This was published in Victoria Vesna's anthology Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow.
Ocean, Database, Recut
He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories.
(Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories [London: Granta Books, 1990] pp. 71-72)
The Story Ocean pictured by Salman Rushdie is an inspiration for interactive narrative. It combines the metaphor, by now drained of meaning, of surfing—in this case riding a single story-current to take in its narrative line—with the idea of fluid dynamics. Turbulences created by the surfer’s activity cause individual story streams to combine, forming new stories out of elements of the old. “It is not dead but alive,” as Iff, the guide to the Ocean, expresses it.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie’s single published children’s book, is an elaborate but disguised allegory. The story of the harsh dictator who has polluted the Story Ocean hints at a sullying of the luxurious Middle Eastern traditions of narrative. Central to this literature is The Thousand and One Nights, the 13th century multi-volume epic that appears again and again in our own cultures—if pale, safe, and dilute—in a range from Rimsky-Korsakov to Disney, to say nothing of the thousand thousand and one children’s illustrated Alladins, Sinbads, and Ali Babas. Dilute not only in the sense that the original is as erotic as Lolita, but also because 1001 Nights is itself a multi-linear Ocean, or at least a Great Lake, of overlapping stories and stories-within-stories. Rushdie’s novella is crammed with references to The Thousand and One Nights. The twelve-year-old title character, Haroun, for example, shares his name with the hero of many stories told by Sheherazade, Harun Al-Rashid, a wise, generally generous Caliph. One of the undercurrents of Sheherazade’s storytelling is to recommend Al-Rashid’s more rational style of behavior to the cruel Sultan who has sentenced her to death in retribution for his late wife’s adultery. Each morning the sultan suspends her execution so that she can complete the story she has abandoned in the middle like a Saturday afternoon serial or a daily Soap. Sheherazade engages in close to a thousand and one nights of sexual shenanigans with the Sultan as prelude to stories incorporating sexual encounters of all conceivable types, which she describes in fine, erotic detail. In 1001 Nights it is sex and allegorical narrative that together save Sheherazade from the axe—and it is patently Rushdie’s dream that somehow narrative (combined with the debatable skills of the British Special Police Forces) save him from millions of Muslims charged with the duty of enacting his holy (and rewarding) murder . . . just as narrative (his own Satanic Verses) led to the Fatwah death sentence in the first place.
However . . . this story-current is not one that I wish to ride any further in this context. The official Fatwah on Salman Rushdie was lifted in 1998, though he will probably never be completely out of danger. And the image of an Ocean of Streams of Story is now a resonating element of our literature. In this essay I want to suggest that Rushdie’s Ocean describes a shape for storytelling that is replacing the kind of narrative structure that emerged in literature in the 19th century, a structure greedily adopted by the cinema, and which has continued to rule vast regions of media territory ever since. It is, to use an imprecise and overused terminology, a notion of ‘linear’ structure, and my suggestion is that its replacement—Rushdie’s Ocean of Stories—is a ‘multi-linear’ structure.
* * *
Film wants to be linear. In orderly procession, one frame follows another into the gate of the projector or onto the head of the VCR, forming a time line of images with a definite beginning before which there is nothing, and a precise end . . . when it stops. The very topology of film or video, a long narrow ribbon, suggests a shape for its content. To match the form of the filmstrip, the events depicted should start at one point in time and continue without break to another, always one and only one thing occurring on the screen at any given moment. Then everything should culminate and conclude in such a way that the viewer understands and accepts that it is over. No loose threads. No unresolved issues. The prevention of leftovers at the end of a film naturally imposes a regime on the middle as well. Nothing can inhabit the center that cannot be adequately accounted for when the ending is reached: every knot that is introduced at the beginning and progressively entangled in the middle must be unraveled by the end.
But this is a story form that does not match experience. We are complex creatures, living through experiences that are not circumscribed by beginnings and endings. We perform many actions at once, some mental, some physical. We can, effortlessly, switch our attention from one thing in consciousness to another, without completely abandoning the first. And we act on the world. Our actions, physical and mental, disturb the objects of perception: a flick of the eyes, a turn of the head, a shove, and what we see and hear is suddenly different. So when we compress our stories to match them to the shape of a film band on which a linear progression of events is depicted, and over which we have no influence, our description both misrepresents our experience and omits crucial elements of it. And if this simplified (though often elegant) form of representation takes center stage, as it did in the 20th century, we begin to believe that lived experience that does not conform to this structure is lacking, rather than vice versa.
These are elementary points that have been repeated ad nauseam in the last 50 years of film studies. But now at last we have a form of audio-visual representation that is alternative—we can begin to depict the multiplicities and complexities inherent to living in time. I am talking about the promise of an interactive cinema, something that has been hanging over us for decades now. Not that filmmakers haven’t been attempting to portray the variegated textures and shapes of experience since the beginning of cinema. In the last twenty or thirty years, perhaps longer, these attempts have usually been outside the mainstream cinematic culture, avant-garde, independent, and often subversive: some examples will be discussed later in this essay. In contrast, writers have been pursuing these goals for centuries, and garnering respect for their attempts and successes. The 1001 Nights is a 13th century example, as is its contemporary from the Indian subcontinent: Katha Sarat Sagara, which translates as “The Ocean of the Streams of Story.”
Lev Manovich, in an illuminating and influential series of writings in this volume and elsewhere, agrees that the narrative structures of the late 19th and 20th century are an outdated form. He proposes replacing the narrative genre with the database genre, positing the database as a paradigm for the structure of new media works. He argues that narrative and database are polar concepts, "narrative" being the 'unmarked' term of the pair, i.e. the term that gets its meaning from the other. His denouncement of narrative echoes a recurring theme of postmodern art practice and criticism, though it is clearly a beast that is not easily put down. I find Manovich's criterion of narrative too stringent, and I will propose that it may be more useful to look at ways that narrative can be retooled in the light of the database. New media open an opportunity for rethinking the notion of narrative, rather than shutting it out.
The complications inherent to these issues become apparent when we realize that Rushdie's Ocean is itself a database. The Ocean fulfills two basic criteria of the database: (1) it is composed of smaller elements, the story-currents; and (2) it can be traversed in a multiplicity of ways. Manovich’s style, and perhaps also his outlook, stands in harsh contrast to Rushdie’s constructions of the imagination, but to my mind this divergence in approach is precisely what makes it useful to bring them together. Rushdie describes the Ocean of Streams of Story as “the biggest library in the universe,” holding “all the stories that had ever been told […] in fluid form.”
If the Ocean of Streams of Stories is a database, what are its basic elements, its atoms? Rushdie writes that drinking a small cup of the ocean's liquid produces a story in the imbiber like a dream, a hallucination … or a first person video game. The elements of the Ocean database are stories. But according to Manovich, narrative is already a specific method of navigating a database, in that the shape of the path through the data endows a story with its narrative structure. But now the question is more urgent: what are we navigating through so that a story is constructed? What are the elements of a story? For Manovich these elementary particles are images and sounds or linguistic granules. For him a story is constructed from textual components. But narratives are more than the words or images of their telling. We may describe the elements of a film as images and sounds, and the elements of a spoken or written tale as words; but a series of words or sentences, or audio-visual elements spliced into sequences, will not yield a story. Events, not their descriptions, make a story. The story remains independent of its telling. This is how there can be different version of the same story. Narrative structure arises not just from events, agents, and locations, but from relationships between them. Narrative depends on coherent links between the components of the real or imagined world described by the narrator's words or depicted by his images. A story is a story because of what it is about and how that is interpreted. Connections between the events must be perceived, conceived, or constructed, and related. Thus, though at base constituted of texts, real world entities, and interpretation, a narrative is more complex than a database—which is composed of nothing more than its data. Mieke Bal, a theorist referred to with approbation by Manovich, insists on this point, expressing it as a three-way distinction between text, story and fabula. It is what ties together the elements of the fabula or content, that transform events into a story, which can then be expressed in a text. Relations between text-elements alone are not sufficient.
It is one thing to arrange data alphabetically, by size, or by color; quite another to arrange it in narrative sequence. Although complexity of material is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of narrative, the richer the database, the more discrete narrative lines may be contained within it. In these shells we can hear the breakers of Rushdie’s Ocean.
This line of critique does not impact on Manovich's insight that while the dominant form of the 20th century cinematic object may be the narrative, the new media object's form is the database. My suggestion is that narrative and database are in different categories, and therefore resist the binary opposition that Manovich attributes to them.
For Manovich a database represents the world as a collection of items without imposing an order on the collection, while narrative has order, i.e. sequence, at its center. He argues that each makes meaning in a radically different way.
Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don't have beginning or end; in fact, they don't have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other [....] They appear as a collections of items on which the user can perform various operations: view, navigate, search. The user experience of such computerized collections is therefore quite distinct from reading a narrative or watching a film or navigating an architectural site. Similarly, literary or cinematic narrative, an architectural plan and database each present a different model of what a world is like.
Lev Manovich, “Database as Symbolic Form,” Millennium Film Journal, No. 34 Fall 1999, p. 24
A view, a navigation, or a search always results in an order—even if it is formless, vague, or chaotic. A database, in itself, does not present data: it contains it. In order to be read, the data must be in an arrangement. And it is the arrangement that gives the data its meaning. What does Manovich mean when he says that a database “presents a model of what the world is like?” How does a database have meaning?
* * *
The premise behind the Spielberg Holocaust Oral History Project, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, is that no single agent's story can give a complete or even accurate picture of a multi-faceted situation. Equally relevant is the impossibility of any individual researcher's accessing and experiencing all the data, given its quantity. However, the premise of the Shoah Priject is that this database of stories and recordings not an unknowable entirety, but contains an accuracy and truth that no individual story can claim. Of course the stories must be formatted so that they are navigable before we can consider what kind of meaning they have as a whole—I do not hold to the notion of a Platonic not-yet-collected database. The point is that once it is data, i.e. texts, images, recordings, it can be manipulated, and out of this manipulation, a semantic will emerge.
For months after the events of September 11th, many of us living in New York found ourselves in similar conversations when we ran into friends and acquaintances we had not seen since before the events. We repeatedly, almost compulsively, exchanged stories of our own experiences on that day.. A number of institutions, including Exit Art and Here Is New York, collected and exhibited 9/11 stories or images or both, and one can imagine a huge collection of all these texts.. A picture of September 11th in New York City is contained in the database of individual texts—the truth, if not the whole truth. Perhaps it is in this wide-angle view of the Ocean of Stories that the meaning of a database coheres. When we access the database we are well aware that our experience is of a path through it: exactly that, one single path. This knowledge, that we are getting an ordered but partial view, conveys the idea of a larger meaning contained in the database as a whole, a meaning that we can never fully comprehend.
3. POST PRODUCTION AND DATABASE CINEMA
With few exceptions, making a film starts with the assembly of a database of audio-visual elements. This is the ‘production’ phase. In the editing phase a path is cut through the material. Every film project permits alternative assemblies: even in the limiting case where a script or plan is followed to the letter, some decisions have to be made in the editing room, whether they are decisions about pacing, selection of takes, or details of sound track. The principles governing these decisions depend of the nature (or genre) of the project. Contemporary entertainment films are designed to appear seamless—as if the final film is a natural object, containing all that is necessary for it and nothing else. Decisions made in the editing room of a Hollywood film are made in support of this aesthetic, and the database on which it is grounded is hidden. But all films do not follow this aesthetic. Television, for example, tends more and more towards self-reference and revelation of its production processes.
Manovich refers to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera as an example of a film whose database origins remain manifest. The organization of images does not result in an undifferentiated surface, but
in contrast to standard film editing which consists in selection and ordering of previously shot material according to a pre-existent script, here the process of relating shots to each other, ordering and reordering them in order to discover the hidden order of the world constitutes the film's method.
“Database as Symbolic Form,” p. 42
Manovich attributes meaning to Man with a Movie Camera’s acknowledgment of its underlying database. My thesis is that the database form abounds with such expressive possibilities, largely unexplored; for example in the very fact that a database can be a region of alternative story constructs. In describing his Ocean, Rushdie refers to this potential without himself adopting it. Works of new media make the next step, by allowing multiple pathways through a single database and permitting viewer input into and control over how individual paths are formed, accessed and compounded.
Perhaps a better example of a film using the database as symbolic form is Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970), made at a time when theories of representation were being subjected to fundamental challenges in all the visual arts. The central section of Zorns Lemma grows out a database of images sorted alphabetically. The images are of words—street signs, shop signs, advertising sign-boards, graffiti, almost all filmed on the streets of New York City in the rich tradition of street photography. Frampton selects one second of each image, and presents these short segments on screen one after another, sorted from A to Z. One sees an alphabetic array of words, racing by so that there is just about enough time to read each one. Then the alphabet begins again, and then again, each time with a different set of words. “Now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with me?” After a number of repetitions, each typographic image is replaced, one per alphabetic stanza, with an image that either has a temporal development (frying an egg, peeling an orange, painting a wall) or is cyclical (the surf on a beach, jumping rope), or is a simple record of continuing human or natural processes (men working on a building site, a fire, breaking waves.) Once a typographic image has been replaced, its replacement is seen in every cycle—so that after the ‘X’ images have been substituted with an image of a raging fire, the fire image appears after ‘W’ and before ‘Y’ images for each cycle—until the ‘W’ and ‘Y’ images are themselves replaced. Although the film appears to take form as its content, in many ways it functions as a cinematographic record, a true documentary, of the ordinary moments, the design, the “look and feel” of a specific time and place—the end of the sixties, New York City, seen through the idiosyncratic eye of an artist. At the same time it remains a perfect example of a film that manifests its database foundation, indeed that corrals its meaning from the database it rests on. Its cinematic architecture provides its meaning.
If Manovich’s conception of database as an organizational framework is the foundation of interactivity, Rushdie’s Story Ocean provides a vision of movement through the completed edifice. While a particular cinematic work can instantiate one path through the database of materials, an interactive work keeps many paths open, allowing the viewer to change from one to another during the experience of the work. Thus, like Man with a Movie Camera, or Zorns Lemma, a truly interactive work draws an essential component of its meaning from its database source; but while these films refer to their underlying databases, an interactive work makes its underlying database a necessary part of the viewer’s experience. In the process, the epistemology of the viewing experience changes: the viewer becomes a user.
The first step in working with a database is the collection and assembly of the data. The presentation of the database involves sorting and filtering: so that some of the data is shown, some omitted. Sorting determines the sequence of presentation, filtering gives rules for admission into the set presented. In film editing, the first steps of post-production, corresponding to collection and assembly are work printing and logging the negative ; in non -linear editing it is digitizing the video into the editing application database. In both cases often only a portion of the material goes through this process—only favored takes are printed or digitized, resulting in a filtered database that is a subset of the shot material. Sequencing the 'selects' is the next step in the editing process: in database logic this is a sorting step.
For a filmmaker, database thinking is a liberation. It is refreshing to concede that the finished film or videotape represents only one of many possible story-streams through an image-sound database. The question of deletion and the ugly metaphor of “cutting to the bone”—an expression that is frequently heard during the editing process—ceases to cast its shadow over the editing room. To go further: for a filmmaker the term ‘cutting’ loses its meaning, and sorting, assembling, and mapping becomes more apt metaphors for the activity of composition.
New methods of construction develop alongside new production tools and devices. In the move from the splicer to the keyboard, mouse, and stylus, motion picture editors also find themselves engaging new operating methods. The conception of editing changes as the tools change. In the next sections, I will look more closely at both aspects of this change: at the general side by considering the metaphors that are used to describe the activities of construction under the new technologies; and the specific side by looking at the methods used. However, the two concepts cannot be separated, and I will not attempt to do so. It is as if two story-strands are interwoven.
5. THE DESKTOP
Before being carried further by this current, I want to step back into a more general methodological observation. A number of recent theorists have suggested that a study of the metaphors that govern a particular field of activity or subculture can yield great insights into the place of the field within the larger culture. Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We live By is one source for this discussion, Barbara Stafford's work on 'metaphorology,' a term she coined, is another.
In general, metaphors apply language from a more comfortable area to a less comfortable one. I have discussed elsewhere the significance of the metaphors that surround computing—from cyberspace to virtual reality to the desktop aggregation including files & folders & trashcans—to say nothing of “memory” “navigation,” “saving,” “retrieving,” etc. The fact that ontological categories, the kindergarten classroom, the manipulation of vermin, and the language of colonialism are sources for the description of our most recent technologies says as much about our contemporary outlook as it does about computers. Because it could have been different: sexual or more generally biological metaphors (for example) might have driven the industry, or the language of linguistics, economics, medicine, etc.
In the process of composition using software applications, “cut and paste” is the metaphor for a working procedure that has become central. Cut-and-paste—a notion, like the files, folders, trashcans, and especially, the icon-covered work surface, that is drawn from world of early education. Adult office workers rarely cut or paste, while elementary school children do it every day. Why do we want to invoke the environment and activities of childhood in speaking about something as sophisticated as the computer?
Because we would like it to be free of sophistication? How? Easy? Or referring to a time before the taint of knowledge—we would like computers to give a fresh, pre-Fall, start on things. The apple metaphor: the apple that you can’t eat, but it grows on the Tree of (unattainable) Knowledge. We want to invoke the mystery and great distance of the core of all knowledge contained in computers, and at the same time imply that it is as easy as childhood to obtain the forbidden fruit of mastery. Click and it’s yours. Knowledge, in Genesis, comes without effort, in a single bite—similarly in the childhood land of cut-and-paste, of click and download, of save and retrieve: the digital world is a world of predigested choices, and knowledge is attained by clicking off one menu onto the next.
The concept of copy- or cut-and-paste is built into the computer, as a property of the way it stores data as patterns of adjacent numerically encoded sequences, which can be moved around as blocks, affecting a rearrangement of the whole document. So it is no accident that this technique was fundamental to the computer interface right from the beginning. Early text editors had the feature of marking the beginning and end points of a passage of text, then with a keystroke command either removing it or copying it, at which point it could be inserted into another place. The feature has hardly changed. My proposal is that cut-and-paste is basic to our operations with the computer, and that its emergence has changed the way we work: with text, with images, with sounds—in a word, with concepts.
It is of interest that the metaphor of the Cut has remained in use as the processes of cinematic production have changed, though it has shifted in meaning with these changes in process. Cutting has been widely used as a shorthand for editing motion pictures at least since the 1930s; and now in the recent, highly sophisticated editing software (Apple Corporation’s Final Cut Pro), the razor blade icon has pride of place in the ‘tool panel.’
But why should we consider cutting to be metaphorical, when we literally cut film in order to make an edit? The point is that the term functions as a synecdoche—the incision is a minor part of editing, though it is used to refer to the whole process. Cutting in filmmaking is not an end in itself. In film, cutting is a prelude to splicing, and splicing is always performed with the intention of constructing meaning. Furthermore, in video editing, no actual cutting is ever done. In pre-digital video editing systems sections of a master tape are dubbed to another tape, and in more recent non-linear systems we select sections through a computer interface and watch them as the computer ‘finds’ the images and sounds and ‘presents’ them in a sequence. In digital editing softwares, data is pulled from a database and goes through a lot of processing until it is decoded into images on the screen—the arrangement is orchestrated entirely by algorithm, and the act of cutting is a distant memory, even if represented in the process by an absurd tiny scissors (Avid) or razorblade (Final Cut Pro) icon.
When we speak about cutting in film editing, surgery is the governing image—sharp tools, ritualistic procedures, removal and replacement of dysfunctional organs, precision and expertise, and, ultimately, healing. This is in contrast to cutting in butchery, carpentry, sewing, wood carving, photography, street fighting, or food preparation. Artists often like to compare themselves to scientists. We cut film in order to put it back together, to make an improvement: plus, of course, we cut material out, remove the unwanted, as in surgery. This metaphor thirty years ago led to a whole school of documentary filmmaking, now no longer fashionable, which conceived of editing as precisely no more than paring away the inessential pieces to leave the remaining core as the final film (the “direct cinema” or “cinema verité” school of filmmakers held onto that view for many years, allowing the macho cameramen to commission hired hands—film editors—to construct their films while retaining authorial credit for themselves).
The major question in editing is always the same. What models or principles of organization are going to determine the temporal architecture of the final work—what will guide the maker as he pastes it together—what counts as a successful construction—when do we say “that works!”? For many years the answer to this question for the documentary filmmaker has been based on the narrow conception of narrative proposed by the classical Hollywood fiction film—Salesman, The War Room etc.—introduction of characters, meeting, conflict, progressive complications, development, concluded with an encompassing closure at the finale.
After years of film and TV viewing, most of us understand this formula too well. It seems natural. Thus film editors can feel as if they are chipping away at the marble block to leave the perfect statue at the end—a filmic David that was trapped in the stone from the beginning. It is possible to imagine yourself shaving material away to find a film if you always have a Platonic (or Aristotelian) story shape in mind to guide you through. And this is an important sense that the notion of cutting—now as cosmetic surgery: liposuction—ruled the American documentary field for many years.
However, as styles of filmmaking have changed, the metaphor has been transformed. And the changing metaphor is a reflection of this style shift. Highly constructed music videos and TV commercials, the extensive use of digital effects and computer processes in Hollywood films, the television screen as a site of multiple information streams, and of course the limited interactivity of the internet, have collectively rewritten what we understand as the moving image. In this territory, the idea of “cut and paste” has become central to large part of the white-collar work culture, and in the process modified the notion of cutting as film editing. Cut-and-paste is a basic strategy in writing with a computer, in image making, in design work, and composing video or music: i.e. in all constructive uses of the machine.
In the most fundamental sense, when the heart of creative activity is the action of cut-and-paste, the notion of construction becomes the notion of rearrangement. And though this is not so far removed from Descartes’ conception of the imagination as the faculty that recombines elements of memory, it is something of a change in the 19th/20th conception of ‘creativity’ as the exercise of immeasurable, indescribable talents.
There are other effects. For one, skills seem transferable from one medium to another, since the same basic techniques are used now in writing or any other composition (music, filmmaking, image making): i.e. selecting from menus of commands and processes (the most relevant involve sorting the data according to filters and criteria of inclusion), cutting, copying and pasting. However the first step—collecting the material and constructing the database—becomes painfully laborious, with editing taking over as the exercise of creativity, transformed into the site of pleasure. The idea of writing as composition recedes, to be replaced by the notion of the production of a forest of ideas, with editing as the hewing of paths through the trees. This image allows the software marketers to promote their products in terms of the sensations of strength, power, and freedom they give their users. Another result of the fading of the idea of writing as structured/structuring activity is the disappearance of the idea of one compositional ideal as superior to others, the modernist notion of one form as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ to a particular medium. For the cinema, the dominance of narrative organization is coming to an end. Structure is what emerges in the process of massaging the underlying database to produce an output. In terms of the details of production, a quantitative arrangement type, such as alphabetic, or by age or size, is equivalent to one that links the elements in a story.
Thus I would argue that the cut-and-paste approach to writing, based on the database as a model of organization, has affected not only interactive works or works on the internet, but goes much further afield. Certainly the most interesting contemporary works of literature are deeply influenced by concepts of multi-linearity—the ideas can be seen as producing the international phenomenon that we call “postmodern fiction,” including the works of Martin Amis, John Barth, A. S. Byatt, Italo Calvino, Milorad Pavic, Salman Rushdie, and Graham Swift.
Here I want to consider three works, each very different, that, though ‘linear’ in the sense that they flow through the projector or videotape player as a single strip from beginning to end, undermine the idea of linearity in one of two ways. One is that they demand a split in their viewers’ perceptual understanding. Another is that the database is an element or stage of their construction is both acknowledged and revealed. They are narrative pieces that refuse to tell straightforward stories in straightforward ways. In the process, they challenge the split between fiction and non-fiction, suggesting that the shape into which the conventional non-fiction film bends and distorts its material is as decidedly a fiction as any action-adventure movie.
1. Hollis Frampton: (nostalgia) (1972)
Frampton was a still photographer before he became a filmmaker, and for (nostalgia) he drew on a stock of his still images, most of them produced as professional commissions or self-initiated art projects. The filmmaker selected twelve prints (in the process implicitly indicating the existence of a much larger database of negatives and prints) and set each one on an electric hot plate, filming it as it burned away. (nostalgia) is assembled so that a spoken description of each photograph anticipates its appearance on screen. In fact the description accompanies the preceding photograph. At first the viewer struggles to make the words apply to the image currently on screen, but soon understands that this exercise is fruitless. Once one realizes that the current description applies to the upcoming image, one tries to picture it mentally at the same time as watching the strikingly beautiful image of the current print. It first darkens in the shape of the electric element beneath it, then erupts into flame, and finally settles into an airy corpuscle of ash, or a black crisp of charcoal, depending on the material of the print. The split in attention draws on two different sense of time, and contrasts the process of mental imaging with the process of perception. This film weaves together two story-streams, an inner and an outer, givign the viewer a freedom to accentuate mentally one or the other, or to give both equal weight in consciousness.
2. Gary Hill: Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia) (1986)
Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? . . . also manipulates time, but in a different way. Hill had his performers learn to speak and move backwards, videotapes this reverse acting, and then re-recorded the tape in reverse, effectively making the action appear to be normal. The viewer understands the mechanism very quickly. One finds oneself imagining what happened in front of the camera (reverse action) and the production process (reverting to forward action, its on-screen awkwardness marking its reverse origin). Hill gives many clues as to how things looked and sounded when he was shooting—he often plays a few moments of the original scene, its speech an incomprehensible garble, then immediately reverses it so that the voice sounds are transformed into language. As in the case of (nostalgia) the viewer finds himself playing one scene in the imagination against a related scene on screen. Since the subject of the tape revolves around ideas and questions about chaos and disorder, pointing out, for example, that the production of chaos, if shown in reverse, becomes the process of arrangement, a viewer can only make sense of the piece on performing the mental act of time-reversing. One must perform a number of simultaneous acts of intellectual gymnastics to make sense of what is on screen: it is in this sense that Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? . . . is a multi-linear work. At the same time, the issues raised are conceptually linked to the notion of database – e.g. the notion of navigating different paths through a set of audio-visual materials, some routes yielding meaning, others not.
3. Abraham Ravett: Everything’s For You (1989)
Ravett’s highly personal documentary can be seen as an attempt to cross the most impassable communication barrier, that between life and death. The film functions almost as a séance, the filmmaker’s contacting his dead father so as to effect a state of reconciliation with him, a state not achieved while the man was alive. It is constructed out of the objects that were left by his father—his social security card, his watch, some photographs found after the man’s death, and so on—along with Ravett’s memories of his father’s favorite phrases and stories. In this collection of objects, the short film segments of the filmmaker’s father appear as further elements of the database, along with the his young daughter’s writings and drawings, an animation sequence he commissioned, etc. The fact that all these elements are clearly part of a collection allows the function of the film to emerge. The filmmaker is looking to find a way to sequence these elements so that they become like magical totems to communicate with the dead. Again, the explicit admission of the database origins of the filmic materials (both the film elements themselves and the objects filmed) gives the viewer a particular relationship to them. One feels the impossibility of the film’s achieving its purpose, but is deeply affected by the attempt.
4. Frames (1999)
I end these short examples with a description of my own artistic contribution to these issues only because, as I always emphasize in my writing, I am primarily a practitioner and not a theorist, and my ideas are always an outgrowth of my practice. Only by producing works do I pin down the inchoate thoughts that blossom into the kinds of proposal I have made in this essay. Consequently no piece of writing of mine is complete without a discussion of the works that stand behind and before it. In the four interactive cinema works I have completed, and the one I am currently constructing, I have attempted to use the viewer’s capacity to affect the flow of images on screen as a means of indicating the sea of available material behind the screen.
Frames was produced for the 1999 Biennial of the NTT intercommunications Center, a new media museum in Japan. It is based on the first photographs made in a mental asylum, which were produced by Hugh Diamond between about 1847 and 1952. (This is very early: the invention of photography was announced in 1839.) I selected four Diamond images and cast four actors. In the piece, the actors transform themselves into the characters portrayed. Viewers intervene in the process by pointing through suspended empty gold picture frames at two projected images. The gold frames, which use a sensor technology, are a few feet in front of the projection screens. If the viewer can find the ‘rhythm’ of the piece, he will succeed in bringing the character in the photograph to life, and she will move from the side screen to the center screen, where she looks out of a window or into a mirror; or, if there is another fully formed character produced by another viewer, the two characters might meet and interact. Another element of the piece that the viewer can find by pointing through the frames is a series of verbal descriptions of the pathologies of the patients, descriptions written by Diamond’s colleague John Connolly. Connolly saw himself and Diamond as together inventing a new diagnostic science based in photography. They saw the images of the patients as portraits without artifice, without the imposition of an artistic sensibility, given the indexical nature of photographic reproduction. Diamond and Connolly, in other words, thought of the photograph as true in a way that other techniques of portraiture could not be. Based on this assumption, Connolly analyzed the body position, the gestures, the facial expressions, and the bearings of the unfortunate men and women in Diamond’s photographs, extracting from these features a speculative diagnosis of the patient’s condition.
However, it is an odd science. The melancholic woman sits in a classical melancholy pose, hands pressed together, head downcast. The hysteric is twisted away from the camera, wrought with tension, her hands folded in an attitude of prayer. Etc. It is clear that the photographer asked his terrified patients to sit in certain ways; he posed his subjects to represent their condition, exactly as the contemporary fashion photographer poses his models (for different, but not unrelated, ends). In my view, all photography is subject to this same ideological circularity—it is never an unbiased portrait of nature-in-the-raw. Always the colors are pre-selected by Kodak, Agfa or Fuji, the lens distortions (or lacks thereof) produced by Zeiss, while the photographer crops reality to an arbitrary stoppage of the border, to say nothing of the power relations between photographer and subject which form the underbelly of every photograph. In the Diamond/Connolly collaboration, the ideologies float, transparently, close to the surface. Frames brings together a database of images of actors in various degrees of character, with Connolly’s descriptions, Diamond’s photographs, and a sizable series of traveling shots up and down gloomy industrial staircases leading nowhere, and keeps it all organized by a simple set of navigational rules for moving between these elements. By this technique I hope to have raised these issues viscerally. The viewer becomes the photographer, shaping the portrait to match his vision of the (in his eyes) unfortunate subject, by forcing the victim to bend and twist and . . . pose for her portrait.
Let me end this essay by making a couple of tentative suggestions, first to try to situate or contextualize the discussion, then to make a small general proposal. Many people are engaged in these kinds of discussion, and we are all trying first to document and describe, then to understand, a shift that is taking place under our feet: a change in how we represent, communicate, conceive ourselves and others—in short, a change in what it is to be human. These are big, urgent issues. I have looked at a few instances of how image-sound streams are re-organized in time. One of the things I’d like to suggest is that the idea of structure carrying meaning is now much more obvious to us than it was—it’s a component of our experience of media. It is easy for us to see that the shape of narrative is something imposed on reality, something that distorts reality and produces false expectations about experience. There is no “happily ever after”—to wish for such a thing is to wish for something that is neither real nor virtual, and the stories that end with a monolithic closure are lies, just as the ideologies that suggest perpetual progress and natural improvement over time are false ideologies. Change is the only thing we can be sure of. We all know this now. It was not easy to know thirty years ago. One of the evidences of these now-obvious truths is that the distinction between documentary and fiction is disappearing. A documentary, even if none of the scenes are “staged,” presents a false picture if it is fitted together as a neat linear temporal object: only when we can be made aware of the database that underlies it, and the fact that the film cuts a path of one kind or another through this database, do we begin to approach a way of representing ourselves that has some link with the way we are.
List of Works Cited in the Text
Books and Articles
The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, 4 volumes, trans. into English by Powys Mather from the French translation of Dr. J.C. Mardrus (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2nd edition 1964, reprinted 1996)
The Kathã Sarat Sãgara, Vols 1 - 2, tr. from the original Sanskrit by C. H. Tawney [New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 3rd Edition 1992]
Bal, Mieke Narratology:: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (University of Toronto Press: 1997)
Adrienne Burrows and Iwan Schumacher, Portraits of the Insane: The Case of Dr. Diamond (London and New York: Quartet Books, 1990)
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)
Manovich, Lev “Database as a Symbolic Form” Millennium Film Journal No. 34 (Fall 1999)
Ravett, Abraham and Grahame Weinbren, "Raking Leaves: Photos, Drawings, Frame Blow-Ups, Working Notes, and Texts from Everything's for You," Millennium Film Journal, Nos. 23/24 (Winter 1990-91) pp. 118-27.
Rushdie, Salman Haroun and the Sea of Stories (London and New York: Granta Books, in association with Viking Penguin, 1990)
Sitney, P. Adams Visionary Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974)
Stafford, Barbara Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999)
Weinbren, Grahame “The PC is a Penguin,” in Bild Medien Kunst ed. Yvonne Spielman & Gundolf Winter (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1999)
Weinbren, Grahame "In the Ocean of Streams of Story," Millennium Film Journal No. 28 (Spring 1995)
Wittgenstein, Ludwig Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, tr. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961)
Moving Image Works
Hollis Frampton, (nostalgia) (1972)
Zorns Lemma (1970),
16mm films, distributed by Filmmakers Coop, New York
Gary Hill, Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come On Petunia) (1984), video (videodisc published by the Voyager Company, New York, 1994)
Abraham Ravett, Everything’s For You, (1989) 16mm film
Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera 35mm film
Grahame Weinbren, Frames (1999) interactive cinema installation (catalogue published by NTT Publishing Company, Tokyo, 1999)