An Immaterial Medium

story © Michael Betancourt, November 30, 2015 all rights reserved.


The particular dimensions of a physical engagement with immateriality in motion pictues depends on the fragmentary nature of the digital medium itself: everything “inside” the computer exists as numerically encoded data: the fragmentation and digital organization of information that when ‘replayed’ for a human audience appears continuous via discrete units (commonly called “samples”) is a given when considering any product of digital technology. These discrete fragments of reality enable the transmission, reproduction, and reassembly that are the common features of any digital technology, and the apparently ‘prefect’ reproduction originated precisely in the actuality that what is encountered through the immaterial production of the digital work is not a copy so much as a new example produced specifically for the moment of encounter; it is an “original.” This reassembly from fragmentary samples may not have been an invention of the late nineteenth century, but it was in this period where sampling, coupled with new developments in photography, introduced the essential foundation for the digital transformation of reality into data that enables the digital to function as a perfect ‘reproduction.’

The kinds of technical failure that have been ‘captured’ and employed in media works currently identified with “glitch aesthetics” appear to be entirely incompatible with the procedures and codes of realism, most particularly in the “long take” that assures of a continuous unfolding on screen, except when used as a superficial marker for ‘actuality’—that the footage has been damaged in some fashion and the appearance of these glitches is simply a side-effect of this damage. The aesthetic development of glitch as it has been employed in ‘experimental’ work as a primary visual material offers an opportunity to consider the relationship between these glitches and the mainstay of cinematic realism, the long take.

The deployment of continuous long takes, in fact, the of continuity of datastreams that glitch procedures makes apparent is one of the paradoxical relations these techniques reveal about the long take, as well as the (dis)continuous nature of motion imagery using digital technology. Databending is the direct manipulation of this continuous digital data stream, a methodology that acts to introduce miscodings and other ‘errors’ specifically to produce anomalous results when that data is rendered into a human readable form: these interruptions are “glitches” and provide the visible materials for a range of artists, both digital and traditional. There are forums specifically dedicated to the collection, presentation and discussion of these glitch art works, and while databending is only one method for producing glitches, all these methods share a formal engagement with the liminal products of “malfunctioning technology.” Databending is one such tool, a way of getting at the idea of digital materiality. As a technique it reveals the continuous nature of the datastream, whether it produces the epiphenomena of individual ‘shots’ in a movie or not. But glitch is not an end in itself, even though there are many experimenters with glitch procedures for whom it is: the process of directly altering a digital data stream (whether the data stream itself or the means of decoding it, the “codec”) produces materials that are wholly dependent on human consideration for their meaning to emerge. Yet what “video glitches” in general also reveal about these motion pictures in particular is their fragmentary, digitally compartmentalized nature—a nature that remains unseen under the conditions of ‘normal function.’ The break up into individual shots (even into frames) is rendered ambiguous by databending since the interventions interventions it employs makes the compressed artificial nature of the structural image apparent. That for the digital system, these datastreams behave as a continuous, singular unit becomes apparent in the ways that these ‘errors’ extend beyond the end of single shots, often carrying some of their imagery with them, blurring the distinction around the ‘cut.’

This elision of editing--a breaking of boundaries between ‘frames’ and ‘shots’--is simply an accentuation of the capacity of errors to carry across one frame and into the next on celluloid—the scratch that runs across multiple frames, potentially extending throughout an entire motion picture is the analogue to the digital glitch's breakdown of boundaries. What we encounter with the particular failures that digital technology can present is an intensification of the earlier, physical failures that could impact the physical filmstrip itself. But where the scratch remains at the surface, lying over the image, the glitch happens within that image itself, it is a structural transformation—akin to the physical decomposition of the film strip itself that appears in Bill Morrison’s work with archival films for example—where the image and its divisions and organization are subject to transformation in ways that physical film with a surface scratch is not. The combination and relationship of integral transformation to the continuous nature of the datastream makes the consideration of glitched footage in relation to the long take appropriate: both are predicated on the continuity of image-sequence, that it proceeds in an uninterrupted fashion.

While the long take is not a guarantee of realism, it is a standard aesthetic for motion pictures that assert their factuality, and is a common part of documentary form. Any appearance of protracted long takes makes a specific ontological “claim” about the factuality and veracity of the visuals, as André Bazin argued in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” The long take functions as a record of events unfolding in front of a camera, evidence of a direct linkage to profilmic events:

Whatever the objections of our critical faculties, we are obliged to believe in the existence of the object represented: it is truly re-presented, made present in time and space. [. . .] Seen in this light, cinema appears to be the completion in time of photography’s objectivity. A film is no longer limited to preserving the object sheathed in its moment, like the intact bodies of insects from a bygone era preserved in amber. [. . .] Only the impassive lens, in stripping the object of habits and preconceived notions, of all the spiritual detritus that my perception has wrapped it in, can offer it up unsullied to my attention and thus to my love. In the photograph, a natural image of a world we no longer able to see, nature finally does more than imitate art: it imitates the artist. [Bazin, Andre. What is Cinema? trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2009) pp. 8-9.]
As a guarantor of realism objectively presented without the apparent intrusion of editing and montage enables the emergence of the ‘reality’ of the events shown. In constructing cinematic realism using this logical model, what is of immediate interest is the focus on the apparently continuous action appearing on screen without (visible) editing. What matters in this construct is neither the actuality of events shown, nor their continuous appearance on screen, but the formal semblance of such continuity: the underlying nature of the motion in the frame remains constant whatever the length of the shots in question.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  November 30, 2015  all rights reserved.

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