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Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Digital Video Blues Pt. 2

By Kevin John

I left off last column promising a review of recent experimental digital videos. But before I slide into that, I want to counter Walter Benjamin's argument, in his epochal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," that there is no concept of an original with film, since we have to process it and make prints in order to see it. Video, however, has lent film the status of an original, has replenished it with aura. (If this were not so, I would not have skipped my grad seminar last week and traveled down to the Chicago International Film Festival just to see "Track of the Cat," about which more in that next column; suffice it to say here that the only video version of this Scope masterpiece is in pan-and-scan.) There is thus an "ultimate experience" for receiving a film in the age of video.

But how do we ultimately experience "Our Lady of the Assassins"? What is its "pure" form? Somewhat paradoxically, it's on video. Not that I'm one to seek purity in art reception, but seeing "Our Lady of the Assassins" in a theatre (a theatre that exhibits films, that is) cannot be the ultimate experience; it would necessarily evacuate the movie of its aura. But if we're to maintain the illusion that "Our Lady of the Assassins" is a film, then the film experience, however impure, would be the ultimate one.

And to confuse this notion of reception even further, there's "The House of Instants: New Experimental Digital Video," a program of seven short digital works, which runs about 20 minutes less than "Our Lady of the Assassins." It was brought to Milwaukee by Carl Bogner who, along with the Union Theatre's Jonathan Jackson, made 2001 the best movie year in Brew City in over a decade. The artists here (most of whom are veteran filmmakers) seem oblivious to the film/video dilemma or, at least, appear to be self-consciously undercutting it, for many of these pieces are actually obscuring our vision. Gunvor Nelson's "Treeline" (1998, 8 min.) is an examination of a tree — but we watch it in fits and starts from a passing train. Peter Rose's "Omen" (2000, 11 min.) gazes upon a man with a flashlight down dark, creepy alleyways — but the focus is more on the play of light around corners than any sort of tangible discovery. The entire film vs. video dilemma gets sidestepped, because the world opened up to us is so indeterminate.

Even those works with more crisp visuals deny the viewer any stable point of reception. Ken Jacobs's "Flo Rounds A Corner" (1999, 6 min.) follows the artist's wife as she walks down a street in Sicily. Images flicker back and forth the way a DJ scratches vinyl and, as with scratching, new textures and perceptions arise from both the figure and the landscape. Even more delirious is Michael Snow's "The Living Room" (2000, 20 min.), which was created digitally and transferred to film. Objects disappear and return at random while characters undergo transformations characteristic of Adobe Photoshop morphing. The film works like a sampler — images are called up with no respect to "organic" placing.

The discipline of film studies uses the term "the profilmic event" to invoke the world film opens up. But clearly this term is inadequate for what's at play in these works — they truly dwell in a house of instants. Where Schroeder merely applies the new technology to an event without examining how that event gets transformed by the new technology, these seven films and videos step into the technology and watch as our notions of perception get transformed in a mere flicker.

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