Why make art with moving images? How is what I do meaningful and necessary, in a world already hypersaturated with images and information – what’s the point in adding to the furious and ubiquitous generation of more content, more media?
I just saw a figure the other day, that something like 76 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube every minute of every day. So, how can I make video and share it, and feel good about my contribution to that roiling sea of moving images, when there’s just so damned much already competing for everyone’s attention? How to not be part of the problem of scattering the attention of humanity? Is there any solution, besides silent meditation, besides abstaining altogether?
Perhaps. I think one important distinction has begun to crystalize for me around the writing of Walter Benjamin, in his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility.” In it, he describes the metaphysics of film production, circa the 1930s, thus:
In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality, free of the foreign body of the apparatus, is the result of a technological procedure peculiar to it — namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind.
To anyone who’s ever set foot on a film set, this characterization is apt: a foreign, mechanical apparatus is penetrating deeply into reality, and this invasion is subsequently erased by the “procedure” of editing – a literal stitching together of the captured footage. Like an appendectomy – you wake up afterwards sore and with a few stitches, pretty sure that something serious happened but unsure of exactly what and how.
This unsettling, violent, medical imagery is used quite aptly by Benjamin – and the cinematic model he’s describing has been the one zealously pursued and perfected by Western culture for almost a century now. Early in the 20th Century, filmmakers D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein introduced editing techniques that were designed specifically with propagandistic intent – to evoke the maximum emotional response from the audience by manipulating time and space with the tools of the camera and the editing machine. Penetrate deeply with the apparatus, extract the desired emotion, then stitch together a “pure view” from the pieces that convincingly mimics a seamless reality.
Not much has changed today, professors at film schools and art schools are still enthusiastically describing how the magical tools of cinema can be used to “collapse” space and “compress” time – the very term “cut to the chase” no doubt originated in some film studio editing bay, uttered by an exasperated producer haranguing a journeyman editor.
In reading about early psychology and psychoanalysis, I’ve come across the intriguing concept that the Ego Identity is always an expression of elsewhere – the force of the Ego inclines toward the past, the future, and hypotheticals, constructions of the self built out of everything except action in the present moment. So, in a very real and clinical way, traditional film is all about Ego – the eclipsing of a present moment by past, future, elsewhere and what if… a very literal collapse, an abdication of the active self in the present moment. This is reflected by the nearly unanimous use of the third-person omniscient perspective as the dominant film narrative convention. Even when there is a voiceover and a protagonist, the cinematic technique itself very, very rarely sticks to a single, human-sized perspective for the duration of a film.
I am glad that Youtube exists, personally – I think it’s an incredibly valuable tool. I also believe that it is an incredibly powerful enabler of the human ego – our shared desire to be elsewhere, to be distracted, to be shattered. It’s an old cliché, the “Dream Factory,” but film very much plumbs and works in the realm of what Jung termed the Collective Unconscious of a civilization. I believe that if we don’t question our own impulses to perpetuate the aesthetics, dynamics and ethics of the last 100 years of cinematic history, that we will continue to use the tools of filmmaking to manipulate, to penetrate, to extract, to collapse and to compress… to do violence, in fact, to the credulous human soul.
As I evolve as an artist, I believe that my ongoing project is to create and craft moving images that offer an alternative to the cinematic norms so eloquently articulated by Benjamin, above. I want to cultivate a different ethic and aesthetic – rather than exert my powers to dominate and subjugate space and time (and thus, the experience of the audience), I want to create and explore the complex interrelationships between media, tools and humans, as a way of bringing action in the present moment back into the elsewhere of cinema.
Rather than negate and overpower reality by “collapsing” space and “compressing” time, I’m working to gently “unfold” the human experience of space and to “enfold” the human experience of time.
And hopefully, what I mean by that will become more clear, to my audience and to myself, as I progress further in this whole art school thing.