Grasping at the Intangible: A Phenomenology of Digital Abstraction in Bret Battey’s Sinus Aestum (2009)
In recent years film and new media scholars have increasingly sought to emphasise the significant role that embodied perception plays in viewers’ encounters with moving images. However, while many of these theories of spectatorship have focused on alternative and avant-garde forms of film and video, they have generally neglected to examine the particular conjunction of experimental practice and digital media that comprises abstract digital animation. Since phenomenological film scholars have largely tended to address representational (photographic) images and the (surface) materiality of analogue media, there has yet to be much in-depth exploration of how distinctive aesthetic characteristics of digital animation, despite its alleged intangibility, can endow viewers’ experiences of abstraction with senses of dimensionality and materiality unlike any other moving image media. By focusing closely on experimental animator and musician Bret Battey’s virtuosic non-figurative digital animation Sinus Aestum, this paper sets out to investigate the new kinds of sensual relationships to abstraction evoked by digital media’s propensity for pristine illusionism. In Sinus Aestum, Battey invites viewers into unworldly encounters with unidentifiable forms and materials by manipulating the capacity of contemporary video effects and animation software to render complex optical illusions of three-dimensional space and by precisely orchestrating the metamorphosing behaviours of tens of thousands of coloured light particles. Drawing on Laura U. Marks’s explication of haptic visuality and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, I attempt to articulate a theory of how viewers are able to imaginatively and synaesthetically experience Battey’s ‘ethereal’ textures. I suggest that, in their depiction of otherworldly consistencies and substances, computer-animated works like Sinus Aestum compel our imaginations, intellects, and sensory perceptions to continue to find new ways of grasping and feeling into abstract moving images.