Sunday, 25 January 2009

Warfare is a market condition of late Capitalism

The title above is nothing at all to do with High Definition but everything to do with High Resolution. To resolve highly is the thing - to resolve to understand. As I go on with my research it spreads out into everything I look at. Somehow the metaphor of the terms used, expands. In using the image of the child above there is a degree of shame. I have read Susan Sontags 'Regarding the Pain of Others' and I understand that the use of this image is complex. If you look at the images I use at the start of these blogs you'll generally see a humorous use - for instance, isn't that 'Brains' from Thunderbirds about two blogs back, looking a bit worse for wear after a night out? Doesn't that use of that image make the use of the image above disrespectful – maybe this is why shame comes into the picture? But regardless I feel the image is relevant, but the explanation of its use is complex.

The image will prompt many different responses in many different individuals - mostly emotional. There has always been shock in the use of an image like this and that's one of the primary reasons for using it - why should any child die in any war - ever? And, in a most recent conflict, somehow army apologists on British news have excused this act and explained it away as if 'it is necessary' or worse, that it is simply the end result of the heinous nature of the enemy they oppose. In other words, they blame the mothers and fathers of those very children that have been killed as if they were the killers.

All of this does not mean I am losing focus in my research - to the contrary: I make my tests with technology, I make my artwork, I write my articles... but I also now think more deeply about all of my concerns and experiences. I am concerned with the political nature of research, scientific or otherwise. I am worrying at the nature of things in our society that are supposed to not be political - to be free of the taint of that which is distorting.

I once met Noam Chomsky, but I wasn't completely aware of his relevance in the world – I was too young. I had earlier read and been moved, as every English schoolchild of my generation had, by George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’. I took great pleasure in realizing that Orwell’s central text, the work of his dissident character Emmanuel Goldstein’s analysis of the power relationships of the three dominant hegemonys, Oceana, Eastasia and Eurasia, was deeply relevant to the world I found myself living in. The fact that the text had been written as a trap for Winston Smith – as a ‘honey pot understanding’ – lent particular irony to Orwell’s deep cynicism not just about the Soviet communist project, but also about human nature (1984 was a bout a distopia after all and not a utopia).

Many years later I made a work which utilized some ideas from Orwell’s novel, aided by footage I had shot for Apple Computers at the moment they had introduced their new venture: The Macintosh. In 1983 I was rung by an LA company, Chiatt Day Advertising, to provide a crew to shoot the making of a commercial to be Directed by Ridley Scott and lit by Adrian Biddle. I was then working and managing a Soho based facility called: ‘Videomakers’ and we had aned a reputation for shooting on the American system – we understood for instance that if you shot images in certain English situations there would be a storbing fo the image due to our electrical system being based on 50 rather than 60 cycles. We were to shoot on NTSC, the American television format which recorded 30 frames of 525 line resolution images. We used to joke that NTSC meant ‘Never the Same Colour’ because it didn’t have the 13 cycle oscillation which the PAL signal did, which was a colour reference signal that the tv set could realign weather distorted images.

What I hadn’t quite internalized was that I was to be sent the son of the owner of the company to direct us, a young guy called Mark Chiatt. He’s probably now quite influential in the LA advertising world. At the time he was young and raw and often on the shoot I found my self being grabbed by the shoulder and spun round to cover something I’d already shot a few minutes earlier.

1984 as a commercial made advertising history for several reasons, the main being that it was only to be shown once during the 1984 Superbowl and the footage we were to shoot would be used, not only in a ‘Making of’ for the troops at Apple, but also to be shown on American News programmes and various other places (disco’s even) to hype the fact that the commercial would only be shown once and you’d better catch it. You’ve probably seen the commercial – if not, go here and have a look:

It just so happened that at the very moment I was shooting this for apple, a friend of mine was involved in shooting a large IBM shoot down the road and we’d both been constrained to sign secrecy clauses so that we may not talk about what we were doing outside of the studios for some time to come. Needless to say we met and talked together in a pub in Soho and mused on the nature of all of this but of course didn’t discuss the issue more widely – at the time.

On the shoot, which lasted for 10 days and cost about $1.5 million which was huge amount of money at the time, I found myself on an amazing set which, wherever you looked you inhabited that future world and the sets themselves rose 4 stories at least with sliced up jet engines hanging on the walls as if they were massive air conditioning units. I started to realize that a director like Ridley Scott had a greater imagination than most at the time and that he knew how to create a world. Also, the crew was large, maybe 50 people in total with around 100 skinheads from the Bother Boots Agency (who could also be hired to collect debts, be bouncers, extras – whatever). A lot of them were also Neo Nazis. The adveritisng agency was straight down the line capitalist. The country we were in was Thatchers Britain, the world we were in was Orwell’s distopian totalitarian future. We the crew were basically anarchists (sort of). There were even socialist workers party infiltrators amongst the ranks of the skins trying to change hearts and minds and not get beat up.

Very soon I realized that I was in an amazing and historic situation. The commercial would be fantastic visually (he had already made alien in 1978 and Blade Runner in 1981 which showed he knew a thing or two about creating an interesting sci-fi world on screen). The ‘Making of ‘would therefore be impressive – so what about me, the artist, film maker, cameraman – what would I do ? I’d already had a seminal moment when checking back the rushes and finding the whole crew standing behind me and the soundman watching what for them was the first time any of them would see images of what they were doing at the time of making those images – usually they would wait months to see the outcome at the cinema – not this time though. So suddenly, instead of ostracizing us as the enemy with the new technology as they usually did, they welcomed us and even began to help us.

The soundman, Antony Cooper and myself decided that we’d like to interview the skinheads. There had already been a knifing and a rape and the crew were very nervous that this group of extras, being already known for rioting on Pink Floyds ‘The Wall’, may just get very violent at the end of the shoot. We found the biggest most interesting Skin and arranged an interview. A short while after we had begun more skinheads had heard about what we were doing and quite a few joined us, including the ‘theorist’ – so named by us because he was watching and listening to what the skins were saying and originally correcting them. Then Mark Chiatt joined us and made the mistake of asking a Skin about his Bulldog tattoo: “What’s that shit on your arm ?” Meaning what’s that mark on your arm. There was a moment of cross-cultural confusion as the Skins thought that he was insulting them and we nearly came in for a beating – but we managed talking them out of that by saying that he was American and didn’t truly understand what he was saying. Close.

I decided that I had to ‘steal’ the footage (effectively from myself as the image maker) and put on another hat and work with the material I had shot. This took some fast footwork where I managed to get some standards conversions done to import the footage into the pal system – the colour and contrast of the images suffered of course – all before handing the NTSC rushes over to Apple.

Later Mark made a good corporate piece for apple which played the disco circuit in California and also was used on the news networks and then the commercial showed and instantly gained its position in the industry hall of fame.

I worked with the material at Videomakers for a while – we had just taken delivery of a time base corrector, which could freeze the image and we had basic vision mixer capabilities too. One night I became angry at the sheer hatred cming out of the Skins during the interview footage and collided that aginst an image of the grl from the commercial who hurls a hammer at the Telescreen and thus brings Big Brother crashing down. This was elementary scratch video – or, going back 60 or so years to Vertov and especially Eisenstein with his Montage of Attractions – the collision of one image against another to produce a third meaning.

As soon as I showed the work which I now called ‘Prisoners’ knew I had a special piece of work and the requests for festival screenings proved this to be so.

Prisoners deals with the problem of ideology, the potential manipulation of meaning and the hotness or coldness of the medium as expressed by McLuhan – as well as several other issues. I called this work Prisoners because I was interested in the problem of having a fixed ideology, of having a fixed set of ideas in relation to the world. To use a metaphor: it seemed to me that having sun glasses was useful whilst in the sun, but useless in the middle of the night. So therefore those people depicted in my work, the capitalists, neo Nazis, Thatcherites, communists, corporatists and us, the anarchists were all held Prisoner by our own set of beliefs.

I should add that some years earlier on a shoot where we were examining BBC practices and the BBC themselves ended up using this to teach with, Anthony had put his boom down, taken his headphones off and announced that ‘the only thing documentary documents, is the attitude of the makers to the their subject at the time of making – and nothing else’.

It also brought up issues outlined by Noam Chomsky who I was to meet three years later whilst shooting a documentary on US foreign policy in the 3rd world, directed by my then colleague Renny Bartlett, there is a documentary available called 'Manufacturing Consent'. In a nutshell it explains both Chomsky's understanding of the constant dark move to limit truth by vested interests and his relevance to a world where communication is the most important commodity. His understanding is that, with a nod to McLuhan, the world is global and the information that flows is not neutral, the medium is the message and the message is the way the understanding is limited. That limitation is an impoverishment of truth. Chomsky's relevance is that he has constantly proclaimed this to whoever has the ears to hear. The commodification of information is both the mechanism of control and the relegation of its worth to equivalence to any other commodity.

That’s what’s wrong with capitalism – yes it is functional on many levels, has ‘defeated’ communism, but the relegation of everything in the world to the lowly level of a commodity, a thing capable of being traded, is the force and mechanism that limits our vision. Some ideologies know this. Usually the outcome is a terrorist stance whether it is the Red Brigade or Al Quaeda – what’s a person to do when they realize what’s going on except do something to try to make people sit up and realize that fact? Of course that strategy doesn’t work – you just end up with everyone trying to then destroy both you and your ideology in response to the atrocities you’ve convinced yourself are necessary to commit – now that’s counter prodcutive

In all of this there’s the limitation of understanding, another commodification of concept that reduces what might be possible in our future as something unobtainable right now. That’s a failure of imagination of course. If you do speak up then the inbuilt herd function starts up – the sparrow with the broken wing gets attacked by the flock. Right now we’re all happily suckered into a Frank Capra like joyful moment of being pleased that such a nice man is now the most powerful man on the planet – and a person of colour to boot! I say suckered because Barack Obama is confined to solutions within the structures of the current system and has surrounded himself by advisors who really buy in to the whole thing. It was disappointing to see that he’s bought the threat from the Taliban because now the troops are going in to Afghanistan and that means what it meant so many times before.

Of course the Taliban are a group of people who want to limit the rights of so many people – women – to achieve a personal and group goals - and the world can’t allow that. But we have to find a way that doesn’t involve fighting to accomplish a change in their imagined needs for a rule that diminishes others. In taking fighting as the medium for change we import the commodification of freedom which has to be won intellectually, not bought via the coin or the gun. Warfare is simply a market condition in a market where money is no longer the medium of barter. Bartering is simply an agreement between two sides to make an exchange. One variable is the idea of agreement. If agreement as a condition can be suspended then an exchange can be made without the will of one side – and that’s warfare.

I ask myself: Do I truly believe that it's possible to exist without using commodification of resources (via money or value systems) to survive? Surely there are other potential systems of harvesting the benefits of the environment in a sustainable and enduring way that leaves no mark or corrupting influence on the planet? Surely, if we can imagine something positive then it can become a possibility. I can imagine a world where bartering is not necessary. I’ve read enough of our greatest visionary writers to see that a lot of people have wondered at this idea, even if the great mass of people exist in the limited confines of the contemporary zeitgeist and the overall paradigm of the age. I’m ot saying that I’m better than anybody here as my basic understanding of my own existential condition is that I have ‘sameness’ about me with not only other humans and my ape cousins, not only all sentient creatures, but all things that exist. I see nothing about myself that puts ‘me’ above or below anything around me in terms of precedence.

I do however see a lot of people who do believe in the idea of their own precedence, because the contemporary id, in it’s function of individualizing the human self, has come to that point where each and every human has to divide from the ‘group soul’ and gain self-identity. Four thousand years ago, as a slave within a dominant culture, you might have had more allegiance to the overall soul of your enslaved nation than to worry about your ‘self’. Therefore the tales the you might have found yourself telling would have been supportive of the release of your nation from Egypt (for instance). So the soul of the time was less individualized.

But now we have invented UTube, Myface etc, all of which are there to demonstrate (rather pathetically) the individual. My use of the word pathetic is because we utilize brand loyalties to identify our selves to others:

“I am this because I have these likes, (do you like them too ?) Then we are the same you and I – individuals within a mass of others, different and therefore special”.


Chomsky exists because we the group have to hear his message. “The prophet stood upon the mountain and spoke to the gathered throng”. The message is that the medium is limited and therefore distorts and groups of the powerful are busy utilizing the message for their own needs – often ideological. Vested interests often want the world to stay the same because it is good in some way for them, or if they do want change then they want a change that is also good for them.

You could argue that me writing this is a vested interest – I must want something, why else would I use my energy? In a world of commodification, isn't this blogging thing just another means of making ‘gain’? ...And then there's the use of those images I discussed at the beginning and the need to produce images and research the production of those images... and to look at High Definition....

What I want is to appreciate Chomsky – albeit a bit late – because I should have shook his hand even harder and told him that I appreciated what he had done and would go on to do. I would also do this with Blake or Voltaire were they alive - Blake because he would not cease from 'mental fight' to liberate truth, Voltaire because he would defend the views of others as a right - Chomsky, because while he is alive he needs his morale boosted to carry on speaking his truth.

With the image above, the desecration of a life like this is the real problem - the use of the image should re-evoke a continuous remembrance that war is one if the things we currently do because of the current state of the human condition and that we know, or feel we know, that it is not right, that the outcome of any war could have been agreed before the war was fought. We know we can be better and we should make that our higher resolution.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Sum of Human Knowledge

So a person like me, at a time like this, is concerned with a technical issue which relates to a sense we as humans have: sight.

The technical issue is High Definition, or as I would rename it, High Resolution Imaging. This however is a title that verges on issues around scientific photography, why is why I am ambivalent about the choice.

If the biologists are to believed, sight is derived from touch (there will of course one day be a braille version of HD). In smell, molecules cascade against surfaces that are sensitive to them. In sight, photons activate electrical impulses that transfer to a system that ‘makes sense’ of these impulses. Here the proposition is that mind is the sense common to all the other senses: it’s ‘the-making-sense-of’ sense. It’s the ‘common sense’ of all the senses.

But these senses we have are of local origin, local to this planet and this solar system and the physical conditions pertaining to this environment.

If you look at the universe, as far as we understand it, the the premise of the whole thing is based upon massive diffusion, gravity, heat and cooling, then aggregation, then collision and finally massive diffusion once again. It’s a soup.

Sitting on this ball of clod we stare out, using light, the medium of the universal constant as our medium (and what a constant!) and look for any evidence of where there is an absence of this constant. Where it is we know what produces it - where it is not, we hope to gain clues about why it’s there at all.

In that sentence there are many issues: the notion of a constant is what serious magicians call the ring-pass-not. It is something that may not be contravened. C.S. Lewis used this idea in his science fiction trilogy, Out of the SIlent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Loosely, my understanding of the universal constant is that it is mass at full acceleration. I’m simplifying for poetic effect of course. What I mean is, if you took the smallest amount of mass and accelerated it to the speed of light the particle would both weigh the weight of the universe as well as occupy all the space of the universe. That Einstein was a clever fellow and if one believed in the Illuminati, then one might imagine that that’s where he got his information from.

It’s big stuff, really big stuff. I also suspect that mass, space, time, velocity et al are all swop-able as values for consciousness - or rather unconsciousness. The big I am is in a state of amnesia - that’s what manifestation is, a state of necessary amnesia so that the impossible trick of pulling off localised consciousness (i.e. what makes us people) can Hermes-Trismestigus-like be enabled.

Equally ‘seeing’ is part of the trick and as I was told in my interviews with various planet-sized intellects like David Stump (Electronic Cinematographic SFX on Quantum of Solace) and Scott Billups (well, Scott is more like the mischievous norse god Loki, but both have big brains whichever way you characterise them). Naturally I asked people what they thought HD was and framed a set of questions around where it had come from and where it might go but people like Stump and Billups quite rightly countered with a disagreement about the appositeness of the questions about the technology’. They positioned their understanding rather as an enquiry into the sensory system we have.

Many of the issue that are coming up in HD are around verisimilitude, about whether to use Log or Linear or Gamma Curves, or LuT’s or Raw or various systems of generating data from light sensitive sensors - about how that data was generated, about how the eye generates data; about how we can view something that is true to what is in front of the lens and what is behind it. It’s the proverbial minefield if you only have half a grasp.

Lately, at the end of 2008 and bleeding into 2009, many people on the Cinematographers Mailing List have been discussing what all of these terms mean and what they may be cross-translated into for the normal person (i.e. standard Director of Photography or cameraman). There are some bright sparks who have a knack with words and can make plain what each is and how it pertains to the field. So far though, no one has cottoned on to the time honored issue of ‘the touch’. Simply put, you’ve either got it or you aint.

In film you take a reading and exposed and developed the film and took note of the results. Through doing this a few times you developed experience and knew what to expect. You tried various stocks with different responses and learned how to predict the outcome. You became experimental and did things, like under and over exposing, having the film developed for longer or shorter times, avoided elements of development like by passing the bleaching of silver process - you even suggested heating up the developer to the lab - and so on and so forth. Well that process is where we’re at at the moment in electronic cinematography and there are no easy answers. So whether or not you’ve got it or you aint, you aren’t going anywhere without experience which you gather from simply doing it again and again.

Like being able to expose film or a work in the electro-cinematographic realm, I think the universe per se is one big experiment within a set of parameters. Significantly the further you look out in to the dark, you still see galaxy after galaxy, each one of which has as many stars in it as there are grains of sand on the beaches of the earth (and then some). It’s not endless, it’s 14 billion years in terms of distance. Right up to the boundary of the space-time continuum, there are prototype galaxies slightly unformed because at the time of their creation it was all a bit hot and the necessary cooling hadn’t quite happened yet to formulate galaxies with the kind of matter and gravity we’re used to (and remember space extends as far as there is matter, as matter is a key element of time and space - where there is no matter, there is no space).

Within all of this are we. 3rd rock from this particular sun. I always feel that the local gravitational conditions forced this set up and that these conditions, that of having hard bits then gassy bits which are a condition that is at least this galaxy wide.

That temperate planets will originate at this kind of distance relative to a star of this kind, of mass, is part of the equation - bigger mass stars will have a similar effect on their planets but maybe there will not be an earth-like planet - maybe there’s fewer than .01 per cent of these kind of planets in this particular galaxy - but that’s still zillions of places where consciousnesses can originate. Maybe only 0.01 percent of those consciousnesses are self-reflective and so on and so forth - but that’s still many. And if you then look at all the other many zillions - no, god-zillions of galaxies out there you get life, self-conscious life originating out of the huge act of amnesia that is the entire manifestation. Amazing.

And in all of this, there’s a little human with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that makes him interested in how light hitting surfaces, bouncing into bits of glass and finally being represented to organs that are sensitive to these effects. Amazing.

By the way, I like the idea that the scientists now believe that this solar system is the third variant that we have all been part of. Apparently the kind of matter that exists here is the kind that needs to have been smelted more than once. We’ve dissolved and reconstituted and this is the third time (locally). I like that we’re on a spinning spiral of matter, going at around 600,000 miles per hour and that it takes 226,000 years to revolve once. I like the idea that in 2 billion years time we will silently and softly collide with the nearby galaxy of Andromeda, and that there’s so much space in both galaxies that hardly anything will actually touch anything else, but that gravity will spin us and twist us in a huge, eon-like ballet of amalgamation with the aforesaid neighbor. Amazing.