Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 41, November 2002

 

 

Matt Lee

 

Technology and the Image

 

 

_Screen-Based Art_

Edited by Annette W. Balkema and Henk Slager

Series of Philosophy of Art and Art Theory

_Lier en Boog_, vol. 15, 2000

ISBN 90-420-0801-6

192 pp.

 

The advent of digital photography and the personal computer (and more recently of the digital camera) has been one of the more noticeable technological developments in the last few years. With these new advances there has been a rise in the art practices surrounding such technology, and this volume of essays is about what could be broadly defined as 'media art', that is, art that in some way uses the development of the new digital medias. There is, however, a wealth of opinion and a paucity of argument in _Screen-Based Art_, a special issue of the journal _Lier en Boog_ edited by Annette Balkema and Henk Slager. In that single fact lies its frustrating inability to offer little more than snippets or glimpses of thought, whilst simultaneously lingering long enough after consumption to stimulate further thought.

 

The primary strength of the collection is that it contains essays from a wide cross-section of practitioners and theoreticians of video and computer-based art, or, as Balkema and Slager have called it, 'screen based art'. It offers a valuable insight into a new and undoubtedly dynamic area of moving-image production. This breadth of inclusion is one of the issue's strengths, and the addition of an interview with the rarely translated philosopher Peter Sloterdijk lifts the collection noticeably.

 

It is clear from the pieces that there is an almost desperate need to theorise the practice of video and computer-based art installations, and, to a lesser extent, the practice of 'media art' in general. A number of issues are outlined in the Introduction, around which the contributions coalesce quite loosely. Firstly there is the idea of 'media art' itself -- is there some specificity that can be established for this seemingly new realm of practice? The bulk of the contributions around this first question appear to work with a communications or information-type theoretical framework, and issues of meaning are not central to the concerns of these writers -- although Ken Feingold does address this problem in his contribution, in particular opening up the role of the exhibition space in the construction of an artwork's meaning. The editors expanded on Feingold's contribution by inviting two further contributions specifically from art curators who are more directly responsible for the construction of the exhibition spaces. The second main issue picked up on was the 'specificity' of media art and in particular its time-based characteristics. Finally the relation of media art to the moving image is explored.

 

The editors write that cinema has become a 'narrative codification system', playing a privileged role within the televisual culture as a source of key visual references, and helping establish a generalized 'panoptic disposition' (95). The backdrop of the televisual is thus set up by the editors as something against which visual artists struggle, 'intending to liberate the authentic filmic from the homogenous gaze of dominant cultural logic by constant obfuscation of the visual' (95). Balkema and Slager then suggest an interest amongst video artists in Deleuze, not least because of the value of immanence as a conceptual and artistic tool, and also because the Bergsonian concept of duration enables a reworking of our visual experience of time. The 'filmic image' and its 'internal differentiation' then become the focus of creation, rather than the narrative structure of cinema, or the cultural fashions of mass media, allowing the editors to suggest that there is a resultant hesitation between painting and video in the 'filmic image'. This hesitation opens a space of in-between-ness that can allow the artists to 'show the spectator these basic conditions of a fundamental communication' (98). Such reliance upon the authentic, revelatory power of the 'filmic image' suggests that art as truth giver is still central to the concerns of the editors, and that they value the truth of an artwork as a way of valuing it as a practice or object.

 

These comments by Balkema and Slager come in the middle of the collection, as an introduction to texts by Chris Dircon, Patricia Pisters, and Ed Tan -- papers from a symposium they had jointly organised with the Gallery Ferdinand van Dieten-d'Eendt in Amsterdam. Dircon argues that there is a move away from the narrative 'meaning-ridden' images to the 'pure image' (102), and that in fact cinema has always presupposed, as it were, such a pure image, where the audience 'drop in and out', a sort of interruption to the narrative. He cites the fact that people used to pop in and out of movie theaters during a show, 'until far into the 1950's', and that such phenomena strengthen the idea that 'first of all cinema is more a dramatic medium than a narrative dictatorship' (105). Pisters suggests that associationism and memory are vital tools of conceptualizing the way the visual image is developed. The huge background of cinematographic images 'have become part of topical memory' (110), and cites artists such as Douglas Gordon as key examples of the exploration of such 'memory images'. Cinematographic images form a source of 'ready made' images, echoing Duchamp's conversion of the urinal into the gallery object (110). These 'ready made' or 'already there' images act as a sort of virtual image, a permanent, ongoing background of imagery against which visual artists work. Pisters further suggests that the Deleuzian concept of becoming, of the connection of one thing to another, is in fact what is being explored in much visual arts, and that 'the current connection of cinematographic images and visual art is intrinsically bound with such processes of becoming where cinematographic bodies are 'liberated' from the (often) rigid forms of representation of classic cinema' (112). Ed Tan continues this notion of the filmic image as a sort of cultural memory. He accepts that his thesis begs the question of empirical research: 'Ultimately, empirical research will have to determine to what extent the filmic image and its intricate web of imagery is part of cultural memory' (117). He goes on to argue that 'people do not only remember filmic events, characters, places and images but also filmic techniques and styles, all of which evoke memories and create an atmosphere of time gone by' (121). Tan's piece, like many others, is more suggestive than substantive, and is perhaps indicative of the tone of much of the journal.

 

It is clear from this symposium, placed centrally in the collection, that the problem at the heart of the journal is the relation of film to art, configured not in terms of whether we think films are art -- i.e.: the rather tedious question of whether _Apocalypse Now_ is art or not -- but rather in terms of the artistic status of the video and filmic images of media art within the art world, in particular in terms of that media thing. Rosalind Kraus is identified as the author of the phrase 'that media thing' and she is cited as using it during an interview with the _Lier en Boog_ editors in 1997. It serves as a sort of 'epigraph' or focal point for an object that is without a name. The question of whether there is anything really new about the 'new media' is present in many of the contributions, but in such a way that it is never really put under any strain as a presupposition. There is never any real exploration of 'that media thing' as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. There is an essentially unwarranted assumption that there has been a whole set of new medias that have come into play in the art world. Central to that presupposition is the role of the personal computer and the internet. The new groovy technology of the internet is a revolutionary force for change it seems, and occasionally the contributions reminded me very strongly of the hype that preceded the Dot.Com crash. The newness of the new media looks more than a little tarnished now. Of course the relation of the Dot.Com boom to the rise of the new 'media art' is never once touched upon here, even in passing, and this, I think, is indicative of the complete absence of a political or social component in the thoughts of the contributors as they are displayed here. The relationship of capital to art is under-explored to say the least.

 

In this situation, where a 'new market' is being opened up for the art world, the at times naive theorizing of many in this collection is infuriating. At the base of much of the work is a theoretical assumption that any moving image is intimately related to any other moving image, and even to the photographic image, and from there to painting. These connections can obviously be built, but for theoretical clarity we also want distinctions. Why should we assume the relation of video and media art to the filmic image? Is this assumption necessary? Does the audience automatically make it? When video is placed within the gallery space there is an assumption of a social role that is interestingly related to Duchamp's ready-made. What would happen if we were to place video art within the cinema setting however? If there is a relation of visual art to filmic image then is this relation reciprocal? What is the dominant form that media art relates to -- the world of cinema or the world of art? Even to ask this last question suggests that the reliance upon the surface is theoretically unsatisfying.

 

In the end this reliance on a surface of connections and suggestions seems to dominate the collection. The texts are short and often with brief descriptions of experiences of primarily video art that never seem to trouble themselves with the positioned nature -- socially, culturally, intellectually -- of the author giving the descriptions. The implicit theoretical models of many of the contributors is plainly influenced by 'new technologies' and 'the information age', with art being described, by Heiner Holtappels for example, as 'information' (135), with sweeping claims by others such as Nicolas Schofhausen that 'media art at best serves the idea of communication' (147), or by Jeffrey Shaw that art that uses new media must recognize that such technology is 'in the first place a communications technology' (148). What is missing from too many of these contributors is any concept of control, any theorization of power or any notion of the immanent construction of an art world of which they are part, as though they retain, throughout all their interactive new media screen based visual filmic art installations an ability to control as a subject the artwork. Only Sloterdijk's fascinating piece really offers any serious challenge to the main tone of the collection, along with a polemical piece by Dressler and Christ. These two contributions lift the rest of the collection as a whole and suggest possible directions for research programmes that could begin from the issues raised by the other contributors.

 

When I suggested at the beginning of this review that there is an wealth of opinion and a paucity of argument in this edition of the _Lier en Boog_ journal, I hoped to suggest that the collection is of interest as a sort of 'primary text', an expression of the opinions of working artists -- who appear to theorise their subject area but in fact display the many un-theorised or partially theorized presuppositions they are working with. In this situation it reaches into the heart of current artistic practice and shows very clearly both the difficulties and variety of the practice of video art. Some texts suggest ways in which to understand, whilst others suggest areas that need further understanding, and the use of the _Lier en Boog_ collection is that it brings together a conversation of opinions that can ground further work and play a useful role in marking a moment in the development of the moving image. There are more questions than answers in the collection, but that in itself is a useful first step towards understanding more effectively the ways in which technology is increasingly implicated in any understanding of the moving image

 

University of Sussex, Brighton, England

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Matt Lee, 'Technology and the Image', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 41, November 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n41lee>.

 

 

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