This blog post begins in one realm of media studies and somehow meanders into another. I end at a place that’s productive for my current dissertation chapter, however.
In 2015, screening experimental cinema and video art always runs into issues of format and medium. In many contexts, the “original” medium may not be readily available to the organization or school interested in screening, in others, the surviving prints may be in such a state of disrepair that it would only degrade them further to be screened. This is especially true with Super8 or 16mm, but it also holds true for video. Thankfully organizations like Electronic Arts Intermix and film and media archivists have taken recent steps to preserve works not only by restoring the existing formats, but also making digital transfers. Overall, this is a great thing: groundbreaking cinema and video are not lost and vastly more students and art lovers have access to experimental forms. However, watching experimental film and video digitally generates some interesting moments that bring the material and hapic differences in projection and display technologies from the present and the past to the foreground.
[Simulating Lettrist cinema in a digital age. L’Anticoncept at Light Industry, February 13, 2015. Image by Juan Monroy]
At a recent screening of Gil Wolman’s Lettrist flicker film L’Anticoncept, Light Industry used a digital transfer due to the fragility of the only remaining film copies of the work. L’Anticoncept was a black-and-white film projected onto a large balloon. It consists only of flashes of light and dark with an inscrutable French voiceover by the artist. Light Industry’s exhibition of the film failed on a number of levels (outlined perfectly by my friend Juan), but the digital projection in particular created one of these interesting moments of digital-analog collapse. We could see scratches and imperfections on the balloon/screen, but these were merely digital images of those signs of age. More tellingly, whenever I blinked there was a distinct afterimage of red-green-blue patches from the digital projector. Not only was the work completely inaccessible to anyone who didn’t speak fluent French (and didn’t want to squint to read the English handout distributed with the film) but the floating RGB pixels reminded viewers of their own LED screens with far more interesting content. After 15 minutes at least 30% of the audience was on their phones or asleep.
This L’Anticoncept’s afterimage (and bitter aftertaste) made me reflect on another instance of collapse between old and new media, and how it relates to our far more touchy-feely relationship with screens. Last year, when auditing a course on media in art, we watched Joan Jonas’s canonical tape Vertical Roll (1972). In this piece, the artist deconstructs both her own body and the televisual apparatus. The video camera records a television monitor that is consistently and intentionally malfunctioning, causing a “vertical roll” that interrupts the normally seamless refresh of the screen. This screen malfunction is juxtaposed with loud clashes of a spoon against the camera. The artist breaks and disrupts the image via physical manipulation of the screen – what appears to be the result of a violent touch.
When we watched this video in class–via DVD transfer and through a laptop–a completely different phenomenon happened. Right around the ten minute mark, when the constant clanking of the work moves from being jarring and annoying to hypnotic, the image and sound cut out and screensaver came on screen, complete with text derived from CUNY’s newsfeed pleasantly floating in a blue sea. This moment was particularly interesting when we think about the relationship between touch and screen.
In Jonas’s work, the bodily contact with monitor and camera violently disrupts the image. She creates a work through a transgressive action where the television’s object and viewer effectively attack the screen that holds them hostage. Hers is a strategy of interference, where physical touch breaks the image’s seductive power. In class, however, the opposite happened. A lack of interference caused the image’s disruption. Unlike the tube television in Jonas’s work, which wants merely to deliver images without physical impediment, the computer monitor needs touch and interaction. Without it, the screen assumed we weren’t watching and switched off.
Computer screens need our input, both to function and to gather information. They interestingly continue this function even when screening other media. Ostensibly, the screensaver’s function is to protect screens from being “burned” from displaying the same static image for an extended period of time. In the case of the Jonas screening, this autotimed screensaver simply wasn’t overridden by the video player (something many computers are set to do to prevent such an inconvenient break in the flow). However, the logic of the screensaver–something that is activated by a lack of touch–extends into video watching on computer screens in another way: video streaming sites such as Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube.
Binge watching a television series. We’ve all done it. It was easy to do with programs on DVD, and now even easier to do with on-demand. Netflix coaxes you into it with autoplay, seamlessly transitioning into the next episode as the credits roll on the one you’ve just completed. No need to click on, or make the decision to keep watching. In the screenshot above, the frame even breaks into separate screens to entice you to binge–what are Jack and Hurley going to get up to in the next episode? I could hit play, but it’ll do that for me in five seconds, so…ok, one more.
This practice is no stranger to broadcast television watchers. Credits have always been interrupted to preview content for the next episode. Often an announcer will come in, images from the upcoming program will populate the screen, or even, as in the case with channels like TBS, the credits are sped up, minimized onto a smaller screen within the screen, and the next film or program begins. The goal, of course, being to hold viewers and prevent channel switching. This strategy is nearly as old as broadcast television itself, giving birth to the phenomenon of the “couch potato” as well as Raymond Williams’s concept of televisual “flow.”
Binge watching oscillates between the desire of the television screen to endlessly flow and the overwhelming need of the computer screen to be touched.
After watching a few too many episodes, Netflix pauses the uninterrupted binge-flow and asks “Are You Still Watching?” Unlike broadcast TV, Netflix is not content to be constant background noise–it wants eyeballs. This “still watching” screen, joked about by many online as a warning to sedentary viewers to get up and do something or a potential judgement about one’s laziness (I feel like this Onion article was written about me when I was sick last January), has more to do with the tactile neediness of contemporary screens than judging viewer’s binging. Netflix needs you to click “continue” in order to know that you’re binging, and it needs to know this in order to continue tracking your usage patterns. It needs to know you’re awake. If you are indeed asleep, then the screen will sleep too. The sleeplessness of contemporary consumer capitalism is the subject of Jonathan Crary’s recent book 24/7. While I disagree with this book for a number of its rather luddite conclusions, it certainly seems to capture the strange tension between sleeping and waking that screens and viewers experience during a binge watch.
With on-demand media, television does not merely come into our homes anymore, but it comes into our homes and puts us to work. In exchange for the convenience of watching what we want to when we want to without the constant noise of commercials, we provide a set of data that helps marketers hone in on increasingly specific target audiences by agreeing to physically interact with our screens. The Nielsen families were uncooperative witnesses compared to the average internet user.
In 1973, Richard Serra produced Television Delivers People, a work that addressed the ways mass media targeted consumers, effectively delivering them to corporations. With on-demand viewing, this system is effectively accelerated. The television needs and wants not only our eyeballs, but the smart ones require our tactile embrace. Even the more sentient screens return our gaze. Will the smart television eventually consume us whole? Was Cronenberg’s Videodrome prefiguring our current age?
Probably not. Or, let’s hope not. At least not before the new season of House of Cards goes live on Netflix on Friday.
All I know is that I cannot wait to catch up on Downton Abbey and Walking Dead this evening, having missed them for the live broadcast of the Oscars. Thank goodness for on-demand!