - it's cheesy, it's holographic, it's gauche.

This is the problem for the artist. We have a long tradition of thinking out side the box. In fact that's been a major part of what we've done in creating 'art'. Painting on a cave wall with berries and roots is pretty amazing thinking outside of the box for a hunter gatherer (if you believe that tale of what we once were) - making images that carry ideas of the world around us that stimulate thoughts/feelings/intuitions/insights in others - if that's what art is (well it has to be something) - is a fair calling for a person. But given that calling, and given that the strategies are mostly now investigated and understood, and given that fame comes to those who shock (mostly), then elegant, subtle art that strives for a resonance with the undefined in the viewer of the work is hard to recognize amidst the noise in the art marketplace.

So this leads me on to another thought: I want to make art that can be seen in not only a national, international context but also a local context - I want to realize the making and exhibition of art (and exhibition is half of the equation) in a way that no matter where it is shown - it works. Some art works because it is in the Tate, Metrolpoiltan or Uffizi gallery, working because the sheer act of appearing on those sites 'says' a lot about what you will see - it says at least, 'look at me - I wouldn't be here unless I have weight'. But we all know that if someone chose a dustbin to look at in that context - we would all look (thank you Duchamp - very important moment that one).

So yes, the exhibition space is of course important, but what if you put the work in the Phoenix Art space in Glastonbury ? In a way, it's a far more rigorous space in that those that go there know that the fact that we're all alive at this particular moment is pretty amazing, so given that, what might the artist present to us with that in mind ? Comments on consumerism, the state of the world, political battles, documentations of far flung tribes (especially Tuaregs - how fashionable are they in the contemporary artists mind!), no, the more trite art can't stand up in the local space given also that local artists are often emulating the greater art they've seen and the work is often substandard (and sometimes the audience is painfully insulting in its ignorance). But my point is that somewhere in all of this is the possibility that making art can or should be as valid to show at the Phoenix as well as the Tate Turbine Hall or the Louvre.

In some pieces I've made which have exhibited both internationally in mini turbine halls and locally, the local exhbition space has generated a different feel, a different way of experiencing the art - the art itself has been transubstantiated in the act of exhibition.

Local/interactive art which invites the viewer to take part - it does not say: 'Don't Touch'.

My work generally is inviting you to touch it - which, given it's virtuality, is an impossibility. In this liminal boundary, there is much benefit, there is room for the viewer/experiencer to make it their own.

By inviting the viewer/experiencer to take part in the artwork I feel as an artist that I can communicate better as the work is non-presecriptive or dogamtic, but gently persuasive in the best sense of the word. Participants can then take part and reflect whilst doing so in their own personal way and take away from the work what is theirs, and not mine.

I just want to re-state a review of a piece of mine, not for the ego value, but because the reviewer is getting something that I inuitively feel and is just rising to the surface of articulation:

Terry Flaxton's shrewd and paradoxical installation contributes to the deconstruction of traditional video. The restless and versatile British filmmaker refuses usual interactivity, and displays, instead of a normal screen, a laid dinner table; then invites the viewer, through a very precise projection, to try to match the virtual fellows' gestures. An unforeseeable and bewildering end follows. Techne Catalogue October 2005 - May 2006

The key here is the statement of how this work 'refuses usual interactivity' and this act ' invites the viewer, through a very precise projection, to try to match the virtual fellows' gesture'. The virtual fellows.... Though material, we believe we all exist, the bodies around us perform and on faith we believe that something within them is just like us, is experienceing the world just as we do. So the artist feels the need to speak to the interior experiencer through any means possible, and last century we saw the artist take any hold of any means they could get hold of - even their own material shit - to speak, sometimes too loudly and unsubtly, to that which resides within.

But the artist has existed within the definition of the indivdual. There is a history told at many universities that charts the growth of the idea of the self. Maybe ten thousand, or one thousand years ago the boundary of the self was different and also, differently defined to the self, experiencing their own self-nature. But now it's digital times and the paradigm shift is occurring once more. Prior acts of art that relate to the idea of a self that is a consumer and experiencer, in fact a doer and a knower, is profoundly placed within a Newtonian if not Euclidian universe. ...Clocks and mechanics, equal and opposite reactions, the second law of thermo dynamics...

General humanity hasn't yet caught up with the paradigm shift, spoken through science, the apogee of materialist gesture, formed and articulated by Einstein, Plank and Bohr and hasn't yet faced up to the fundamental immateriality of the universe, of themselves. I'm not sure that our famous contemporary artists have yet, being born of an idea of existence that is set back in time in terms of the paradigm shift, are making art that deals with the deeper issues beneath simply serving up 'art' as it has previously been defined. I have to apologise to any of them who have faced up to this issue, not in artistic terms because they've made their mark and who cares what I think anyway, but maybe some are struggling with this issue beyond the fetishism of conceptual, consumerist art.

I now need to define, or find a description of how or why that might be possible within the act of more highly defining my own virtual works - I have to examine why 'virtuality' seems to provide an important key to the problem as I try to overcome the formal constraints to let the 'content' whatever that really is, speak.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Not Self


In a week's time I shall begin shooting the first elements of my set of installations for my Research Fellowship in HD. Just to say here that over three years I shall make about 10 new works in HD. I shall also interview on video the main players in HD since it's inception (this will provide an archive on the thinking that created this medium).

I'm shooting three installations: a re-shoot of The Dinner Party which has already proved popular and is currently running in Milan, a larger extension of this piece that is also inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper called In Other People's Skins and lastly, Peter's Hands, a single screen work.

When I was awarded my fellowship I was given a wage but no research money. My original proposition to the AHRC was that I would set up a programme of work over three years that examined the liminal boundary between accepted resolution (that which we can cope with seemingly physiologically, and that level of resolution that basically starts to confuse the brain/mind). I was awarded the fellowship because of a rolling programme of work. I then had to start applying to various funding bodies to obtain some money to do my projected work which then asked me to make separate projects of my overall programme. A false distinction that has a downside, that of falsely separating the various elements, and an upside: In creating a set of parameters for the work and then selecting them and organising them into a fundable proposition, I've had to think about what I was proposing in a new way - that has to be good because the creative act requires reflection at some stage.

Here's a small revue of the Dinner Party: Terry Flaxton's shrewd and paradoxical installation contributes to the deconstruction of traditional video. The restless and versatile British filmmaker refuses usual interactivity, and displays, instead of a normal screen, a laid dinner table; then invites the viewer, through a very precise projection, to try to match the virtual fellows' gestures. An unforeseeable and bewildering end follows. Techne Catalogue October 2005 - May 2006

So, next week I will remake the Dinner Party because of a simple issue: When projecting the work in standard definition (especially after it's been through the compression of Mpg on a DVD) elements on the table, like a fork for instance, on one axis one could see the prongs of the fork, and on the other axis there was simply a grey smudge. It's time to use a lesser form of HD (P2, 960 pixel shifted to 1920) to try to see more detail) and this time play back from a computer using the DVCPro HD Codec - that should improve things immeasurably and give a lead to a much higher level of HD that I shall shoot this project in once more in early 2008. Then I shall use a Dalsa Origin, Viper or D20 and capture 4 4 4.

For information on the Dinner Party, Go to:
http://www.ignitionfilms.org/aglmovie7.html

In Other People's Skins is as follows: This is multi cultural exploration of presence and absence; In Other People's Skins: 12 chairs around a table, many races - where you can place your hands in Other People's Skins. Influenced by the engagement of the audience with the Dinner Party and inspired by Da Vinci's Last Supper I decided to bring a larger work to a series of Cathedral exhibitions... So far, Gloucester, Worcester, Winchester, Bristol and Wells Cathedrals, as well as Bath Abbey have agreed to show this work in 2008...

For information on In Other People's Skins go to:
http://www.flaxton.btinternet.co.uk/inotherpeoplesskins.html

Peter's hands on the other hand is a single screen work which I've just decided to do, which could be seen to be part of my single screen strand of my recent application for funding that I have proposed in terms of it's photographic qualities to the AHRC. I'm currently undecided whether this is a large black box single screen work or actually a work for plasma display (as opposed to LCD which I'm currently not a fan of). Plasma has a warmer feel and look than LCD. But the main issue here is of size I think in terms of its exhibition.

In my recent application for funding for both installation and single screen work I argued that single screen works will be presented in a different way from cinema. I wanted to bring the scale of the intensity of the photographic within the cinematic into a space more usually found in the gallery than the public cinema (after all, the black viewing box can be experienced at any contemporary art museum). Another similar space that is developing is the home cinema, which mimics the cinema yet can manifest some of the same qualities as the gallery black box. But primarily, this separate form of presentation where one ritualistically enters the dark space, stumbling forward as everyone has before you, as if the change from light to dark is a forced entrance through one's own senses to generate a 'special' feeling' about the work one is about to see. This sets up ones expectations In a certain way. It is a high temple of art and very often people are blinded by the ritual to the quality of the work.

Sometimes, simply to see large images - bits of the human body so many times larger than in real life, is itself impressive. Many artists have used this tactic - of enlarging life in its public representation, to make different. Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons spring immediately to mind.

But here, in this domain we are also involved in the kinetic. It's true that with the artists mentioned one can stand and look - but if simply remain rooted to the spot you miss the sculptural qualities, the kinetic pleasures of the work. But in the dark space, there you are remaining static again. Rooted to the spot in front of 'art'. This is mainly why my moving image installations are involved with taking the screen off the wall and putting it elsewhere which forces the viewer to enter into a kinetic and more sculptural relationship with it.

However, in the dark space, feet or bottom rooted (the inevitable bench is the welcome pew that one might rest upon) then one must stare at the images and also - and this must not be underestimated in terms of the sensorium that is the self - one is bathed in light.

Some artists also bathe their audience in time - duration - forcing them to feel both the quality of experiencing something for longer than normal and allowing other elements of experience to enter the viewers mind, but also to be bathed in just so in much light. But this physiological intimidation by the artist is dependent on the viewer acceding their autonomy - and that comes with the agreement of the viewer which is allied to their education and sense of self - sense of sensorium. Education in this sense meaning the function of social placement the self has within the society it exists within. "If I am cultured I am amongst the minority of the population that has a view on the world - therefore, I, like the artist, am special".

I realise that previously, though art occasionally came up as an issue, my blogs have been technically oriented, and this is the first time that I have had to begin to turn my mind to reflect on the process of making and presenting art.

I mentioned the photographic - that which is of the still within the moving flow. Slow motion has been a way of getting at this quality which is born of the stuff of cave paintings. The photographic is the extraordinary amidst the ordinary. It is the ordinary transformed, picked out, highlighted. Warhol exemplified this act of looking and looking again at what is around one - because art, in my view is that which unveils insight.

And here I specifically do not mean the kind of insight that comes from the thinking mind which is involved in continuous ratiocination. Art should directly speak to the not-self, as Zen practitioners would have it. The self that is un-encrusted with thinking and a sense of the ego.

To return to Peter's hands, this issue of whether to show as a much larger piece in a black box is problematic for me because art has to keep moving and there is so much that is viewed in this way and for no good reason.

My intuition tells me, in terms of exhibition, is that I should a slight enlargement in the style of Da Vinci or Rembrandt - especially around the issue of the representation of the hand which is notoriously difficult to draw. The face wears its meaning directly - what a person feels is often visible to all. With the hands, so much can be said within the actorly form - acting gestures and here the Japanese and the Indian have refined gesture into an art form, but there is also the casual gesture of the hand as it twitches, or sweeps though space, or simply stays still.

So, my intuition is to slightly enlarge this depiction. One other thought is to project an image about the same size as a 50 inch plasma screen so that people, who after all love to imitate gesture, can intercede in the beam and imitate the gestures. Here I recall so much western art where touch is prohibited, yet so much of what I want to do in art is to allow the viewer to touch the work - at least, touch the virtual representation of the work so that a simple question is raised about truth, veracity, depiction and representation.

And this turns back on my other strand of work where people gather to join in a virtual meal together, a human act of the community to join together, and to imitate prior gestures made by people now virtually represented.

In speaking to the theologians within the Cathedral Community about what In Other People's Skins might do in terms of the theological and spiritual I was a little stymied. It seemed obvious to me that this wasn't just a Christian act for a start - it was an act of empathy, to place ones hands in another's hands, to try to imagine what it might be like to be another. But then the more the artist speaks the more the mystery is destroyed. However, for the purposes of my applications for funding I have to deliver critical reflections on what I am doing and have done. I look forward also to showing this work in Islamic, Buddhist and non-religious environments.

I look forward to exhibiting these works because that is where the insights and happy accidents come, that is where people tell you what you have in fact done which is so much more than what you intended. People speak back to you that which was in the remit of your not-self, intentions which were way beyond the mind of the artist.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

High Definition Aesthetics, Technology and Art


This is a rewrite of an earlier blog

IIn April this year at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, High Definition changed forever. Suddenly we leaped several generations and we gained the capacity, on everybody's desktop, to manipulate one of the highest levels of HD. Jim Jannard, a sunglasses manufacturer from Canada, managed to manufacture a new camera, called the Red, that might previously have cost half a million dollars. In fact, the camera body sells for $17,500. Red now works with Final Cut Pro the ubiquitous desk top editing system.

PROPOSITIONS

I am going to explore the rapidly changing face of HD and its impact, from the technical, aesthetic and societal perspectives
There are three aspects to this exploration:

The first is the understanding of HD through its mathematical base - which I shall show is affecting the development of high definition aesthetics.
The second will be a look at HD through my experience as an industry Director of Photography, because within that practice, elements that are under the radar or invisible to theory, exist.
The third is through my experience as an artist working in the video medium, because artistic intuition comes from a different perspective to intellectual proposition.

Then, I shall draw these three strands together.

A HIGH DEFINITION IMAGE TO RECALL

I want to introduce an analogy that may be useful when thinking of HD: as the light falls at dusk and you are driving along, you might notice that the tail lights of the car in front seem much brighter than during daylight, and the traffic lights seem too bright and too colourful. The simple explanation for this phenomenon is that your brain is switching between two technologies in your eyes: the rods, inherited from our distant ancestors which were evolved for the insect eye to detect movement, are very numerous, (120 million). Through them you see mainly in black and white. The second technology is much more sensitive to colour: these are cones, which are far less numerous (between 6 and 7 million).
So, there are two technologies between which there is a physiological yet aesthetic borderland.

Keeping this idea in mind, it is becoming apparent that something similar happens when a certain level of resolution of HD is reached. A fluttering occurs, a switching between two states in the suspension of our disbelief. What is really interesting to me as artist is the boundary between the two states.

THE PRESENT YET FAR FUTURE

NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) recently conducted an experiment where it linked up a prototype 8k Super Hi Vision Camera to 18 one hour data recorders. The resolution of the image was immense and the subject of the test was a simple car ride lasting 3 minutes. In order to capture it, the SR data recorders were running so fast that they went through one hour's worth of recording in 3 minutes - all 18 of them. To display the image you have to imagine a normal computer display set at say 1280 x 1024 pixels. Now, imagine this display at this resolution, expanded to some 27 feet long.

This technological moment has echoes of the Lumiere brothers‘ screening in January 1896 of a train arriving in a station - some of the audience ran from the cinema in the belief that the train was real. At the NHK screening, the Japanese audience are reported to have found the experience so overpowering that many of them experienced nausea.

Let's look at some figures:

Standard HD is known as having 2k resolution - because it has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels (1920 is close to 2000 - or 2K)

4k is 4096 x 2160 pixels

8k is 8192 x 4320 - this is NHK's Super Hi-Vision.

In each of the above, if you divide one by the other you will generate a figure of around 1.8 - and this is roughly a 16:9 relationship - the now common TV aspect ratio.

TECHNOLOGY AND COMPRESSION

Any serious understanding of High Definition technologies requires a basic understanding of 'compression'. First the lens receives light and focuses it onto a charged coupled device or sensor, which then turns this into electrical impulses. Very early on in video a question arose for designers when far too much data was originated in this process. Solutions were proposed and the idea of throwing 'unnecessary' data away took hold. This method continues today: a contemporary HD camera like the Sony HD750 or HD900 simply doesn't record 500 of its 1920 pixels.

Simply put, data is a representation of the artifact, whether generated in or imported into the digital realm, and all representations have levels of veracity. A full representation is all the data of the original, and anything else is something that resembles the original but has less data in that representation. Most of today’s HD cameras have worked with a software technology based on Jean Baptiste Fourier's Discrete Cosine Transforms (DCT's), which breaks up the image data into tiles, so that each can be treated independently.

Recently though, we have seen the arrival of Wavelet transforms, (Fourier's theories were in place by 1807 but not truly mathematically understood until about 15 years ago). Wavelets have helped prise open Pandora’s box:

"Wavelets are mathematical functions that cut up data into different frequency components, and then study each component with a resolution matched to its scale. They have advantages over traditional Fourier methods in analyzing physical situations where the signal contains discontinuities and sharp spikes. Wavelets were developed independently in the fields of mathematics, quantum physics, electrical engineering, and seismic geology. Interchanges between these fields during the last ten years have led to many new wavelet applications such as image compression, turbulence, human vision, radar, and earthquake prediction. If you choose the best wavelet transforms adapted to your data, then your data will be sparsely represented. A wavelet transform is so designed so that it uses its internal structure to produce the most complimentary and accurate handling of the material. Amara Graps, http://www.amara.com/index.html

The critical difference between DCT's and wavelets is their use of sinusoidal waves because the function used in wavelets eventually returns smoothly to zero, whereas a sine wave has no beginning or end - it just keeps oscillating. This makes it very computationally intensive to do a DCT over a full frame. As one DP put it on the most professional of all HD lists, the Cinematographers Mailing List: "ummm, wavelets good, DCT bad."

Contemporary cameras and post production systems have been designed with DCT's and the manufacture of the relevant devices, cameras, proprietary editing and storage systems has been positioned to recoup the massive amounts of costly research that has been expended by big corporations. It is simply not in the interests of the bigger corporations to switch over to the new more elegant technology - Yet.

THE CONTEMPORARY ARGUMENT ABOUT HD IMAGE CONTROL

A pixel is effectively a packet of data that is represented on screen by a changing luminosity and a changing colour identity. As usual, the more pixels, the better. And we want to record as much data as possible. Currently, the highest form of HD image capture requires a hard disc - and not just any hard disc, but a Redundant Array of Independent Discs - a RAID. The only exception on tape is through Sony's SR deck which records data.

So what's a RAID? If I throw you a ball you might be able to catch it. If I manage to throw you 20 balls at the same time you have no chance. If I throw 20 balls at you and another 19 friends - you have a chance of catching them. A RAID Array uses a group of discs to catch large amounts of data. If you want to record 1920 x 1080 pixels with their full complement of data then you need read and write speeds of over 440 Megabytes per second.

Here is the rub. HD practitioners really don't want to distress an image that is already distressed by being compressed - especially if it means losing more data. If you do work on the image in camera, as the traditional film DP does, then you limit how much data is recorded - you have to work in the colour matrix. If you crush the blacks to get a 'look' you automatically reduce the data that is output into the image display. So current HD practice is to do very little in camera, so that every bit of data is carried back into post production, when the work on the image can begin. But I would contend that when you really look at images produced like this, you see that there is a thin patina over the image and the 'look' itself is not inherent within the image. I'm a romantic so I want the look within the image. I spent 30 years shooting video as well as film and I know it's possible.

WHERE REALITY ITSELF IS EXTREME RESOLUTION

If reality itself is extreme resolution, what is the DP trying to render within the image? Where does compression end and aesthetics begin?

Within contemporary aesthetics there are a series of tactics to 'say something' with light. These are used by mundane cinematographers unaware of the photographic within cinematography. These tactics if listed become mundane: a warm look for safety and comfort, blue for threat and alienation and a whole variety of other strategies.

Though there are DP's like Vittorio Storaro - whose famous colour theories produce incomprehension among the more prosaic and practical of cinematographers - yet who shot the masterly Apocalypse Now and has liked HD from the beginning - many standard film DP's have abhorred it.

Where Storaro works with colour and light in one way, the physiology of light enmeshed with the psychology, Conrad Hall (American Beauty, Day of the Locust) worked in another. His inventiveness and commitment was to the photographic within the cinematic arts. As his career progressed, and as Hall traversed the boundaries of contemporary wisdom about what constitutes good exposure, Hall influenced a whole generation of DPs on this issue.

Outside of the issue of film or HD, he came to understand that the still image gets at something that cinematography rarely gets at, and he was therefore concerned with finding the photographic moment amidst the flow of images. In describing Hall as searching for the photographic, I mean here he tried to find the extraordinary within the ordinary - this was a deep psychological quest.

Historically, in the clash between film and video, the film users were seen as craftsmen and video users were seen as being artless - video was obtainable and without atmosphere, film was arcane, it was a quest in itself, it had kudos.

On a Ridley Scott set in 1983, as he shot the famous 1984 Apple Mac commercial, I was shooting the “making of” material for Apple. As we were viewing back our rushes checking focus and exposure I became aware that about 20 people were standing behind us looking at our monitor.

Usually the film rushes would come back the next day to be viewed by the more select in the hierarchy. We stared at each other - two alien tribes at war with each other. This was a film crew that had never before seen what it had been shooting at the same time as shooting it. Then one of them grinned in pleasure at seeing our footage and suddenly, like the German and British troops in the first world war downing their rifles on Christmas day and playing football together, suddenly we were friends. From then on they stopped being hostile to us, even sometimes offering to move lights to let us have more illumination.

Historically film people are brought in to light HD because they are seen as artists. But they don't know the technology and video people are brought in to hold their hands and that has meant that mainly unaltered footage gets taken back into post to do the colour grading work - and therefore the 'look' is applied as an overlay to the image.

ACHIEVING THE FILMIC LOOK

In film, cinematographers constantly distort the colour standards and definitions of film stock, to impose atmosphere. 'Atmosphere', like popcorn, shares a quality that allows the easy suspension of disbelief. If film manufactures say that development should occur at such and such a temperature, then heating up or cooling down the developer is a means by which the colour or grain or exposure may be changed in a pleasing way.

All cinematographers seek to distinguish themselves from the others, to have a signature. However, in High Definition, the form is less available to material manipulation and that work is left to post. Anyone interested in pushing the boundaries will have to find other strategies to get at the suspension of disbelief and generate atmosphere and it is my contention that simply to light well and to leave everything to post will not achieve the goal.

Some of the available cameras are mighty complicated and this can intimidate a person who has simply to get the job done - but the real answer is that the DP has to take on their time honored role of being both artist as well as the chief quality control technician.

It is art, it is experience, it is knowledge. It's obvious really.

ARTISTS AND RESOLUTION

And here I wish to turn our gaze to video artists, who have long pushed the boundaries of the form, and sometimes this has allied them with commercial forces. The 'downtime' agreements in New York in the '70's were an example where commercial facilities allowed artists to use the extremely expensive equipment during the night at very low cost, as long as they told the editors in the morning of anything they discovered during the night.

In my own practice I have often been enraptured by the simple act of making the work with such wonderful technology. This technology, like an internal combustion engine, functioned faster than the eye or mind. If you think that a car uses a series of miniature controlled explosions many thousands of times a minute - you can't help but wonder. And video, even analogue video, took one 64 millionth of a second to 'write' a line. Here I remember Bill Violas Zen-like observation:

Duration is to consciousness as light is to the eye.

Viola is proposing that the presence of light is why the eye evolved and consciousness evolved to deal with things that were more than momentary. In a medium where time is a factor, waiting reveals so much more.

Viola's roots lie in both the Buddhist proposition of Dependant Origination - that everything arises in relation to everything else - and the symbolism of renaissance painting.

My own roots really grow out of that moment that I realised that all things record an image: from a lowly rock which, if left in shadow long enough, records an image; to paper that has a leaf left on it in bright sunlight; to celluloid that holds a coating; to tubes, chips and sensors that react to light.

EARLY DAYS

My first encounter with video tape was in 1976 with 2 inch analogue quadruplex, where one took a razor blade and cut it in two just like film then spliced it together to make an edit. Then the idea of re-recording came along and we set up machines to record the next bit of video in line.

Around 1982 I was managing a video facility in Soho called Videomakers. The owner of the studio was the son of an electronics inventor and watched whilst w etried to accomplish a simple dissolve between one image to another for a piece of art I was making. He excitedly told us that his father had successfully harnessed a computer to revolve a still image. With a little bit of development the image could be refreshed nearly 12 times per second - so by then doubling and interlacing by splitting the image into odd and even lines, a whole second of video and henceforth a moving TV image could be revolved.

In this case, through a sole inventor and not a corporation, we groped our way through the late analogue age into the early neo-digital and the main concern was how to adjust the thinking processes to cope with the new paradigm: the fact that with a digital event one had something that could be infinitely manipulated and how could one systematise the process - thus giving rise to 'the operations' as Lev Manovich has termed them.

Recently, noticing my daughter sleeping on a granite ledge in the sun, I turned the camera on to her. I videoed her as she woke up, unfurling from a tight embryonic shape. She got up and unselfconsciously walked away. When I got to the editing suite I found this moment and took the 10 seconds down to 30 minutes. As usual the accidents of the medium came into play and though there was value in the distortions in the image, I realised that given the same brief, if shot in high definition at high speed, this might unveil something more than the original standard definition version.

Though I have enjoyed the accidents that have come about through stressing the parameters of low definition equipment, HD equipment offers a different kind of unveiling of form: Image capture can be achieved without necessarily stressing the media.

This then prompts questions about the aesthetics of HD: given that a primary ingredient of the artists palette is the stressing of the medium to find surprises within the form, what new strategies can the artist or practitioner use to unveil a deeper insight into content. Though McLuhan tells us this should not be so, could the messages HD delivers be the beginnings of transparency ?

To return to Viola:

"Duration is to consciousness as light is to the eye".

Through talking about the way we experience the world directly using the terms of the experience, Viola's intuition has lead him to work in a certain kind of way. But High Definition can deliver not just duration, but articulation. So we might now restate his observation like this:

"Definition is to consciousness as luminosity is to the eye".

In calling my latest piece Unfurling, apart from the obvious movement that occurred, I am also touching on an unfurling of my own undestanding about the way a series of images function when depicting movement.

ART AND COMPRESSION

Can the representation carry any of the authenticity of the original? Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay comes to mind, on the question of representations of the original.

But why should the image I bring to mind of the Mona Lisa have less authenticity than the original from which my imagination has manufactured its own copy? After all I remember the feelings the original evoked in me - I come as close as I am going to get to the artist’s intent (be it voiced or held beneath his consciousness). If that which is communicated by the artwork resonates in me, is that not what is authentic about the original?

In 1987 John Wyver carried Benjamin's argument along with the help of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virillio in his opening programme for the satellite station, La Sept - L'objet d'art a l'age electronique. At that time the world was concerned with analogue representations, which decay in their passage from copy to copy, from medium to medium.

So twenty years later the spirit of the question still stands: where is meaning, significance and value in the digital domain, given that the medium of reproduction and the medium of origination reside together in the same realm? Further, could not origination and copying be one and the same thing? Has the idea that things can be 'derivative' become defunct - is not everything both derivative and original at the same time?

If one proceeded with previous digital compression using Fourier's earlier mathethmatics then Benjamin's question might unveil a buried insight:

To copy is to decrease

And this might ring true, not only because things are changed in the act of copying (a kind of Chinese Whispers that renders exquisite corpses) but also because the representation itself is simply a Borg, a lessening, a copy without feeling. In other words the copy is without the 'true' sense of the original.

Is the idea of an 'original' anachronistic? Perhaps there is no such thing as an 'actuality' before the representation, before the data accrues? Are not our senses simply analogue-to-sensorium devices? Transmitters of empirical data to an organising processor - the mind?

TECHNOLOGIES, AESTHETICS AND ART CONVERGING

As there is a blurring of the lines between form and content, so there is between software, hardware and that nether region of firmware which tells hardware to be something - rather than do something.

Through use of the net and digital media, a kind of Glass Bead Game is available. This is a game where one might take a bar of Mozart and place it next to a brushstroke by Matisse and a line of poetry by Omar Khayyam and so create a new work of art. In The Glass Bead Game (pub. 1943), Herman Hesse predicted post modernism and its bastard digital child "convergence”. Here, derivation is all - in fact it's been canonised. Hesse proposes the notion that authenticity is not only present in the copy, but it lends its weight and accumulates with the weight of other copies and their imbued authenticity and combines into new, authentic works of art. In some transformative way, the actions of the technology and the way the technology is being innovated is in itself a developing aesthetic.

So, on August 31st 2007 when Jim Jannard and Red delivered their first compliment of 25 Red cameras to a selected few, they set the world alight with their offer of cheap and high level wavelet technology and made it available faster than any previous technological advance of this order.

Crucially though, this development of User Generated Technology came out of an individualist trend that has somehow stayed alive through late liberal capitalism: About five years ago Jeff Krienes, a Director of Photography in California, was experimenting with a friend from Thomson Grass Valley on a prototype HD Camera. They'd become fed up with the slowing of technical innovation emerging from the big corporations so they created a camera that fulfilled not only their needs, but their aspirations. They made an aluminum case, which contained some electronics and a few chips, had a fitting on the front to take a 35mm lens and on top the stripped down carcasses of 20 iPods to RAID record the high data output. This camera had near the same specifications of the Red Camera. Though looking like the trailblazers, Red are in fact the inheritors of a User Generated, YouTube-like attitude to the production of technology.

What this means is, from early sole inventors in Fourier's time, we have just been through a long period where corporations, from the late analogue to the neo-digital age have controlled the means of innovation. But on entry to the meso-digital age, access to high level technical innovation is now again becoming possible for the individual - and this apparent individual engagement with technology (besides being the apogee of the celebration of the geek within) is a hallmark of the web2/digital era, and this trend is centering on the production of High Definition Technology. The commonality of information available through the web is also allowing a commonality of aspiration so that the User and now the Doer is also the Maker and the Knower of their own world. Through these changes, the definition of the self is expanding - the idea of what an individual is, is being re-defined and new resolutions of definition are being employed in that definition.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Five K ?

If you've been working in the moving image field as long as I have you'll notice a cyclical phenomenon which comes in waves about every 5 years. Overtly it looks like a change in technology, covertly it's a change in employment functions, which these days means that older more experienced people become extra to requirements.

Previous image technologies needed experience to manipulate them through their successive processes to achieve quality control. Like film. I used to joke that a good DP was at heart a quality control clerk. Following this, the century old question "Is a good DP one that can light beautifully, one that can light fast, or one that can light cheaply ? has a combined answer, and the answer is: preferably all three - and not only that, they should also be socially advanced and not just an autistic genius.

The point within this is that experience comes with age. Digital technologies require an older mode of adaptation - in the stone age the young are middle-aged at 25. The old die at 35. And this digital age emulates the stone age in that it is better that the technologies we have are more acceptable, more understandable to the younger rather than older.

As a presidential adviser said to the IBM group of managers responsible for the largest loss in commercial history - the silver back gorilla used to head the group. He was good at spotting danger and getting the group away - maybe up in the trees for safety. But then the paradigm for safety changed, when a man came out into the clearing with a machine gun - there was no tree high enough to save the experienced gorilla and his clan. Yes - my metaphor is that the machine gun is digitality. Well they shoot pictures don't they ?

As it happens, it was my job on that shoot to teach the IBM managers to make a TV programme to argue their case for continued employment and those that made the worst TV programme would be fired at the end of the week ! That was pretty stone age in itself.

So - the digital paradigm - the Aquarian paradigm - is that everything is open and that the data flow is overt as opposed to covert. I use the zodiacal metaphor here as it seems apposite - Pisces was occult, arcane, closed, hierarchical, only on a need to know basis etc and of course Aquarius in these terms is the opposite (although Hair was a fun musical it was sort of off beam). I love the fact that as Pisces was numerolgically the number 12 (think about it) Aquarius is numerologically the number ten - base ten, One and naught, on and off - yep - it's digital..

And with openness of data-flow then there is of course no rocket science - or rather rocket science itself is easily achievable as a series of processes that one puts together and given the off-the-shelf nature of software which is ever improving, then the base results one can expect from a young persons familiarity with the digital norm is simple 'professionalism'. There's no experience there of course, but digital software seeks to neutralise that factor.

So with 4k cameras, off the shelf rocket science, and a simple description of front end 'capture' (as opposed to cinematography) and workflow (used to be editing, grading etc) then Jo Didely, wet behind the ears (but with a programme to deal with that wetness) can point and shoot and edit and produce.

You might think my description is derogatory. Actually, outside of the comic name, it's just a description of a state of affairs.

So how relevant is 4k as a technological advance ? It seems like a revolution but we can't actually see the images produced without flying half way around the world to find a projector that is 'said' to project it- (as opposed to actually doing so), Well. it's only as relevant as everything that follows this technological advance - 8k, 16k, 32k, 64k, 1 gigahertz - up to eye level definition resolutions.

What I mean here is, and to pick up what I said at the beginning of this - if you've been around image generation for a while you'll notice that there's a 5 year technological sweep that occurs that makes the knowledge of those who know a lot, and therefore are earning at higher levels, redundant. In come the kids and out go the oldies, except for the more tenacious 'respected person' who can carve out a space for themselves one way or another.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Modes of Innovation

As with all form and content, there is an interrelationship between the technicalities of the form, in this case high definition video, and its exhibition, be this art or entertainment. Soon I will be presenting a paper which covers the technical, aesthetic and artistic issues that face those who would use High Definition as an educational, theoretical or production medium. A central premise will be that for some years now we've been entering what could be termed 'the Digital Age' having traveled from the childhood of the Analogue Age, through the early Electrical age and onwards and that journey has also been accompanied by a change in the way technology has been innovated.

Previous digital advances have been based upon a set of algorithms originated by Fourier in the late 18th and early 19th century - but recent developments also based upon Fourier's work but only recently realised, have created a tsunami of innovation in the handling of data which has transformed the digital realm - a prime example being HD.

What this means is, from early sole inventors in Fourier's time, we have just been through a long period where corporations, from the late analogue to the neo-digital age have controlled the means of innovation - but on entry to the meso-digital age, access to high level technical innovation is now becoming possible for the individual - and this apparent individual engagement is a hallmark of the period we are in.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

The Good Human


A good cameraperson, at will, can be on one frame, then zoom in and re-frame in a flash, There is a small moment where the movement takes place.

When you edit two shots together, it is an accepted norm amongst editors that you don't simply match the movement in the wide shot and the close up together. If an actors arm swings then you cut out a bit of the movement so that the movement is advanced because the eye and brain can accept that advancement. If you simply cut the movement from one shot to the other in the same place, then it is perceived as a faltering in the action. So 'film' grammar has developed amongst editors is in response to human perception and functions of time.

What is amazing to me (and also very ordinary because why shouldn't this be so) is that the precise duration that the cameraperson takes to reframe is exactly the same duration as the editor would cut out to advance the action.

The act of the cameraperson at the moment that the choice is made - and remembering the consciousness that watches for the moment to become available is always engaged with seeking the opportunity - that act is without resolution, colour etc, but is engaged with the insect part of our eyes that developed so many million years ago as a response to movement. Probably the hairs or fronds that extruded from heads to sense what was before it, receded back into a container like an eye socket to protect them and receive matter - particles - photons of light, that indicated distance and shape etc and later a lens grew over. So we slip back into one of our prior brains to find the resources to accomplish the act.

When lighting I use 'wide vision'. I walk into a space, a room or whatever and I look at the space from deep within my optic system - way back in the brain where the incoming information is not yet organized (the optic system is an organizer itself of course). I do not choose to specify where my gaze alights as I simply allow myself to bask in the overall play of light and colour. Doing so reveals opportunities within the functions of the brain that together are named 'intelligence'. I find a descriptive word like intelligence similar to the use of a term like 'bronchitis' where a group of symptoms are given an overall name but actually, we really do not know very much about what is going on. Within intelligence, apart from functions like rationality, discrimination, attention, will and all the other words that describe the mind when it takes on a particular character, there is a capacity to 'read' a situation where you utilise what has been described as intuition. Intuition is another one of those words which takes a stab at rendering the immaterial, material - Jung used the word 'psyche' to describe something that actually materially exists for instance - so intuition to me is a utility of the mind when ratiocination is not dominant. This of course takes practice to endow this utility with power to be functional on a regular and useful basis.

Cutting to the chase, in English at least, in-tuition is just that, an inward teaching from a base resource. Maybe the species encodes it's continuous and developing presence on this planet and the learning that it has generated (even if one were thinking in Darwinian terms) as a faculty/utility that works side-by-side the rational.

So, the intuitive functioning cameraperson, like the improvisational jazz pianist, or healer, or improvisational dancer calls upon a decision making process far faster than thought - connecting eyes, hands and intuition to execute a command line function and outcome that agrees with aesthetic functions - the editor knows what the cameraperson knows innately - because the teaching that goes on comes out of the greater whole - the good human.

What is this to do with definition and high definition at that ? For me as I struggle forward for understanding, I tell myself a tale like the tale above to try to work forward to understand why we need or want to generate technologies that are 'better' or more refined, defined or resolved that those that preceded and to know the answer to that conundrum we have to understand what it is that we are and through what filters we see the world.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Human Resolution, Human Definition


I've been thinking about the eye and what the eye is and what the eye does.

What it does is to represent the reality we find 'before' us in frequencies of a particular spectrum, which in itself is a sample of the overall spectrum. The other senses do the same in those other parts of the perceivable frequency bandwidth that their representative abilities are geared to.

Complex (or simple) descriptions take a stab at formulating a hypothesis where we might then treat as a topography, a terrain which is most apt for creating a structure for our concepts to then develop.

So we invent ourselves different technologies to then re-present what we have experienced through this topography - our technologies are narratives with which we tell ourselves and each other about the world.

So then there's the concept of 'more'. When I was young I experienced a version of infinity which I then retold to myself as a way of handling the notion of endlessness.

Many years later I went to see some starlings down on Long Drove and into Shapwick Heath. 20% of the European population of starlings landing in one boggy piece of land. That's about 12 million birds coming in to land. Forget Lord of the Rings - these effects were of an order that defeated my concept of 'more'. They didn't stop coming and I was satiated by the experience of 'more' and letting the effect wash over me. ...And more and more birds came...

Then there's that commercial made for a technology company that speeds the cars up to 400 miles and hour and talks about developing the capacity to handle the guidance systems of the cars at an intersection - a complex manoeuvre beyond our capacity - whilst we simply take out hands off the wheel and just relax, chat, have a cup of tea. In this future we let the concept of 'more' or in this case using a different but allied notion, 'speed', wash over us.

And in visiting the Glastonbury Festival with around 170,000 people just wandering around on the night before the music really begins, for something to do, possibly going to find a frozen yoghurt (like I did) or seek out a friend, or maybe go buy a vegetable burger, or whatever, because the desire simply fuels the urge to have a narrative, seeing all of that multitude of eager hopeful humanity, a million complex lives passing you by, animated faces never to be seen again, animated with complex organisational structures amounting to a self-reflexive reality, in that melee the concept of 'more' and the accompanying non-attachment washing over one - just like in the other experiences I described - there I realised the issue of high resolution imaging.

I previously used the metaphor of traffic lights at dusk being too bright because the rod and cone technology of the eye switches over from good colour to good light receptors. So there's a place where we switch between technologies - but more, we have a narrative of 'switching' which encompasses the potential of there being a liminal space existing between the poles where something out of the ordinary can happen. Carrying the metaphor over into the definition handling capacities of the eye, in one narrative, that bit of 'mechanics' or in another narrative, that 'software solution' charged with dealing with the appropriate amount of definition available, or rather, the amount of definition that 'is good or useful for one at any one time', which sometimes is switching between two settings, then there is, it seems to me, a potential for a liminal space where something out of the ordinary - or - extraordinary, in terms of definition, can happen.

The artist and sometimes the entertainer and sometimes again, the technician, is charged with the exploration of that space - my research then, is to do the above and talk with those busy doing the same - and when I say 'talk', I really mean 'to look with', to gaze.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

High Definition Dawn


About 5 years ago I realised that High Definition Video was not a format, but a portal. What I mean by this is that I suddenly saw it as a doorway through which I could see various futures opening up. It was a point of departure to imagine what might happen in the future.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke

Yesterday, 11th June, 2007, on the cinematographers mailing list a bout of imagination broke out and Director's of Photography allowed themselves out of their technical and lighting space and into the realm of imagination. One DP imagined that Ultra High Definition Video could be used for landscape images where city apartments only had blank walls to look out on to.

This is reminiscent of Bob Shaw's 1966 story, The Light of Other Days, where a technical development in toughened glass produced a slowing down of light as it passed through the glass. It wasn't long in storyland before people were exposing glass on Scottish hillsides for importing into city apartments - using 5 year or 10 year duration glass... (this technology is now actually under investigation).

This is an exploration of extreme resolution. By being articulated it brings up a set of issues around on one level the practice of gathering images and on a wider societal level the implications for the design of exhibition space and in general - architecture.

Should camera people just be reduced to glorified glaziers ? I joke but if the resolutions gathered are vastly beyond what the eye/brain needs/is designed for etc, then why not just put up several big resolution cameras around the planet and just keep shooting, then reframe for production ?

Current tests with screening Ultra High Definition Video have made audiences nauseous (watching a point of view shot from a short car journey) and this reminds me of the Lumiere Brothers screenings around 1895 which sent audiences running from the theatre pursued by a100 ton train made of light. It might be possible, given these levels of verisimilitude, as a BBC research engineer ruminated upon, that we don't need windows - or architecture - we just need their image. After all, it's all just light bouncing around. If you have enough sensory stimulants happening to convince you something is real - then it's real.

In 1940 the Argentinean writer Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote a novel of which Jorge Luis Borges describes as 'the prefect novel'. The Invention of Morel (from which Alan Resnais derived Last Year In Marienbad) posited the existence of a high resolution virtual reality machine - where an entire island was the site of the projection and it's uncommunicative inhabitants were actually a recording of a visit last year by some visitors. Our hero can only watch as their realistic yet virtual light counterparts travel around the island and live their lives - in fact so real are the inhabitants that he falls in love with one of these creatures of light.

"The cinema is an invention without a future."

Louis Lumiere

It's pretty clear that we imagine futures and those futures are a signpost for our technical experimenters to find a way to realise what has been imagined. Or alternatively, it's the other way around. Out of technical innovation comes the potential for further imagined futures. There is room here for an argument about which is the most potent and correct description of the process - but for me the issue is more that art and science are one. For me, I feel a sense of rejection for the pre-modernist assumption that technology is a thing we use, that it is separate from us - I feel more resonance with the more holistic position, that technology is part of what we are.

So the doorway through which we might stare is currently perceived as disclosing a wave of innovation that produces objects like cameras that achieve those far off and tempting images and all the paraphernalia that goes with that particularly seductive device. It also allows us to see new developments like home cinemas as somehow normal, or huge imax style auditoria, or even projections onto buildings, but on the horizon are images covering cityscapes - where the buildings are simply the site where images are to be found: and the images are the buildings and the buildings are the images...

...Which leads me to think that were I ever consider writing a book that might be derived from this blog, it would be called White Cities - 'White' Cities because white represents blankness and one can see how future architecture could have no inherent texture and instead simply adopt a changing image facade.

However on further reflection, I find a small reaction deep down in myself to this notion that is related to a comment a post production supervisor made about high resolution images:

"If you think about it, isn't that (3840x2160) just about right for 1920x1080 HD television production? Gives one a bit of room to play with, punch in and reframe."

He's referring here to a production format that has higher resolution than the display format and how that extra resolution can be used to reframe an image (if you reframe a standard definition very much it doesn't look so good).

The problem buried in this off the cuff remark is that of de-skilling camera technicians. If it doesn't matter how you frame then where's the skill gone - and does that matter ?

Zen calligraphy requires a fully concentrated execution in the moment so that the act is a statement of all and everything that you and the surrounding universe are.

There's a certain school of photographic practice that will not use an image if the framing is bad and therefore supports a semi Zen-like aesthetic view of accomplishing the act whilst in the act. In other words, practice your eye and hand co-ordination so that when you click the shutter - when you chose and when you display intent - then let that intent be art-full.

Bill Brand is said to have practiced a form of shooting where he would sit and wait for the 'photographic moment' to occur. The moment when all comes together, when maybe the clouds and the light come into positions that satisfied the aesthetic he was most comfortable with in relation to the landscape he was focusing in on.

Modern photographers worry about how many images can be taken by a digital camera within a second so that they can spray off a group-of-pictures (an important term in digital motion imaging) so that somewhere in the group the ideal picture is to be found. Not very Bill Brandt. Yet maybe it's just another way in to the photographic moment.

In Digital image processing a group-of-pictures is a description of a set of frames within a general flow of stills that make up the moving image sequence. A Long GoP or a short GoP is a designated group of pictures - a long GoP might be 15 frames long. So a computer uses an algorithm (an automatic analysing function) that is looking for 'difference'. If you take what is the same and just send it once and then you send the difference, there's a lot less data than if you send all the data in every frame. This is a compression technique.

But:

Compression is a notion that comes from limited technical resources: if you have little storage space - then you have to limit the data. If you have limited transfer capacity (slow speeds on the internet) then you have also to limit the data. But things are changing, which is why a group of DoP's (here I have to resist an acronym that makes fun of them aligning their thinking with the technology behind GoP's) feel free enough to consider what might be possible with Ultra High Definition Video - and are not just content to look through a portal, but actually walk through the doorway.