Wednesday, 7 July 2010

It’s not just the resolution, stupid

For a thorough assessment of my research up until this moment, please see the blog dated 8th February entitled Time and Resolution: Experiments in High Definition Image Making, which outlines my work and current findings.

Since showing some of my high resolution works in Xi’an in China this June/July, I’ve come to realise something about the other factors that make resolution work as an artistic function.

This insight has come about because my Chinese audience expressly communicated that they liked the work that I was showing them because it chimed with them and their values. There was an outbreak of discussion around the relationship between form and content during the symposium that accompanied the exhibition where my work was shown in installation form. I also showed work in my presentation as did Peter Richardson from Dundee University in his choice of Portraits of the Smerset Carnivals. Our Chinese hosts argued strongly that much of the Western art that had been brought to China gave priority to the exploration of technical as opposed to artistic values in the majority of the work. Given Western funding priorities towards science rather than art, this was insightful of the Chinese participants to ferret this out.

This was not the case in their response to my own work however. My work had an amazing reception – I’ve been asked to some right back and teach and give workshops and show more work -perhaps I’m part Chinese or there’s something in me that chimes with their value system – and here I’m mindful that I’m talking about the most recent iteration of the concerns of about a quarter of the population of the planet – and this in itself makes me very happy. I don’t really care if our little western backwater doesn’t respond as well (although in some situations it does – it really does). It’s quite amazing that something that I’m doing chimes with the Chinese mind, though and it’s this that has set me enquiring into what it is that works.

The character of the response was that they really got what I was saying (given that the artist hardly ever knows the true direction of the impact of their work) in fact we set ourselves our obsessive compulsive tasks and then the audience receives the work in a completely different way anyway. C’est la vie.

There was in fact a recognition that there is a technical background to what I do – after all the work is made at 4k and then displayed as high as I can display in terms of resolution, and it’s been my conviction through observation of the audience response that people engage for longer periods with the work the higher the detail it carries. But – but. There’s something about what I’m choosing to create an image of and the way that I’m presenting it to the audience that is engaging people i n a powerful way. Again, I’m trying to be pure about what I’m writing here because I’m totally aware that on some levels what I’m writing could be seen to be self-promotional – that’s not the case I’m trying to decipher the cause of the response.

When TV seeks to show off its higher resolutions it shows nature and landscape footage. It’s impactful for a moment – you know the shots, the polar bear mother skids across the thin ice in case she breaks it followed by her cub who’s playfully batting her legs; or the wilderbeast shot from a balloon race across the veldt in their migratory pattens avoiding lions who are there for the kill; we see a tree canopy before the shot glides into the distance as the earth drops away from us as we soar over the mighty waterfall. Etc.

And I mean ‘etc’ because shots like these have a function which is a part of the form of the trail or longer documentary that they reside in. What I’m really saying here is that yes, these shots exploit the capacities of the higher resolution cameras and displays but that’s all they’re really intended to do; punctuate the form they reside in and the kind of thinking they derive from is the commodification of form – that its impactful-ness is utilised in loss of personal determination in relation to the emotionalism of the form. What I’m talking about here is something Brecht recognised - that the audience is simply ustilied by the artist in a group act that is all about its manipulation – it ebbs and flows in its sympathies according to the determination of the authors.

It is true that most all authors want their audience with them – but in some case – most cases – there’s an unscrupulous attitude about the audiences self-determination. Should it for instance divide its allegiance from the authors purpose, then author in terms of the sale of the work as a commodity would see it as a failure. Hollywood takes no hostages, it wants a ‘satisfied’ audience. And satisfaction is about a set of values that are learnable by any student who studies in the standard educational model to manipulate the audience. It is a loop that cirtcles around and around.

Craft oriented education wants complete control form the student of the form, contextual studies wants a critique – thye are essentially at loggerheads in their intent which is a real pedagogical problem.

The artist however wants above all to challenge the audience and not simply lead them like a lamb to slaughter at the altar of quiescence in terms of the value system that most media is utilised to reproduce.

In my work I have absolutely no interest in commodifying the form because in so doing it lessens the potency of the act of engaging in research in resolution – my work is about revealing the potency of the aesthetics of the form – and these aesthetics directly derive from the technical base of the form. This is also a ‘take-no-hostages’ approach – but it is in the interest, in the end, of the self-determination of the audience. I want the audience to consciously be able to disengage at any point with the work and given that element of the contract between artist and audience, then the audience can sample the act of engagement free from my manipulation of them.

So what works in terms of aesthetics when you’re involved in a guided tour through resolution (which is what my artwork is about)?

I am trying to offer complete engagement on a par with anything that Hollywood – or for that matter any contemporary art values that are perpetrated by aestheticians or art dealers can offer (both of whom are quite happy in each-others company though course they really should be deadly enemies if things were not currently upside down and inside out).

In the work I am enthusiastic about presenting an image – like Whistler vs Ruskin, I argue that 30 years behind a camera renders me experienced. I am a very practised cinematographer and have framed a thousand shots for a thousand different reasons for a thousand different directors, having committed myself to learning just what they desire and just what their aesthetic is (that’s something that happens between all directors and directors of cinematography – at least since the notion of the auteur director came into vogue).

Through having been in very many situations where it has been my sole job to ‘find’ a frame, with special regard to what my director might like, I’ve learned my trade. But at the same time my own imagination has soared in very many directions whilst accomplishing what particular directors want. Set me free with a camera and the black space around the light area that is the framed image is the most potent thing that can happen to me.

I am a camera.

So – as an old tutor once said to me, put thirty photographers in a white room with a window and you’ll get thirty different photographs – one of which will be close to brilliant – and that is the image I seek to find in all situations – that’s what cinematographers do (besides all the other stuff like invigorating the crew, judging exposure, imagining the look and the treatment and carrying the entire production through from inception to display).

Ok – enough description of what the cinematographers eye and mind are engaged in and why I and others like me can imagine what to do with the world and how to imagine it into being.

But there are other factors – the factor of the choosing of the image in the first place. Take for instance my Portraits of the Somerset Carnivals that particularly caught the Chinese eye and mind. Shot at night with the illumination coming from the carnival floats themselves (a cinematography problem in itself – judging exposure of the self-illuminating object), the idea was to shoot a portrait of a float as it stopped in its procession and then display it at 20 feet by 10 feet so that it was the same size as the original and then have it displayed in a different context from its capture. Xi’an in China is about as different as you can get from the original carnival location in Somerset.

So I gather at 4k and re-present at 2k (or 1K if there’s no budget) and this act alone allows the audience to peruse the work without the distraction of the petrol fumes and loud disparate sound sources that are coming at them in the original situation.

Then there’s the sound which accompanies the work – I would have asked a composer to create a soundtrack that also removed the original from its environment to an equivalent amount but to hand (or rather in mind for some twenty years) was Brian Eno and Robert Fripps ‘No Pussy Footing’ – the Heavenly Music corporation piece. I can’t describe it here other than to say: it’s abstract; it’s comprised of backwards and slowed down guitars and their overlays and echos. It was a perfect accompaniment. Sound is as important as resolution of image and does the extra work of disassociating the image from it’s prior relationships and ten conferring new resonances – these choices make the artwork (with other choices like how to display etc.

When shown in a 15th century barn in Somerset the piece has been described using the following words:

Classical statuary
Paper cut outs
Wedding cakes/Icing
Cloud formations
Science fiction film
Wild West
Mexican Day of the Dead
Mountains & Snow

The qualities the work brought to mind

Wild !

This was followed by the following description:

‘What was exhilarating was the contrast between the slow meditative movement and image size of the floats passing by with the hectic activity on the film surface as lights went on /off / in /out smeared and melding, twisted and turned – was very visually exciting and allowed the eye to roam and alight on the new forms created within the detailed density of the frame. There is a monumental quality to the film – I don’t know if this comes from this contrast between the large size of the floats in frame and the total eyeful (!) one gets in looking at their details.

The almost harsh brightness of the float lighting against night is not something one sees outside of city so it was strange to see this in a barn with barn and an ancient one to boot !’

This refers to the location of display – a 15th century Somerset Barn.

In Xi’an the audience were equally enthusiastic. The translator did their best but I could see from the sparkle in the audiences eyes as they crowded around me to ask questions afterwards that they too found something similar. They talked of the powerful symbolising influence of the work – but with no particular symbol in mind. I think they meant by this that they were moved – and I do not mean emotionally, I mean more that they identified with the commitment of the act of engagement without usual western demands of having to give up their autonomy.

The idea of being moved without a definite reason is exciting because it intimates a spiritual movement and not emotional movement.

But it wasn’t just the Chinese that responded in these terms, the Swiss, the Germans, the Canadians, the Austrians and Finish all responded in a positive way. There was something in this screening which went beyond simple national boundaries and the work ‘spoke’ across these boundaries in n interesting way. The director of ETH, the institution where Einstein studied, talked of powerful ‘mesmeric symbolism’. Mesmeric Symbolism – this isn’t trance state, where one leaves what one was to enter another space, rather this is a state where you come to with a degree of transcendent emotion – all these words are wrong of course because emotion is not useful in the higher states – emotion is a lower state in some ways. Being uplifted is a general way to tal about this state.

Actually at this even the effect of the work was so powerful I received three distinct formal offers to bring the work and talk about how high resolution images was developing new aesthetics. The Swiss, the Canadians and the Chinese all responded in this way.

The work certainly mesmerises – but in the way that a hypnotist hypnotises – that is you are aware of everything and will do nothing against your will.

The eye is delighted by the surface texture of the image – there is much going on as the report above communicates about colour and detail.

I’ll stop now because it will take time to disentangle what is exactly going on. Watch this space for further thoughts about the extra characteristics required to make a successful artwork in High Resolution.