Monday, 24 November 2008

Divergent Myopia

Over the last couple of months and behind closed doors, the world’s digital innovators have been readying their developments for public consumption.

Red Cameras have cannily taken on the Digital SLR market by making their new cameras both still and movie capable. True the 28k sensor will not be able to have a full moving stream of images recorded from it for a while (bits of the sensor will, but not the whole thing), but it is a mark of the time that convergence has been attained and then left behind as a concept.

Convergence is after all a product of re-mediated thinking - were you to imagine a future if you were a science fiction writer, it would be composed of elements that were obverse or at a tangent to those you’d already experienced. Therefore imagined futures will always be a product of the past, as by the same logic contemporary descriptions of our world will already be defunct by the time they are articulated.

Canon and Nikon have put out DSLR’s that are movie capable and to Canon’s credit the EOS 5D Mark 11 is full 1920 x 1080 pixels whereas the movie capable Nikon D90 only records 1280 x 720 pixels. Both however record in Mpeg4 which is less than ideal in that the camera as a DSLR shoots RAW data and that is what the best electronic movie cameras attempt to do - but Mpeg4 is severely compressed. The thinking is that compression is bad as it introduces artefacts into the image that was not there in front of the lens.

The thing is, any recording is an artefact - it is not reality, it is mediated reality. So the entire conversation about compression needs looking at as Wavelet Transform technology takes over from Discrete Cosine Transforms as the chosen way to deal with incoming data. DCT’s are the meat-grinder way of dealing with data or a meat-head parking your car to use another metaphor and Wavelet’s are a valet service to park your car. A mixed metaphor there - but to extend it a little further, some people would hold that the damage the valet does in parking the car is as bad as the meat-grinder’s dealings with it.

Also, in a conversation with an 80‘s imaging idol, Zbig Ribchinsky recently, he swore blind that Red cameras which use extensive wavelet transform in the handling of data have a thoroughly unacceptable level of compression of the blue channel so that he’d rather use a sony camera - and he didn’t mean an F35 or an F23 - he meant a lowly HDV camera with high compression. Confused ? So was I.

Anyway, there’s yet another welter of outpourings in the digital domain and everyone who’s buying equipment might be better advised to let the market settle down for a bit - given the credit crunch. The fact is we are in the middle of a large outpouring of technology and will be for a little while yet.

Meanwhile, convergence as an intellectual item has lost its gloss in that it’s far too simple a way of describing what is happening within late liberal capitalism. It’s a heady brew to think that ‘it’s all coming together’. On one level it’s always coming together, so convergence as a millennial belief system is symptomatic of the time and also, in the way of things, when things get labelled, you can be pretty sure that the thing that has been labelled is past its sell by date and joined the cue for the dustbin of history.

This also makes me think on the idea of remediation, which has served well for nearly a decade.

‘Jay David Bolter and Richard Grussin contend that new media achieve their cultural significance by honoring, rivaling and revising earlier media such as perspective painting, photography, film and television. This process of refashioning, they refer to as ‘remediation’ and note that earlier media have also rearticulated the content and logic of one another: photography remediated painting, film remediated stage production and photography, and television remediated film, vaudeville and radio. Accessing audiovisual, news, education and entertainment shows on the same medium even from different sources blurs the distinctions between the contexts in which each originated (Bolter and Grussin, 2000). Megan Sapnar, The Journal of New Media and Culture, Winter 2002’

Another definition of remediation is:

The process of correcting environmental degradation…

Is there a connection, perhaps of renewing, revitalizing - even cleaning up a area that has become too polluted by time and overuse ?

Whichever definition you go with, in the earlier use of the term the author utilizes recent forms to speak of the that which they define and all of these forms seem to me a product of the analogue to digital era. So it might be that remediation is a term of the media era and is like everything else that utilizes the idea of hindsight. After all the word remediation contains a very recent word 'media'. In other words it looks back at the past with a revisionist agenda. Of course it’s very hard to look back without an agenda of any kind - nor look forward for that matter. Everywhere we look we project a set of meanings that in fact refer to our contemporary paradigm of which, it is very, very difficult to free oneself from. However - the influx of technology which is faster than our ability to gather a set of useful meanings around it, is continuous and unabated and is a reflection of the notion that we are in fact not the players - but the played.

In the practice of neuro-science there’s currently a tendency to believe that the momentary self - the one present in the moment - tends to believe that it is acting, making things happen, being present and yet clinical trials in advanced MSR scanners tell us that there’s a deciding function that tells the autonomic system what to do one fifth of a second before the momentary self receives the command and translates it as an idea that it thinks it has had.

Taking this idea and clothing it with my previous sentence ‘there is an influx of technology which is faster than our ability to gather a set of useful meanings around it’ then I suppose I am proposing that we are more receivers than creators and that it is in the group zeitgeist powered by the proposition of incoming and outgoing paradigms that carry our little human selves along like a small craft white water rafting, populated with people furiously hanging on down the ‘river of time’. This is a blog so I give myself the artistic license to be clich├ęd, poetic, etc. The point though is that I do believe we are innately formed as technological creatures rather in the way that Arthur C Clark’s apes in 2001 are technological. Sometimes we have accelerated moments and we tend to put the agency of that acceleration outside of ourselves - in the same way that we place intuition and insight inside ourselves. Neuro-science would have it that we are witnesses in the melee that is life.

So, in terms of incoming technologies that are fitting and appropriate to our sensorium (the sense equipment we have, plus the witness function or sense common to all other sensorium functions, the mind or self) there is a flow to history that seems to be coincident with our physiognomy.

As a child I used to feel that what was beautiful to us had some kind of resonance with our construction. The way the lines of a jaguar car - if not a jaguar - was pleasing because it was a reflection of the construction of our eyes and minds. Or a sunset/sunrise had elements in it that our sensorium had evolved to witness - but not just witness, be surprised at, to marvel at, to be beholden to. Again I reach for Susan Sontag’s use of Andre Breton’s idea quoted in her 2003 book, ‘Regarding Photography’. She draws from Breton that beauty is always identifiable to us as a constriction of the spirit. Like an in-drawing of breath, there is first a contraction before expulsion of breath - in between, there is no movement, just breath held. That is my test, by the way, for what is ‘great art’ as opposed to ‘little art’. There must be that internal response.

So the Canon 5d M11 represents one of these little tricklings from ‘the great beyond’, our ‘secret self’, the deeper zeitgeist, whichever cause you choose, and as such is an indicator of where we are going. I’ve been in meetings with groups of scientists who deal with rarefied technology; I’ve witnessed the myopia that’s possible within that kind of psyche and witnessed the commercial lubricant that is one way of releasing the creativity and potential developments with their technological niches combined (because it’s the combination of technologies that is the liberating element) and I’ve also taken part in releasing the stuck-ness one can sometimes find there.

So here we are, great apes with a brain and a technology to match the brains we are to grow. In fact, sometimes it seems as if the technology is the leading factor in our development. If a reasonable definition of art is ‘that which reveals what will shortly become apparent’ then a technology which reveals ‘that which will shortly become possible’ is a fitting thing to accompany it.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

RED EYES and 28k

I've been studying High Definition technology and aesthetics for a long while now. Today I heard that Red are releasing not just a 5k camera, the Epic, but a 28k camera.... The Japanese made an 8k prototype a few years back. Here's what I posted on the Cinematographers Mailing List:

I just caught the announcement about Red's variations - it's an Obama-like moment, a sort of 'you'd never thought it would happen so fast catch your breath kind of thing'.

I think we'd better for a moment remember Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier the father of modern signal analysis which all of this stuff uses, which enables the web, iphones, computers, or as Jim Jannard would have it: brains. (Fourier also seems to have discovered the greenhouse effect in 1824!)

In a way it's all really good now, we can all settle down and remember what we're about: there's digital resolution and the paraphernalia around it and then there's cinematography, electronic or otherwise...

Terry Flaxton, UK DP

I realise that in putting up this post I'm breathing a sigh of relief. The relief is in having taken on the task of understanding the technology, of understanding that Fourier's work is the basis for the software, even if it has changed into wavelet transforms as opposed to discrete fourier transforms..... The relief is of admitting to being an artist as opposed to technician, someone who is more interested in the aesthetics that derive from the form or the material base of the medium.

As the numbers grow into the astronomical they approach the kind of resolution that Ansel Adams might have used and for him, though he was occupied with the idea of exposure, if not the very act, his basic intent was to make an image, somehow. He was concerned with 'representation' and not abstraction. Re Presentation, the re-showing of the world to the world...

I do make re presentational acts, certainly when being a cinematographer for the ideas of others, but for myself I also enjoy the abstracting of the world into elements that somehow reflect my own nature, in a way that gets closer to the nature of the self than the obvious literal act of showing the world as the world to the world.

Anyway, in knowing that the lid has been blown off the ceiling of resolution, my own study remains in tact: I'll look at the form and what the form means and I'll look at the levels of increase in the form, the upward gradient of resolution - only now I get to climb out of the dark bunker of ignorance into the bright sunlight.


The first thing to enter into the equation is that a neuroscientist is primarily a scientist and therefore functioning within a paradigm originated during the enlightenment.

Before I go on I should say that I am here enquiring into Human Resolution which I’ve touched on before in my writing, and after exploring the above idea I shall return to this notion.

So, that being said, that the scientist is a creature of a paradigm that originated scientists, there should be no limit in terms of reflecting on their subject because a proviso of the idea of scientific method is of being open, of being innovative. I say this because the greatest work done in the last century were works of the mind - witness Einstein’s thought experiments. His genius was not simply having an idea bout the world which was through revelation, but of having the ability to pull that insight out of a place generally inhabited by mystics, but then being able to articulate his insights to the rest of us. In so doing he changed our perceptions - one might even say, changed our minds.

Though Relativity theory was originated a century ago, it’s taken us the whole of that century to begin to throw off the Newtonian Paradigm to be able to think in quantum terms. Newton had a model which involved mechanics, therefore cause and effect came into play. Einstein was looking at the material through the immaterial unlike Newton and I am aware that Einstein was at odds with the quantum lobby, but Einstein’s genius was so great they simply fold in behind him to my mind - others would have it the other way round.

My point is that the Neuro-Scientists are still inhabiting the Newtonian norm when making descriptions of the mind. They begin to have tools that come from beyond that paradigm, yet see the outcome of the use of that equipment in prior terms. In media we understand this as a re-mediatory act, where the re-mediation is about for instance the early adopters of photography who saw it as a means to enhance painting. It took some time before photography as it revealed itself to be came into the consciousness of those utilising the technology.

In short they are looking at the immaterial through the material - which is of Newton, instead of adopting Einstein’s process which was the other way round.

It really does matter which of these approaches you use - if you adopt the looking at the immaterial through the material strategy, you have no option but to dismiss the immaterial because it functions under the Aristotelian Paradigm. Aristotle quite rightly struggled against the imprecise mythologising of the everyday and employed the early scientific method: weighing and measuring.

In weighing and measuring the brain there are incongruities of data that show up. Generally you get the message: Apply pain here, brain lights up there.
Further. there is an inconsistency of data in situations where a person is asked to press a button at any moment they choose, where it is found that there is a one fifth of a second registering of the conscious brain after the ‘unconscious’ brain has sent the signal to press the button. In other words in this scientific model the consciousness of an individual is a bookkeeper of the real world - a ‘noticer’ and ‘organiser’ of events and a planner of things to do with those events in the future?

Looked at the other way, where one is looking at consciousness as being the point of the development of the material - which is how the eastern philosophers first looked - then one has measurable instances where something is registering in the material of the brain. The language is old and arcane but suggests a neuro-science that understands that material gathers around thought. The finger button story above tells us that there’s something in this.

Neuro-scientists call this the ‘hard-problem’ meaning presumably that it’s intellectually hard because one as a material being is looking at one’s material state through material means for a material end point. I think they might be using the wrong adjective. Or rather they show what their thinking is ‘hard’ as an adverb with reference to the material.

So far in looking at and listening to the propositions of those that would enlighten our understanding of self and body I’ve heard nothing to challenge the idea that thought precedes materiality, but I’ve heard lots of assumptions without evidence of the opposite. A set of characteristics, when viewed from a position that is looking for characteristics to prove a hypothesis does exactly that. ‘True logic’, i.e, that which follows an idea rigorously, which does not leap in hope, but requires a decisive piece of ‘evidence’ that is not partisan is hard to come by.

Until that happens here’s a thought:

I’ve written about the borderline of perception where the two technologies of eye and brain flutter and shift between each other thus producing the sense that colour is heightened at the moment of dusk. I’ve also written that this may also be happening at certain levels of resolution where a ‘confusion’ sets in about what is real and what is imaginary. When you look at the silhouette of a vase and suddenly see two faces looking at each other, then suddenly the understanding flips back again to the image of the vase. As this happens then you are on a borderline of perception once again where yet another material sensibility is being pushed at its boundary. We are creatures with contradictory technologies in us. Those technologies are there for the dealing with the world.

Might there be a similar proposition around mind and brain, consciousness etc? Might consciousness be all the things that are said of it by the neuroscientists, that it is a bookkeeper of reality, noticing what is happening (arguably after it has happened by 1 fifth of a second) but might it in its other guise as button presser one fifth of a second before, also be what the mystics have called the soul?

Does it matter that some people call it ‘soul’ ? Shall we dismiss it because of its connotations? Looking closer at that description we can see that the button presser is the tip of the iceberg, that it is miniscule in relation to the size of the whole. That its presence is not bound by time, that it exists, before, during and after the temporal consciousness.

So a description might be that consciousness is only seemingly in the present but deals with the future, the button presser actually deals with the present. There is a story of the gorilla and the basket ball team. A group of people are asked to note how many passes are made during a basket ball match. At the end of the match they reply a certain number. Then they are shown a specific piece of video where a gorilla walks through the players whom they now see. Being busy counting, their consciousness didn’t catch the information. Equally the police use hypnotists to ask people to remember the details of a moment - not what was happening to them, but what they didn’t notice at the time - the police mine the memory and ask the subject to ‘listen’ to the surrounding sounds, or ‘look’ at their peripheral vision...

I tend towards a gestalt here, a whole description as opposed to a partial description. Might consciousness accrue in a location and then matter gather around it, be it in the brain (after all when parts of the brain are destroyed so then abilities are re-distributed and other parts re-purposed) or be it in the material realm in general ?

So far, I’ve yet to hear anyone refute this idea conclusively.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Waves of Engagement

An idea that's been coming back to me constantly is derived from my recent experience in Malta, of having many, many people sit at my installation in one night. I witnessed an audience engaging with my work in what to me looked like waves. They gathered, engaged and then disengaged over a period of ten minutes, 50 people at a time, throughout the night.

I wonder - does this wave-like engagement occur in a cinema audience in some way, or a gallery audience (famously described as being engaged in the act of 'strolling' by Susan Sontag) or a football crowd ? This brings to my mind the notion of fluid mechanics - the study of how the molecules of fluids flow and affect each-other. Imagine that study extended into the way that cars flow down a motor-way, then through and into the streets of a city, or further, into the acts of people.

The propositions that follow from a description like this is that if you imagine the way that scientists now think of the maths of chaos, the flow of things is actually describable, metaphors can be found to talk about something and concretize that function for people and that articulation is a way of knowing something about a thing that may not actually exist but that may be a product simply of the act of observing.

The base point here is that the description evokes an idea of a material act occurring. In this description I am trying to observe the act of attention as if it were a material act. The students of sub atomic physics are well aware of the idea that observation affects the thing observed. To describe or to name is an act that affects things - they've come to terms with the idea that attention has a value, the metaphor is that the energy used in the act of observing communicates with and affects the thing that is happening.

Mystics have long believed that attention is energy, or at least is accompanied by an energetic field. Think of complimentary medicine or the concept of gestalt and you realise that the idea has been accepted by that group of people. So at both ends of the spectrum, the base materialists and the ethereal spiritualists both believe the same thing but the people in the middle do not - fully. Relativity theory may have been accepted last century by leading thinkers, but many people are still functioning within the Newtonian Paradigm of cause and effect.

So if a slowly growing crowd does in fact have a characteristic expression as its members become engaged by an idea (in this case my table installation) is there something to be had by the artist in trying to understand a phenomenon that can then be positioned, named, articulated and presented back to those same people that might actually be involved in expressing this characteristic ? And, can other characteristics be developed from this understanding that are beneficial to the project that is being undertaken ?

The set of characteristics a 'strolling' audience might have will be different from those a seated audience has. Nameable things: locomotion as opposed to a state of rest, talking and exchanging with others as opposed to sitting silently and reflectively on ones own in ones own thoughts about what is being shown to one.

The strolling audience is active and then through engagement will come to rest into a similar set of characteristics as a seated audience - then, having greater 'freedom' to disengage from the work - because no actors or other audience members in front or near them will be offended by their disconnection and so they can choose their own moment of disengagement.

So here on musing on this I can feel my intuition sitting up - it is clear that there are methods of creating engagement in an audience and there must also be a way of dealing with the engagement that then occurs. You've basically said to an audience: "Look at this". Then you've used the function of time to reveal some images, ideas, feelings, sensibilities etc to them, then you use your own worldly experience to know that this sort of thing can only go on given that we are mercurial creatures in the main.

On this point much avant garde work has been done to examine how a person 'reads' images and sound and how they might be taken beyond their 'learnt' ways of behaving. For instance the act of showing something time and time again, or showing something that usually takes place over a short amount of time which is then run a great deal more slowly - and the upshot is the discovery by the audience that there are other pleasures to be had beyond those that we are equipped to immediately have in a form like popular entertainment. We might learn through these strategies of other ways of gaining pleasures and also that pleasure comes in different forms.

Anyway - I’m noting a phenomenon and shall attend to the ideas I’ve expressed here because my art form has the possibility of being shown to the many together and to the one apart and in many different situations and numbers in between. So it seems to me that this is a valuable acknowledgement for an artist to make. We’ll see.