TSCHERKASSKY, ROBINSON, OREILLY: THREE PERSPECTIVES ON MEDIUM AND ITS MEANINGSThis entry was posted on March 12th, 2015
By Alejandro Bachmann and Daniel Fitzpatrick
Three domestic scenes tie together three seemingly diverse films. In the first, from Peter Tscherkassky’s 1999 found-footage masterpiece Outer Space, a woman (Barbara Hershey) walks alone, we see her entering a building, presumably her home. In the second, Michael Robinson’s Light is Waiting (2007), two sisters argue (in footage pulled from an episode of the US sitcom Full House), they are discussing what to watch, the evening news or the Top 40 countdown. In both instances, both scenes, these characters will encounter and be impacted upon by external forces, the security of their diegetic worlds invaded by non-diegetic elements usually kept under wraps. In both of these cases, we witness a striking and disturbing folding in of inner and outer space and, in each case, we are brought face to face with the nature of a medium while simultaneously experiencing its undoing, its destructive collapse. In the first instance, this undoing is experienced through its physical impact on the heroine’s, and, by proxy, our own bodies. It is an undoing that does not feel predetermined, a collapse that may perhaps have been avoidable, and while it may be accreditable to external forces, we nevertheless feel implicated. In Michael Robinson’s film on the other hand the destruction feels more inevitable, the medium seemingly always containing within itself the conditions of its own undoing, all we can do is bear witness.
Both of the above examples speak to, and from, an era in which concerns about the nature and stability of how we conceive of a ‘medium’, its’ boundaries as well as its uses as an art object, are said to have become irrelevant. We now inhabit a ‘post-media era’ in which distinctions between media are widely seen to have become blurred or absorbed entirely by a more fully encompassing digital media. Both of the films cited here however are explicit in their commitment to making visible their reliance upon a base medium, while both films also seem to articulate their arguments in relationship with existing structuralist/avant-garde traditions. In the first instance, the Tscherkassky film, the medium (film) is made visible, it invades a previously secure on-screen world, impacting bodily on its lead actress and invading her home. In the second instance, the medium (television) explodes from within (it is already here), collapsing a domestic scene from the inside out. The filmic medium is nowhere to be seen in Light is Waiting, unless, of course, it is somehow made present through its absence and our accompanying sense of loss. Instead the medium of concern here is contained in, and evoked through, the source material, a daytime sitcom, highly recognisable in its over lit saturation, its predictable rhythms, and its canned laughter. Where Tscherkassky’s film feels like a lament or a revenge fantasy; the imagining of a destructive afterlife for a medium, Robinson’s film feels more resigned, at least at first. Eventually though Robinson locates pleasure and even ecstasy in this destruction.
‘The domestic’ here is both a setting, an actual place of action, and a metaphor – pointing to the domestication of a medium, a technological possibility, revealing the ways in which a technology’s potential is ‘made safe’, becomes less threatening, a process that may in turn drastically reduce a given medium’s range of potentialities. Film’s domestication, its ‘making safe’, arguably occurred a long time ago – it involved the widespread adoption of, and adherence to, what has sometimes been referred to as an ‘institutional mode’[i], a way of thinking and seeing through film that would have as its eventual side-effect the emergence of an avant-garde — in name at least. This split trajectory, with commercial narrative cinema on the one side and the avant-garde on the other, was by no means inevitable and avant-garde and experimental traditions have continued to mine the more varied potentials of the filmic medium since this divergence. Both films cited here, by engaging and making visible their medium supports, continue to speak to earlier traditions, expanding a continued potential for avant-garde enquiry.
Our third example, by the artist David OReilly, would seem then to be something else entirely – the medium here is always already visible, permeating every aspect of the film’s internal/external world. We also open with a domestic scene here, as an overbearing father figure tries to teach his son a piano piece, and a further iteration of this domestic setting reappears later; a sitcom within which a racoon husband returns home, clearly “tanked” to his family’s kitchen-dinner setting. The surreal conversation that unfolds here, finally erupts in violence when the family bonds together to dismember a studio guest that laughs inappropriately. The medium radiates through these layers, it is both internal and external, permeating our thinking. The medium does not break into or out of the scenes in The External World (2011), as it did in Tscherkassky and Robinson’s films, it itself does not initiate (or act out) violence, but it remains present throughout – made visible through a fragmented setting that reveals the vectors and insufficiently rendered surfaces of 3D animation, and through half animated objects that speak more of their digital make-up than the objects they represent. The medium is everywhere here, inescapable.
At its core the discourse around a so-called ‘post-media’ era, or the collapse of medium-specificity as an adequate area of inquiry more generally, has been one of obsolescence. It echoes through, and is effectively complicated by, Hollis Frampton’s claim that “no activity can become an art until its proper epoch has ended and it has dwindled, as an aid to gut survival, into total obsolescence”[ii]. The rhetoric of post-media has been articulated in relation to relatively recent technological transformations, and the greatest threat in this regard is the emergence of an alternatively heterogeneous or homogenising, depending on where you look, networked digital media which threatens to subsume and absorb all pre-existing formations as well as the distinctions between them. Peter Weibel, for example, speaks in this regard of a single ‘Universal Medium’, and the computer as the ‘universal machine’, effectively annihilating the need for a medium-specific art[iii], and replacing it with a more technologically driven art controlled by ‘experts’ (technicians) instead of artists. Robert Smithson warned as early as 1971 of impending changes that could replace the cinema we had known with “a deafening pale abstraction controlled by computers”[iv], a state Weibel seems incessant upon belatedly willing into being. All recent changes are, where Weibel is concerned, technologically driven and any responses it seems should be equally technologically driven in order to embrace the full potentiality of these processes. Weibel’s rhetoric is seductive, and for many it sits well with the idea of a more disparate practice in which a variety of media bases – celluloid, digital video, painting – are drawn upon as needed, tools in an artist’s box, with the artwork, or art itself the focus rather than any medium support. This has often served as an overly explicit rejection of Greenbergian notions of medium specificity, and a position radically at odds with the avant-garde’s investigations of film, for example, as “simultaneously a tangible physical material occupying space and an ephemeral experience unfolding in time”[v].
The emergence of this rhetoric, coincident with the steady rise of digital, networked media and the declining influence of say, to choose one pertinent example, celluloid as a material base for cinema, has led in turn to a questioning of cinema, as both artefact (film) and event. Distinctions like this were once unnecessary, with a relationship between cinema and its medium support film a given, but recent changes have had a sort of ‘year zero’ effect for many, launching what would seem to be a wholly new era and a wholly new set of possibilities. Interestingly though, this most recent era of transition does not seem to have eradicated our need for medium-specificity entirely, as it has also been coincident with a period of renewed interest in medium-specific enquiry, an interest not solely articulated in relation to the medium of film. While the nature of these renewed enquiries may have shifted, they have also typically been articulated in terms familiar, to some degree at least, from existing historical enquiries, with the aftershocks of a structural materialist tradition for example, continuing to have affects. These positions reappear through a diverse set of works including those cited here by Peter Tscherkassky, Michael Robinson, and David OReilly. In each of these cases however these enquires are also formed in relationship with different media, for Tscherkassky film (its forced obsolescence and its possible afterlife), for Robinson television and for OReilly an internet-based networked digital media.
The publication of Rosalind Krauss’s essay “A Voyage on the North Sea – Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition” in 1999, marked a moment in history when the technological transformations of an emerging ‘digital age’ were widely seen to be (further) dissolving the distinctions between traditional media formations. This notion has had widespread effects on scholarly thinking within film and media generally, and can also be seen to have impacted upon presentational practices in galleries, museums and the exhibition spaces of and for film and the moving-image more generally. The amalgamation of media and the increased obsolescence of film as a material base seems to carry with it here the final collapse of the seemingly outmoded idea that an artistic tool fosters certain aesthetic practices, or is essential in producing particular sensory experiences. Each of the examples chosen here, however, would seem to articulate an opposing position, each standing in close relationship to a different audiovisual medium and reproblematising a relationship between apparatus and dispositif – from analogue film/cinema, television/video and digital animation/internet. In each case a medium is not only made present but reflected upon and considered.
Pushing, dragging, making present
The rendering of something as obsolete or meaningless in a discourse, particularly in relation to an audiovisual medium, would, one might think, also lead to its actual, phenomenological invisibility. If this is the case, and our post-media era can be taken as a given, the medium (its specificity) would be absent in the production as well as experience of a work. This is certainly not the case with Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space, a film that explicitly deals with what has been widely articulated as the ‘death of film’. Tscherkassky’s film would seem to occur after this death, it usefully describes the medium’s potentially destructive afterlife.
Armed here with little more than an optical printer Tscherkassky works, and reworks here, a 35mm print of the largely forgotten eighties horror film The Entity (1982). Tscherkassky decided to incorporate the film after reading a short plot synopsis in a copy of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, sourcing a secondhand print of the film from a dealer (it cost him fifty dollars)[vi]. Tscherkassky would painstakingly reanimate and reshape this material through two of his films – Outer Space (1999) and Dream Work (2002) but where Dream Work functions as a kind of homage to the early filmic experiments of Man Ray Outer Space internalizes the tropes of the horror film. Tscherkassky’s film literalises the ‘return of the repressed’ that is the bedrock of the horror genre and reapplies it to the medium itself, in doing so Tscherkassky gives us an image of catastrophic return. The horror film has other uses here too. As a genre heavily reliant on suspension of disbelief and our close to total immersion in its narratives, we might think here, for example, of James Whale’s prologue to his 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein in which an actor appears on screen, emerging from behind a curtain and speaking on behalf of the film’s producer (then head of Universal Carl Laemmle). In this foreword we are warned to take care and to remember that what we are watching is a ‘tale’ (“one of the strangest ever told”) but the desired effect is always precisely the opposite, to engender our forgetting, our losing track of the fact that what we are watching is only a film, a construct with a material base, a fact made evident through Tscherkassky’s later reconstruction.
The possibility of further extending this gothic imagery to the image of Peter Tscherkassky himself working in his laboratory, painstakingly stitching together layers and layers of material, and slowly resuscitating dead matter is hard to resist. Suffice it to say however that what is ‘reanimated’ by Tscherkassky is radically different to that which he begins with. Death it seems, changes a person, or in this case a thing, and Tscherkassky’s ‘entity’, divorced from the trappings of narrative continuity and the boundaries of psychological realism, proves itself more terrifying still, as Jud Crandall once put it “sometimes dead is better”[vii]. Tscherkassky is very explicitly making the medium visible here, bringing it from the outer space of the cinema as it is experienced into the realm of the screen and the frame. The onscreen protagonist is attacked here not by a previously invisible presence, the poltergeist like ‘entity’ of the original text, but by film itself, its material base in all its entirety, including sprocket holes that break into the frame from all sides and an audio track that we see as well as hear. Tscherkassky considers all aspects of film here, its theoretical, historical, metaphorical and physical presence. We see his impact in touching, cutting, developing and redeveloping the medium, processes impossible to stimulate through a digital interface, and we witness too the scars of this process. Through this however Tscherkassky brings a medium back into being, gives it new life, however corrupted and altered that life may be.
Michael Robinson’s Light is Waiting seems superficially similar to Outer Space, it too is a found footage work, its source material two episodes of the early nineties sitcom Full House, similarly reworked, layered, and deconstructed. Television however is the medium that is made present here and we experience it in a number of ways; on screen two sisters, ‘Kimmy’ and ‘DJ’, argue about watching the news or the ‘Top 40 Video Countdown’- “The news’ll be old tomorrow, but the Top 40 Video Countdown is good ’til next week” and eventually they decide to carry their television (an old, heavy cathode ray tube) upstairs so that they might watch both broadcasts at once, two televisions playing side by side, the best of both worlds. The medium has a weight here, a physicality, we see them struggle with this weight and it is only when the TV is accidentally dropped from a height that their, and our, domestic reality begins to collapse, unleashing waves and waves of irresistible, psychotropic destruction. The strategies of a Structuralist tradition are reimagined here in relation to a more televisual landscape, the early flicker effects seen in work by Tony Conrad or Paul Sharits taking on an entirely different quality, becoming reminiscent instead of the sync issues that occur when television is rephotographed on film, an all too familiar ‘glitch’ that results in an unsettling flicker. In our contemporary digital environment these kinds of ‘glitch aesthetics’ are regularly reiterated as essential aspects of artistic intervention[viii], a glitch typically understood as a potentially exploitable mismatch between receiver and sender. There are other disturbances here too, as images slow-down, lose clarity; colours blur, lose definition, and the signal is disrupted as if it were being broadcast from some far off elsewhere, somewhere more primordial like the apocalyptic messages from the future that were broadcast through dreams in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987)[ix]. At one point the image splits down the middle, doubling over like a Rorschach pattern in motion, or the “CAT scans of the brain” Ken Jacobs discovered in Disorient Express (1996) when he flipped the same archival images of a train moving along a track and played them side by side. The experience ultimately is one of ecstatic disorientation, we lose track of ourselves and become immersed here in a medium’s destruction.
Television of course has its own issues with obsolescence, as the cathode ray is replaced by LCD and plasma screens, and altered viewing habits create an environment in which audiences control exactly when and how they watch. Some of these realities are made present in Light is Waiting but it also has wider concerns, as the film solves a pressing formal concern for the avant-garde, namely how to address the threat to materiality the digital turn represents without describing this loss itself? The formal attributes of the avant-garde and structural film remain present in Light is Waiting but the previous medium support ‘film’ is appropriately nowhere to be seen. In using instead the products of television as its source material, a material which is then edited and treated digitally, and by internalising and adapting existing strategies of avant-garde and structural traditions, Robinson invites us to read his film in relation to those previous histories, and by doing so he makes the material loss visible, highlighting the distinctions between, and the continued specificity of, media.
In relation to the presence and absence of the medium both Tscherkassky’s and Robinson’s film seem to take a clear standpoint. While the former drags the medium, its materiality back from ‘outer space’ into frame, the latter has the medium explode on screen, more interested in the ghostly images, fireworks, and assorted audiovisual phenomena that emanate from this destruction. Both works are dominated by movement – for Tscherkassky a movement that constantly drags something from the outside in, lines that are brought to the centre of our attention from their usually marginalised place at the edge and beyond and in Robinson a movement that starts in the centre but pushes to the margins, letting the medium of television explosively expand and tracing its shockwaves into all corners of the frame.
In contrast to this what remains from David OReillys The External World is not so much the dominance of a certain direction of on-screen movement but rather a continuing presence, the “always here” of images, form, even characters, all of which stem from the specific qualities of OReilly’s chosen medium. At the centre of The External World is the scene of a boy at a piano in an abandoned meeting hall, repeatedly trying to play a melody and repeatedly being slapped by an adult (presumably his father) every time he fails. There is no narrative here in a classical sense, but we return to this moment, this scene, again and again throughout, while the work moves in and out through layers and spaces, internal and external, real and imagined – an ACME Asylum, a street scene featuring a man with a strange lighter, a depressed creature being prescribed a medicine by the name of “Go Fuck Yourself”, or an oedipal double death scene, a girl masturbating with a worm that looks like Jean-Luc Godard or Pikatschu like figures that engage in strange conversations, and even stranger bodily interaction. Where these images differ from any of the more familiar uses of 3D animation is that the nature of their construction is constantly revealed; far from aspiring to slick, photo-realistic representations of the real (or any other artificial world, for that matter) OReilly’s images carry with them the traces of the processes that brought them into being. Half-animated figures and settings reveal the vectors and layers behind their animated surfaces, reminding us of a medium that underlies these visual phenomena, and making us aware that these figures look the way they look, and act the way they act, because they were created by an artist in collaboration with a certain medium. By using the software against its intended purpose (more glitch aesthetics) the medium itself and the machine are made visible.
In Gabriel Menotti Gonring’s reading of Friedrich Kittler he observed that “software hides the machine from its users (a debt here to Kittler’s ‘there is no software’)…”, it invites its users to overlook the physicality of the computer, along with its particular kinetic and visual qualities, confined instead to metaphoric representations – the computer as dynamic “desktop”, with its neat icons and resizable windows, and not an electronic machine for information processing”[x]. This again is another likely side-effect of a medium’s domestication and widespread dissemination and since the digital medium is less about time (unlike analog film which is always 24 moments in a second mediated as movement) but rather about surfaces, textures and space, time feels close to absent here. Where Tscherkassky’s and Robinson’s medium specificity results in works that still clearly follow a temporal form, aligning elements in roughly sequential relationships, OReilly’s work functions more like a programmed desktop interface where things occur simultaneously, windows opening and closing, unfolding in space but never time. Here everything, including the medium, is always present, a fact that is brought to our attention by the constant switching between these timeless spaces, layers and textures infected at every layer by the medium of their making.
The Dystopic Possibility of a ‘Universal Machine’
As Peter Gidal once put it, in an introductory essay that accompanied his Structural Film Anthology in 1976, “viewing such a film is at once viewing a film and viewing the ‘coming into presence’ of the film, i.e. the system of consciousness that produces the work, that is produced by and in it”. Outer Space, Light is Waiting and The External World each speak to (and to varying degrees with) these existing traditions of avant-garde and structural film, not merely by representing and thematising their own medium or processes of coming into being, but through their whole form, their entire mode of thinking, inscribed with the artistic tools they work with. What can be understood as structuralist in these works is never the same, precisely because they are all products of different media, each with its own qualities, potentials and limitations, each motivating certain aesthetic practices (and experiences) through these specificities. In each case an engagement with media specificity, and the restated conviction that this engagement is essential to the production and experience of art unearths layers of thought that would be eradicated with the insistence that a medium and its specific possibilities were of no continued importance. This thought becomes political only when we imagine the death of a medium (such as analog film – a medium of production, distribution, exhibition) resulting also in the death of certain aesthetic practices, and ultimately a unique means and a way of thinking about the world. It may not be by chance, that domestic scenes are the primary sites of enquiry here, each becoming a site of conflict between inner and outer space. It is in the work’s dealing with these sites of domestication that they speak to Weibel’s “universal machine”, a machine that ultimately scraps away differences and everything stubborn about a medium, that promises the artist the free use, and aesthetic means, of all media without having to go through the trouble of developing film, carrying a cathode ray tube or getting rid of the heavy leftovers of sculpture. These films articulate a relationship towards the domestic, towards the utopia of everything for everybody at no cost and rethink it as a place of friction, turmoil, and experimentation, the starting point of precise and specific media phenomena.
[i] Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows (University of California Press, 1990).
[ii] It is perhaps worth noting that this quote, or some variation of it at least, is also regularly credited to Jean-Luc Godard, as he uses a variation of it towards the end of his magnum opus Histoire(s) de Cinema. This double iteration can also be considered in proximity with Walter Benjamin’s variation of Michelet’s ‘Each epoch dreams the one to follow’ “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its ends within itself and unfolds it.” The quotation cited here comes from Hollis Frampton, ‘For a metahistory of film: commonplace notes and hypotheses’, in Circles of Confusion: Film, Photography and Video Texts, 1968-1980 (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983), p. 112 and the Walter Benjamin variation is from The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Harvard University Press, 2008) p.109.
[iii] Peter Weibel, “The Post-Media Condition,” (2012) Meta Mute, accessed September 10, 2014, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/lab/post-media-condition.
[iv] Robert Smithson, Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings (University of California Press, 1996).p.139.
[v] Jonathan Walley, “Modes of Film Practice in the Avant-Garde,” in Art and the Moving Image- A Critical Reader, ed. Tanya Leighton (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), p. 196.
[vi] In our current IMDB-era some of the shine has probably rubbed off collections like these. Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (later Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide) or its closest competitor Halliwell’s Film Guide were a decidedly pre-internet inventions, these annually updated collections, which featured thousands of capsule reviews, were unwieldy but necessary, the best means by which to get basic information about a given film title.
[vii] Jud Crandall is a fictional character played by Fred Gwynne (an actor familiar to most through his long-standing role as the Frankenstein-lite Herman Munster). The character appears in the 1989 Stephen King adaptation Pet Semetary. a film that was also about bringing something dead back to life (cats and people) and the predictably catastrophic consequences of such an act.
[viii] “At its most basic level, a glitch is the result of miscommunication from sender to receiver during the transcoding of information. Unexpected variations occur during the sending and/or receiving of information altering the intended informational product. These vicissitudes modify and delay the original informational product leaving behind a new, unintended, and unauthored artifact: the glitch.” Rebecca Jackson, “The Glitch Aesthetic”, Georgia State University, 2011 : 11. http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/communication_theses/80. p.11.
[ix] These sequences from Prince of Darkness (1987) are truly haunting, mediated messages from the future (“This is not a dream, we are broadcasting from the year 1-9-9-9”), video footage of a hooded figure (the Antichrist) standing in front of a church electronically broadcast through time (although not space) and transmitted through dreams in the hope that this possible future can somehow be averted. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGsv0pJemTY
[x] Gonring, Gabriel Menotti ‘Executable Images: The Enactment and Distribution of Movies in Computer Networks’ in The Velvet Light Trap, No 70, p. 49-58.