Sunday, 8 February 2009
Time and Resolution: experiments in high definition image making
As an AHRC Creative Research Fellow at Bristol University my research is concerned with High Resolution Imaging. The operative word in my title is ‘Creative’. My fellowship was awarded partially on my argument that ‘my methodological contention is that technical investigations have to be performed in the medium itself, using the form to inquire into itself, to speak in its own language side by side with the written word.’ The article that follows is a synthesizing of the understandings I have derived through practical and creative acts during my first year of research into the High Resolution Domain.
KEYWORDS: High Definition, Commodification, the Gaze, Electronic Cinematography, Audience Engagement
There are a series of links to works at the end of this article.
In September 2007 I took up an AHRC Creative Research Fellowship at the Department of Drama at Bristol University, having until that point, been a cinematographer and a occasional educator. My enquiry concerns whether increased resolution creates deeper engagement for an audience and also how that engagement functions - for instance, if engagement increases in relation to increased resolution: is this a quantative, or quantum increase? My enquiry is not scientific, it does not seek to weigh nor measure, instead I am trying to understand through a creative enquiry that utilises audience response. That response comes in different ways, sometimes by the inflection of a voice, sometimes by a pause in a description. It is, in the best sense, relative to my own understanding.
In trying to explain my research to an audience at a presentation at Bristol’s Watershed Media Centre recently I used this metaphor: at dusk you might notice an increased coloration in the red, amber and green traffic lights which seem more saturated than during the day. The physiological explanation is that at dusk your brain switches from using the cones to the rods in your eyes. The cones, developed to produce a greater response to colour, are less numerous and are less reactive to luminance, the rods are far greater in number and have developed to have greater response to light, but not to colour. As the brain switches between technologies, fluttering back and forth, you gain a heightened awareness of colour. If you take this idea and rethink it in terms of resolution, then it would seem that there is a similar boundary between what we used to think of as a standard image for television and what we are beginning to think of as the lower limits of high definition.
A question that arises is this: is there only one boundary in terms of resolution? What if there were a set of boundaries where the mind responds at greater levels of engagement to quanta of resolution? What if every so often as you go up the scale of definition you slip ever deeper into the ‘dream’ of what lies before you?
THE GENESIS OF AN IDEA
In 1992 I was engaged to make an installation for the Bonn Biennale which was the shooting of a dinner party from above and then it’s projection back on to a table, complete with tablecloth, 8 white plates and eight chairs. Some years later, in 2003 I showed this at various exhibitions shot at standard definition (720 x 576 pixels). There certainly was a degree of engagement by the audience with the piece, but I wondered if the blurry images were limiting the effectiveness of the piece. It bothered me greatly that the image was not clear - i.e. the prongs of the forks were indistinct as was the food. The more I showed the piece, the more I came to feel that greater engagement was possible with a greater clarity of image.
On entering my role as Research Fellow I immediately shot In Other People’s Skins on P2 Cameras which are notionally HD (960 x 540 pixels in resolution before uprezzing to either 1280 or 1920 formats).
The common HD format is 1920 x 1080 pixels. This is known as 2k resolution due to the numbers accumulating to approximately ‘2000’. This is in the common 16:9 aspect ratio – 16 units horizontally by 9 units vertically. Another form of 2k is 2048 x 1024 pixels – this is the cinema form. 1280 x 720 is more common as an HD format in America – having less data, it is easier to stream this form for broadcast. When TV’s say ‘HD ready’, the resolution is generally 1280 x 720 pixels.
I created a dinner party for twelve people (thus invoking the Last Supper) and shot 5 different dinner parties, Asian, Indian, Western, African and first century Arabic. I carried out extensive tests with compression and decompression settings, in relation to projector set-up and then graded the work through projector as opposed to monitor, and so created the most accurate colour and resolution representation of the image for the public forum.
I contacted 7 cathedrals and then obtained an Arts Council award. During the 15 week tour around 50,000 of the 150,000 people that visited those cathedrals sat down at the installation.
SOME OBSERVATIONS ON AUDIENCE RESPONSE
I made a point of viewing the installation anonymously and I noticed that people were ready to play, to move plates around, to mime the clashing of glasses between virtual guests. I noticed that whether the audience was old or young, people were prepared to join in: that babies placed on the table were fascinated by what was happening beneath them; that strangers conversed as if they were at a real dinner party, that soon the conversation turned to ‘art’ and what defined it for today.
I listened as some people said that they were truly confused about what was real and what was not and they were enjoying this confusion. I noticed that some people reached for a virtual plate expecting it to feel real. Some people said that the strangest feeling they’d had was when the virtual guest did something they were not expecting, that it was similar to what they imagined would be the feeling of protoplasmic hands thrusting out of their stomach.
So the installation immediately engaged the audience in a performative act which raised the following question: Was it the installation that was creating the main act of engagement and consequently producing subsequent performative acts, or was it the addition of higher resolution to the concept? The prior version was 720 x 576 pixels and this ‘HD’ version was 960 x 540 pixels.
RESOLUTION, PHOTOGRAPHY AND CINEMATOGRAPHY
We understand that new mediums tend to be thought of in terms of preceding media for a time, before we recognize the ‘true’ characteristics of the new medium, which then gives rise to a new aesthetic impetus that makes the new medium ‘whole’. From then on the new medium can be explored in its own terms, before it too re-mediates whatever comes next. But of course, at a certain point, new mediums have the capacity of reaching back and interrelating with prior media. In The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Sobchack,1992) Vivian Sobchack asserts that:
‘The cinematic qualitatively transforms and converts the photographic through a materiality that not only claims the world and others as objects for vision but also signifies its bodily agency, intentionality and subjectivity’.
Conversely, with regard to composition, movement of camera, the movement of objects or subjects within frame and the placement of light and illumination, it is my experience that cinematography has a photographic element. As I compose, execute and listen to the film whirring frame by frame through the gate, within the stream of frames in every shot, I attempt to achieve at least one moment or frame that is photographic in nature. The overall stream is cinematographic, but I have become convinced that to achieve truly great cinematography one has to unleash the potential of one frame in every shot that has the specific quality of a photograph. This is not particular to my practice as many notable cinematographers, amongst them Vitorrio Storarro and Conrad Hall, have considered the relationship between cinematography and photography from a cinematographic standpoint. The difference in the photographic frame occurring within a flow of frames as opposed to being created as a photographic act makes it the epitome of and also the evocation of the cinematic. As the film plays, the audience, at some deep level, recognises this moment and this re-cognition will then place the entire flow of images into a deeper level of availability and therefore allow deeper engagement by the audience. For me, this is a guiding thought in my practice of Electronic Cinematography, which on a material level has similarities with its predecessor. For instance, in Photo Chemical origination of the image there is the existence of a latent image prior to development and this is paralleled in the Electronic rendition (or development) of data in raw image processing.
THE CREATION OF WORK WITH REGARD TO THE DEVELOPING AESTHETIC OF THE MEDIUM
With the above in mind I proceeded to devise six new works that explored the issues as I was beginning to see them. This series of works had two trajectories: One set, In Re Ansel Adams, Portraits of Glastonbury Tor, and Un Tempo, Una Volta, was to explore the possibility of re-imagining that which was already well known to the popular psyche and somehow in using the new medium, say something new about the subject or present it in a way that utilised the technology and the aesthetic that I was coming to understand. The other set, Dance Floor, Water Table and The Unfurling, was conceived to try to explore audience performativity from working with the virtual and the real as I had in In Other People’s Skins.
In both trajectories there were deviations from the basic rules I had set myself and also during the first six months of the award I was heavily affected by In Other People’s Skins: this work had been successful in intent and outcome and that in itself shakes ones artistic foundations.
I left out a visitors book during the tour and due to the large attendance there were many comments that were potent in encouraging me to pursue my research path. The point of quoting these and others within this article is to relate my intention and concerns with the outcome, which in itself indicates to me my next trajectory:
‘Wonderfully creative - strange to change gender and race all in one evening.’
‘It's refreshing that this exhibition encourages and enables us to communicate with each other. A wonderful experience.’
‘Extraordinary. The most imaginative and socially interactive piece of modern art I've seen.’
‘A fascinating take on human life. A reminder that we are all the same.’
I had made work that had won plaudits from the audience before - but never on this scale, there were pages of positive comments from the tour and this was to cause me to continuously re-evaluate every stage of the making of the 6 new pieces - both consciously and unconsciously - sometimes I dreamed new elements of the work I was to make and then modified the work I actually made according to the dream.
The other thing to say about both trajectories of work is that they were intimately bound together in intent from artist to audience: through the making and exhibiting of In Other People’s Skins, I’d become aware of the power of the artist to affect the viewer if they understand the authority that the audience gives the artist in the agreement to view the work. That is a transfer of control and influence at one level; it is the giving of consent and this act of choice by the viewer, if the artist is truly aware of what the transaction means, represents all that the artist needs to make and exhibit the work in a successful way. By ‘successful’ I mean here to fulfill the bargain the artist has entered into with the audience - to deliver some element of meaning or significance (given the life understanding of the artist) through whatever tactics and strategy the artist has engaged in. ‘Bargain’ contains the notion of an increase of benefit for all involved.
THE PROCESS OF ORIGINATION AND STRATEGIES WITHIN THE WORK
The idea behind the first set of three of the six new pieces derived from a moment in 1988 when Alan Yentob, (then controller of BBC2), had left a 10 minute gap In his scheduling of Thursday nights and had asked for a series of shorts that filled the gap. Building Sights was the answer: An ‘interesting presenter’ would be taken to a notable architectural site and hopefully some interesting television chemistry happen. I worked on three series and every director was avoiding The Lloyds Building – the poisoned chalice because it had already been shot far too often. What would one have to say anew about this building? I was fortunate enough to have Michael Craig-Martin to work with and his relationship with Richard Rogers’ building was indeed interesting, but it struck me that the images that I was to make should also be interesting and enlightening. Given that practically every angle of the building had been photographed I introduced steadycam shots, dolly shots and hung a crane from the 13th story with a remote head – all of this new to television at that time – in a search to create sequences of movement that would speak about and evoke for the viewing audience the way the space was organized in the building. So it was this process of invention and renewal that struck a deep chord within and it was this idea that stayed with me: to look at the familiar and reflect upon the idea that was discussed by Jean Baurdillard in The Transparency of Evil (Baudrillard, 1993):
‘It is often said that the West’s great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity. That great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world – it’s cosmopolitan spectacularisation, its transformation into images, its semiological organization.’
In this attempt I would try to achieve a renewal of the location or image, flush out whether or not there is an aesthetic that accompanies the form, and is not simply the same aesthetic as obtained with previous and similar technologies.
My challenge in making In Re Ansel Adams, Un Tempo, Una Volta and Portraits of Glastonbury Tor was not only to re-present these locations but also develop the art that was possible in refreshing the image for the audience via the potential developing aesthetic of HD.
IN RE ANSEL ADAMS
With In Re Ansel Adams, the famous American photographer used high resolution black and white photography to propose the image so that it could be immediately received with visual impact.
Given that I was using a cinematographic form I had to adopt a different strategy:
When the image begins there are only incandescent dancing pixels bathing the exhibition space in a luminosity and play of light, accompanied by the sound which was constructed to immerse the audience as if they were deep within the waterfall and pull back in perspective until the huge Yosemite valley was revealed on the 16 x 9 foot screen as a deep thunderous roaring, potently detailed image. I then drained the colour to Black and White, thus connecting my work with Adam’s original and creating a moment of recognition for the audience.
Here, the active element is the ‘reveal’. The audience is continuously asked the question: What are we looking at? As the reveal develops it sees more and more of the image, which it recognizes, but the scale of display then overcomes the problem solving of intellectual recognition, to give way to its pleasure.
The question that arises for the artist is: does all of this manufacturing fall away for the audience until only the matter of ‘art’ is revealed, in a similar way to that achieved by Adams? Has 70 years of familiarity with the image been washed away so that another artist - myself in this case - may achieve some kind of transmission or communication with the audience?
Go to: http://www.flaxton.btinternet.co.uk/NEINRE.htm then click ‘see video’ to watch a low resolution version of this work.
PORTRAITS OF GLASTONBURY TOR
I then began working on Portraits of Glastonbury Tor. Using ideas related by John Berger in Ways of Seeing (Berger, 1972), that of looking at the context of the production of art and artifacts and how clothes, location and objects within frame delineate the social standing of the subject or something that was of import to the subject. I also made reference to 20th century cinematography (the photo-chemical capture of motion and all that that implied) and 21st century electronic cinematography (the electronic capture of motion and all that that implied).
Outside of the technical imperatives to make this work there is a tradition in photography of the photographic series, which displays anthropological undertones, as well as those of the circus sideshow. People like August Sanders, Edward S Curtiss, Walker Evans, Dianne Arbus and even Robert Mapplethorpe have lined up an array of their contemporaries or social equivalents to display a cross-section of humanity and humanities concerns.
I began to prepare to shoot Portraits of Glastonbury Tor and I knew that I had to re-present this tradition of the documentation of the self in a different way. The reference became 16th-18th century portraiture where what the subject wore, held, or sat upon said something about them. In this case the Tor was also the subject of the work so the project would therefore include an element of landscape. Another reference I wanted to use was that of the long exposure times of early photography. I therefore asked my subjects to walk in to frame and hold their pose for one minute.
With the people from around Glastonbury, the gravedigger, the farmer, publisher, osteopath, priest, dressmaker, chip-shop owner, Zen Buddhist monk, window cleaner, special needs worker, this created a strong integration process with the community.
I then arranged for an exhibition at the Somerset Rural Life Museum inside the 14th Century barn cleared of centuries of rural tools leaving only a cider press at one end and a haywain at the other. I commissioned a 16 foot by 9 foot screen to show the piece with the subjects life-size so that the viewer might scrutinize what they were shortly to realize was not a photograph, though it had photographic detail – there were little moving figures on the distant Tor. I also showed this work at the Wickham Theatre and Windows 204 in Bristol and on a small back projection screen at Gallery Scarabocchio in Venice.
UN TEMPO, UNA VOLTA
With the third piece in the set, Un Tempo, Una Volta (Once Upon a Time) and having visited Venice a year before, I began to imagine a series of shots of some duration that did not show water, canals, sunsets, old buildings, tourists, gondoliers etc. But it was only when I realised I must free myself from simply doing the converse to expectation that the glimmer of an idea that was potent entered my mind. I began to ‘know’ that we should be able to hear the sound of water and not see it. I also began to ‘know’ that a boat should be present but we should not be able to see that either. I wanted to see the underside of Venice, the bit that’s always there, but that few people, except those that work there, actually see. I began to think that builders, firemen, ambulance-men and dockers might all see something special as they travel the canals.
Through this thought process it dawned on me that I should also create a Portrait project of this area too. The camera stays still reading the world, like a mobile scanner, in extreme high definition. That in effect is my research - how resolution interrelates with time. At this moment it began to occur to me that there is a relationship between higher resolutions of representation and the amount of time the attention is taken with perusing what has been mediated by the interface itself. If you look directly, then that is the experience you get - you and it. If you look via a medium, film, video, a telescope, a ride on a helter-skelter, that’s the elemental resource that mediates that gaze. What if that gaze were then returned ?
I organised a visit to Venice and set out to find people for a seventh piece that I had decided to make, as Portraits of Glastonbury Tor had revealed more than I had hoped for and itself demanded its own continuance in some form from me. This work was 1Ritratti di Cannaregio (Portraits of Cannaregio), set in a district where ordinary people live to the north of Venice where we were working. At the same time for Un Tempo, I met the boatman and sketched out a route and then on the day of the shoot took some silk banners to several of the bridges so that some of our helpers could drop them over at the appropriate moment so that they would brush across the camera lens and create a field of colour. This again was a device to interrupt the image or sensation the audience would be having, that of being mesmerized, and the interruption would be delightful: a field of sumptuous colour.
Friday evening at 7.40pm, when the footage had finished rendering, we took the projector we’d brought with us to the Gallery Scarabocchio and arranged for the exhibition to start at 8 p.m. When the covering board came off the window and the images of Portraits of Cannaregio fell upon one of the white banners now arranged as a screen for back projection, I could see around 60 Venetian faces waiting and smiling with surprise as they saw their own neighborhood and neighbors in front of them.
Outside of the gallery, Scarabocchio had set up a round of parmesan cheese and bottles of Prosecco (when in Venice…). On the bridge people were sitting and laughing with delight as familiar faces came and went. Yes it was in 4k resolution but shown at 1k and yes resolution was important, but more important was the representation of their own world through different, yet familiar eyes. Later I showed Un Tempo, Una Volta, In Re Ansel Adams and Portraits of the Tor. I again showed Portraits of Cannaregio and finally Portraits of the Tor was again requested.
This also happened at the exhibition of Portraits of the Tor at the Rural Life Museum in Somerset – the request by one community to see the world of other communities, which is why I shall go on and collect other ‘Portraits’.
Audience Comments on the first three works from visitors books at the exhibitions (including comments on Portraits of Cannaregio):
‘Mesmerising subliminal narratives; beautiful, haunting, informative and engaging.’
‘This is new - it redefines the portrait as a crossover between the static image and its limitations and the elements of time in a portrait. The biker is the most fascinating in his stillness as there is doubt about whether the image is live or frozen time. This piece asks a lot of questions about our perception and has given me lots of ideas for photography. Exceptional in a sea of plagiarism.’
‘An exceptional work which questions traditional portraiture with the minute discomfort of posing. The HD resolution demands our attention - detail becomes incisive - excellent.’
‘Mesmerising and curiously powerful. The way in which the angle of the screen upset my visual expectations of moving mages and films was particularly challenging.’
THE SECOND SET OF WORKS
The second trajectory of work was comprised of the following pieces: The Unfurling, Dance Floor and Water Table. I began to call upon the experiences I had had with In Other People’s Skins around the recognition of what new aesthetic might be developing in relation to the demonstration of and the dialogue between the virtual and the real.
In making this set of new works I wanted the audience to receive the work with a degree of expectation that the work will do something other than either entertain them, or simply offer them the ‘conceptual art experience’ - where a concept is equal to or dominant to the material elements of the work, where receipt of understanding of the elements of the jigsaw of the conception allowed people to leave the exhibition in tact. I wanted to deliver a third thing: that should the audience enter into an agreement with me, I would create sufficient space for them to intercede and create meaning themselves and in so doing understand something new about resolution which would allow them to leave the exhibition increased.
I found myself doing things which tried to upset conceptual work but also that of standard entertainment and that in itself became a platform for possible change. I felt I needed to place the audience where they were not sure of what the outcome of watching the work was, yet at the same time they would feel confident that whatever happened, it would be beneficial to them.
Using our tendencies towards assumption, expectation, assertion, ratiocination and then re-ordering the criteria, the parameters of how people read the space they are in and the work they apprehend, I tried to re-discover the simple strategies that I used in In Other People’s Skins - like the act of shooting an object and then projecting it back on to itself in a changed way.
One of the traditions I found myself calling upon was that of tableaux vivant (Paz, 2004):
‘originated as medieval liturgical dramas when a mass ended in a short, dramatic series or tableaux.’
Danielle Paz goes on to quote Mary Chapman (Chapman, 1992):
‘Although its emblematic and allegorical characteristics recall medieval drama, the “tableau” emerged as a true art form on the Continent and in England in the eighteenth century.’
This tradition finally finds its contemporary mode in places like the Ramblas in Barcelona or Milsom Street in Bath. Performers stand on pedestals and hold a pose. People pay to be startled and in turn delighted. In tableau vivant, the audience is aware that people are performing by holding the pose but might break it unexpectedly and there is delight to be had in this surprise. Later, a Grand Guignol tradition springs up to suggest that waxworks dummies might come to life. The power and possibility of this coming-to-life of the virtual is what I was interested in discovering in these next three works.
In terms of the exposition of The Unfurling, in a preliminary test a year before, I found my daughter asleep on a rock and then in editing the footage slowed and stretched the 15 second period of her waking into 8 minutes.
When I was about to shoot the new work it seemed apposite to think in terms of High Speed HD capture so that each moment (at 1000 frames per second) would be unveiled in high definition. Some of Bill Viola’s work is captured at high speed on film or video - for instance in both Emergence (Viola, 2002), shot underwater, a man jumps in and sinks out of frame in extreme slow motion and in Ocean Without a Shore (Viola, 2007), people walk slowly to camera in black and white from beyond the real world and pass through an invisible watery barrier into colour and the real world before returning to the monochrome world) - in both of these pieces the clarity achieved though high speed, makes certain qualities that are not present in real time available to the audience.
Bill Viola and many early video artists, like Robert Cahen and Dalibor Martinez, went beyond this simple act and took ‘the photographic moment’ and extended its timeline so that it might be witnessed at leisure - and this witnessing by the audience produced in some cases, the awe of the expansive gesture as characterised in the work of Ansel Adams. But this potential spectacularising of the gaze, can be seen as problematic because it too can become a commodity when viewed from within a Situationist viewpoint, (De Board, 1967):
‘The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective’.
As a counter measure towards what might be seen as an over-expansive and gestural position, in Regarding the pain of Others (Sontag, 2003) Susan Sontag discusses some notions around spectacularising the gaze, in this case specifically of the viewing of suffering:
‘To speak of reality as becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment – that mature style of viewing which is a prime acquisition of ‘the modern’, and a prerequisite for dismantling traditional forms of party based politics that offer real disagreement and debate. It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, un-seriously, that there is no real suffering in the world.’
Her specific point about refuting the notion of spectacularising the gaze through viewing suffering is useful in terms of the concern as a whole because at the centre of the concern is the central issue as identified by Sontag as she goes on to elaborate:
‘Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity.’
So the artist in society has to go beyond the fear that their audience might be incapable of sincerity or have a belief that their artists might be incapable of sincerity and simply pursue their intuition about what is important when trying to make art. This noticing of the gaze in the works of Viola, Cahen or Martinez, allows us past the spectacular to what critics of Viola might see as the ‘easy strategy’ of evoking the numinous present in every audience member. ‘Easy’ in the sense of ‘pulling the strings of the audience’. But evoking the numinous is not ‘easy’, it is instead an act of skill.
I prefer Plato’s use of the root of the idea, that of ‘nous’, where knowing is intuitive and prior to the act of ratiocination. I like the possibility that such an idea has crept into the language of the average person via the Cockney dialect – the idea of ‘nous’ or common sense. Etymologically speaking, the word nous appends from the Greek word, numen, or ‘to nod’ – I value the idea that rather than needing cultural helpers to understand a work or an act of art, that the audience simply nods in accord because it ‘gets the point’ - and from getting the point it can plunge further into the potential resonances of the work.
For me, making and exhibiting images as art is a revolutionary act against a system of approaching art that seeks to dis-empower the image and art itself. I use the word revolutionary in terms of a knowledge of ‘the spiritually essential’. Notions of authenticity of experience resonate for me when making art and I have a deep conviction that, like a shaman making a talisman, I as the ‘artist’ can infuse the artwork, primarily by removing my own set of neuroses from the work itself. If I can do this successfully, then I also manage to create enough space within the receiving of the work by an audience, that empowers that audience to become creative and active in dealing with the ideas within the work.
In the end, for The Unfurling I found myself liking the disturbance to the surface of the image created by shooting at 120 frames per second, then slowing it down more in post-production and then blowing the image up for projection. By presenting the changing image in steps, this distorts the surface of the image in a way that I prefer to the smooth rendition that would be obtained at 1000 fps. Arguably ‘seamlessness’ is a form of disguise and by now I was committed to getting rid of sleight of hand in relation to delivering work to the audience. As I worked through the creative process, I was beginning to face my own set of ‘givens’, my own set of previously unexamined beliefs about what matters and what does not matter in making art.
I used the 16 foot by 9 foot screen hung at a diagonal angle and suspended above the audience at the Wickham Theatre at the Drama Department at Bristol. The audience was invited to wander around the space, under or around the screen and see the ‘cinematic display’ out of context. There were no chairs, no passive seating space available – but there was a soft cushioned space that they could lie on to rest as they looked up at the huge image. This for me was not a passive space. It asked the audience to leave behind any fear that might have them not touch the work in some manner. For me, this meant leaving behind the inability to join in. Also this was a reflective surface, which also helped in a ‘shimmering of the image’. This was a re-presentation of the idea of viewing which kept the audience out of the passive state yet enabled a deeper engagement. They were surrounded by the slowed-down soundtrack; the text that the voice spoke was concerned with ideas around unfoldment and birth of consciousness – it was therefore a creation myth within a creation piece.
Some audience comments collected from visitors books, from various exhibitions of the work:
‘This work gets the viewer to look at something very ordinary in a different way. In particular I liked the way the film showed the balance of movements, that for every shift in one part of the body we must move another to compensate.’
‘Absolutely beautiful, mesmerising. I could watch it for hours. The architecture of the body and its movement in time and space becomes miraculous in this work.’
‘Aaah - I see the world as hyper-real. The grass feels as though it might crunch under my feet.’
I made tests for both Dance Floor and Water Table in standard definition. Dance Floor shares some of performative elements with The Unfurling; Water Table shares some with In Other People’s Skins.
I showed Dance Floor at the Phoenix Project in Glastonbury. As people entered they saw a rectangular platform raised 12 inches above the ground. This surrounded an image that was projected from above, on to the floor. I placed some 50 old and worn shoes around the space – I felt the need to create a sculptural element that works with the light and ephemera of the projected work. The exhibition space was bathed in a slow rumbling sound. As the audience proceeded into the room several people had already stopped around the rectangular well in which the flickering light of movement could be seen. Coming to the edge of the well the audience could see that beneath them, two life size performers were dancing together in extreme slow motion. People said that as they stood above the projection they felt like they were falling in to it and stepped back – the experience was vertiginous, yet the rostra was only 9 inches deep. Initially people stood around the well, eventually, some of the audience stepped down and danced upon the projection. People remarked that the image displayed a grace of movement that was missing from their ordinary apprehension of dance – they found themselves mesmerized by the movement and stayed for quite long periods just gazing down into the well – some obviously were bold enough to join in.
The words ‘mesmerized’ or ‘mesmerizing’ return again and again when people describe how high resolution images affect them.
As an installation Water Table is an extension of In Other People’s Skins in terms of the recognition that people enjoy being seated around a table and trying to touch something that in real terms does not exist. There is a reference here to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ novel The Invention of Morel (Casares, 1940). An escaped prisoner comes to an Island where he finds he cannot communicate with or touch the inhabitants. The explanation is that he is witnessing a 3 dimensional recording of a visit by travelers to the island the year previously. When he learns this he still remains in love with one of the virtual inhabitants despite the evidence of his common sense that what is in front of him does not truly exist.
In Other People’s Skins was punctuated with images of water, earth, fire etc to interrupt the audience’s belief in the table as being real. Of course the table itself was a real table and the image of the dinner party had a certain reality to it and people certainly believed they were sitting down with a virtual rendition of both these ideas. So with The Water Table I wanted to abandon image upon reality (table upon table) and utilize the actual table’s function, of an object to sit around and utilize for various communal acts, but replace its obvious reality with another.
I placed a white tablecloth as the screen on the table and eight chairs which were an invitation for the audience to sit. On the table itself I placed pebbles gathered at various beaches in Cornwall, Turkey and California (for variation). My intention was that this element would provide a sculptural dimension as with the plates in the dinner party or the shoes with Dance Floor. This gave the audience focus and there was then performative play with the placement of pebbles on the image and in obvious piles, but one or two people removed them and placed them on the floor between the table and the entrance as an indicator or pathway to the work. It interests me to work both with the virtual and real elements in the same installation as a means of bridging the audience’s connectedness with the work.
THE DEVELOPING AESTHETIC OF HIGH RESOLUTION IMAGING - SOME EARLY PROPOSITIONS
In all of the above there is the continuous issue that Benjamin raised in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, between the virtual and the real: Can that which is a reproduction hold the aura of the original? It has always been of interest to me that when the electricity is turned off, so my works disappear, only to exist as a memory. But it is also important to me, that there is no conceptual dominance and that there is a relationship to traditional aesthetic and material concerns – even if the material is removed. Apart from the props, which, of themselves are replaceable and not integral to the work, that which has relevance has also been removed.
The wonderful thing about the digital is that it is not ‘original’. Even works created within the arena of code are simulacra. That which is displayed is only ever a representation of data flow. So the notion of aura residing within a material work of art, may only ever have been related to a world where ‘things’ mattered.
After a year and the completion of the first third of my enquiry I can formulate some of the thoughts I have on the effect of increased resolution as a set of aphorisms. I’m very aware that what I’m about to write raises a lot of complex issues which I will have to address later in the research. I feel however that it is my role to reveal and expose these issues. I’m using this form because of the tentative nature of my thoughts at this time:
Resolution equals time
Attention is energy
Engagement is an active property within the act of the gaze
Within engagement, time ceases
The gaze is resolution and is also time, as time equals resolution
To put the above simply: when the resolution of a displayed image is increased then there is more detail for the gaze to scrutinize. The gaze could be said to be an ocular expenditure of energy which rises or falls to meet its challenge - in that sense it has similar characteristics to wavelet transforms in that they intelligently examine the data they are to deal with and then appropriately deal with them. (Fourier’s Wavelet Transforms are to my mind the underpinning mathematics that enable the entirety of the digital realm to perform as it does).
In expending energy, in concentrating, discriminating, ratiocinating and utilising all the separate factors that usually constitute self as an intellectualizing entity, in the act of gazing, the self is momentarily subsumed and becomes that emission of energy and effectively suspended whilst one’s energy is focused upon an image, and in that focusing one becomes the image – because at that moment form and content are one.
There are three issues here:
a) there is the use of language in describing the actions of concentration which is currently derived from photography: ‘to focus’ and from that the larger idea (with a nod to Chomsky), that throughout history and the development of the self, the language of our most recent technology is utilized to describe the actions of consciousness. For instance, the expression to ‘gather ones attention’ could be attributed to the simple act of finding foodstuffs and medicines from the land.
b) The second issue is the notion of the image. Just what is an image after you strip away all that we collectively agree the image is? Notionally it is some form of inscription in a medium (Charcoal on paper, oil on canvas, media on media, etc). But there are images in the mind - pictures - and also less 'material' ideas of images: concepts. Duchamp championed the notion of the value of the concept above its material manifestation. Strip away the material and all that is left is immaterial - just as it is in the digital realm.
c) The third issue is whether or not it is worth thinking of the performative in this act - the response of self to the engagement with greater detail is a worthy level to analyze the act. Of course performativity happens - but how important is it when compared to the play of energy of mind across an image, whether two or three-dimensional?
In all of this I have to fictionalise these elements so that I may form a description of the terrain so that it might be discussed and thought about and reflected upon. I have developed the simile that there is a surface or interface where image meets gaze and gaze meets image - as if there was an exchange to be had between both. There is, but it is displaced by time. The act of shooting is at one time and the act of displaying is at another.
The iconography of the image, the exploration of a place seen many times seems to be in tact, yet I did feel that generally the image was made afresh with the accompanying benefit that the special-ness of the individual self can be maintained against the flow of images.
MY CURRENT UNDERSTANDING
One’s own work sits within a wider context of one’s own understanding of the world. To my mind the development of the self at the beginning of the 21st century is conflicted: on one level one could propose that it is further individualized than, for example, an Egyptian slave of the second century BCE. Arguably, the 21st century self has more power through the democratic order and therefore is less likely to submit its self-hood to the overall community. However, the contemporary self has taken to representing itself through an avatar, both telematically - myspace and face-book require a description of self as a collection of likes and dislikes and commodity choices which say ‘I am this’ because I have these brand loyalties' - but also via a status representation in real life through actual purchase of cultural elements that have 'value' amongst peers. The outer self pervades the inner self. If we transmit our self-image and avatar telematically from London to Beijing via the Internet, then simultaneously we transmit the outside world in terms of choices and allegiances equally as far inside - to an inner Beijing.
Given this conviction and the tentative results of the work, these are building blocks for my investigation into the nature of the mediated image, mediated through resolution. A basic question arises: Why does an image with many times less resolution than our optical system have an effect on us when an object directly perceived may have none?
At the beginning of my work it seemed to me that High Definition should not be conceived so much as an image format, but rather a portal, a doorway through which we might look and see things differently. It is a doorway that enables a look into the future because it demonstrates and reflects back to us our current physiology and psychology. If technology should be ‘appropriate’ in that it arises through our imaginings (through our science fiction writers) and then manifests when it is needed, then High-resolution imaging is indeed a reflection of our state because it has become technically possible and therefore appropriate at this time.
For many years it’s been my conviction that this effect can be demonstrably countered by the individual who will engage with the process of manufacture such that the transmission of idea to the audience is reflective of and understands the global image condition. The community can also potentially be untouched within the global. It has long prolonged its resources for maintaining its authenticity against the deadening influences of late capitalism. Artists could utilize this innate strength to reinvent their own practice and go out of their own community and into others to formulate fresh and real responses in their art. This is the way that Un Tempo, Una Volta and Portraits of Cannaregio came into being and when returning with the fruits of that exchange it has become clear to me why staging is important in bringing back that exchange to my own community. Staging is an element within context and context clarifies meaning. My art is about speaking directly to the viewer, in a way that is untainted by ratiocination – because this is an intellectual function that intercedes and if you will allow me the conceit, lessens the ‘resolution’ of the exchange. It seems to me that global image culture is of ‘low resolution’ and that individual or communal acts can be at a ‘higher resolution’.
At this point in my fellowship, the study of increased resolution within image making is about revealing higher levels of clarity - about seeing more clearly, about creating the possibility of a gaze that is energetic and liberating and that is emblematic of the paradigm that is upon us. Art that works for the individual mind and psyche in an empowering rather than deadening or alienating way, can reveal what we are about to know about the world prior to the coming of a set of prescriptive thoughts – and that glimpse is then of an incoming paradigm. In catching this glimpse of the paradigm within which we think, we can perceive its limitations, an act which in itself generates the force that dissolves that paradigm and allows the new paradigm to grow.
Baudrillard, Jean (1993) The Transparency of Evil, Verso
Benjamin, Walter (1936), ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung
Casares, Adolfo Bioy (1940) The Invention of Morel, Editorial Losada, Argentina
Chapman, Mary (1992), Living pictures, Women and Tableaux Vivants in Nineteenth Century American Fiction and Culture, Cornell University
DeBoard, Guy, (1967) The Society of the Spectacle, Buchat-Castel
Paz, Danielle, (2004) ‘Tableau Vivant’, Theories of Media, Unversity of Chicago
Sobchack, Vivian (1992) The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton University Press
Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the pain of Others, Picador
Videography/Installations - links to excerpts
In Other People’s Skins
In Re Ansel Adams
Portraits of Glastonbury Tor
Un Tempo, Una Volta
Ritratti di Cannaregio (Portraits of Cannaregio)
1 Ritratti di Cannaregio (Portraits of Cannaregio), had begun to extend the development of the ideas first found in Portraits of Glastonbury Tor, so I next shot Portraits of the Somerset Carnivals in late Autumn 2008 and I am due to shoot Portraits of Bristol University’s Centenary and Portraits of London in May 2009 and exhibit these in the Autumn. I now hope to develop electronic motion picture portraiture before pushing further to an examination of the cinematic moment within high Definition Aesthetics.